Nature and Imagination: Tolkien and Goethe

C.S. Lewis once famously remarked to J.R.R. Tolkien that myth consists of “lies breathed through silver.” Tolkien contradicted him by replying that myth is “truth breathed through silver.” This argument later became the basis for Tolkien’s long poem “Mythopoeia.” It is a poem worth quoting. Tolkien, himself, included the following stanza in his essay, “On Fairy-Stories:”

Man, Sub-creator, the refracted light

through whom is splintered a single White

to many hues and endlessly combined

in living shapes that move from mind to mind.

Though all the crannies of the world we filled

with Elves and Goblins, though we dared to build

Gods and their houses out of dark and light,

and sowed the seeds of dragons, ‘twas our right

(used or misused).  The right has not decayed.

We make still in the law by which we’re made.

The idea that “[w]e make still in the law by which we’re made” describes an artistic craft that Tolkien called subcreation. In the act of subcreation, the artist works with the laws of nature as his fundamental materials. These laws are the processes by which everything comes into being, in which everything has its life and gets on with its growth and eventual death. Barfield referred to them as nature’s gesture. At its most basic, all language is a kind of gesture. It is movement, whether of the breath through the vocal cords or the wind through the trees. Nature, always busy, forever moving in cycles of change is a language, perhaps the language. We are part of its vocabulary. All that is human, even the human imagination, is among the gestures of nature. Imagination is, in fact, a kind of fulfilling gesture in which nature’s potential is realized beyond material manifestation.

The novelist and poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe also fancied himself as a naturalist. He practiced a scientific method, a way of better knowing the world, that he called “exact sensorial imagination.”  In practice, this meant observing a phenomenon with such careful attention that one would become able to reproduce it mentally in great detail.  Next, came the act of “animating, developing, extending and transforming” the image in the mind.  Because he had observed the phenomenon so closely, however, the natural law or gesture would have, through this intimate association, already come to express itself in the observer’s consciousness producing “living shapes” that seem to grow of their own accord.  Any variation on the phenomenon that the observer then envisioned would, therefore, be in accordance with the natural law.  “Possessing truth and necessity,” it would be as real an expression of nature as the original specimen under observation.  The phenomenon would, however, cease to seem as mundane as the landmarks that we pass every day without noticing them because it would have become in a sense unleashed.  Its potential would be limited only by the human imagination which is without known limit because shapes can travel “from mind to mind” and become lawfully re-imagined and expanded in each.  This is precisely how Tolkien’s subcreation works.

Human language is one of the many ways that nature speaks. Tolkien regarded the adjective in particular as something magical with its power to reshuffle the qualities of the primary world.  In the process of subcreation, adjectives represent “a part of speech in a mythical grammar” but to say “grammar” is another way of saying “law.”  It is one thing, he wrote, to make a green sun; it is another thing entirely to make us believe in a world where such a thing could be.

Subcreation is art, not technology.  It is not an exertion of human will meant to domesticate nature but a submission of human will to the living law so that nature may proceed with its own creative activities within the minds of the artist and the audience.  The “inner consistency” with which the subcreative artist invests the secondary world of the green sun teaches us something vital about the primary world warmed by the sun we know because it shows us how flexibly the qualities of a thing can be organized without sacrificing the aura of realness.  It shines a light on the experience of a living reality which is, in fact, always present.  When we actively apply the law in a novel way, we have an opportunity to become aware of the law as a thing-in-itself and to experience it as something that has always been with us.  Entered into consciously and receptively, the author’s secondary world is both absolutely convincing to its audience and it is a world in which the seams of its creation are showing. When we see how secondary worlds are put together, we can gain insight into how our own world is put together and we can marvel at the artistry of the creator.

2 thoughts on “Nature and Imagination: Tolkien and Goethe

  1. Pingback: The Scrolls of Badgaladriel | The Grey Havens Group

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