The Subcreation Theory of J.R.R. Tolkien

Daniel Mirante

Added on February 1, 2023

Let there be Light – in the coming forth of Light in the Darkness, the world of created order is brought forth from the dark undifferentiated chaos. Light expresses through vast waves, glimmers, shining glints, soft diffusions, and subtle geometries, an infinite language of Light brings forth creation, and illuminates our own creations, our own subcreated worlds.

“We have come from God, and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Indeed only by myth-making, only by becoming ‘sub-creator’ and inventing stories, can Man aspire to the state of perfection that he knew before the Fall.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien

“Though all the crannies of the world we filled
with Elves and Goblins, though we dared to build
Gods and their houses out of dark and light,
and sowed the seed of dragons, ’twas our right
(used or misused). The right has not decayed.” – Mythopoeia by J.R.R Tolkien (1)

Tolkein’s quote describes how creation was born out of dark and light, and refers to our creative right, which is exercised in what he called ‘subcreation’. To put it simply, “[Tolkien] could view sub-creation as a form of worship, a way for creatures to express the divine image in them by becoming creators” (2)

Tolkien was a Christian and saw subcreation as an opportunity to exercise our God-like abilities. Genesis 1:26, “Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness,”. God creates, and as children of God, we have the ability to create as well:

“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.”

A “subcreator” is Tolkien’s term for the true artist of Faërie, the one who brings forth a ‘secondary world’ of great internal cohesion. In the experience of ‘enchantment‘, the reader does not merely suspend disbelief but is drawn into an exploration of a created world.

Enchantment – The High Elvish Craft

The “Elvish craft” of fantasy, the art of “making or glimpsing of Other-worlds” (3), produces enchantment :

“(enchantment) produces a Secondary World into which both designer and spectator can enter, to the satisfaction of their senses while they are inside; but in’ its purity it is artistic in desire and purpose” (4)

To produce and sustain enchantment, one seeks to create “the inner consistency of reality”. The inner consistency of reality is a fusion of true appreciation of the world as it is (Tolkien’s ‘primary creation’), and expressing the sub-created world within the laws of the world as we have previously found it  (“we make still by the law in which we’re made” (5).

“To make a Secondary World..commanding Secondary Belief will probably require labour and thought, and will certainly demand a special skill, a kind of Elvish Craft. Few attempt such difficult tasks. But when they are attempted and in any degree accomplished then we have a rare achievement of Art, indeed narrative story, story making in its primary and most potent mode” (6)

This notion of ‘Elvish Craft’ transcends ‘narrative story’. Tolkien was a visual artist as well as storyteller. His definition of the Imagination is the “mental power of image‐making” (7) and this visual component is pronounced in his written work also, where great effort is given to description of lands, locales and situations, rather than the inner life of the subjects. Tolkien uses the term “Art” to describe “the operative link between Imagination and the final result, Sub‐creation” (8)

Illustration of hobbits by J.R.R Tolkien

In his own subcreative prowess Tolkien crafted languages, maps and narratives, often accompanied with illustrations. Through this dexterity of the creative function, and its application to his creation it is clear that all of these forms add to this “inner consistency of reality”, as they provide different creative pathways to the same destination, all reinforcing each other and suggesting again the creative spark, as bestowed in the image of the maker, able to manifest in a multitude of forms. This use of different modalities is not for the purpose of display, but for the thoroughness of the rendering. The consistency of the inner world must be rigorous for the spell of enchantment to be successful, Tolkien cautions:

“He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is ‘true’: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside. The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed. You are then out in the Primary World again, looking at the little abortive Secondary World from outside.”

Is ‘enchantment’, in the ‘Tolkienian’ sense, escapism? Tolkien pre-empted this criticism with an apologia:

“I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which ‘Escape’ is now so often used. Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?”

What does Tolkien mean by ‘prison-walls’? Tolkien’s Catholicism is something that he lived, explored and grew into a deep personal relationship with. External forms of religion impute and create frameworks for invisible, initiatory chambers of spiritual life, and there is a medieval, or Neo-Platonic spirit to his theology — human life is a viewed as a form of trial of the soul, an incarnate purgatory. Thus creativity functions as a positive form of transcendence or escape from the purgatorial prison, a contemplation and worshipful exploration of God’s ideal forms, a positive endeavor that strives to bring us closer to an understanding of providence and of a spiritual level of truth that exists beyond experience in time and the sensual world. Thus enchantment offers a fulfillment, albeit partial, of the desires of the soul :

“(Fairy stories are) primarily concerned with possibility, but with desirability. If they awakened desire, satisfying it while often whetting it unbearably, they succeeded.”

