Complacency and Sub-Creation

I had the privilege this past Thursday to participate in a Grey Havens Group meeting for the first time. We met to discuss the eleventh chapter of The Silmarillion, “Of the Sun and Moon and the Hiding of Valinor,” in light of its earlier form found in The Book of Lost Tales. As it was my first time, I was asked to read the group out to end the night. I chose a passage which had struck a chord reading the Tale of the Sun and Moon the second time over.

In the Tale, Vána and Lórien lavish the stores of light-dew remaining on the two trees, in hopes that this primordial fire may awaken them to renewed life. The earth drinks hungrily of this divine light to no avail, consuming it. If not stopped, the entire store of the Valar, Maiar and Eldar may have been thus discarded.

Finally, dispirited, Vána and Lórien seek the aid of the “Earth-lady,” Yavanna. Yavanna, hearing their wish, dissolves into tears proclaiming:

“’Tis of the fate of the Music of the Ainur. Such marvels as those Trees of gold and silver may even the Gods make but once, and that in the youth of the world; nor may all my spells avail to do what ye now ask.’” (TBoLT, part I, 201)

She further foretells the Trees shall not be relit until the Gods grow old and the Elves fade. Many are dismayed to hear her say such things of portent and protest. Yet Yavanna resists, realizing in the death of the Trees that they have denied light and aid to the rest of Eä and forgotten the coming of Men.

There are two distinct things being described here. One is complacency. The other is a desire to hold things unchanged, to bring forth only the same blessing.

Up until the rape of the Trees by Ungoliant and Melkor, the Valar lived in ages of peace and joy in Valinor. They felt secure, satisfied in the light of the two Trees and the wonder of the first Children of Ilúvatar. They had forgotten the outside world, the darkness of Middle Earth, and to prepare for the coming of the Second Children.

They were comfortable. In comfort, however, lies stagnation. It reminds me of a great quote by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI: “The world offers you comfort, you were not made for comfort, but for greatness.” How true this is! How we long for the easy way, the straight path, but we are called to leave that comfort zone in order to help others. From a Catholic perspective, we must remember that earth is not our home, it is a stop-over on our way to the eternal home. Discomfort in the service of virtue should not phase us, but increase expectation and joy at the life to come. This mindset is exceedingly difficult to accept and maintain, as is demonstrated here by the realization of the divine guardians of Eä.

The second point speaks to my creative nature. Adolf Loos, an architect and theorist at the turn of the twentieth century, saw in photography and replication the death of art. Art has an aura, which is dependent upon its setting and original purpose. Take a piece and move it, replicate a three dimensional experience in two dimensions and it can never be the same, the aura is lost.

So much of art and style is applied, with limited knowledge of the original meaning and purpose behind forms and ornament. There is a desire for the glories of the past, but the heart is gone, it is nothing more than image, it become hollow. One has only to look at the various architectural revivals to find endless examples of the barren and vain quality of these imitations. There have been efforts to relearn the process, philosophy and function of the components, but often these efforts have been overshadowed by the over-arching ‘style craze.’

The important thing to realize, though, is that works of the past may never be recreated. They had their time and place. The reproduction is either a cheap copy, which has lost its heart, or, having built upon a true knowledge of the inspiring forces in the original, is not a reproduction at all but a new creation with new meaning, memorializing the past, yet not being the past.

Tolkien expresses this theme beautifully in the Tale. The efforts of the Valar and Maiar to revive the Trees fail, and even when they finally yield fruit, the result is nothing like the expected or the Trees before.

“…to such vast heights did the Sunship climb, and climbing blazed ever hotter and brighter, that ere long its glory was wider than ever the Gods conceived of when that vessel was still harboured in their midst.” (TBoLT, part I, 211)

They set out with pure intention to bring light back into the world and, this time, share it with the wider world. The result was beyond their imagining. Greatness comes not out of comfort and complacency, the known, the tried and true, but venturing into the unknown. Yet the new can be very uncomfortable, even jarring. The Valar and maiar soon grumble, some even calling for the return of the Sunship and the end of this grand new scheme, for

“…in their hearts [they know]  that they had done a greater thing than they at first knew, and never again would Valinor see such ages as had passed…” (TBoLT, part I, 212)

It almost becomes a ‘Leaf by Niggle’ moment. The Valar have created something new, striving to recreate the lights of the past. They spend so much time concerned with the ‘tree and leaf’ that they are unable to see the ‘vast country’ they’ve envisioned beyond.

In this moment, as in ‘Leaf by Niggle’, is crystalized that moment when the creator looks on the created and realizes it doesn’t quite match their original vision. In art, you learn about hand-eye coordination. This does not just apply to actual sight, but the sight of imagination as well. Sometimes it’s near impossible to mesh the physical with the imagined. The initial impulse (at least for me, and apparently both the Valar and Niggle…and by extension Tolkien) is to reject the creation as an imperfect reflection. But that is because we are looking at it the wrong way. We have forgotten that we are not creators, but sub-creators, working in the shadow of the ultimate Creator, God. Something of God’s Truth enters into our subcreation bringing it to a life of its own. The sun and moon, as described in the Tale, perfectly express this concept.


2 thoughts on “Complacency and Sub-Creation

  1. This is a wonderful post and I am glad it was inspired by a GHG meeting. Have you read any of Erich Heller’s criticism? I don’t think it is much read now but I think he understood how, for the artist, subcreation involves the pain of imperfect realization. It is a necessary pain, though, caused by our own human nature, a consummation devoutly to be wished.

    • I have not, but based on your description it sounds like something I’d greatly enjoy…I will have to make time to read his work! Thanks for the suggestion!

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