“Probably every writer making a secondary world, every sub-creator, wishes in some measure to be a real maker, or hopes that he is drawing on reality . . . The peculiar quality of the ‘joy’ in successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth.” –J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories”
J.R.R. Tolkien describes writers as sub-creators, explaining that good fantasy doesn’t twist fact into nonsense but draws on reality to create something new. The secondary worlds people create should be coherent and believable, wholly unique yet reflecting what is true. He took his job of sub-creation very seriously.
Tolkien creates Middle Earth with incredible detail. This secondary-world has its own legends, songs, and a creation myth, all of which give depth to the tales he tells. The reader is given a full landscape to explore.
Part of what makes Tolkien’s world so powerful is that the ” joy” which he describes as the trait of good fantasy is prevalent in every tale of Middle Earth. Truth traces its way through the pages, never drawing attention to itself, but silently playing out through the characters and unfolding events. The Silmarillion and the origins of Middle Earth especially display truth in the midst of Fantasy.
Moments of Truth in the Creation Myth of Middle Earth
1. The created cannot rise above the creator.
The creation myth of Middle Earth began with music. The Ainur, the Holy Ones, stood at the beginning with their creator Ilúvatar. Under his direction, they began to create the Great Music. Their song echoed through the void, with each of the Ainur singing in harmony; each of them except Melkor.
Melkor was great in power and knowledge but was also full of pride. He wanted his own part of the Great Music to have a place of glory above the rest. With this desire, he changed his theme according to his own thoughts, creating discord in the music. The chaos of the song grew when others attuned their music to his rather than the theme of Ilúvatar, and soon Melkor’s song was loud and overpowering. The cacophony shook the fabric of the universe as Ilúvatar rose against Melkor. Once, twice, and a third time, Ilúvatar stood to battle the discordant themes. When he finally overcame them, Ilúvatar cast all into silence.
At the end of this strife in the Great Music, Ilúvatar shows the Ainur a vision of the world that would be formed from their song. He tells them,
those things that ye have sung, I will show them forth, that ye may see what ye have done. And thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined (Silmarillion, pp. 6).
In this proclamation, we see an important truth: the creator has power over all that happens in his creation. Melkor may have thought he was acting in his own power when he rebelled. But Melkor’s power stems from Ilúvatar, and his song is rooted in the one who made him. Not only is Melkor incapable of altering Ilúvatar’s purposes, but his rebellious actions are declared an instrument in bringing about a greater end.
This idea that rebellion can’t hinder the plans of the Creator reminds us that God is in control. Even when Satan rebelled against Him, God’s will could not be overcome. In the end, every act of evil, every dark thought, every discordant note the devil plays will prove hallow. God will take all the pain and use it to bring about His wonderful plan.
2. No one can fully know the mind of God.
“The Ainur know much of what was, and is, and is to come, and few things are unseen by them. Yet some things there are that they cannot see, neither alone nor taking counsel together; for to none but himself has Ilúvatar revealed all that he has in store” (Silmarillion, pp. 6).
The fact that the Ainur don’t know the whole future adds a layer of depth and beauty to the story. There are mysteries even they can’t answer, such as when the Children of Ilúvatar would come. The nature of Men and what their fate is after death is a secret which none know, as we discover later on. And of course, the final purposes of Ilúvatar are shrouded in a veil, such that no one can fully say what is coming.
The limitations on the minds of the Ainur reflect the truth that God’s mind is beyond our comprehension. Not even the angels know fully His plans or His timing; we as people are even more unaware of how He works.
The mystery of Ilúvatar’s plans in Middle Earth also adds a sense of grandeur and awe to his character. Tolkien captures in the few simple scenes of his creator the same impression I get when I read Genesis: that the Creator is someone deserving of wonder and respect. The One who weaves all things together surely has power over all; surely His mind is beyond the understanding of all he creates. Though the book is not an allegory, reading The Silmarillion makes me appreciate anew the story of creation presented in Scripture, because it reminds me that even from the beginning, God knew His plan for eternity.
3. The scars in our history are not without purpose.
I already mentioned above how Ilúvatar declared Melkor’s chaos to be a tool for bringing about good. In the creation scene, we see that the flaw in the Great Music, which seemed so destructive, could not overcome the light.
On a lesser scale, Tolkien revisits this theme with the coming of the elves. As he describes the Eldar living with the Valar, Tolkien foreshadows much of the sorrow that would befall them. Finwë, the leader of the Noldor, remarries after the death of his wife. This upsets his son Fëanor and leads to conflict between Fëanor and his half-brothers. The narrator observes:
“If Finwë had endured his loss and been content with the fathering of his mighty son, the courses of Fëanor would have been otherwise, and great evil might have been prevented…But the children of Indis were great and glorious…and if they had not lived the history of the Eldar would have been diminished.” -(The Silmarillion, pp. 66)
We learn here that Finwë’s choice is the first step leading his son down a path of pain. Fëanor’s conflict with his brothers eventually causes division and a legacy of struggle for his sons. Even so, the narrator quickly states that his act was worth the pain, for if the sons of his second wife hadn’t been born, history would have been diminished.
Sometimes in life, we regret our choices. We regret the decisions that led to pain and suffering; we wish that things would have been different. Many times, though, when we look back at those events, we find that the pain led to something important. Those seasons of struggles brought us to people we love, or made us stronger, or brought us closer to God. Often the sorrow in our life is caused by painful events we wish had never occurred, and yet, our histories would have been diminished without them.
In short, Tolkien proves his defense of fantasy through his works.
Tolkien doesn’t present empty claims. When he describes fantasy as a secondary world we can enter to discover joy and real truth, he writes of a deeply held belief. The Silmarillion, The Lord of the Rings, and The Hobbit all prove that fairy-stories can reveal our world to us even as they allow us to escape.
Tolkien then leaves writers with a heavy charge. When we take on the task of creating worlds, we have the opportunity to present truth in a powerful way. What, then, is the message we allow to seep into our works?