The Making of Middle Earth and its Mythos: Subcreation vs Allegory
Subcreation, a term coined by J. R. R. Tolkien, is at its core built on philosophical ideas of perception and imagination, with emphasis on their effect on storytelling. In Tolkien’s rendering, subcreation is aimed at the formation of a world that is believable within its context— allowing the reader to accept the story as a reality in a “second world.” Middle Earth and the encompassing world of Arda were constructed with this ideology in mind. Subcreation is described as both a process and a product— the process being the creation of a world and the product a theme within the story itself. Tolkien aimed to effectively utilize both aspects in his construction and content of Middle-earth. Tolkien was often very vocal in his pursuit and defense of subcreation; this is seen in his academic work, most notably his essay and revisions of “On Fairy-Stories,” as well as in many of his letters spanning his career as a builder of worlds.
His statements on subcreation were often supplemented with a notable degree of dislike of allegory and its forms. In further study this seems only natural as Tolkien’s definitions of subcreation and allegory are essentially at odds with one another. Allegory, to Tolkien, worked to diminish the power of subcreation and constrained the secondary world as well as the view of the reader. Inversely, subcreation in Tolkien’s aim was based in entertainment and the creation of belief allowing the readers understanding, clarity, and applicability rather than blatantly warranting interpretive views on moral and other issues. Tolkien’s use of subcreation allowed him escapes from allegorical trappings through the emphasis on a broader scope— in essence creating a world that is equally allegorical to the “primary” reality of everyday life.
Tolkien’s explanation of subcreation is the use of derivative knowledge on the part of the reader for the purpose of the formation of new worlds; that is to say the construction of aspects of the story are constructed from pieces from known reality: “Fantasy is made out of the Primary World, but a good craftsman loves his materials and has a knowledge and feeling for clay, stone and wood which only the art of making can give” (Tolkien 59 “On Fairy”). A popularized example of subcreation is the image of a “green sun” in which the mental image of “sun” and “green” are superimposed on one another to form an element of subcreated fantasy, creating a new image from existing elements. However, subcreation is not successful until this surreal composite becomes credible in a “Second World” (Wolf 35). Likewise, Tolkien’s role as a subcreator is essential in his formation of Middle-earth in all of its aspects, enabling many to accept Arda as a “believable” world. In this way, the mantra of “suspension of disbelief” need not apply to subcreation.
Tolkien believed that, used correctly, subcreation warranted not the suspension of belief, but rather, belief itself. Subcreation in effect created a world separate but tangential to the known world, allowing it to be governed by different rules and consisting of different realities. Tolkien termed this conceptualized setting the “Secondary World.” To this effect Tolkien stated that rather than the “willing suspension of disbelief” it is the “success of a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is “true”: it accords with the laws of the world” (Tolkien 37 “On Fairy”). Tolkien’s role as subcreator is seen in all aspects of his world of Arda and the Mythos of Middle-earth and this mixture of reality and fantasy is what enables the author:
[A]ll carefully fit into a framework of climate and geography, familiar skies by night, familiar shrubs and trees, beasts and birds on earth by day, men and manlike creatures with societies not too different from our own […] the reader walks through any Middle- earth landscape with a security of recognition that woos him on to believe in everything that happens (Kocher 118).
Not solely for the purpose of construction, subcreation is also seen within the stories themselves, particularly in The Silmarillion. The creation of Dwarves and the perversion of life by Melkor are acts that formed new creatures but not solely by the hands or instruments of the smith requiring God (in context Ilúvatar) to inspire in them life.
While subcreation inspired Tolkien’s mythos and the land of Middle-earth, the author’s aversion of allegory influenced the realm arguably equally. Tolkien was extremely vocal in his distaste for allegory and didactic writings as seen in his many letters to editors, critics, colleagues, and fans. He blatantly declared in one correspondence “I dislike allegory,” and went on to say in a backhanded admission that “of course, the more ‘life’ a story has the more readily will it be susceptible of allegorical interpretation: while the better a deliberate allegory is made the more nearly will it be acceptable just as a story” (Tolkien 145 Letters).
