A Subcreator's Dreams

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A Subcreator's Dreams

Before him stood the Tree, his Tree, finished. If you could say that of a Tree that was alive, its leaves opening, its branches growing and bending in the wind that Niggle had so often felt or guessed, and had so often failed to catch. He gazed at the Tree, and slowly he lifted his arms and opened them wide.

'It's a gift!' he said.
-- from "Leaf by Niggle"

Except, possibly, for all the notes on the process of his subcreation that he left behind, the closest thing to an autobiography that JRRT ever wrote was the story "Leaf by Niggle". I think it's this feeling that he's telling the story of his own life that keeps it from being the overly-obvious allegory it could have become in other hands; as he said in a letter to his publisher, "...the only perfectly consistent allegory is a real life".

Unlike most of his work, which took a long time to develop, he said that he woke one morning with "Leaf by Niggle" in his mind and wrote it all down immediately in almost its final form.  The story is about a painter rather than a writer, but what it says about disappointment and hope would ring true for any subcreator. And, as Tolkien assures us in "Mythopoeia", we are all subcreators, or at least have the power and the right to be, since we are made in the image of a Creator. What each of us creates with our own life might not be as obviously "creative" as a painting or a mythological cosmos, but it's all woven into the Creator's Song.

The bit I've quoted from "Leaf by Niggle" at the top of this page isn't the end of the story, although I think it might be considered the climax. It's the moment - after his death - that Niggle sees the reality of the tree he has spent his life trying to paint. Besides referring to the subcreator's inherent disappointment of never being able to quite capture the reality that exists, the moment also shows the paradox of a subcreation: that its creator yearns for it to be complete, but if it is to live and grow it can never really be finished.

Besides "Leaf by Niggle," there are parts of Tolkien's mythology itself that show the longings in the heart of every subcreator. The most powerful is the Song of the Ainur, in which those angelic beings sing the created world into secondary existence, to have it receive primary creation through the gift of Ilúvatar. Some of the Ainur love "their" creation so much that Ilúvatar allows them to physically enter it, and they become the Valar. So many of Tolkien's readers wish they could actually step into his subcreation that I can't imagine he didn't have that desire himself - a desire he allows the Valar to fulfill.

Somewhat more subtle is the story of the creation of the Dwarves. Aulé, one of the Valar, is so caught up in the wonder and joy of the creation of Arda that he creates his own "children" in the Dwarves. But because his powers of creation are only derivative he can't create them as full, independent individuals with their own wills, and they can be only automatons. He understands that he has tried to claim a power that isn't his, and is full of remorse. Ilúvatar forgives him and touches the Dwarves with His own creative power, making them complete and independent and adopting them as His children.

We can contrast this with Morgoth's efforts of creation. He creates "beings" - dragons, balrogs, [possibly] orcs, but they can never be complete and independent from him. Although his pride kept him from repenting, and he would not have accepted Ilúvatar's gift of independent wills for his creatures, he tries to gain the power of primary creation for himself by attempting to find the Secret Fire. This is something he can't do, and will never be able to do because, as Tolkien says, the Secret Fire "is with Ilúvatar." Separated from Him it does not exist.

Each of these tales shows a creative act that is more than the subcreator(s) alone could have made it.  At first I'd worded the previous sentence "...that becomes more than the subcreator(s) alone could have made it," but although that would describe the Song of the Ainur and the creation of the Dwarves, Niggle's story is more ambiguous about what came first: the real tree, or Niggle's painting. By the end of "Leaf by Niggle" we  realize that this is an irrelevant - and probably unanswerable - question; another paradox of subcreation is that a subcreator does, in reality, create something, but a true secondary creation is really a partial revelation of the primary creation that already exists. However, it's not ambiguous at all that the reality of the tree continues even after Niggle's painting no longer physically exists. If the one tiny fragment of it that survives (the "leaf" of the story's title) is meant to represent all of Tolkien's subcreation that has survived him, then the reality of what he felt, but failed to catch, must be of unimaginable wonder.

All of these tales are very specifically about subcreation, or secondary creation. The Song of the Ainur would not have brought Arda into existence in the primary creation if Ilúvatar hadn't given it that power. Aulé couldn't give true life to his Dwarves without that same divine power intervening in order to make them independent of their creator. And Niggle didn't create the primary reality of his tree that he sees after his death. But, all three stories tell us, if we're open to that divine power it does take the work of our lives - whatever that work is - and touch it with the Secret Fire that is only with Ilúvatar, which gives it a life of its own that's no longer dependent on us. Which I think is the hallmark of a true subcreation.

[For more of my ramblings on subcreation, see the essay series "Is Middle-earth Real" in the site archives.]

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The background on this page is made from a photo of the trees just across the street from the Eagle and Child in Oxford.

Copyright 2007 by Trudy G. Shaw
Permission to republish this essay elsewhere on the web is granted, provided this copyright notice and an active link to this site are included.


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