“The Biology of Story” Now Live!

The interactive web documentary, The Biology of Story, created by Amnon Buchbinder, is now available online! The full website is fascinating to explore and has interviews with over one hundred individuals who speak about the many facets of story and the narrative tradition.

Becca Tarnas IndexMy own clips for the documentary are now accessible as well, exploring topics ranging from the imagination and ecology, to archetypal astrology, and my dissertation work on The Red Books of C.G. Jung and J.R.R. Tolkien. The full playlist of my videos is available here.

I encourage you to take the time to explore the many amazing offerings by the vast range of individuals the film makers have brought together!


Becoming Acquainted with “The Inklings”

“It was a pleasantly ingenious pun in its way, suggesting people with
vague or half-formed intimations and ideas plus those who dabble in ink.”
– J.R.R. Tolkien[1]

The Oxford Inklings have long held a fascination for me—a group of great literary authors meeting weekly to share their poetry and fiction, and discuss their ideas and beliefs. A meeting of the minds who, at different points in their careers, produced The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, Poetic Diction, The Place of the Lion, and multiple other works across a great range of genres and topics. How did these writers come to know each other? How much did they influence one another’s work? Such questions as these are addressed by Humphrey Carpenter in his biographical work The Inklings: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams and Their Friends.

The InklingsIn many ways, Carpenter’s The Inklings is primarily a biography of C.S. Lewis, with the lives of Tolkien, Williams, Owen Barfield and others woven in when their narrative threads cross paths with Lewis’s. Yet this is perhaps an entirely appropriate approach considering the group that called themselves the Inklings ultimately orbited around Lewis—the meetings took place in his Magdalen rooms, and his friendship was what the members of the group held in common. Nonetheless, Carpenter’s weaving together of these many, and often disparate, biographical threads produces a compelling tapestry that displays a historical picture both complex and deep, inviting one into the nuanced differences of multiple intellectual and creative lives.

Certain aspects of this interwoven narrative particularly shone forth for me, such as the descriptions of the shared feeling between Lewis and Tolkien when reading certain myths and stories of familiarity with the unfolding tale, a sense of longing and nostalgia as though one has somehow participated in this story before. It is a feeling with which I also am familiar, becoming apparent to me the first time I heard The Hobbit read aloud. Names such as Rivendell, Middle-Earth, and Dale, the songs and laughter of the Elves, all felt deeply familiar from the first time I heard them. Tolkien was able to imbue his own stories with that same essence that he and Lewis felt and found so richly compelling in the myths of Northern Europe.

Tolkien and Lewis’s friendship could really be seen as the core of the Inklings, as it was they who were the most consistent members throughout the duration of the informal literary group. Another moment I found particularly touching and unique to their characters was when Lewis first critiqued a poem of Tolkien’s, but instead of simply writing a commentary in his own voice he rather chose to execute his narrative creativity by annotating the poem “as if it were a celebrated piece of ancient literature, already heavily studied by scholars with such names as ‘Pumpernickel,’ ‘Peabody,’ ‘Bentley,’ and ‘Schick;’ he alleged that any weaknesses in Tolkien’s verses were the result of scribal errors or corruptions in the manuscript.”[2] Their creativity is coming through even in these most simple of interactions, giving the reader a greater sense of the imaginations able to access the worlds of Narnia and Middle-Earth.

Perhaps my favorite chapter in the whole of the book was the one entitled “Mythopoeia.” It centers around Lewis’s conversion to Christianity, first through his recognition of a divine presence when he, in his words, “admitted that God was God,”[3] and ending with his belief in the significance of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. The key to his conversion was a recognition of the truth of myth, as articulated both by Barfield and by Tolkien. Barfield’s book Poetic Diction had a major impact on both Lewis and Tolkien, in which he describes the way in which language has evolved to show a correlated evolution of consciousness, from mythical perception to rational intellect. In Carpenter’s narrative: “In the dawn of language, said Barfield, speakers did not make a distinction between the ‘literal’ and the ‘metaphorical,’ but used words in what might be called a ‘mythological’ manner.”[4] One of the examples Barfield uses to illustrate this is when we translate the Latin word spiritus into English it can mean “wind,” “breath,” or “spirit” depending on the context. Yet for the ancient speakers of the word spiritus it meant all three of these words, and perhaps more, all at once—they were a unified whole in which the physical is indistinguishable from its psychical, ensouled presence. This is also the perspective from which Tolkien argued when he and Lewis entered into debate about the truth of myths. To quote Carpenter’s narrative at some length:

[Lewis] still did not believe in the myths that delighted him. Beautiful and moving though such stories might be, they were (he said) ultimately untrue. As he expressed it to Tolkien, myths are “lies and therefore worthless, even though breathed through silver.”

No, said Tolkien. They are not lies.

Just then (Lewis afterwards recalled) there was a “rush of wind which came so suddenly on the still, warm evening and sent so many leaves pattering down that we thought it was raining. We held our breath.”[5]

Tolkien goes on to illustrate his point with what surrounded them in that moment, the trees and night sky overhead. I find it significant that in this pivotal moment it is as though the world itself is speaking, to offer its subtle yet powerful evidence to the words Tolkien says. No, myths are not lies. They are all around us. The rush of wind, spiritus, makes its presence known. The men hold their breath, spiritus. Spirit is present.

To you, a tree is simply a vegetable organism, and a star simply a ball of inanimate matter moving along a mathematical course. But the first men to talk of “trees” and “stars” saw things very differently. To them, the world was alive with mythological beings. They saw the stars as living silver, bursting into flame in answer to the eternal music.[6]

I would even alter Carpenter’s language further in keeping with what both Tolkien and Barfield understood. The stars were not “as living silver” they were living silver. Not only did the first humans to speak of trees and stars “see” them differently, they were different because they were in participatory relationship to these ancient people.

Lewis’s conversion to Christianity came about later that night when Tolkien explained first that “not merely the abstract thoughts of man but also his imaginative inventions must originate with God, and must in consequence reflect something of eternal truth,”[7] and then later not only is “the death and resurrection of Christ . . . the old ‘dying god’ story all over again,” but that “here is a real Dying God, with a precise location in history and definite historical consequences. The old myth has become fact.”[8] Tolkien’s recourse to myth, first by showing the truth of it, and then by showing how myth entered history in the story of Christ, is what led to Lewis’s conversion, and hence to his many works of Christian apologetics and allegorical fantasy.

The Inkling with whom I was the least familiar, but whose life and personality I felt completely charmed by and engaged with, was Charles Williams. The portrait Carpenter draws of him feels so alive, I was amazed I had somehow gone so long without an introduction to Williams and his work. In Carpenter’s words:

He would treat someone’s personal worry with the same vitality that he showed in [his] lecture, the same grave courtesy and fiery vision; so that it was easy to go home feeling that this was what it would have been like to meet Dante himself, or Blake, or even Shakespeare.[9]

Williams seemed to be an immensely complex and nuanced figure, always holding in balance perspectives of light and shadow: “Behind every bad thing he could see something good, and also behind every good thing he could see darkness.”[10] Furthermore, “He was able to embrace everything—belief and doubt, hope and disillusion, love and hatred—within the secure irony that he had developed.”[11] Meeting Williams through biography first, rather than through his fiction, has left me simply with the wish that I might have met him.