It is evident in this that Tolkien’s approach to writing did not fit well with the set story line or archetypal characters that are the typical path of allegorical texts. This makes sense when considering the method by which Tolkien wrote his mythos as touched on in several lectures presented by University of California, San Diego’s Tolkien Scholar, Professor Stephen Potts. Put short, Tolkien’s method of gradual development, piece by piece rather than by means of a rigid story board, would take an entirely different route had Tolkien had in mind a definitive message. Still some have found allegory in his works, claims which he consistently denied much in the way of this reply to a magazine editor regarding a forthcoming book review in which he stated that “There is no ‘allegory’, moral, political, or contemporary in the work at all.” Tolkien continued offering a view of his beliefs on his books and philosophy on his craft:
I hope you have enjoyed The Lord of the Rings? Enjoyed is the key-word. For it was written to amuse (in the highest sense): to be readable.[…] It is a ‘fairy-story’, but one written- according to the belief I once expressed in an extended essay ‘On Fairy-stories’ that they are the proper audience- for adults. Because I think that fairy story has its own mode of reflecting ‘truth’, different from allegory, or (sustained) satire, or ‘realism’, and in some ways more powerful. But first of all it must succeed just as a tale to excite, please, and even on occasion move, and within its own imagined world be accorded (literary) belief. To succeed in that was my primary objective ( Tolkien 232-233). This passage speaks to the goals that Tolkien, compared to his subcreationist approach, found unavailable in the realm of allegory.
Tolkien’s views of subcreation and allegory arose due to the inherent differences in their purpose in respect to writing. In Tolkien’s definitions subcreation and allegory opposed one another in aims he deemed were necessary for good fairy stories. Tolkien valued entertainment and the immersive display of truth over serving to decree standards of morality. To some extent the wide scope of Middle-earth fostered by the subcreation goal to form a believable world worked to disallow the possibility of clear and distinct cases for allegorical purpose. Tolkien opted instead for accounts with dilemmas for which there is not such a clear distinction, and he used subcreation to ensure his disuse of allegory in this way. Tolkien’s aim to create an entire world to use as setting was meant to mirror the real world, not to highlight symbolism as distinct meaning. So much so was Tolkien’s aim that when asked whether or not Orcs were symbolic or communists he replied “There is no ‘symbolism’ or conscious allegory in my story. To ask if the Orcs are Communists is to me as sensible as asking if Communists are Orcs” (Tolkien 203 “Letters”).
The understanding of Tolkien’s views of subcreation and allegory displays the interaction between the two stylistic forms of writing. The analysis unearths some of the underlying means by which Middle-earth was constructed. Tolkien’s view that allegory is not a function within his world is underscored in this want of subcreation. Such comprehension of intention enables the reader to understand and appreciate Middle-earth in its purposes as a world, rooted in our own, rendered fantastic.
Na lû e-govaned vîn!
Kocher, Paul . “Middle-earth Imaginary World?.” Tolkien, new critical perspectives. Lexington, Ky.: University Press of Kentucky, 1981. 118. Print.
Potts, Stephen W.. “LTWL 120, Popular Literature and Culture.” Tolkien and Middle-earth. University of California- San Diego. Center Hall, La Jolla. 2014. Class lecture.
Ryan, J. S.. “Creation of a Story.” Tolkien, new critical perspectives. Lexington, Ky.: University Press of Kentucky, 1981. 37. Print.
Tolkien, J. R. R.. Tree and leaf. [1st American ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 19651964. Print.
Tolkien, J. R. R., Humphrey Carpenter, and Christopher Tolkien. The letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981. Print.
Wolf, Mark J. P.. “Worlds within the World.” Building Imaginary Worlds: The Theory and History of Subcreation. New York: Routledge, 2013. 35. Print.
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