Through enchantment, the product of fantasy, we retrieve the childlike wonder we may have left behind somewhere. And more importantly, through enchantment we regain, as Tolkien says, “a clear view”.

This “clear view” is available to all, whether they join in Tolkiens’ religious expression or not, though it does point away from a reality which is empirically determined. The notion of escapism, and the derogatory associations of fantasy, have gained weight in an empirically dominant world, which has grown heavy in its pursuit of quantitive ends. The notion of sub creation points to a reality which has the suppleness to be conditioned and formed through the individuals relationship with his own creative essence. In this sense, there is no predetermined reality which fixes a life in a certain way, or in a certain form; and this points to a fundamental characteristic of Tolkiens’ faith in the Creator and the subsequent gift to those that have been Created.

Sanctified Sub-creation

In Tolkien’s religious philosophy of creation and sub-creation, true creation is the exclusive province of God, and those who aspire to creation can only make echoes (good) or mockeries (evil) of Truth, of ideal forms. The sub-creation of works that echo the true primary creations of God is one way that mortals honour God.

“I would with the beleaguered fools be told,
that keep an inner fastness where their gold,
impure and scanty, yet they loyally bring
to mint in image blurred of distant king,
or in fantastic banners weave the sheen
heraldic emblems of a lord unseen.”

‘Subcreation’ may be ‘made real’ if is vivified and upheld by God. For instance, in the Lord of the Rings legendarium,: the Silmarillion, Aulë, creates the Dwarf race as an act of subcreation that honoured Eru Ilúvatar (The equivalent of God in Tolkien’s writings), and which Iluvatar accepted and made real. The distinction is made in this lesson regarding the acceptance of the creation. Iluvatar questions Aule’s action, and his extending of his powers beyond the gift of Life which Iluvatar has given him. Aule’s response to Iluvatar’s resounds with humility and pleads:

“the making of things is in my heart, from my own making by thee and the child of little understanding that makes a play of the deeds of his father, may do so without thought of mockery, but because he is the son of his father”

As Aule’s inspiration derived from a desire that more beings experience the beauty of the world (Ea), and he desired to instruct them of this beauty; and he was willing to sacrifice his creation to forsake his initial error in extending his power of creation to forge new lives, the Dwarves lived on, and Aule’s creation was harmoniously included in the work of Ea.

But Morgoth, the fallen Ainur, forged life from a different attitude and created the Orc race as a foul mockery of the Elf. All Melkor, Morgoth’s and Sauron’s negative actions depend on lies and distortions, playing upon human’s fear of death, which unbeknownst to the mind of humanity is Illuvatar’s greatest Gift.

Here forges the two paths, those that are in harmony with the initial Creative blueprint of Ea, and that which is derived to mock and undermine. In terms of the metaphor, Melkor is not able to accept the authority of Iluvatar, the true Creator, and his designs bear this hallmark. So in terms of the religious philosophy, the acceptance of God and Gods authority, and one’s relationship to God is key to fulfilling ones part in the whole; and developing ones creative potential in accordance with the original blueprint. This metaphor is outlined in the Music of the Ainur, where Melkors theme of discord weaves in with the original chorale. At times it absorbs others within its theme, those that are close are influenced by it, and yet the theme absorbs the dischord and deepens the wider beauty of the overall theme.

Tolkien makes strong moral distinction between Magic and Enchantment. Magic, Tolkien says, is based on the desire for power and control: it is “self-centred power which is the mark of the mere Magician.” As C.S Lewis puts it in The Abolition of Man:

“For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique; and both, in the practice of this technique, are ready to do things hitherto regarded as disgusting and impious – such as digging up and mutilating the dead” (9)

Tolkein himself casts a denigrating view upon applied science:

“Our myths may be misguided, but they steer however shakily towards the true harbour, while materialistic ‘progress’ leads only to a yawning abyss and the Iron Crown of the power of evil.”

In contrast, Enchantment, is about the desire for God and the divine paradise, and not control. God is

“Uncorrupted it does not seek delusion, nor bewitchment and domination; it seeks shared enrichment, partners in making and delight, not slaves” (10)

So, our right to creation is ‘used and misused’, and yet where sub-creations are made without mockery, drawn from Gods evangelicum, or subtle plane, in the spirit of worshipful craft, they are thence realised.

“…In Fantasy he may actually assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation. All tales may come true;
and yet, at the last, redeemed, they may be as like and unlike the forms that we give them as Man, finally redeemed, will be like and unlike the fallen that we know.”