Carpenter’s biographical style flows best when he is able to paint a narrative picture, as though one were really present, for example, at a particular meeting of the Inklings. He does this in a chapter entitled “Thursday evenings,” in which he combines quotations from works and letters with multiple reports of what the evenings were like to give a fictional portrait of an Inklings gathering (he does this also in his book J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography in which he narrates a sample day of Tolkien’s life in Oxford). The effect is absolutely enticing, making the reader feel almost as if they were there, and wish that to do so were really a possibility.

Perhaps my most pervasive feeling as I read The Inklings was a continual desire to have been able to participate in this group, wondering what it may have been like to listen to the early chapters of The Lord of the Rings when it was still titled “The New Hobbit,” or to hear Barfield and Tolkien discuss language, or Lewis and Williams on poetry and theology. And this longing actually brought forward an unexpectedly painful realization as I continued to read about this group of writers, at least one of whom has fundamentally shaped who I am and how I think, feel, imagine, and engage creatively with the world. All of the Inklings were men, and a woman was never permitted to be present at a Thursday gathering, or invited to join in the conversation at the Bird and Baby pub on Tuesday mornings. I realized that at the table of my intellectual forebears I, as a woman, would not have been welcome.

It was Lewis who held the most, to be frank, misogynist views, but I was pained to find the ways in which Barfield and Tolkien also agreed with him. Lewis has said that

“the husband is the head of the wife just so far as he is to her what Christ is to the Church” adding: “If there must be a head, why the man? Well, is there any very serious wish that it should be the woman?” And elsewhere: “Do you really want a matriarchal world? Do you really like women in authority? When you seek authority yourself, do you naturally seek it in a woman?”[12]

I had hoped such views might have been confined to Lewis, but Tolkien has also written:

“How quickly an intelligent woman can be taught, grasp the teacher’s ideas, see his point—and how (with some exceptions) they can go no further, when they leave his hand, or when they cease to take a personal interest in him. It is their gift to be receptive, stimulated, fertilized (in many other matters than the physical) by the male.”[13]

I do recognize that such sexist views are, in large part, a product of the time in which these men lived. Yet I also cannot help but feel their words with pain, and recognize the countless women whose voices have been silenced, again and again, by such mistaken and degrading beliefs. It is an injustice to recognize at once how much Tolkien and so many other male writers have shaped who I am through their words and imaginal creations, and then to know that they regarded “the female mind as inferior to the male.”[14] If somehow I were able to go back through time and arrive at Lewis’s Magdalen door on a Thursday evening I would not have been permitted to cross the threshold because of my gender.

There is some comfort to know that perhaps Williams might have made an argument for my entry if such a situation were to occur (and it would be far more likely to occur in the supernatural fluidity of space and time in Williams’ novels than elsewhere). Williams once said that it would be likely that “any principle of the relations of the sexes will be wrong, since there are, after all, no such things; there are an infinite number of women and an infinite number of men.”[15] Williams, it seems, would have at least based his admission on individual merit rather than blind gender exclusion.

Perhaps because of these statements from Lewis and Tolkien I was particularly delighted to meet on the page the woman who became Lewis’s wife later in his life, Joy Davidman.

Lewis was astonished by her. “Her mind was lithe and quick and muscular as a leopard,” he wrote of her. “Passion, tenderness and pain were all equally unable to disarm it. It scented the first whiff of cant or slush; then sprang, and knocked you over before you knew what was happening. How many bubbles of mine she pricked! I soon learned not to talk rot to her unless I did it for the sheer pleasure of being exposed and laughed at.”[16]

That such a woman came into his life and made the powerful impact she did felt long overdue as I was reaching the later pages of Carpenter’s book. But the role Joy Davidman played in Lewis’s life was indeed significant, and one that seemed to make a lasting imprint.

Both Lewis and Tolkien were resistant to having their personal lives explored in the context of their literary works, likely because they did not want the work to be psychoanalyzed and picked apart in search of biographical details and hidden personal truths. My sense is that this desire in part comes from their belief—shared at least after Lewis’s conversion—that myths ultimately are true. Because the source of myth is beyond simple human invention, but is rather the divine imagination creating through the human artist, the personal lives of the creators should not be looked to for the source of the stories. A human being is simply the container for them, the vessel into which the divine inspiration pours. And while such myths may be “partially spoiled in each writer by the admixture of his own mere individual ‘invention,’”[17] the hope is that we as readers, as fellow explorers of imagination, can see past those personal faults, and truly “glimpse” the reality of “Other-worlds.”[18]

Works Cited

Carpenter, Humphrey. The Inklings: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams and Their Friends, London, England: HarperCollinsPublishers, 2006.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Tolkien Reader. New York, NY: Ballantine Publishing Group, 1966.

[1] J.R.R. Tolkien, qtd. in Humphrey Carpenter, The Inklings: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams and Their Friends (London, England: HarperCollinsPublishers, 2006), 67.

[2] Carpenter, The Inklings, 30,

[3] C.S. Lewis, qtd. in Carpenter, The Inklings, 40.

[4] Carpenter, The Inklings, 41.

[5] Carpenter, The Inklings, 43.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Carpenter, The Inklings, 44.

[9] Ibid, 74.

[10] Ibid, 80.

[11] Ibid, 90.

[12] C.S. Lewis, qtd. in Carpenter, The Inklings, 164.

[13] J.R.R. Tolkien, qtd. in Carpenter, The Inklings, 169.

[14] Carpenter, The Inklings, 164.

[15] Carpenter, The Inklings, 171.

[16] C.S. Lewis qtd. in Carpenter, The Inklings, 237.

[17] Carpenter, The Inklings, 138.

[18] J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” in The Tolkien Reader (New York, NY: Ballantine Publishing Group, 1966), 64.

The Beating Heart of Poetry: The Elegant Simplicity of “Poetic Diction”

Owen Barfield’s Poetic Diction—first published during his Saturn return—lays forth, in simple yet elegant terms, an argument for the evolution of consciousness. By tracing the differentiating meaning of words through the history of poetry, he reveals the participatory relationship of humanity with the cosmos. Barfield argues against the mainstream perspective held by philologists of his time that the origins of the words for abstract concepts find their roots in metaphors for concrete objects. Most philologists assumed words gained meaning by the use of intentional metaphors: for example, the contemporary word spirit has its roots in the ancient word for wind, therefore the assumption was that an ancient poet once decided to draw a metaphor between the blowing gusts of wind and the principle for life animating living beings.

Poetic DictionBarfield posits an alternative theory. From his understanding, these primal words are not metaphorical but rather contain within them the full meaning—the spectrum of spirit and wind and all between—in a single utterance. He writes that “these poetic, and apparently ‘metaphorical’ values were latent in meaning from the beginning.”[1] Only over time, and through a changing of consciousness in human beings, is the “undivided meaning”[2] of words split apart, so that now wind refers to a material reality and spirit to an abstract thought. Barfield argues that it is not the case that “the earliest words in use were ‘the names of sensible, material objects’ and nothing more.”[3] Rather, one “must suppose the ‘sensible objects’ themselves to have been something more; you must suppose they were not, as they appear to be at present, isolated, or detached, from thinking and feeling.”[4] Language, in Barfield’s view, reveals the ensoulment of the cosmos once perceptible to ancient human consciousness, a quality revealed through true metaphor. A true metaphor was once a single ancient word, a unified meaning expressed not only in human language but in the language of the world.

