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SUBCREATION - WRITING
Secondary Belief is the term coined by JRRT in consequence
of his theories on sub-creation and Secondary Worlds. It is, however, also
in direct challenge to the widely influential conclusion by Coleridge that
the ideal reader-writer relationship is achieved by a "willing suspension
of disbelief". For this to succeed, the reader must first be positively
inclined (willing) and secondly he must decide not to apply the same expectations
of consistency, logic and accountability that he would outside the literary
world. However, in simply stifling disbelief, we are likely already to have
"stepped out" of the story. Tolkien therefore argues that suspension of
any kind is not desirable in reading because "the moment disbelief arises,
the spell is broken, and more specifically of fairy-stories, the "magic"
or rather, the art has failed. You are then outside in the Primary World
again, looking at the little abortive world."19 The distinction here is between the
conscious state of simply indulging the story, as it were, and the unconscious
effect of being genuinely transported by art.
The term which for Tolkien seems a closer description
of the process is his own coinage, subcreation. Successful storytelling
– that is storytelling capable of inspiring Secondary Belief – is indeed
an art equal to any other, Tolkien would argue. Yet much of the spell is
of course produced by the deliberate application of certain narrative techniques.
An example of such techniques is described in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy20 as the mixing of
dictions "within single passages, usually to contrast an archaic form of
speech with the default language of the text at that stage." In LotR
this is discernible in the following:
Elrond went forward and stood beside the silent figure.
Narrative techniques for the implicit inspiration of
Secondary Belief are many and varied, although several seem to hinge on
the evocation of historical (and mythical) depth behind the present story.
It is the principle of the Chinese box which conceals many layers beneath
the surface. The mixing of register, voice, diction, the breaking off into
internal narration or song or poetry are all devices meant to produce the
kind of depth which makes the surface story branch out beyond the needs to
suspend any disbelief. As Tolkien states in his lecture, "the story-maker's
success depends on his ability to make a consistent Secondary World which
your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is 'true', it accords with
the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were,
inside"22. These notions
could be described as the literary equivalent of what in modern language
acquisition is termed "total immersion".
master!', he said, with a smile. Then, turning to Frodo, he beckoned
him. 'Now at last the hour has come that you have wished for, Frodo,'
he said. 'Here is a friend that you have long missed.' … 'Bilbo!'
Frodo with sudden recognition, and he sprang forward. 'Hullo, Frodo
my lad!' said Bilbo. 'So you have got here at last. I hoped you
manage it. Well, well! So all this feasting is in your honour, I
I hope you enjoyed yourself?' 21
This ideal is not unknown in remote literary history,
but at the time of writing (1930s) stories involving elements of "the fantastic"
were generally not as utterly autonomous as the theory of Secondary Belief
seems to imply. Many early fantasy stories involved only a limited secondary
reality. In practice, that tendency led to intricate time-slips or dreams,
secret doors (or in Lewis' case, wardrobes!) into other exotic realms of
Faërie. First and foremost this was a mediating effect, reducing
excursions into the fantastic to localised occurrences and subordinating
them to every-day reality. Apart from C.S. Lewis' Narnia cycle23 , a well-known example is
Lewis Carrol who transports his heroine into a local world where supernatural
events and unreal characters may roam freely. This represents a constraint
on the literary use of the fantastic element. Evidently, the need to "legitimise"
such fancies by including effects like the above was still deep-seated. The
fact remains, though, that there was clearly an urge to express oneself outside
the frames of conventional reality. Early fantasists like William Morris
and George MacDonald certainly broke new ground, but what made Tolkien's
approach a revolution, both in theory and in practice, was his invention
of a Secondary World so rich in detail, so far-reaching in terms of invented
languages and so profound in its evocation of historical and mythical depth
that it exceeded any need for generic mediators. In effect, Middle-earth
and the theories of subcreation set new boundaries for reader immersion and
redefined the reader-writer relationship which had reigned for the past hundred
19Tolkien, J.R.R., ed. Christopher Tolkien,
“On Fairy-Stories”, in The Monsters & the Critics and Other Essays,
HarperCollins, London, 1997, p. 132. back
20Clute, John & John Grant, eds.,
The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, St Martin's, New York, 1997, article
on J.R.R. Tolkien back
21Tolkien, LotR, p. 246 back
22Clute & Grant op.cit, p. 132.
23Which, incidentally, contained far
too explicit references to Christian theology (bordering on allegory) to meet
with Tolkien's approval - see Letters, p. 352 back
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