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Why Tolkien Wrote About Middle-Earth

Some Evangelicals’ credo might be: “There is only one Tolkien, and Peter Jackson is his Prophet.” While there is no denying that the art of John Howe and Alan Lee made the films a visual feast, or that Howard Shore’s scores were moving and memorable, let us set aside the movies for a moment and return to Tolkien himself. Tolkien once wrote a letter to Milton Waldman, a friend and editor at Collins. The letter is sometimes published at the beginning of The Silmarillion, for it is one of the few places where Tolkien explained the meaning and purpose of his entire mythology. In it are some choice statements that are worth several moments’ contemplation, particularly for the average utilitarian Evangelical.

Here is Tolkien’s summary of what the entire mythology is about:

“It is, I suppose, fundamentally concerned with the problem of the relation of Art (and Sub-Creation) and Primary Reality.”

You probably didn’t get that idea when you saw Legolas skate-boarding down Helm’s Deep’s stairs. What is Tolkien on about?

Tolkien was concerned with what humans, as those made in the image of God, do with creation. As sub-creators, once we have used our creation skills to simply survive, we turn those sub-creative powers to making those things that express meaning. Tolkien describes that in the same letter as “Art and the creative (or as I should say, sub-creative) desire which seems to have no biological function, and to be apart from the satisfactions of plain ordinary biological life, with which, in our world, it is indeed usually at strife.” Here Tolkien sounds like Richard Weaver who says that art is what sets man apart from the animals:

“This great yearning of man to be something in the imaginative sense, that is, to be something more than he is in the simple existential way or in the reductionist formula of materialism is both universal and proper to him. The latter may be asserted because he is the only creature who asks the question why he is here and who feels thwarted in his self-realization until some kind of answer is produced.  This urge to be representative of something higher is an active ingredient of his specific humanity; it has created everything from the necklace of animal teeth with which the primitive adorns his body to the elaborate constructions which the men of high cultures have made to interpret the meaning of life and their mission in it. This is the point at which he departs from the purely utilitarian course and makes of himself a being with significance.”

To put it simply, art is concerned with the spirit. Man, as part of creation, distinguishes himself from those creatures not made in God’s image with his acts of meaningful sub-creation. Man’s art is either his greatest vindication as a child of God or his greatest condemnation as fallen from that state, for his art represents what he is, what he imagines reality to be, and who he worships. It is the highest statement of his beliefs and desires.

Tolkien’s mythology suggests how art in a fallen and mortal world can go in an evil direction or a holy direction. Here Tolkien describes evil art:

“It may become possessive, clinging to the things made as ‘its own’, the sub-creator wishes to be the Lord and God of his private creation. He will rebel against the laws of the Creator – especially against mortality. Both of these (alone or together) will lead to the desire for Power, for making the will more quickly effective, – and so to the Machine (or Magic).”

Art used for holy purposes is the ‘magic’ of the Elves:

“I have not used ‘magic’ consistently, and indeed the Elven-queen Galadriel is obliged to remonstrate with the Hobbits on their confused use of the word both for the devices and operations of the Enemy, and for those of the Elves. I have not, because there is not a word for the latter (since all human stories have suffered the same confusion). But the Elves are there (in my tales) to demonstrate the difference. Their ‘magic’ is Art, delivered from many of its human limitations: more quick, more complete (product, and vision in unflawed correspondence). And its object is Art not Power, sub-creation not domination and tyrannous reforming of Creation.”

The idea that art is sub-creation, and that it is either faithful to the Creator, or a selfish abuse of creation is something Christians should consider carefully. For if the art we use in worship constitutes an abuse of creation (say, a narcissistic celebration of ourselves), then we find ourselves in the awkward position of claiming to worship the Creator with a distortion of His creation.

Illuvatar is not worshipped with Dark Magic.

About David de Bruyn

David de Bruyn pastors New Covenant Baptist Church in Johannesburg, South Africa. He is a graduate of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Minnesota and the University of South Africa (D.Th.). Since 1999, he has presented a weekly radio program that is heard throughout much of central South Africa. He also blogs at Churches Without Chests.