Barfield’s thesis holds profound implications for a question often asked of astrologers: how was it that the ancients knew what names to give the planets so that their corresponding mythic figures expressed the same archetypal characteristics that are still carried in the astrological manifestations apparent today? How was the planet Venus aptly named after the Goddess of Beauty, or Mercury after the Messenger of the Gods, when Venus in the birth chart relates to love, beauty, romance, and artistic expression, and Mercury relates to communication, thought, speech, intellect, writing, and learning? The question is being asked with the same modern mindset as the philologists who assumed that consciousness has remained the same throughout time, and that humanity has only come to understand the world better through the acquisition of knowledge. Rather, as Barfield articulates, to ancient consciousness a physical object was inherently imbued with resonant, ensouled presence. This is the ‘undivided meaning’ of which Barfield speaks, the metaphor that exists latently in the word before a later consciousness has split it asunder. Our contemporary language cannot fully capture this ‘undivided meaning’ even as I try to describe it, because in the language I am using psyche and physis long ago diverged from one another.

The consciousness that in modernity wiped away the horizon of meaning, to paraphrase Nietzsche, cannot perceive in the world the unity of archetype and object, universal and particular. They are fundamentally split, finally to the point of unrelatedness. Yet, reawakening within an archetypal cosmos, the unity of archetype and manifestation is once again apparent, but from the other side of a long history of differentiation. The undivided meaning of words has splintered again and again—the white light has passed through the prism to be refracted into a myriad of colors—and the consciousness living in a reenchanted, archetypally patterned world view can witness both the differentiation and unity at once. The language of the archetypes hearkens back to a time when the world reverberated with unified, ensouled, embodied meaning. Yet now it is possible, through conscious participation, to once again hear the song of the spheres. But instead of the cosmos simply singing to us as our ancestors once experienced it, we are able to read the score and, along with the cosmos, play its song back in harmony. Through his passion Barfield lets his readers feel the “beating heart of poetry”[5] as it once lived, and to recognize that its poetic rhythm is the beating heart of the cosmos itself.

Work Cited

Barfield, Owen. Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning. Oxford, England: Barfield Press, 2010.

[1] Owen Barfield, Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning (Oxford, England: Barfield Press, 2010), 77.

[2] Barfield, Poetic Diction, 71.

[3] Barfield, Poetic Diction, 77.

[4] Ibid, 78.

[5] Barfield, Poetic Diction, 123.

When Symbol Becomes Fact: Reflections on “Saving the Appearances”

“The world of final participation will one day sparkle in the light of the eye as it never yet sparkled early one morning in the original light of the sun.”
– Owen Barfield[1]

When sunlight refracts on the droplets of a raincloud, and an arc of colors bend across the sky, we must ask ourselves, “Is the rainbow really there?” With this image Owen Barfield opens his book Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry, a short but profound tale of the evolution of consciousness from original participation, through the non-participatory (or rather, unconsciously participatory) scientific revolution, to final participation. But what does Barfield mean by participation? And how might one trace an evolution of consciousness?Saving the Appearances

Barfield begins with the image of the rainbow, demonstrating how it is a shared collective representation. A representation is something that I, and others, perceive to be there: whether it is a rainbow, a tree, a house, or any other phenomenon available to sensory experience. A representation is more than what any phenomenon can be reduced down to—such as subatomic particles; a representation is the phenomenon in its wholeness. The particles, which Barfield calls the unrepresented, are what science claims really exist in the world prior to human perception of them. “The world we all accept as real,” Barfield writes, “is in fact a system of collective representations.”[2] We do not perceive collective representations with our sense organs alone, but with “mental habits, memory, imagination, feeling.”[3] The generation of representations is what Barfield means by participation: “Participation is the extra-sensory relation between man and the phenomena.”[4] The world as we know it is created by participation in that world.

Through imagination Barfield enters into the participatory consciousness of previous world views, from the Medieval European, to the Graeco-Roman, to the Hebraic, each of which lived in original participation with the world to some degree. Original participation is “an awareness which we no longer have, of an extra-sensory link between percipient and the representations.”[5] Modern consciousness also participates in the phenomena, but does so unconsciously, believing instead that the perceived phenomena are independent of human perception. “Thus the phenomena themselves are idols, when they are imagined as enjoying that independence of human perception which can in fact only pertain to the unrepresented.”[6] This misperception of the phenomena as entirely independent of human perception Barfield terms idolatry, and it is to idolatry that he is attempting to bring awareness, to thus overcome and lead human consciousness into final participation—an awakened recognition that the phenomenal world is one of collective representations.

Simply put, it was through the development of the scientific revolution that original participation was expunged from the consciousness of the modern West and idolatry took hold in its place. “If therefore man succeeds in eliminating all original participation, without substituting any other, he will have done nothing less than eliminate all meaning and all coherence from the cosmos.”[7] Not only does idolatry empty spirit from the cosmos, it eventually eliminates spirit from the human as well. In order to move beyond idolatry into final participation, Barfield turns to religion, to the Incarnation of the Word in the Christian faith.

Idolatry suffers from literalness, thus to the idolatrous mind an event can be historical or it can be a symbol: it cannot be both. Barfield uses the Incarnation of the Word—the birth of Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity incarnating into a human body situated in historical time—to usher in final participation. Because the Incarnation is both historical and symbolic, it breaks down the schism between human consciousness and perceived phenomena. Yet by turning to religion, and particularly Christianity, in this way, it feels like Barfield narrows the field of those to whom final participation might apply. He defines religion as “essentially an ‘I-Thou’ relation between man on the one hand and the Creator of man and of his phenomena, on the other. A man who cannot think of his Creator as a Being other than himself cannot be said to have religion.”[8] This definition of religion is quite narrow, and excludes many of the world’s religious and spiritual traditions (and the masculine language unconsciously excludes women as well). Yet Barfield writes that the only possible answer to idolatry is acceptance of a “directionally creator relation to the phenomenal world.”[9] Is that really the case? Can there be a wider reading of final participation that can allow for the inclusion of those who have entered into that stage of consciousness by paths other than the Christian one?

To begin answering this question perhaps a wider reading of what Barfield means by the Incarnation of the Word is also necessary. Idolatry, or non-participatory consciousness, has brought with it gifts as well as shadow. Barfield writes, at first in seemingly negative terms, that “a non-participating consciousness cannot avoid distinguishing abruptly between the concept of ‘man,’ or ‘mankind,’ or ‘men in general’ on the one hand and that of ‘a man’—an individual human spirit—on the other.”[10] This is the literalness of idolatry. But this literalness allows something else to be born as well, of which Barfield speaks shortly thereafter:

The awakened clarity of retrospect . . . will . . . be obliged to recognize that the gradual emergence of man from original participation amounts also to the gradual emergence of ‘men’ from ‘man;’ that it is not just the cumulative history of the race, but the biography, also, of each individual spirit.[11]

What Barfield fails to mention explicitly here, yet can be implied by this statement when read half a century after it was first written, is that not only can individual men emerge from the all-encompassing term “Man,” but so can individual women, as well as others whose identities have been obscured by the Western male conception of Man. The symbolic becomes situated, and thus refracts into a myriad of individuals. This is the gift of the non-participatory stage of the evolution of consciousness as Barfield describes it.

