There was Eru, the One, who in Arda is called Ilúvatar; and he made first the Ainur, the Holy Ones, that were the offspring of his thought, and they were with him before aught else was made. And he spoke to them, propounding to them themes of music; and they sang before him, and he was glad. But for a long while they sang only each alone, or but few together, while the rest hearkened; for each comprehended only that part of the mind of Ilúvatar from which he came, and in the understanding of their brethren they grew but slowly. Yet ever as they listened they came to deeper understanding, and increased in unison and harmony.
And it came to pass that Ilúvatar called together all the Ainur and declared to them a mighty theme, unfolding to them things greater and more wonderful than he had yet revealed; and the glory of its beginning and the splendour of its end amazed the Ainur, so that they bowed before Ilúvatar and were silent.
Then Ilúvatar said to them: `Of the theme that I have declared to you, I will now that ye make in harmony together a Great Music. And since I have kindled you with the Flame Imperishable, ye shall show forth your powers in adorning this theme, each with his own thoughts and devices, if he will. But I win sit and hearken, and be glad that through you great beauty has been wakened into song.
The Silmarillion, published four years posthumously by Tolkien’s son Christopher and in a form that the author himself would most probably have considered incomplete, was in many ways Tolkien’s ‘master’ work, the one which he himself considered the most important. This particular passage, the opening of the Silmarillion, describes the creation of the universe of his mythos. The Christian overtones are obvious: Eru Ilúvatar stands in for God, while the Ainur are his angels. Among them Melkor, later to be known as Morgoth and Sauron’s master, represents Lucifer.
Tolkien himself was profoundly religious and a pious Catholic, he famously had a strong part in successfully converting his close friend, C. S. Lewis the writer of Narnia, to Christianity, if not to Catholicism. Tolkien’s religion had a profound influence on his writing; close readings of Lord of the Rings for example will find that several of the dates coincide with important events of the Christian calendar such as the Resurrection. Yet, he saw no contradiction in portraying Creation imaginatively, claiming that such was the part of the artist as Sub-Creator and that all imagination and inspiration comes from, and is a reflection of, God and His infinite potential and possibilities.
Tolkien’s two most famous works in that field of literary criticism are his ‘On Fairy-Stories’ essay and his lecture on ‘Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics’ which was later transformed into an essay and remains, even 50 years after its initial publication. In both, Tolkien addresses the issue of imagination as a creative force in the composition of the fantastic world.
On Fairy-Stories, Tolkien lays the foundations and his own understanding of what would later come to be called the Fantasy genre. A genre whose current form has been greatly formed by Tolkien’s and his friend C. S. Lewis’ works. ‘On Fairy-Stories’ is particularly illuminating since in it Tolkien makes a crucial distinction between suspension of disbelief, as proposed by Coleridge, and the secondary belief on which the creation of the fantastic world depends.
Tolkien’s own creative ethos, and in fact his understanding of the fantastic, were heavily influenced by his reading and interpretation of Old English and Old Norse tales. They enthralled his imagination and their influence can be felt directly in his most famous texts. One text in particular was dear to Tolkien and that was the Old English poem of Beowulf, which at the time of Tolkien’s scholarly endeavours was considered more of a historical document than a piece of art. Tolkien’s essay Beowulf: The Monsters and The Critics can be largely credited for having rescued the poem from being delegated to literary oblivion. He argues that the poem is indeed a piece of art, regardless of whether it is a Christian adaptation of an older poem or not and, therefore, should be considered for its own merits. His admiration for its qualities was such that Tolkien attempted to emulate what he saw as its greatest strengths in his own creation of Middle-Earth and its universe.
While famous for his creation of Middle-Earth, Tolkien did not limit his creative inventions solely to his fantastical universe. He wrote a great deal of poetry even as far back as during his time fighting in the Somme. Though his poems are not considered to be remarkable, many of the motifs later to be found in his fantastical works can already be found there. One short story in particular, however, is remarkable for the insight it gives into Tolkien’s own understanding of himself, his art and the world around him. The short story in question is ‘Leaf by Niggle’. First published in the years following his publishing of The Hobbit, it tells the story of a painter called Niggle who struggles to finish his painting before he must leave on his unavoidable final journey. Highly allegorical and in some aspects even autobiographical or confessional, it tells a story that conveys, comically and at points rather touchingly, Tolkien’s view of life, art and religion.
- Tolkien, J.R.R. (1999) The Silmarillion. London: HarperCollins.
- Tolkien, J.R.R. (2001) Tree and Leaf. London: HarperCollins
- Tolkien, J.R.R. (1983) The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays. London: Harper Collins.