The Effoliation of Creation

Effoliation refers to a tree giving forth new leaves, and trees figure heavily in Tolkein’s imagery, both literary and visual. Tolkien describes at the end of Lord of the Rings, the leafless white tree of Gondor e-effoliating, a symbol of resurrection after the defeat of Sauron.

In Akallabeth, a tale from The Silmarillion, involving the falling of a certain civilization, Sauron commands the felling of Nimloth, the white tree of the city, which symbolizes the connection to Valinor, and to the original light which caused things to be in their essence. When the tree is felled, it is symbolic of the fall of the king and the civilization. So the tending of the original light of the trees indicates the alignment with the blessed blueprint, while disregard and felling of the tree indicates the other pathway, that which turns from the light and makes only in mockery.

In light of sub creation, when something is created which furthers the beauty of the created world, then it is an act of tending the trees, and would cause effoliation, and thus further the beauty and evolution of the blessed blueprint. As mentioned before what is key in this process, is relationship to creator; and also study of the created world, reverence for its form, and direct inspiration from its existant beauty. As we see the symbol of the tree appearing again and again in his narratives, it is also a repetitive theme in his illustrative work;

Tolkien explains in a letter-

 “I have among my ‘papers’ more than one version of a mythical ‘tree’, which crops up regularly at those times when I feel driven to pattern-designing” (11).

In the essay “Single Leaf: Tolkien’s Visual Art and Fantasy”, Jeffrey J Macleod and Anna Smol describe that

“(in) these drawings, Tolkien repeats the subject while creating differently shaped flowers and leaves in each visualization of the Tree. Repetition is evident in his technique. In his pen and ink illustrations for The Hobbit, he uses pointillism and basic cross-hatching, requiring the artist to obsessively repeat the same patterns in order to complete the picture.

Tolkien’s pattern-making in the heraldic devices he created for his characters in his repetition of paisley designs and in drawings such as his colourpencil designs of Numenórean Carpets also indicate similar principles at work. Tolkien’s choice of technique and subject reveal much about his interest in repeated patterns as an aesthetic.”

The repetition of a theme, serves in the development of contemplation of the creative potency of a symbol or form, and can serve as an entry point into the sub creative field.

“Each leaf, of oak and ash and thorn, is a unique embodiment of the pattern, and for some this very year may be the embodiment, the first ever seen and recognised, though oaks have put forth leaves for countless generations of men” (12)

It may reasonably be asked what is meant here. He expresses that there exists ‘the pattern’ which has put forth and blossomed over countless generations. He refers to the similitude yet novelty of creation, something like the repetition of grand themes, symbols and archetypes that hold true to a certain form and essence, which is seen as ‘new’ to the fresh eyes that behold them. “There is nothing new under the Sun” (Ecclesiastes) and yet for ourselves, this ancient, primary creation may be witnessed as new and we may drawn from it for fresh sub-creations, fresh blossoming unique for each soul. Tolkien expresses this using anther tree metaphor:

“The seed of the tree can be replanted in almost any soil” (“OFS” 66).

The beauty highlighted here is the fertility of the relationship between the created world, and man who can be perennially inspired in new ways by the revelations which Nature puts forth. Also the creative spark inherent in every soul gives the potential for the beauty to take root in all beings in unique and diverse expression. This fecund proliferation of potential is the atmosphere of the Sub creative capacity, untrammeled and undefined. Tolkien’s capacity to develop races, languages, histories, myths, songs, maps and dynasties, plus all the other art and media which spring from his initial blueprints, is a testament to the vastness of the Sub creative realms.

The Music of The Ainur

In speaking of consecrated subcreation, the seeking for ‘divine effoliation’ rather than mockery, one may find some further guidance in The Simarillion, where Tolkien wrote a genesis story for the world of the Lord of the Rings, to give cosmological gravitas, whereby he invokes these subtle patterns of Gods’ laws as the “Music of the Ainur”, chanted by the holy spirits or angelic pantheons emanated by Eru, The One (I.e God). This harmonic choral brings forth the world.

Music works with repetition of vibrational pattern. In this Music of the Ainur, which we can suppose it takes place in the vastness which has been pointed to by the Zodiacal ‘music of the spheres’ or equivalent to the Vedic seed syllables A or OM, somewhere in this vast and high place ; we find the perfection of God’s creativity.