Beginning in the chapter entitled “Israel” Barfield writes about the Divine Name, the “I Am.” The Divine Name, when spoken within the mind of an individual human—one who has only been able to individuate through the refraction of non-participatory consciousness—indicates the divinity not only of the Creator whose name is being spoken, but the divinity of each individual speaking it. This is the Incarnation of the Word, the Word become flesh, that Barfield sees as able to overcome idolatry and usher human beings into final participation. I find myself drawn to read Barfield’s use of the Christian mythos itself as both a symbol and a historically situated reality. If I were to reject Barfield’s concluding thesis on the premise that his turn to Christianity excludes those for whom this perspective does not, or perhaps even cannot, apply then I too would fall into the literalness of idolatry. From my situated perspective I can recognize the way in which the Incarnation of the Word—which allows for a new form of individual participation in the Divine and participation with one another as individuals—was for Barfield the real way in which idolatry could be overcome and final participation entered into. Yet I can also read the Incarnation as a symbol of something beyond the Christian faith alone, a symbol of the recognition of the Divine within, that can encompass a multiplicity of forms of spiritual connection and religious perspective.

Work Cited

Barfield, Owen. Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1988.

[1] Owen Barfield, Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1988), 161.

[2] Barfield, Saving the Appearances, 20.

[3] Barfield, Saving the Appearances, 20.

[4] Ibid, 40.

[5] Ibid, 34.

[6] Ibid, 62.

[7] Ibid, 144.

[8] Barfield, Saving the Appearances, 156.

[9] Ibid, 159.

[10] Barfield, Saving the Appearances, 183.

[11] Ibid, 184.

Tolkien’s Imagination: A Talk at Esalen


The essay “The Fantastic Imagination: Sub-Creating Tolkien’s Middle-Earth,” which is the foundation of this presentation, is available here.

The Fantastic Imagination: Sub-creating Tolkien’s Middle-Earth

The road toward truth is circuitous and winding, and passes through many realms. It may be that this path will lead you not outward to the world of objective facts and figures but deep inward, to a realm residing in the soul. This realm has been given innumerable names: the mundus imaginalis, the world of the imagination, Faërie, or by one seer of this Secondary World: Middle-Earth. It is a place we all have been at some point in our lives, and it takes a myriad of forms. Yet some wanderers may choose to linger on the misty, sylvan paths under Faërie’s diamond stars longer than others, revealing enchanted truths and realities hidden to those who choose to remain almost exclusively in the world of common day.

A mythology wields great power and has a desire to be told: thus it became the task of one English philologist, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, to imagine the mythic world of Middle-Earth into being. During the decades when he crafted Middle-Earth Tolkien often felt as though the mythology was not being made by him, but rather coming through him. In part to explain this experience, Tolkien described his building of Middle-Earth as a Sub-creation, an intertwined outpouring of both invention and inspiration. These ideas, and the power of the imagination to create reality, relate closely to the philosophical explorations of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in his delineations of the Primary and Secondary Imaginations, their relationship to each other, and their ultimate source.


Tolkien composed a world with roots deeply grown into the rich soils of our own world; to achieve this, he employed the powers of language, cartography, history, and legend. Yet, as the willing reader steps through the page into Middle-Earth, the landscape and peoples one encounters seem to have a life of their own, as if a spark of vitality had been breathed by a Primary Creator into the realm Tolkien wove from the resources of his own genius. Whether humanity was indeed given life and form by an ultimate Creator or not, we have been endowed with the ability to create in our own right; sometimes these creations may be gifted their own life and become as real as we are, while still residing within a Secondary World accessible through the imagination that bridges to our Primary World. Why some of our creations are granted such life and others not is a mystery beyond my ability to fathom, but it could perhaps be that some are meant to have their own life and truth, an idea which Tolkien expresses in The Lord of the Rings through Gandalf, when he speaks to Frodo about Bilbo’s finding of the Ring of Power:

Behind that there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker. I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker. In which case you also were meant to have it. And that may be an encouraging thought.[1]

It too may be that Tolkien was meant to bring the mythology of Middle-Earth into being through his writing, and as such it was given the authenticity and truth that so many feel when they traverse its woods and mountains, and converse with its inhabitants as they walk along their roads.

As Henry Corbin points out, the current predominant usage of “the term ‘imaginary’ is equated with the unreal, with something that is outside the framework of being and existing.”[2] Yet one may find quite the opposite: the imaginary, or the imaginal, exists in the innermost place of our souls, and thus is internal and intrinsic to the outer world we call reality. Tolkien is an avid explorer of this realm, which he sometimes calls Faërie, and seems to attest to its reality in an almost off-hand way in his essay “On Fairy Stories.”[3] Tom Shippey sees this as a sign of Tolkien talking down to his readers: “Repeatedly he plays the trick of pretending that fairies are real––they tell ‘human stories’ instead of ‘fairy stories,’ they put on plays for men ‘according to abundant records,’ and so on.”[4] While this could certainly be interpreted that way, it seems rather that Tolkien may actually be describing what he knows of Faërie, as a genuine traveler in the perilous realm. Tolkien valued viewing the world symbolically and mythically, perceiving reality as a whole through the organ of the imagination.[5] As Peter Beagle writes, “I believe that Tolkien has wandered in Middle-Earth” and that he “believes in his world, and in all those who inhabit it.”[6] For Tolkien, Beagle, and many others, Middle-Earth was not “created, for it was always there.”[7]

Tolkien’s own experience of writing was that he was “recording what was already ‘there,’ somewhere: not of ‘inventing’.”[8] He also expressed that “the thing seems to write itself once I get going, as if the truth comes out then, only imperfectly glimpsed in the preliminary sketch.”[9] This has, of course, been the experience of countless artists over the centuries in moments of high inspiration. Norris Clarke writes of these creative experiences, saying, “It felt, they say, as though they were tuned in or connected to some higher power which somehow took over and flowed through them.”[10] What this higher power may be, and how it relates to the imagination, can better be understood by contemplating Coleridge’s philosophical delineations of Primary Imagination, Secondary Imagination, and Fancy.

Other authors, such as Shippey, Verlyn Flieger, and R.J. Reilly, have observed the connection between the imagined world of Faërie, and Coleridge’s “esemplastic imagination.” Reilly describes such imagined realms as “Romantic” because they exist for their own sake, and as such have an inherent relationship or agreement with Coleridge’s Secondary Imagination.[11] Faërie is a creation of the Secondary Imagination, which in turn is an echo of the Primary Imagination, what Coleridge holds “to be the living power and prime agent of all human perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM.”[12] The Primary and Secondary Imaginations differ from each other only in degree and mode but not in kind, yet the Secondary is “co-existing with the conscious will” of the human being.[13] While the Primary Imagination can be understood as operating in the mind of the divine Creator, and thus bringing the world as we know it into being, the Secondary Imagination is that same imaginative power operating through the human mind. Owen Barfield, a friend of Tolkien’s and a fellow member of their literary circle “the Inklings,” explored Coleridge’s thought deeply in this area. Barfield explains that the Primary Imagination is an act that we, as human beings, are not conscious of, and when we are conscious of it as our own creative agency it becomes the Secondary Imagination.[14]

The Secondary Imagination “dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to recreate”[15] and “struggles to idealize and to unify.”[16] As an extension of the Primary Imagination responsible for creating reality, the Secondary Imagination also has the ability to create reality, but of a different degree: imaginal reality. This is, for example, why Corbin chose the term mundus imaginalis to differentiate what is just “made up” from “the object of imaginative or imagining perception.”[17] This concept indicates that the product of the Secondary Imagination has a reality of its own, because its ultimate source, like reality, is the Primary Imagination, only it is created through the agency of the human being. Tolkien uses the term “Sub-creation” to refer to the product of the Secondary Imagination, because the result is created under an ultimate Creator.

