Sub-Creators Should Be Strange: Tolkien’s Principles of Fantasy #3


Tolkien once attended a New Year’s party dressed as a polar bear. He was not the only ursine guest to crash the event; his friend C.S. Lewis showed up in matching attire. One can imagine a conversation that might have taken place on this occasion between two normally-clad, normally-behaved, normal-minded guests:

“Who are those buffoons?”

“Oh, the oddest fellows you’ve ever met. The one is a philologist (whatever that means) who spends all his time inventing pretend languages. He’s got at least three of them now! ‘The elves’ speak them, apparently…”

“Now that you mention it, I’ve seen those two before… at the Eagle and Child with a group of friends. All drinking heavily and shouting over one another.”

“Yes, they get together and read fairytales, I believe. Grown men! It’s most absurd. I heard something the other day about ‘hobbits.’ Little creatures that smoke something called pipe-weed and have unusually hairy feet…”

“How odd!”

 “And the other has got his own imaginary world full of talking beavers!”

 “Odd indeed. Whatever will become of them, I wonder?”


From the minds of these odd men came two of the most beloved fantasy worlds in all of literature: Narnia and Middle Earth. Both worlds possess enchanting beauty. Both worlds dazzle in their likeness and unlikeness to our own. And both worlds are quirky, full of oddities that reflect their makers.

The quirks of Tolkien’s and Lewis’s worlds were partly what made them difficult for each other to accept. Tolkien admits of Lewis, “To tell the truth he never really liked hobbits very much, least of all Merry and Pippin” (Letters, “To Charlotte and Denis Plimmer,” 1967). For his part, Tolkien was appalled that Lewis put in the same setting fauns, dwarves, dryads, and Father Christmas. But for fans of Narnia or Middle Earth (or both), these quirky elements are a huge part of what captivates the imagination.

Why is this? Reflecting on my experience as a reader, I wonder if it’s because the oddities of an imaginary world give the reader the truest glimpse of the unique, flawed, funny, brilliant human creator behind it. In essence, they cause the reader to fall in love with the writer. And I would argue that this is one of the most powerful aspects of art, the reason robots can never completely take it over: art’s relation to the artist.

In Tolkien’s definitive essay “On Faerie Stories,” he refers to the fantasy writer as the “sub-creator” of a secondary world, analogous to the creator of our own world. While the term “world-building” has become a fairly ubiquitous replacement for the concept of “sub-creation”, what I love about Tolkien’s term is its emphasis on the person who creates.

This is his analogy: God created the world. God created humans ‘in his image’ (i.e. sharing some of his own attributes). God gave humans a creative power called imagination. Humans may use this imagination to perform an action similar to that which God performed in creating the world. Humans may become “sub-creators” of their own (imaginary) worlds.

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, God creates the world ex nihilo, from nothing. We could also say he creates it from himself; it reflects who he is. He creates light and darkness, massive proportions, microscopic details, a world full of mystery and music and wild beauty. He creates free, rational beings, making way for the possibility of love… and the choice not to love, the possibility of evil.


The Judeo-Christian God may seem reckless, creating such a vast universe and giving rational creatures so much power to love or hate, to care for or destroy his creation. But this is what was in him to create. If the Creator had popped out a tame little backyard-patio of a world, it would have been a kind of lie about himself—unless he tacked a sign to the picket fence explaining, “The Items Depicted in this Environment Do Not Represent the Views of their Creator.” Rather, creation reflects its creator.

In an analogous way, the human imagination can create a ‘secondary world’ which, though not real in a physical sense, possesses “the inner consistency of reality” (“On Faerie Stories”). This secondary world must have, above all, a coherence within itself, as well as enough similarity to the primary world to make it believable. But this doesn’t limit the possibilities of what the laws of this imaginary world might be. Its creator’s imagination is its sole limitation.

For example, one might create a world without gravity, or a world which tampers with gravity (as in the case of broomsticks and Quidditch and such). Even so, the sub-creator’s experiences of gravity inform this gravity-free world. The sub-creator “hopes that the peculiar quality of this secondary world (if not all the details) are derived from Reality, or are flowing into it” (ibid). The more common the human experience, the more powerfully the sub-creator’s treatment of it may resonate with readers.

At the same time, each sub-creator brings something unique to the table. No, not something unique. A hundred things unique. A thousand things unique. Everything which makes that human being different from all other human beings—every personal memory, every action, every word spoken, every preference formed, every person met—will come to play in the sub-creative act! The secondary world should reflect its creator just as the primary world does.

We know this as writers and as readers. We immediately sense the difference between a generic fantasy setting (even our own) and one derived from the complex, lovely quirkiness of an unmanageable imagination. It’s the difference between an author trying to be The Next X.R.R. Something and an author trying to be herself, trusting that she is enough.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t read other authors or allow other secondary worlds to shape our own. To the contrary, we should be properly terrified by the fact that a sub-creation can only contain whatever is in its creator, and we should constantly seek to broaden our own interior landscape.

But what makes us different from all other sub-creators?

Tolkien had a predilection for languages, trees, and mushrooms. Lewis seems to have hated secondary school, preferred comfortable clothing, and craved Turkish delight. Both appreciated polar bears enough to appear at a party thus attired.

Are you obsessed with skateboarding? Knitting? Brussel sprouts? Where are the Brussel sprouts in your secondary world? If they delight you enough, they will delight others. Please don’t leave them out because you’re afraid someone won’t like them. Someone probably won’t. But someone else might fall in love.

I’ll close with some lines Tolkien penned on the subject. He wasn’t afraid to put his thoughts into verse (though he knew it might cause some readers to skip them) because this is part of what makes him unique. He included this poem, written to someone who told him fairytales were lies, in his essay “On Faerie Stories”:

“Dear Sir,” I said—Although now long estranged,
Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
Dis-graced he may be, yet is not de-throned,
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned:
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
(used or misused). That right has not decayed:
we make still by the law in which we're made.”

This is the third in a series of posts on the principles of fantasy articulated in J.R.R. Tolkien’s essay “On Faerie Stories”. In the first post, we discussed Tolkien’s concept of ‘Escapism’ in fantasy. In the second, we discussed the word ‘Eucatastrophe,’ which he coined.