Having recently read Tolkien’s ‘famous’ (to weirdos, anyway) essay, “On Fairy Stories,” and now working my way through The Silmarillion – all while working on my own creative projects – has given me an improved intuitive understanding of his whole concept of sub-creation. I don’t want to get distracted by the shiny widgets of a Google search for the choicest Tolkien quotes from that essay, so I will leave that part of the quest to the reader.
Without putting words into his mouth, I think he believed there was only one ultimate “Creator” – whether we call it ‘God’ or ‘Iluvatar.’ I’ll call him Iluvatar, cause that speaks to me more (more, I should say than terminology linked to so-called “religious orders” putting one another into sexual slavery – but that’s just me//sorry got off-track here). And then like… the sub-creator is… I don’t really know really – one who undertakes the creative process? That sounds approximately right. That in and of itself, without resorting to esoteric considerations related to a supposed mystical ‘godhead’ is good enough, I think – hard enough as its own nuts and bolts thing. Whether that’s expressed in the Silmarillion as, uh, that smith Valar (Aiwe? it’s so hard to remember their names or where to put the umlauts [or how to type those ascii characters, for that matter]- but I love that) sub-creatively making the dwarves, or the writer who tries to put thoughts and feelings and impressions into a fixed narrative form, I think Tolkien might say that the “true” version of Creation-with-a-capital-C… like which comes from, and transmits, and inspires in the hearer “Truth” with-a-capital-T… that this type of creative act can only exist insofar as it ‘truthfully’ partakes of that original capital-T-Truth, and lives and has life in that same being. This partaking maybe then is the sub-creative act.
It’s been a few days since I read it, and I haven’t passed my Basic Loremaster Certification Exam [tm] yet, but IIRC, when Iluvatar finds out that Aiwe (?) (or whomever) made the dwarves, eventually he decides that it’s fine because it all comes from him in the first place, and nothing can happen that hasn’t first been envisioned by him in the song. Something like that. It’s better as a memory than as a Google search. I think he just doesn’t want to be upstaged, because the dwarves were gonna be ready earlier than he himself had expected.
So that’s my rambling take on what I think he meant. And there’s something around when people use the word “derivative” to describe creative works. The term is generally used pejoratively. Like your work shouldn’t communicate with anything outside itself, shouldn’t participate in other shards of the Truth existing outside and above itself. It’s a point of view which seems pretty counter to my take on Tolkien’s ideas about sub-creation. I think he was a kind of copyist, and probably would himself have admitted that – maybe something in the way of a worker in some Universal Scriptorium of Tales. I read the Volsung Saga. I saw the shadows of Gandalf in Odin. When your eyes know what to look for, it becomes possible to see it everywhere in other related, older works.
I’ve come to think of it in another way, almost like channeling. There is a Source. (You can call it Illuvator, or Consciousness, or the Ground of Being, or whatever.) And there is a Signal. The Signal is being transmitted omni-directionally from the Source. You can tune into it, make yourself into varying degrees of receiver. And you can try to re-transmit it, and pass it on, live in its same essence (Tolkien, in that essay I think says something about the ‘soup of stories’?). This is sub-creation, and it’s necessarily derivative. The truth of the channel can be told by the fidelity of its re-transmitted signal from source. Signals of two or more channels re-transmitting from same ultimate source are always going to resemble each other. And this is part of the beauty and the worth of folk-tale and myth, and humbling yourself before it.
But I was high when I wrote this, so… you never know.
–San Rafael ’71 Purple Chitral