In addition to the Primary and Secondary Imaginations, Coleridge also writes of Fancy, which is “no other than a mode of memory emancipated from the order of time and space.”[18] Barfield notes that Coleridge seems to not have explicitly segregated Fancy from Imagination, for at times he appears to write of them differing entirely in kind, and at others in degree, comparable to the distinction between Primary and Secondary Imagination.[19] The difference between the product of Fancy, compared to Imagination, could be seen as the difference between something that is just “made up” and a living imaginal world, a true mundus imaginalis.

Tolkien himself addresses the differences between Imagination and Fancy in his essay “On Fairy Stories” and although he does not refer directly to Coleridge, it is clear, as Shippey points out, that Coleridge is whom he is addressing. While Tolkien has comparable, if not identical, definitions of these terms, as a philologist he disagrees with Coleridge’s choice of names. Tolkien asserts that the image-making faculty is the Imagination, and any difference in kind marked by Coleridge between Fancy and Imagination, Tolkien feels solely belongs to a difference in degree. What gives the “inner consistency of reality”[20] to Imagination, the same reality the product of Coleridge’s Imagination has, Tolkien calls Art. Art conjoins with Imagination to create the final result, Sub-creation. The word Tolkien chooses to fully encompass Imagination and the resulting Sub-creative Art, perhaps out of philological jest with Coleridge, is Fantasy, an older form of the diminished word Fancy.[21] Tolkien acknowledged that “fantasy, the making or glimpsing of Other-worlds,”[22] is difficult to achieve: in order to be true Fantasy it must have an inner consistency of reality flowing through the sub-creator’s imagination and into the Secondary World.

A successful sub-creator brings into being a world which both the spectator and designer may enter, a world that has its own laws by which it operates. As long as every facet of the imaginal realm follows these laws, the inner reality of the world remains intact and the world is true.[23] Because of this, for Tolkien, it is essential that all stories about such Secondary Worlds are presented as truth––not as a dream, or some other unreal whimsical creation.[24] For Coleridge, the richness of art is dependent on the unity provided by the Secondary Imagination: it will be “rich in proportion to the variety of parts which it holds in unity.”[25] The unity of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth is held together because each landscape, creature, and name has a consistency that he has forged into the very structure of his world. Furthermore, when the imaginal world is consistent with itself it creates for the reader what Tolkien calls Secondary Belief, or Enchantment.[26] Thus it is as enchanted humans that we walk the glades and forests of Middle-Earth.

What ultimately gives reality to Secondary Art is that it is consistent not only with itself, but also with what Tolkien and Shippey refer to as Primary Art.[27] If the source of Secondary Art is the human imagination, the source of Primary Art is the divine Imagination, or what Coleridge calls the Primary Imagination. For Tolkien, Primary Art is synonymous with Creation, or Truth.[28] For a sub-created Secondary World, or Fantasy, to be true it then must echo the Primary World, as Colin Duriez writes, capturing in its “imaginative accuracy […] some of the depths and splendor of the Primary World.”[29] Fantasy is crafted out of the Primary World, just as the painter or sculptor’s materials are drawn from nature.[30] But in the Fantasy realm we are able to see these primary ingredients in a new way, once again marveling at the wonders of our own world.[31] Tolkien shows the overlap between our own world and Faërie when he writes,

Faërie contains many things besides elves and fays, and besides dwarfs, witches, trolls, giants, or dragons: it holds the seas, the sun, the moon, the sky; and the earth, and all things that are in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, mortal men, when we are enchanted.[32] (Emphasis added.)

Faërie could then be seen as the real cosmos but without the human, or rather, without the disenchanted human. After all, as Beagle remarks, the same forces that shape our own lives shape the lives of those in Middle-Earth: “history, chance and desire,”[33] and so forth. When we lead our lives in response to these forces, whether or not we find ourselves in Faërie depends on our level of enchantment, or our Secondary Belief.

Tolkien’s initial desire behind his decades of imaginative effort was to create a mythology for England, which he felt lacked a myth comparable to the great Norse and Greek traditions.[34] England did have the Arthurian legends, but these he felt did not suffice, in part because they contained Christianity, and in part because they were not rooted in the ancient languages of England. Tolkien’s objection to religion in myth is based on his sense that the contours of religious doctrine should only exist implicitly within Fantasy, sunk deep into the morality and actions of the characters. He writes of the Arthurian myth that

it is involved in, and explicitly contains the Christian religion. For reasons which I will not elaborate, that seems to me fatal. Myth and fairy-story must, as all art, reflect and contain in solution elements of moral and religious truth (or error), but not explicit, not in the known form of the primary ‘real’ world.[35]

Like the religious element, language also plays a foundational role in the development of Middle-Earth, rooted deeply into the world’s symbolism and structures.  To forge a world like Middle-Earth, and bring it to the level of a mythology, Tolkien drew simultaneously on invention and inspiration, which seem to be the two major ingredients of Sub-creation. Through invention he built up the world of Middle-Earth from the myths, legends, and languages of Europe. As Patrick Curry writes, Middle-Earth “was a co-creation, in partnership with some very old and durable cultural materials.”[36] Yet it was inspiration that breathed life into the world Tolkien had constructed, giving it its unique characteristics and a vitality of its own.

In some ways invention can be seen as related to Coleridge’s notion of Fancy, and inspiration to the Imagination. Fancy is memory disconnected from time and space, and can only draw on what has been experienced.[37] “Fancy is the aggregating power,” as Barfield writes, “it combines and aggregates given units of already conscious experience; whereas the secondary imagination ‘modifies’ the units themselves.”[38] On the other hand, inspiration, like Imagination, almost seems to have a divine source that pours through the sub-creator and imbues the creation with life and individuality. An example of the difference between Fancy and Imagination, invention and inspiration, can be seen in the race of Ents in Middle-Earth. As invented by Fancy, an Ent is just a talking tree, a rearrangement of the idea “tree” by giving it the human property of “speech.” The word “Ent” comes from the Anglo-Saxon word enta uncovered by Tolkien in his philological research.[39] At this stage Ents are perhaps an interesting etymological find, something to peak one’s curiosity, but as of yet certainly not a living being. But through the power of imaginative inspiration, the invented concept of Ent suddenly comes alive as the bark-skinned Treebeard, also named Fangorn, the oldest living being to walk under the sun. It is truly an enchanted transformation. Ents are bestowed life and step forth as a race of creatures, tree-herders, shepherds of the forests, with a long tragic history of their own, speaking in a slow, rhythmic language of names compiled over the Ages of the World.

