The Word and the World: What Fantasy Tales Teach Us About Perception


In mythic or fantasy literature (what J.R.R. Tolkien called The Fairy-Story), it is a common theme that people see only what they expect to see. In Tolkien’s short tale “Smith of Wooten Major,” the villagers see only the baker’s apprentice, never the Fairy King who consented to work as an apprentice among them. In Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, the residents of London Above know nothing of the existence of London Below because they have never been shown it on a map. Muggles do not notice wizards. Jedi Knights use simple mind tricks to derail imperial stormtroopers. Spaceships hover between the tops of the trees where no one bothers to direct their eyes. The children of the forest shelter among the roots and stones where no mortal has ever stumbled. All of us, whether we know it or not (and most of us never do), participate in the ordering of our world. We participate in the coming-into-being of a world that makes some kind of sense to us. Without us, there would be no world, at least not as we know it. If we did not see at least some of what we expect to see, what kind of world would we raise our heads in each morning? Would we have a head to raise?

Try to imagine a new color or to picture a world without time. Think of a song so harmonious it cannot be sung or a noise so dissonant it can never be heard. What does chaos look like? Is it possible for something to appear so wondrous strange that you would be unable to see it at all? The truth is that order is not what we see, it is how we see. True chaos—not just confusion, not just a mess—would be impossible to see because it is through the application of order that we are able to see at all, with our minds at least as much as with our eyes and other organs of perception.

Our senses respond ceaselessly to stimuli. We are always taking in vast amounts of sensory data that we perceive as qualities—taste, texture, shape, color, scent, heat, etc.—but perceiving qualities is not the same as experiencing a phenomenon (an object or a process). We must have a way of organizing all this data if we are to get phenomena out of it and a world out of all the phenomena. Some thinkers such as Henri Boroft, a physicist and intepretrer of the scientific theories of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, refer to our means of arranging the data as “the organizing idea.” Another way of describing it is as “the Word.” The Word is what we use to read the world, making sense of the qualities just as we make sense of the letters on the page. A string of consonants does not give us meaning but a properly arranged string of consonants and vowels when perceived by the light of our understanding gives us something far more than the letters that appear on the page.

Because we are part of Nature, the organizing idea or the Word is part of Nature as well and so is the understanding with which we grasp the Word. It is the light in which our minds and the phenomena meet. A tree exists as a “tree,” the phenomenon that we know as “tree,” only in human consciousness. A consciousness that organized the data in a different way, through the application of another Word, would experience a different phenomenon. Thanks to the Word, the world is without us and it is within us.

One thought on “The Word and the World: What Fantasy Tales Teach Us About Perception

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

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