Only a fallen Ainur, called Melkor, devises without Eru’s consent, and at odds to the cosmic harmony, and produces his own music in the midst of the choir – his pompous and overly-clever ‘free jazz’ introducing something like unpredictability, evil and chaos and ‘mockery’ into the world – which is represented in Midgard (Middle-earth, our mythic pre-history) as the manifestation of the diabolical Morgoth and later the Dark Lord Sauron. These dark forces mock the creation – they cannot actually create anything, but ravage and torture Elves to create the Orcs, and attempt to conquer the Human realm primarily by exploiting man’s fear of Death by twisting minds and using lies and deceit, to further this end.

But also, since nothing is ultimately outside of Eru, The One, Melkor’s existence may, on the level of the Absolute, have something to do with free will and the final perfecting of Creation. But this concern is philosophical, and far beyond the relative sphere of humans, who need to put up a strong and courageous fight against Melkor’s manifestations, in order to continue existing free and un-enslaved by fear and pain, and prevent Middle Earth from being twisted away from its intended divine design.

Thus, to uphold the Good, one must actively uphold the divine principles, which are in some way in tune with or in universal harmony with the “Music of the Ainur”, which in essence means echoing and playing in tune with ‘the true, good and beautiful’, even in situations of great duress. Through conflict and tragedy, the light-bearing valor of his heroes may be better expressed.

“Moonlight drowns out all but the brightest stars.”(13)

And, most importantly, Tolkien stresses ones elfin craft to contain at least glints of a powerful redemptive transcendent vision.

“Fairy tale does not deny the existence of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance. It denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat…giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy; Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”

Thus Tolkien, through his telling of the Music of the Ainur, within the subcreation of Middle-earth, echoes and pays homage to his personal understanding of the nature of the Gospels and his faith, Christianity.

Happy Endings

“The Evangelium has not abrogated legends; it has hallowed them, especially the “happy ending.” The Christian has still to work, with mind as well as body, to suffer, hope, and die; but he may now perceive that all his bents and faculties have a purpose, which can be redeemed.”

The short story “Leaf by Niggle” is Tolkiens’ nearest work to allegory, and was an expression on his beliefs about the nature of subcreation. A hobbit, Niggle, who’s yearnings after truth and beauty (God’s creations) are echoed and expressed in his great painting of a fantastic tree.

“There was one picture in particular which bothered him. 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.”

After death, Niggle is rewarded with the realization (the making-real) of his yearning (14.) Or, if you prefer, Niggle’s Tree always existed in ‘The All’ – he simply echoed it in his earthly art. On arrival to paradise, Niggle beholds the tree he spent so long painting and exclaims 

“It’s a Gift!”

Whereas in life Niggle struggled with his own artistic capacity to render his vision, and similarly to extract himself from the duties and apparent restrictions which disturbed that process, through the vale of death, and the purgatory he experiences, he is unshackled, set forth to explore the true lands of his own dreaming. Somehow in Life, we seek to temper the mundane with the craft of creativity; thus building a bridge into the worlds that are just beyond the veil, and in Niggle, Tolkien hints at the real establishment of those endeavors in the hallowed places which are not subject to the same forces of decay and erosion as are prevalent in mortal life. As Tolkien says

“I shall not throw my golden sceptre down, nor bow before the Iron Crown”

For the subcreative capacity is a true gift, from the Father to the Sun as Aule expresses it and within it is the essence of redemption, and even immortality, just as the light of the Valar flows in the sap of the Trees. It represents the guiding light of the Return to the Pre Fall state, which is what Valinor represents to the Elven Kindreds. It serves as the principle through which man can adorn creation further through remembering the origin, and bringing forth fresh effoliation into the tree of life. It can also be expressed as a gauge for the learnings of free will and relationship to the Divine, and also to learn to differentiate between manifestations which are mockeries and abstractions of the pure intention, and work which is born of the good and furthered by grace.


(1) Mythopoeia
(2) David C. Downing – R. W. Schlosser. Sub-Creation or Smuggled Theology: Tolkien contra Lewis on Christian Fantasy
(3) ‘Essays’ pg63
(4) ibid., pp. 52-53
(5) Mythopoeia
(6) “On Fairy-stories”
(7) On Fairy-stories pg59
(8) On Fairy-stories pg59
(9) On Fairy-stories pg84
(10) On Fairy-stories pg72
(11) ‘Letters’ pg342
(12) On Fairy-stories pg66
(13) The Lord of the Rings
(14) ‘Letters’ pg153 “I tried to show allegorically how [subcreation] might come to be taken up into Creation in some plane in my ‘purgatorial’ story Leaf by Niggle.”
(15) Single Leaf : Tolkiens Visual Art and Fantasy by Jeffrey J Macleod and Anna Smol

Daniel Mirante is a painter, historian, scholar, teacher and writer.

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