Tolkien shares his understanding of the imagination in On Fairy Stories, where he defines it as “the mental power of image-making” (47). He sternly yet with gentleness reproves those who would conflate the term with “the power of giving to ideal creations the inner consistency of reality.” This is, no doubt, a reproof of the Romantic movement’s enthusiasm for the imagination and defense of the attacks the faculty had endured at the hands of Enlightenment thinkers. We can see this Romantic sensibility in, for example, Emerson in Poetry and Imagination:
“For the value of a trope is that the hearer is one: and indeed Nature itself is a vast trope, and all particular natures are tropes. As the bird alights on the bough, then plunges into the air again, so the thoughts of God pause but for a moment in any form. All thinking is analogizing, and it is the use of life to learn metonymy. The endless passing of one element into new forms, the incessant metamorphosis, explains the rank which the imagination holds in our catalogue of mental powers. The imagination is the reader of these forms.”
Tolkien certainly would not object to the idea that the imagination is key in reading what medieval writers referred to as “the book of the world,” but I think his critique here is akin to Boethius’s ordering of the mental faculties: the imagination extracts patterns from the senses, and then reason fits those patterns to judgments. The great effort of continually matching sensory experiences, imaginative perception and rational assessment constitutes a Vision of a given subject matter – the experience of “an inner consistency of reality.” This process is as necessary to undergo in order to understand economics and gravity in the real world as it is the relationship between dragons and knights in fantasy literature, but it is in the realm of Fantasy that we in particular learn to develop and hone our skills of image-making – the craft of imagination, as I like to call it.
This means, I think, that Tolkien is critiquing, but not rejecting, the Romantic insight that imagination is more than just a stepping stone in the process of making meaning in the world (the goal to which fantasy is an indispensable adjunct). But it is the sustained application of Reason to imaginative creations which results in the sub-creation, and that process is where the Artistry lies, not merely in one’s ability to think up a dragon. This, I think, is where so much fantasy falls short – it gluts the reader on imaginative productions, but to little end or to bad ends altogether. The imagination is a perilous realm, let us not forget, and to think it is unequivocally good would be to treat it as wholly unlike anything else we experience (and if we are vigilant, unlike the imagination as we have experienced it in our lives). There’s a deficient account of perversity, as Poe would call it, in the Emersonian view, and that I think is what Tolkien’s regard for craft ameliorates in his vision of the imagination.
Chapter 2 of the Silmarillion, “Of Aule and Yavanna” presents, I believe, this critique in narrative form. Aule creates Dwarves in an act of genuine imagination, and yet something is off given his desire to keep the act secret: “But fearing that the other Valar might blame his work, he wrought in secret” (43). Reminiscent of Adam and Eve hiding after eating the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, Aule attempts to defend himself when Iluvatar confronts him for the improper deed: “And in my impatience I have fallen into folly. Yet the making of things is in my heart from my own making by thee.” He calls himself a “child of little understanding” although he intended “no mockery” of his father – he realizes that he had acted upon his imagination with no regard for the greater artistic vision of the reality for which he was in part to steward responsibly. In grief, Aule moves to destroy the Dwarves and Iluvatar stops him from so doing, merely requiring that the Dwarves be sent into a profound slumber until after Iluvatar’s children have awoken. The dignity of Aule’s imaginative homage to his father’s creative power (the father here being of course God, but also as such the voice of his duty to his community beyond his own imaginative pleasures) is made all the more pleasurable by his earnest repentance and the wonder of his work, which has already taken on a life of its own. (There is a whiff of Abraham and Isaac here, too, which I’m sure the Tolkien scholars have remarked upon.)
We see here the theme clearly: imagination is a productive, powerful, and beautiful force, but its creative powers must be employed with a reasoned duty to the larger concerns of propriety. Creating new living beings who (as the ensuing drama with Yavanna underscores, even after Iluvatar’s blessing) will have an impact on their environment, as well as now have the burden of existence foisted upon them, is no small decision, and the manner in which our imaginative flights of fancy might take on form in the world is likewise worth its own consideration. Careless making, or for that matter careless unmaking, in our personal fantasies may have unimaginable consequences beyond what we can immediately conceive.
Yavanna, aware that Aule’s work is not unlike Melkor’s in some ways and that it has impact on the environment about which she cares so deeply, thus goes to Manwe for permission to create guardians of the trees. Manwe is skeptical of the notion of these beings; “Yet it was in the song,” she tells him, “ For while thou wert in the heavens and with Ulmo built the clouds and poured out the rains, I lifted up the branches of great trees to receive them, and some sang to Iluvatar amid the wind and the rain.” Yavanna’s act of imagination, recourse to the great shared Vision of the Song of the Ainur, is circumscribed by consideration of her community, the authority of Manwe and the needs of the flora but also of her own internally cultivated wisdom. She is the Tolkienesque poet who speaks for the trees and their shepherds, but does not, unlike Aule, become tunnel-visioned by the enchantment of her own imagination. Her imagination follows the craft of art, a reasoned meditation on the vision provided by Iluvatar’s book of the world.
Manwe, inspired by her request, then has his own memory of the Song which leads to his conception of the Eagles, and here we see Tolkien conceding to the transcendentalist notion of the Romantic reverie: “Then Manwe sat silent, and the thought of Yavanna that she had put into his heart grew and unfolded… Then it seemed to Manwe that the Song rose once more about him, and he heeded now many things therein that though he had heard them he had not heeded before.” This, after all, is the mark of the great Songs – the music that we listen to again and again discovers to us new visions we had not guessed even when we judged it beautiful. This genesis of Eagles, Ents, and Dwarves is the philosophical and community-revivifying vision through which Tolkien emphasizes his narrative critique and recalibration of the Romantic imagination. Reasoned art lifts imagination out of the threat of narcissistic image-making, shepherding us into communion with unheeded glimpses of significance in the artistry of Being, forging us through the hammer of symbol and anvil of life to become children of the Song.
“Did not thy thought and mine meet also, so that we took wing together like great birds that soar above the clouds?”