Tolkien wrote essays and poetry discussing the importance of art and myth, quite apart from his Middle-earth tales. There’s evidence in all his writings of an underlying struggle going on, as we have seen in earlier blog posts, between the value of Art and its relation to the world created by God. In his own words, his works of fantasy, are ‘fundamentally concerned with the problem of the relation of Art (and Sub-creation) and Primary Reality’. In the same letter, Tolkien writes ‘art and the creative (or as I should say, sub-creative) desire ... seems to have no biological function’ ; for Tolkien the reason why art is so poorly understood is because its source is not to be found in this world. Myth, he thought, manifested certain universal truths and by extension the human desire to create is evidence of the existence of a First Cause, God. But this was never a settled point for him, and this lack of settlement works its way as a theme into his fiction.
Intellectually, these ideas are presented in greater detail in his essay ‘On Fairy-Stories’, published in Tree and Leaf. Tolkien discusses in the essay the appeal of fairy-stories, a particular ‘sub-creative art which plays strange tricks with the world’ and which draws strength from stories of triumph over adversity.
The peculiar quality of 'joy' in successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth ... it may be a far-off gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world.
in Fantasy he [the artist] may actually assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation [but this is a] serious and dangerous matter. It is presumptuous of me to touch upon such a theme; but if by grace what I say has in any respect any validity, it is, of course, only one facet of a truth incalculably rich.
Tolkien’s poem ‘Mythopoeia’ begins with an address aimed at C. S. Lewis, with whom he had had a debate which ultimately contributed to Lewis' conversion from atheism to Christianity: ‘To one who said that myths were lies and therefore worthless, even though "breathed through silver"'.
‘Mythopoeia’ champions the value of art, especially art in fairy-stories. The poem explicitly states that creativity is something that is felt deep within, a
response of those that felt astir within,
by deep monition movements that were kin
to life and death of trees, of beasts, of stars.
Not only was creativity a ‘natural’ impulse, then, but the true creative urge engages in a quest for the underlying nature of reality:
digging the foreknown from experience
and panning the vein of spirit out of sense
This is achieved through what Tolkien termed ‘Recovery’ a process of defamiliarization, whereby ‘fundamental things ... are made all the more luminous by their setting’ as he writes on ‘On Fairy Stories’.
'Mythopoeia' describes the process as ‘illuminating Now and dark Hath-been ⁄ with light of suns as yet by no man seen’ - in other words, revealing hidden truths either in the present or the past.
Tolkien’s Elves are, in effect, his vision of an unfallen race. They are immortal and are still spiritually connected to an inner creativity:
Great powers they slowly brought out of themselves
and looking backward they beheld the elves
that wrought on cunning forges in the mind,
and light and dark on secret looms entwined
Explicitly in Tolkien’s world the Elves preceded mankind and were the first ‘Children of Iluvatar’ or God. As they diminish, so does the role of creative art, leading eventually to the mechanized twentieth century which Tolkien detested. As ‘Mythopoeia’ says:
I will not walk with your progressive apes,
erect and sapient. Before them gapes
the dark abyss to which their progress tends --
if by God's mercy progress ever ends,
and does not ceaselessly revolve the same
unfruitful course with changing of a name
Like his friend Lewis, Tolkien was deeply suspicious of the modern concept of ‘progress’, seeing in it only a decline to automaticity and a dismissal of the wisdom of the past. Everywhere during his lifetime, he felt that the value of art was being lost, to be replaced by machines. But his fundamental hope was that, as he says in Mythopoeia:
man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
Dis-graced he may be, yet is not dethroned,
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned,
his world-dominion by creative act:
not his to worship the great Artefact
He hoped very much that this was so, that humanity somehow retained a divine ability to create art. The poem says ‘We make still by the law in which we're made’. In one sense, ‘Mythopoeia’ is a poetic working out of what Tolkien wanted to be true, a theme which he takes up in his short story ‘Leaf By Niggle’, published with ‘Mythopoeia’ and ‘On Fairy-Stories’ in Tree and Leaf.
Niggle is a day-dreaming painter, always defending his art from the criticism of his demanding neighbours and from social and pressures, just as Tolkien had to defend his own creations while being subject to the demands of his college and his family. Like Tolkien, Niggle’s only hope is to complete his greatest project before he must embark on the inevitable journey, death. Niggle's painting is 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’ until ‘the canvas became so large that he had to get a ladder’. Though Tolkien claims in the Foreword of The Lord of the Rings that he detests allegory, ‘Leaf by Niggle’ is clearly allegorical and parallels ‘Mythopoeia’ and ‘On Fairy Stories’ as an attempt to work out his basic ideas and concerns. Niggle's Tree explicitly represents Middle-earth, and Niggle is Tolkien creating it. His painting is never finished or properly appreciated until Niggle reaches the Afterlife and finds it there complete, just as The Silmarillion, the core of Tolkien's work, was never finished for publication during his lifetime.