Fancy, without the influence of Imagination, also has ties to another form of artistic creation, one which Tolkien said he “cordially dislike[d] […] in all its manifestations”: allegory.[40] By having a prescribed intention––whether a moral, lesson, or message––or by telling an old story in the same configuration but with new names, allegory undermines the freedom of the reader to experience a story as an entity in itself, a self-contained reality. Allegory, by its very nature, undermines truth. Corbin draws out the difference between allegory and genuine Image when he writes, “Allegory […] is a cover, or rather a travesty of something that is already known or at least knowable in some other way; whereas, the appearance of an Image that can be qualified as a symbol is a primordial phenomenon.”[41] Great imaginative works cannot be reduced simply to a moral message or lesson, they have a life of their own, an inherent autonomy beyond the will of the author.[42]

Despite his dislike of allegory, Tolkien did write at least one in his career, but it served the purpose of encouraging him to continue his work on The Lord of the Rings, and offered an image of his hope for the world of Middle-Earth. This was the little tale Leaf by Niggle. Niggle is a painter, who can be equated with Tolkien the writer, who spends his life working on a detailed painting of a tree.

It had begun with a leaf caught in the wind, and it became a tree; and the tree grew, sending out innumerable branches, and thrusting out the most fantastic roots. Strange birds came and settled on the twigs and had to be attended to. Then all round the Tree, and behind it, through the gaps in the leaves and boughs, a country began to open out; and there were glimpses of a forest marching over the land, and of mountains tipped with snow.[43]

Shippey sees in the allegory that the Leaf is Tolkien’s first book The Hobbit, his Tree The Lord of the Rings, and the landscape behind as all the other stories that make up The Silmarillion and fill in the vastness of Middle-Earth.[44] However, the most remarkable part of the story is when it seems to leave the realm of allegory altogether. Niggle goes on a great journey, which is synonymous with death, and after some time in a hospitalized form of purgatory, he is sent to an oddly familiar country which he suddenly recognizes:

Before him stood the Tree, his Tree, finished. […] All the leaves he had ever laboured at were there, as he had imagined them rather than as he had made them; and there were many others that had only budded in his mind, and many that might have budded, if only he had had time.[45]

By stepping into an enchanted realm, Niggle’s work becomes real, the invented becomes the imagined, and he can stand in the shade of his own Tree. The Tree, whether an allegory for The Lord of the Rings, or for fairy story in general, is aptly chosen: the philosopher Gaston Bachelard writes of the tree as a symbol of the imagination, an imagination with the gift to create worlds.

The imagination is a tree. It has the integrative virtues of a tree. It is root and boughs. It lives between earth and sky. It lives in the earth and in the wind. The imagined tree becomes imperceptibly the cosmological tree, the tree which epitomizes the universe, which makes a universe…[46]

Trees not only have high branches but also long roots, and the roots of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth run deep, drawing nourishment from the soil of our own Primary World.

Like most cultural myths, Middle-Earth is rooted in language, but unlike the ancient cultures in which stories and languages evolved simultaneously, Middle-Earth is a philological re-creation, a laying of stonework far older than the hands that built it.[47] Tolkien was as well-equipped as any builder to undertake the task: as a philologist who taught at Oxford and Leeds, he knew twenty languages to varying degrees, and during his lifetime invented another fourteen as well as a variety of scripts.[48] He reconstructed words and names from almost forgotten linguistic origins, drawing on fragments of words from poems and texts that had once formed legends.[49] Tolkien writes in one letter of his Middle-Earth myths:

These tales are “new,” they are not directly derived from other myths and legends, but they must inevitably contain a large measure of ancient wide-spread motives or elements. After all, I believe that legends and myths are largely made of “truth.”[50]

For Tolkien reconstruction was the work of invention, but as he would have known, the root of the word “invention” comes from the Latin invenire, meaning “to find.”[51] So for him invention certainly was not “making up,” but rather “discovering,” an experience he mentioned many times when reflecting on writing the mythology of Middle-Earth. He was not only discovering the different names and languages in the Primary World and reconfiguring them: he seemed also to be discovering Middle-Earth itself, a complete world existing already in the Primary Imagination, coming into form through Tolkien’s own Secondary Imagination.

In approaching The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien began with the map, which gave a solid foundation for the world before he and his characters embarked on their adventures. As in the Primary World, the names of places on the map were crafted out of descriptions of the places; these, in turn, were then worn down into names used in other languages, but no longer holding a meaning beyond the given places.[52] Whether called Tookland, Nobottle, Wetwang, Dunharrow, Gladden, Silverlode, or Limlight each place has its history within and outside of Middle-Earth.[53]

The name Middle-Earth itself, related to the Norse Midgard, actually came to Tolkien through an Old English poem called Crist by the Anglo-Saxon poet Cynewulf. Two lines particularly caught Tolkien’s eye:

Eala Earendel engla beorhtast
offer middangeard monnum sended.

Hail Earendel, brightest of angels
Above Middle-earth sent unto men.[54]

Not only was the name Middle-Earth present as middangeard, but the name Earendel stood out to Tolkien as well, a name which became Eärendil in The Silmarillion; Eärendil was the father of Elrond, bearer of the last Silmaril, the evening star most beloved by the Elves.

Tolkien’s Elves and Dwarves are drawn from the legends and myths of immemorable age that pervade cultures across Europe.[55] Tolkien drew on many aspects of the lore of Elves and Dwarves, presenting both the peril and beauty of the Elves, the longevity and gold-mongering of the Dwarves.[56] His emphasis on spelling “Elves” and “Dwarves” in the ancient manner, as opposed to “elfs” and “dwarfs,” further deepened their roots in history.[57] His invented languages were also based on the languages of Europe; the two Elvish tongues were his most developed vocabulary, with the more common Sindarin Elvish rooted in Welsh, and the High Elvish Quenya drawing on Finnish structures.

Because Middle-Earth was to be a mythology for England, Tolkien drew deeply from the waters of the Anglo-Saxon well: the Rohirrim were based in part on Anglo-Saxons, and the name Eorl is from a line of Old English poetry; other names such as Eomer and Eowyn, as well as the term eored for a troop of horses, all stem from the word eoh meaning “horse.”[58] Tolkien even embedded linguistic changes in the history of Middle-Earth itself. For example, before Eorl the Young brought the Rohirrim from the North to inhabit the Gondorian plains of Rohan, the names of Rohirric leaders had Gothic origins: Vidugavia, Vidumavi, Marhwini.[59] Only after they enter into allegiance with Gondor do the Rohirrim take on Anglo-Saxon names. Both the words “Ent” and “Woses” appeared in Old English poetry, and in Middle-Earth the Rohirrim are appropriately situated between the Entish woods of Fangorn, and the Druadan Forest in which the Woses dwell to the South.[60]

Tolkien’s perfectionism touched every word he wrote in The Lord of the Rings, and he even attended to such details as the direction of the blowing wind and the cycling phases of the moon. He wanted his readers to feel as though they had stepped into history.[61] All of his attention to the distinctions of locality, as Curry describes,

contributes greatly to the uncanny feeling, shared by many of his readers, of actually having been there, and knowing it from the inside, rather than simply having read about it––the sensation, as one put it, of “actually walking, running, fighting and breathing in Middle-Earth.”[62]

Beagle captures beautifully the interwoven intricacy of Middle-Earth, the miniscule details discovered to invent it, and the natural reality they express when fused together as a unified whole: “The structure of Tolkien’s world is as dizzyingly complex and as natural as a snowflake or a spiderweb.”[63] Inspiration unifies the invented parts into an organic whole, thereby animating them. Tolkien writes in one letter, “I have long ceased to invent. […] I wait till I seem to know what really happened. Or till it writes itself.”[64] In another letter, this one to W.H. Auden, Tolkien writes,

I daresay something had been going on in the “unconscious” for some time, and that accounts for my feeling throughout, especially when stuck, that I was not inventing but reporting (imperfectly) and had at times to wait till “what really happened” came through.[65]

As Shippey observed, Tolkien seemed to labor at invention until he reached a moment when he could go no further. Somehow, in that moment inspiration would take over and life would fill the creation he had built; he would then be led into the adventure with just as much bewilderment as his literary companions.[66] It was, as Tolkien calls it, the “fusion-point of imagination,”[67] where invention and inspiration meet and something new is born.

