By Josh Herring
As a young boy, I loved to read. I would spend hours at the library roaming the shelves, selecting a stack of books to read for the coming week. I became intimately familiar with Asimov, Tolkien, Lewis, Heinlein, Bruce Coville, Lloyd Alexander, and dozens of others who fit somewhere within the sci-fi/fantasy genre. I eventually migrated upstairs from the children’s section to the adult fiction wing of the library, and discovered dozens of new authors who shaped my reading tastes. Though my mother was excited I loved to read, she despaired at getting me to read serious material. “Twaddle” was her word for the kinds of reading I enjoyed. She had little love for Oz, Fantastica, Asgard, or Professor Xavier’s Home; fictional reading was good as long as it was something worthwhile. None of the stories I loved fit the bill.
Over the years, I have come to appreciate the love my mother instilled in me for reading, thinking, and debating. When she challenged my reading choices, it always made me pause and seek to justify why this was “a good book!” In hindsight, many of the books I read were terrible: the prose was inane, the plots simple, the characters flat. And yet, they peopled my childhood with excitement, stories, and worlds beyond measure. My mother and I still disagree on the value of many fantasy authors; catching her reading the latest Dresden Files book might be a sign of the Apocalypse. Some years ago, I ran across a poem in which J. R. R. articulates a great defense for all forms of literature both high and low.
Mythopoeia encapsulates Tolkien’s doctrine of sub-creation which he works out in longer form in his essay, “On Fairy Stories.” Tolkien wrote this poem after an all-night argument with C. S. Lewis in which Lewis claimed myths were worthless, because they were lies “even if breathed through silver.” Challenged by his friend, Tolkien wrote his defense in rhyme and meter.
The poem centers around two worldviews—one materialistic and scientific, the other transcendent and Platonic. Borrowing heavily from Plato’s theory of forms, Tolkien argues that
He sees no stars who does not see them first
of living silver made that sudden burst
to flame like flowers beneath an ancient song,
whose very echo after-music long
has since pursued. There is no firmament,
only a void, unless a jewelled tent
myth-woven and elf-patterned; and no earth,
unless the mother’s womb whence all have birth.
Without the form existing in the transcendent realm, Tolkien argues, no man could form an idea. He continues in his defense of myth, arguing that their creation is directly connected to the bearing of the imago dei.
Though now long estranged,
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,
Man, Sub-creator, the refracted light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.
Tolkien argues in these lines that man, though fallen, stills bears signs of being made in the image of God. His lordship is demonstrated in the “creative act.” The implications of Tolkien’s idea are huge—far from literary work being unimportant, worthless in comparison to some other work, it demonstrates the hand of God within mankind.
Tolkien unpacks the details of his theology in “On Fairy Stories.” In essence, he contends that since God is a creator, whenever man creates something he images his Creator. Tolkien then ranks works on how well they either correspond with reality, or how convincingly they connect the reader to the “inner consistency of reality” in the secondary world.
Authors are a special kind of artist in Tolkien’s theory. They use the same medium as God (words) to create a lesser version of primary reality. Whether they realize it or not, authors we love tap into some aspect of the “single White” which is the “refracted light. . . splintered. . . to many hues. . . endlessly combined in living shapes that move from mind to mind.” When I enjoy the worlds of Brandon Sanderson, Orson Scott Card, Robert Jordan, or George R. R. Martin, I do so because they are imaging the creative work of God through their writing.
Year later, I still disagree with my mother over books. What we can come to agree on, however, is that all men are made in God’s image. When we work “as unto the Lord,” we demonstrate his handiwork within us. In world-building, authors (both Christian and non), exercise the creative faculties which cause us to remember that our world too is a secondary creation, one which will one day be joined with Primary Reality when the Lord returns and establishes the New Heavens and New Earth.
Image: “Tolkein in Athens” by T. Rich and L. Katon. CC License.