Tolkien, Coleridge, and Subcreation

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Tolkien’s idea of subcreation has been much discussed by his fans and critics. Few, however, have located the source of that idea in the work of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The Biographia Literaria provides a clue. In chapter 13, on the imagination “or esemplastic power,” we read:

The imagination I consider either as primary, or secondary. The primary imagination I hold 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. The secondary I consider as an echo of the former, co-existing with the conscious will, yet still as identical with the primary in the kind of its agency, and differing only in degree, and in the mode of its operation. It dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to re-create; or where this process is rendered impossible, yet still at all events it struggles to idealize and to unify. It is essentially vital, even as all objects (as objects) are essentially fixed and dead.

Fancy, on the contrary, has no other counters to play with, but fixities and definites. The Fancy is indeed no other than a mode of Memory emancipated from the order of time and space; and blended with, and modified by that empirical phenomenon of the will, which we express by the word Choice. But equally with the ordinary memory it must receive all its materials ready made from the law of association.

According to Adam Roberts’s new edition, Coleridge crossed out the line set in roman above. But it is precisely this phrase that Tolkien and others seize in making a firm distinction between creative acts of God and those of artists. As Robert explains, “God has created the cosmos as an act of primary imaginative power. When creative artists create their work, they are engaged in a finite imitation, in a kind of ratio inferior, of that primary act. . . . Such work is necessarily secondary to the divine creation, but only in degree, not in kind.”

While we readily recognize Tolkien’s anti-modern sensibilities, we can see here that he was also clearly operating within a Romantic framework, where the artist retained his status as myth-maker and his labors were not yet unmoored from religious significance. That side of Tolkien’s thought deserves greater recognition and appreciation.

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One thought on “Tolkien, Coleridge, and Subcreation

  1. A priest once observed that art is the grandchild of God. God created us, and we in turn create art. I appreciate Robert’s view, we create as “a finite imitation.”

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