Coleridge’s Imagination through the lens of J. R. R. Tolkien

fairystories6As a writer of fantasy, J. R. R. Tolkien hardly needs an introduction. Even before the success of the film adaptations of his work turned Tolkien into a household name, he had won first the hearts of children with The Hobbit in 1937 and, some twenty years later, the hearts and minds of adult readers with The Lord of the Rings. But, like Coleridge and MacDonald before him, Tolkien thought deeply about his craft as a writer and creator, and it is by largely virtue of this thought that his art has achieved such timeless success. His 1939 lecture “On Fairy-Stories,” subsequently published as an essay in the 1964 book Tree and Leaf, is, as the editors of the recent authoritative edition of the essay put it, “Tolkien’s defining study of and the centre-point in his thinking about the genre (of fantasy), as well as being the theoretical basis for his fiction” (Flinger and Anderson 9). In this seminal work, he addresses all the points about the imagination raised by Coleridge and, following the Victorian writer George MacDonald, defends their application in the literary arts.

At first glance it would appear that Tolkien dispenses altogether with Coleridge’s whole tripartite scheme of primary imagination, secondary imagination, and fancy. Indeed, he takes issue with the desynonymization of imagination and fancy, though he does not single out Coleridge directly. A philologist of the highest order and sometime editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, Tolkien may be displaying false modesty when he he ventures that “ridiculous though it may be for one so ill-instructed to have an opinion on this critical matter, I venture to think the verbal distinction philologically inappropriate, and the analysis inaccurate” (OFS 59).While I myself still haven’t studied this subject sufficiently to judge whether Tolkien is right or not here, I would have to agree with him on the simple grounds that the distinction seems semantically arbitrary.

Tolkien’s own proposal is, by his own admission, just as arbitrary.

The mental power of image-making is one thing, or aspect; and it should appropriately be called Imagination. . . The achievement of the expression, which gives (or seems to give) the inner consistency of reality, is indeed another thing, or aspect, needing another name: Art, the operative link between Imagination and the final result, Sub-creation. For my present purpose I require a word which shall embrace both the Sub-creative Art in itself and a quality of strangeness and wonder in the Expression. . . I propose, therefore, to arrogate to myself the powers of Humpty-Dumpty, and to use Fantasy for this purpose. (OFS 59-60)

The advantage to this approach as both a theoretical model and a critical framework is that it separates out and clearly labels the writer’s mind (Imagination), the creative process (Art), and the finished product (Sub-creation). Fantasy is the end result.

Although Tolkien’s theory dispenses with Coleridge’s distinction between imagination and fancy, however, it preserves and even strengthens Coleridge’s assertions regarding the qualitative similarities between primary and secondary imagination. This isn’t immediately obvious, though the term “Sub-creation” gives us a telling hint. But to fully understand Tolkien’s debt to Coleridge, we must travel back to 1931, eight years before Tolkien delivered his lecture “On Fairy-Stories.” In that year, following a late-night conversation with his friend C. S. Lewis in which he defended the truths of Pagan myth even in a Christian world, he crystalized his thoughts into a poem called “Mythopoeia.” He quotes several lines from the poem in his lecture, and they are worth quoting here as well, for they cut to the heart of the distinction between primary and secondary imagination.

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.
Though all the crannies of the world we filled
with Elves and Goblins, though we dared to build
Gods and their houses out of dark and light,
and sowed the seed of dragons, ’twas our right
(“Mythopoeia” 61-8)

The metaphor of light that Tolkien employs here and elsewhere for the imaginative process is more vivid than Coleridge’s original distinction, but it nonetheless conveys exactly the same sense. In fact, the verbs Coleridge uses to describe the process of the secondary imagination—dissolves, diffuses, dissipates—suggest he was thinking along the same metaphorical lines. But Tolkien, usually so careful to avoid overt religious reference, here actually makes the religious and spiritual implications of the imagination more explicit than Coleridge’s “infinite I AM.” While, as we saw, George MacDonald is uncomfortable with ascribing to man the power of creation, Tolkien actually revels in man’s creative power. As in Coleridge, man’s creative power differs from that of God only in degree, hence the word “sub-creator.”

Tolkien’s vision of man as sub-creator leads him to openly challenge Coleridge’s willing suspension of disbelief. Like MacDonald, he argues that a secondary world, or sub-creation, must be governed by a certain consistency if it is to hold an audience’s attention. To him, “this suspension of disbelief is a substitute for the genuine thing, a subterfuge we use when condescending to games or make-believe, or when trying (more or less willingly) to find what virtue we can in the work of an art that has for us failed” (OFS 52). The true aim of fantasy, for Tolkien, is to draw the audience into a state of “Secondary Belief” similar to the sustained participative imagination argued for by MacDonald. The real change from Coleridge, and even MacDonald, here is that it places the burden of proof, so to speak, on the artist rather than the audience. When confronted with a good work of fantasy, the audience should not have to voluntarily suspend disbelief. Rather, “the story-maker proves a successful ‘subcreator’. He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is ‘true’: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside” (OFS 52). I can’t help but think that Coleridge would have admired the symmetry of this idea of primary and secondary belief with his own idea of primary and secondary imagination, and would have conceded the point to Tolkien.

This discussion of disbelief initially arises in the context of children. He is in agreement with Coleridge, who in his 1797 letter to Thomas Poole touts the educational value of fairy-stories:

Should children be permitted to read Romances, & Relations of Giants & Magicians, & Genii)-I know all that has been said against it; but I have formed my faith in the affirmative.-I know no other way of giving the mind a love of “the Great,” & “the Whole.”-Those who have been led to the same truths step by step thro’ the constant testimony of their senses, seem to me to want a sense which I possess-They contemplate nothing but parts-and all parts are necessarily little-and the Universe to them is but a mass of little things. (Coleridge 623)

While tepidly approving of fairy tales written specifically for children, he urges that “it may be better for them to read some things, especially fairy-stories, that are beyond their measure rather than short of it. Their books like their clothes should allow for growth, and their books at any rate should encourage it.” But Tolkien is adamant that fantasy or fairy stories (he uses the terms more or less interchangeably) should be read by everyone. “If fairy-story as a kind is worth reading at all it is worthy to be written for and read by adults,” he says, for “they will, of course, put more in and get more out than children can.” (OFS 58).

Tolkien delivered this lecture about two years after publishing The Hobbit, and just as he was beginning to work in earnest on The Lord of the Rings. While the former book is clearly a book for children, the latter effort “grew in the telling,” as he notes in the foreword to the second edition. Fortunately for the reading world, he practiced what he preached. But he did not build this world on sand. Tolkien scholars point to the medieval sources for Tolkien’s world, and rightly so, for these are indeed his secondary world’s bones and sinews. But its life-blood is, I would argue, the imaginative laws, inaugurated by Coleridge and expanded by MacDonald,1 that both create and sustain it. He took his own advice to heart and created a secondary world, Middle Earth, that has captivated and captured the imagination of millions of readers, drawing them into a state of secondary belief that, in some cases, lasts long past the reading of the books. I am one of those cases. I am also immensely grateful that my father, like Tolkien, read me books as a child that allowed for growth. He read me The Lord of the Rings at around age six, and I have not yet stopped growing into it.

Works Cited

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Coleridge’s Poetry and Prose. Eds. Nicholas Halmi, Paul Magnuson, and Raimonda Modiano. New York: W. W. Norton, 2003. Print.

Tolkien, J. R. R. “Mythopoeia.” 1931. Web.

—. Tolkien on Fairy-Stories. Eds. Verlyn Flieger and Douglas A. Anderson. London: HarperCollins, 2014. Print.