We support our Publishers and Content Creators. You can view this story on their website by CLICKING HERE.

What does Tolkien mean by insinuating that centaurs and dragons are more “alive” than cars? Well, he is referring to the fact that centaurs and dragons are animate creatures, albeit animated only by the imagination. He seems also to be saying that subcreation in the service of goodness, truth and beauty is better than subcreation for purposes of utility or power. Put simply, art is better than technology and has a greater power to reflect “real life.”

There’s a certain type of literalist who is only concerned with the facts and nothing but the facts. He only reads non-fiction. All else is a waste of time and space. Fiction is by its nature untrue and poetry is merely pie-in-the-sky. He insists that only “real-life” facts engage with reality. It goes without saying that he would not waste his precious time on the “fantasy” fiction of J. R. R. Tolkien. This being so, it is intriguing to know how Tolkien might have responded to literalism and “realism” of this sort. Fortunately, he gives us the answer in his famous lecture and essay “On Fairy Stories” in which he responds to one of his students who welcomed the “proximity of mass-production robot factories” to the dreaming spires of Oxford because it brought the hallowed halls of the university into “contact with real life”.

Tolkien considered the use of “real life” in the context in which the student used it to be failing in logic and falling short of academic standards:

The notion that motor-cars are more “alive” than, say, centaurs or dragons is curious; that they are more “real” than, say, horses is pathetically absurd. How real, how startlingly alive is a factory chimney compared with an elm tree: poor obsolete thing, insubstantial dream of an escapist!

The “realistic” literalist might be baffled by Tolkien’s reasoning. Cars are real, he might counter, whereas centaurs and dragons are figments of the imagination, mere fantasies. As for horses, it is a fact, he might add, that there are more cars than horses because cars have replaced the horses as a more efficient mode of transport. As for trees, the fact is that the trees have made way for the factories because the latter are more necessary for the “real life” needs of people. Who could argue with such “realism”?

It is difficult to argue with such reasoning if we see reality as being subject to technology, which is understood as the means by which man attains self-empowerment. This is not, however, how Tolkien sees it. As a lifelong practising Catholic, he would have commenced his reasoning with the most primal of foundational questions. Is there a God? If God exists, reality is subject to him. He would then, as a Catholic, have understood that man is made in God’s image in his ability to love and reason, and in his ability to create beautiful things. His reasoning was as follows: Since man is made in the image of God, and since we know that God is the Creator, man’s own creativity must be a gift of God reflecting God’s “imageness” in us. Since, however, only God can create in the absolute sense by making something from nothing, our creativity is only subcreation in the sense that we make things from other things that already exist. Such reasoning leads to what might be called a hierarchy of creative value. At the top is God, as Creator; then comes Creation, which is the direct fruit of God’s primal creativity; then comes subcreation, whereby man reflects the image of the Creator through the gift of creativity.

Let’s revisit Tolkien’s response to his student in the light of this understanding of the hierarchy of creative value. He is saying, of course, that a horse, as a living work of Creation, made by God directly, is more real, more alive, than a car which, as an inanimate work of subcreation made by man, is lower in the hierarchy of creative value. Yet he is saying even more than that. The car, as a product of “mass-produced robot factories”, is actually a machine made by a machine. Any claim that this reflects “real life” in the sense of being more real or more alive than a horse or, within the literal context of the student’s reasoning, more real and alive than the great conversation about the meaning and purpose of life taking place at Oxford University, is patently absurd. It is the sacrifice of reality on the altar of artificiality or, to employ modern parlance, the sacrifice of reality on the altar of virtual reality.

But what does Tolkien mean by insinuating that centaurs and dragons are more “alive” than cars? Well, for one thing, he is referring to the fact that centaurs and dragons are animate creatures, albeit animated only by the imagination. They are not made of metal but of flesh and blood. Perhaps, however, Tolkien is saying something even more potent and important. He seems to be saying that there is even a hierarchy within the realm of subcreation. He appears to be implying that subcreation in the service of goodness, truth and beauty is better than subcreation for purposes of utility or power. Put simply, art is better than technology and has a greater power to reflect “real life”.

Elsewhere in his lecture on fairy stories, Tolkien speaks of the power of fictional stories to hold up a mirror to man. They can show us ourselves. They can show us who we are. They can show us who we should be. They can show us who we shouldn’t be. Cars cannot do this, nor can the robot factories in which the cars are produced. Let this be something for the literalist to ponder.

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now

The featured image is courtesy of Pixabay.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email