Towards an Imaginal Ecology

This essay, originally written in May 2013, has now been published in the inaugural issue of ReImagining Magazine, a publication created by the Chicago Wisdom Project.

“To speak, to ask to have audience today in the world, requires that we speak to the world, for the world is in the audience; it too is listening to what we say.”[1] With these words James Hillman opens his essay “Anima Mundi” in which he speaks of the return of soul to the world. Such is the task we face as a species, as human beings, as we learn to cultivate a different kind of relationship with our planet, the Earth which supports our very existence. But what eyes can we use to see the soul of the world? What languages can we speak to call out to the anima mundi? With what ears shall we listen to hear the Earth’s voices in reply?

To read the rest of this article please see: “Towards An Imaginal Ecology

Imaginal Ecology

[1] James Hillman, The Thought of the Heart and the Soul of the World (Putnam, CT: Spring Publications, Inc., 2007), 91.

Towards An Imaginal Ecology: Presentation for PCC Integrative Seminar

As the final part of the Integrative Seminar, the capstone course of the Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness master’s program, I gave this presentation as part of a day-long seminar with twelve of my fellow graduates in May 2013. The accompanying paper can be found here, and a shorter introduction is available here.

Integrative Seminar Symposium Flyer

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.

A Long-Expected Journey

So it begins…

This is the first day of a long-awaited journey, one that is two years in planning, and will at last be embarked upon. Two people, a Ford Focus, 18 days, and 6,000 miles (at least!) This morning Matt and I depart upon our cross-country road trip from San Francisco, California to Bennington, Vermont and back. The purpose? To retrieve my belongings that have been languishing peacefully in my dear uncle and aunt’s basement. The true purpose? To have an adventure, a real one, by driving deep into the heart of the American continent, and emerging on the other side to inhale the breeze on the Atlantic coast.

The first leg of the journey may indeed be the longest, as we leave the Bay Area and head east, aiming to arrive in Wendover, Utah by late evening. We will be camping out for our first two nights, before meeting up with family and friends for the remaining overnights of the trip. Our initial plan had been to drive through Colorado, but the wildfires blazing throughout the state have influenced us to reroute north. I am curious if we will see smoke along the way, or if we will be fully out of range. Climate change is indeed doing its damage, from the fires in the West, to the tornadoes in the Midwest and the East, and the 118° temperatures in Kansas. We will be experiencing the rapid changing of our planet first-hand on these travels.

Our planned route for the journey after Utah is to camp again in Cheyenne, Wyoming, then stay with my fraternal family in Kansas City, Kansas, Matt’s family in Cincinnati, Ohio, my paternal family in West Bloomfield, Michigan, before arriving in Bennington, Vermont to stay with more family and pack up my belongings. From the Green Mountain State we’ll drive to the Pioneer Valley, Massachusetts, where I went to school at Mount Holyoke College, and we’ll stay with friends in the area. Our next destination is New York City to stay with another friend, and then we’ll turn our eyes homeward once more. Another pass through Cincinnati and Kansas city, and then a stay with Matt’s aunt in Aspen, Colorado if the pass there is unobstructed by wildfire. If it is, my desire is to turn southwards and see some desert-land before we cruise back into the chilly humidity of our fog-bound San Francisco home.

We are outfitted for the trip with few items of clothing, but a multitude of entertainment: dozens of podcasts of This American LifeFresh AirWait Wait Don’t Tell Me, as well as an obscure Tolkien podcast entitled An Unexpected Podcast. We will also have the treat to listen to Matthew Stelzner’s archetypal astrology podcast Correlations to help us stay attuned to the outer planets as we travel across the surface of our own home planet. Finally, we have the rare privilege of listening to a large collection of audio tapes I salvaged out of my father’s studio: lectures by Joseph Campbell, Rupert Sheldrake, Terrence McKenna, Bruno Barnhart, Robert McDermott, and several others. And lastly, if we can listen to the stereo no more, Matt will have his books on Schelling for his Ph.D. comprehensive exam, and I will have a few books of my own: The Road to Middle Earth by Tom Shippey, On The Road by Jack Kerouac, Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram, and, if a copy stumbles into my hand soon, The Cosmic Game by Stan Grof.

May the stars smile down upon us as we begin this journey, may the unexpected adventures be merry, and the expected ones all the sweeter for occurring,may the road be swift and safe, and may the landscapes be the deep pool from which I’ll fill the cup of my imagination. To quote a great traveller in the wilds of the imaginary, let me conclude:

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.

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.
Carpenter, Humphrey. J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000.
Clarke, Norris. “The Creative Imagination: Unique Expression of Our Soul-Body Unity.” In The Creative Retrieval of St. Thomas Aquinas, 191-208. New York, NY: Fordham University Press, 2009.
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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.