Art and J. R. R. Tolkien
I'll start off by saying that I'm no Tolkien expert. Letters, poems, and short biographies of him, that's about what it comes down to for me. So while I'm ill-equipped to discuss Tolkien's works, I am somewhat less ill-equipped to discuss Tolkien himself.
J. R. R. Tolkien was an interesting little chap, and not just because he was inventing languages while he was still in grade school or because he once told off a pack of Nazis. Like all the great writers, Tolkien's view of the world was unapologetically his own — when you read anything by or about him, you get the feeling of having been transported to another planet and getting to see that planet through the eyes of a native. One thing about Tolkien that used to seem especially alien to me was his love of — nay, his obsession with — mythology. Of course, I knew that as a fantasy author, Tolkien was constantly making up his own myths, but when I began to read more about him, it seemed that practically his whole life — even outside of his writing — was spent reading, studying, collecting, and discussing myths. I suppose part of the reason why I kept studying Tolkien was because I wanted to know, why was myth so important to him?
As it turns out, the man himself explained that to me, and I think it's best to let him explain it to you too. From his poem “Mythopoeia”:
The heart of man is not compound of lies,
But draws some wisdom from the only Wise,
And still recalls him. Though now long estranged,
Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
Disgraced he may be, yet is not dethroned,
And keeps the rags of lordship once he owned,
His world-dominion by creative act:
Not his to worship the great Artefact,
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.
And there it is. For Tolkien, myths, legends, and all other creative acts were not just entertainment or amusement: they carried spiritual significance. Because God is the Creator, the act of “sub-creating,” as Tolkien called it, is one of the ways in which God's image in us is manifested. The making of myths, stories, etc. can also bring God's truth to the world in unexpected ways since general revelation allows the artist to “[draw] some wisdom from the only Wise.” If all of this is so, I realized, then myth and all other forms of art have a spiritual dimension to them, one which Tolkien obviously took very seriously.
All of this was news to me. Growing up, I always had the idea that “spiritual” things included only going to church, praying, reading the Bible, etc. Meanwhile, things like reading poems and stories — especially when those stories were pagan myths — were not spiritual. I can't say for certain where I got this idea; likely, it was my version of Screwtape making these insinuations to me. Tolkien shattered that lie for me, showing that even some secular or “non-religious” art can potentially point us toward the Divine. He embraced mythology and storytelling, realizing that these too are under God's dominion and can/will be used both to bring God glory and to make mankind understand Him more fully. Hannah Long (who is the real Tolkien expert, by the way) said once that to her, art represents “a new way for Man and God to communicate face-to-face.” I imagine Tolkien would have shared her sentiments.
Knowing all this, I think, gives a whole new perspective not just on Tolkien's life, his works, or the stories that inspired them, but also on the world of art in general. Now, art is not just a frivolous add-on: it can be a gateway to truth and a way for the image of God to shine through. It can become yet another way for us to learn of our Lord. And all this time, I thought it was foolishness in the face of eternity. Thank God Professor Tolkien knew better.