The race of people that set Middle-Earth apart most from all other manifestations of Faërie were not invented from European legends. They seemed to have arrived fully formed, already inhabiting their little Northwestern corner of Tolkien’s world. These were the Hobbits. As Tolkien writes on several occasions, the origin of Hobbits is unknown, even to themselves.[68] In the now well-known pivotal moment, Tolkien was grading exams one summer’s day when he unexpectedly wrote on a blank sheet: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”[69] As Shippey notes, Hobbits are “pure inspiration” [70] without a trace of invention to them. Tolkien of course quickly gave them philological roots, connecting “Hobbit” to the Old English word hol-bytla, meaning “hole-dweller.”[71] He went further, setting the Hobbits in an English style of life, seemingly far more modern than the rest of Middle-Earth extending beyond the Shire. Even the names of the Hobbits have echoes of English culture; for example, the name Baggins echoes the English word “baggins” meaning afternoon tea, or any food eaten in between meals, of which Hobbits are rather fond.[72] “The implication,” writes Shippey, “is that the inspiration was a memory of something that could in reality have existed.”[73]

Hobbits, in many ways, are more human than the Men in Middle-Earth, and offer us modern readers a window into their world. They provided the link for Tolkien to connect the Elvish mythologies recorded in The Silmarillion to the world presented in The Hobbit; the result was, of course, The Lord of the Rings. Hobbits put “earth under the feet of ‘romance,’”[74] and as readers we are invited to walk with them.

While Fantasy, as Sub-created Art, can be expressed through many art forms, Tolkien felt Fantasy was “best left to words, to true literature.”[75] Literature allows the imagination to flourish at every level, from the author writing it, to each individual reader imagining what the author presents in her or his own unique way. Tolkien writes, “every hearer of the words will have his own picture, and it will be made out of all the hills and rivers and dales he has ever seen, but especially out of The Hill, The River, The Valley which were for him the first embodiment of the word.”[76] It is as though author and reader alike are drawing on an archetypal realm of the imagination, and each of the images they produce of this world adds another layer of dimensionality, bringing it further into reality. As Reilly writes, “Literature works from mind to mind and is thus more progenitive.”[77]

When the imagination of the reader participates in the Secondary World, the reader then becomes part of that world as well. Beagle writes on his experience of reading The Lord of the Rings, “Something of ourselves has gone into reading it, and so it belongs to us.”[78] He goes on to say the book “will bear the mind’s handling, and it is a book that acquires an individual patina in each mind that takes it up, like a much-caressed pocket stone or piece of wood.[79] The meaning of the work, as Reilly says, resides between the “art work and the perceiving subject”[80] and ultimately lies in the “freedom of the reader.”[81]As readers we also become sub-creators of the Secondary World, as our own imaginations pour forth into our experience of it.

As Duriez expresses, and as a Roman Catholic Tolkien surely believed, our human ability to be sub-creators derives from our being made in God’s image.[82] Tolkien confirms his belief in this when he writes in “On Fairy Stories,” “Fantasy remains a human right: we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made, and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.”[83] Sub-creation is the imagining of God’s world after God[84] but, as Clarke writes, expanding the “limited boundaries of the real world in which we presently live by creating something really new, never experienced by humans before,”[85] and thus enhancing human life. Indeed, Tolkien writes that “liberation ‘from the channels the creator is known to have used already’ is the fundamental function of ‘sub-creation,’ a tribute to the infinity of His potential variety.”[86] For Tolkien, God was, in a way, creating Middle-Earth through him, which may be why he felt like he was discovering a world already in existence.

In one of the last years of Tolkien’s life he received a letter from a man, which he describes as follows: This man

[…] classified himself as ‘an unbeliever, or at best a man of belatedly and dimly dawning religious feeling […] but you [Tolkien],’ he said, ‘create a world in which some sort of faith seems to be everywhere without a visible source, like light from an invisible lamp.’ I [Tolkien] can only answer: ‘Of his own sanity no man can securely judge. If sanctity inhabits his work or as a pervading light illumines it then it does not come from him but through him. And […] you would [not] perceive it in these terms unless it was with you also.[87]

Beagle too was perceiving something of this quality of Tolkien’s work when he wrote about the music that “springs from the center of this world.”[88] Tolkien’s living imagination, flowing from what Coleridge called the Primary Imagination, sprang up alive in the heart of Middle-Earth. It was almost as though the story were asking to be written. For example, Tolkien had a recurrent dream of “the Great Wave, towering up, and coming in ineluctably over the trees and green fields.”[89] He eventually wrote this dream into Middle-Earth, giving it as a dream to Faramir, but also capturing it more fully in the “Downfall of Númenor” in The Silmarillion. Interestingly, once he did write it, the dream ceased recurring. It was as though the dream, possibly coming from the Primary Imagination, needed to become a reality, and once revealed through Tolkien it could rest.

In the lecture Tolkien gave which eventually became the essay “On Fairy Stories,” he expressed his wish that one day the mythology of Middle-Earth would be discovered to be “true,”[90] as he felt the possibility that all myths might be in some realm other than our own.[91] Indeed, it was because of the link Tolkien saw between human creativity and divine making, that he felt “all tales may come true.”[92] Many critics have accused Tolkien’s stories of being escapist, and not having a clear message for the modern world, but as Curry points out, “It offers not an ‘escape’ from our world, this world, but hope for its future.”[93] So indeed maybe all myths may come true, and Middle-Earth will be a reality, in another realm not of space, but of time, possibly a time in our distant future.

At last perhaps we can return to Tolkien’s little allegory, “Leaf by Niggle,” to better understand what he meant. Niggle is joined in the country he painted by his neighbor Parish, who never much appreciated his painting when they had been alive together. Yet when he realizes that it was Niggle who dreamt up the country they are now in he remarks:

“But it did not look like this then, not real,” said Parish.

“No, it was only a glimpse then,” said the man; “but you might have caught the glimpse, if you had ever thought it worth while to try.”[94]

Whenever Tolkien uses the word “glimpse” he frequently seems to be referring to the gleam of truth that shines through Fantasy, whether it is in Niggle’s story, in the preliminary sketches of his plots, or in his definition of Fantasy as “the making or glimpsing of Other-worlds.”[95] Tolkien believed that “there is no higher function for man than the ‘sub-creation’ of a Secondary World”[96] because, as Shippey writes, “it might be mankind’s one chance to create a vision of Paradise which would be true in the future if never in the past.”[97] For Tolkien, the human imagination had the power to create a new Paradise, because he saw the Secondary Imagination as an echo of God’s Imagination, and as it worked through him he felt he was ultimately doing the creative work of God.


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Barfield, Owen. What Coleridge Thought. San Rafael, CA: The Barfield Press, 1971.
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Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Biographia Literaria. London, England: J.M. Dent & Co., 1906.
Corbin, Henry. “Mundus Imaginalis, or The Imaginary and the Imaginal.” Translated by Ruth Horine. En Islam Iranien: Aspects Spirituels et Philosophiques, tome IV, livre 7. Paris, France: Gallimard, 1971.
Curry, Patrick. Defending Middle-Earth. Edinburgh, Scotland: Floris Books, 1997.
Duriez, Colin. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis: The Gift of Friendship. Mahwah, NJ: Hidden Spring, 2003.
Flieger, Verlyn. Splintered Light: Logos and Languages in Tolkien’s World. Kent, OH: The Kent State University Press, 2002.
Noel, Ruth S. The Languages of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1974.
Reilly, R.J. Romantic Religion: A Study of Barfield, Lewis, Williams, and Tolkien. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1971.
Shippey, Tom. The Road to Middle-Earth: How J.R.R. Tolkien Created a New Mythology. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003.
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Hobbit. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997.
–––––. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Edited by Humphrey Carpenter, with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000.
–––––. The Lord of the Rings. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994. 
–––––. The Silmarillion. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001.
–––––. The Tolkien Reader. New York, NY: Ballantine Publishing Group, 1966.

[1] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994), 54-55.

[2] Henry Corbin, “Mundus Imaginalis, or The Imaginary and the Imaginal,” trans. Ruth Horine, En Islam Iranien: Aspects Spirituels et Philosophiques, tome IV, livre 7 (Paris, France: Gallimard, 1971), 1.

[3] J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” in The Tolkien Reader (New York, NY: Ballantine Publishing Group, 1966), 33.

[4] Tom Shippey, The Road to Middle-Earth: How J.R.R. Tolkien Created a New Mythology (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003), 49.

[5] Colin Duriez, Tolkien and C.S. Lewis: The Gift of Friendship (Mahwah, NJ: Hidden Spring, 2003), 178.

[6] Peter Beagle, “Tolkien’s Magic Ring,” in The Tolkien Reader (New York, NY: Ballantine Publishing Group, 1966), xvi.

[7] Ibid, ix.

[8] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, ed. Humphrey Carpenter, with Christopher Tolkien (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000), 145.

[9] Tolkien, Letters, 104.

[10] Norris Clarke, “The Creative Imagination: Unique Expression of Our Soul-Body Unity,” in The Creative Retrieval of St. Thomas Aquinas (New York, NY: Fordham University Press, 2009), 203.

[11] R.J. Reilly, Romantic Religion: A Study of Barfield, Lewis, Williams, and Tolkien (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1971), 8.

[12] S.T.Coleridge, Biographia Literaria (London, England: J.M. Dent & Co., 1906), 159.

[13] Ibid, 159.

[14] Owen Barfield, What Coleridge Thought (San Rafael, CA: The Barfield Press, 1971), 77.

[15] Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, 159.

[16] Ibid, 160.

[17] Corbin, “Mundus Imaginalis,” 10.

[18] Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, 160.

[19] Barfield, What Coleridge Thought, 82.

[20] Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” in The Tolkien Reader, 68.

[21] Ibid, 68.

[22] Ibid, 64

[23] Ibid, 60.

[24] Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 41-42.

[25] Coleridge, qtd. in Barfield, What Coleridge Thought, 81.

[26] Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 73.

[27] Shippey, The Road to Middle-Earth, 93.

[28] Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 89.

[29] Duriez, Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, 176.

[30] Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 78.

[31] Ibid, 77.

[32] Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 38.

[33] Beagle, Tolkien’s Magic Ring, x.

[34] Humphrey Carpenter, J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000), 97.

[35] Tolkien, Letters, 144.

[36] Patrick Curry, Defending Middle-Earth (Edinburgh, Scotland: Floris Books, 1997), 134.

[37] Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, 160.

[38] Barfield, What Coleridge Thought, 86.

[39] Shippey, The Road to Middle-Earth, 131.

[40] Tolkien, Foreword to The Lord of the Rings, xv.

[41] Corbin, “Mundus Imaginalis,” 10-11.

[42] Duriez, Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, 186.

[43] Tolkien, “Leaf by Niggle,” in The Tolkien Reader (New York, NY: Ballantine Publishing Group, 1966), 101.

[44] Shippey, The Road to Middle-Earth, 43.

[45] Tolkien, “Leaf by Niggle,” 113.

[46] Gaston Bachelard, On Poetic Imagination and Reverie (Putnam, CT: Spring Publications, Inc, 2005), 85.

[47] Shippey, The Road to Middle-Earth, 57.

[48] Ruth S. Noel, The Languages of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1974), 3-4.

[49] Shippey, The Road to Middle-Earth, 48-49.

[50] Tolkien, Letters, 147.

[51] Shippey, The Road to Middle-Earth, 25.

[52] Ibid, 101.

[53] Ibid, 103.

[54] Cynewulf, qtd. in Noel, The Languages of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, 4.

[55] Shippey, The Road to Middle-Earth, 57-58

[56] Ibid, 59-61.

[57] Ibid, 56.

[58] Shippey, The Road to Middle-Earth, 20-21.

[59] Ibid, 15.

[60] Ibid, 131.

[61] Carpenter, J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography, 198-99.

[62] Curry, Defending Middle-Earth, 27.

[63] Beagle, “Tolkien’s Magic Ring,” xi.

[64] Tolkien, Letters, 231.

[65] Ibid, 212.

[66] Shippey, The Road to Middle-Earth, 104.

[67] Tolkien, qtd. in Shippey, The Road to Middle-Earth, 63.

[68] Tolkien, Letters, 158.

[69] Tolkien, qtd. in Carpenter, J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography, 175.

[70] Shippey, The Road to Middle-Earth, 65.

[71] Ibid, 66.

[72] Ibid, 72.

[73] Ibid, 67.

[74] Tolkien, Letters, 215.

[75] Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 70.

[76] Ibid, 95, n E.

[77] Reilly, Romantic Religion, 195.

[78] Beagle, Tolkien’s Magic Ring, x.

[79] Ibid, xii.

[80] Reilly, Romantic Religion, 196.

[81] Tolkien, Foreword to The Lord of the Rings, xv.

[82] Duriez, Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, 72.

[83] Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 75.

[84] Duriez, Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, 198.

[85] Clarke, “The Creative Imagination,” 205.

[86] Tolkien, Letters, 188. This particular letter by Tolkien was in response to a fellow Catholic, Peter Hastings, who felt that a sub-creator should not diverge “from the channels the creator is known to have used already,” as Tolkien did when he wrote about the reincarnation of Elves. He continued in his response to Hastings to say “But I do not see how even in the Primary World any theologian or philosopher, unless very much better informed about the relation of spirit and body than I believe anyone to be, could deny the possibility of reincarnation as a mode of existence, prescribed for certain kinds of rational incarnate creatures.”

[87] Tolkien, Letters, 413.

[88] Beagle, “Tolkien’s Magic Ring,” xv.

[89] Tolkien, Letters, 213.

[90] Carpenter, J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography, 195

[91] Reilly, Romantic Religion, 214.

[92] Tolkien, qtd. in Duriez, Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, 176.

[93] Curry, Defending Middle-Earth, 33.

[94] Tolkien, “Leaf by Niggle,” 117.

[95] Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 64

[96] Carpenter, J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography, 195.

[97] Shippey, The Road to Middle-Earth, 53.