Technology in the Thought of J. R. R. Tolkien

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By Michael Twohig, Christendom College

“FOR MAKING THE WILL MORE QUICKLY EFFECTIVE, — AND SO TO THE MACHINE”: [1]

“Disgraced he may be, yet is not dethroned / and keeps the rags of lordship one he owned, / his world-dominion by creative act.”[2] Man, according to J.R.R. Tolkien in his poem “Mythopoeia”, exercises his God-given right of “world-dominion” through his “creative act,” an activity Tolkien terms sub-creation.[3] Tolkien scholar Verlyn Flieger provides a concise working definition of sub-creation: “Sub-creation was Tolkien’s term for the art of making.”[4] Tolkien theorized a great deal about the concept of sub-creation, and his Middle Earth legendarium encompasses his attempts at putting his theorizing into practice.[5] Although he was primarily concerned with sub-creation as it pertained to the writing of myth and fairy-tales, Tolkien’s theorizing also included forays into the relationship between the sub-creative impulse and science, technology, and magic.[6] For Tolkien, the desire to create is an intrinsically human impulse, because human beings are created “in the image and likeness” of a Creator God.[7] Even in humanity’s fallen state, “’twas our right / (used or misused). The right has not decayed. / We make still by the law in which we’re made.”[8] Nevertheless, as Tolkien makes clear, the right to sub-create, which is a good, can be misused and perverted, which perversion he associates with modern science and technology. Tolkien suggests that when the sub-creative impulse is perverted by the desire for power, it manifests primarily in the pursuit of science and creation of technology, which facilitates and externalizes the evil will of the creator. Following Tolkien, I will first elaborate his definition of sub-creation before showing the distinction he makes between proper sub-creation and the technological impulse, one he associates fundamentally with the desire for power; I will then show how he suggests that these technological objects become an ‘externalization’ or materialization of one’s  will.

Before one can proceed any further in this line of inquiry, one must first understand what Tolkien means by the term sub-creation. In her essay “Re-Creating Reality,” in which she evaluates Tolkien’s fictional work in light of the section on Fantasy in his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” Verlyn Flieger asserts that “Tolkien calls fantasy a ‘sub-creative art,’ practiced in imitation and acknowledgment of a prime creator.”[9] The “imitation and acknowledgement of a prime creator” is crucial to understanding the full meaning of his concept of sub-creation. As Tolkien himself states, “Fantasy remains a human right: we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.”[10] In his explication of the theological ramifications of Tolkien’s idea of sub-creation, Daniel Keating asserts that it is in man’s very nature to create, and that he, when “go[ing] about the activity of sub-creation,” “[is] reflecting the glory of God.”[11] Sub-creation, then, as the impulse to and activity of making, is a fundamental expression of being created in the image and likeness of God.[12] However, this human creating is “derivative,” because human beings cannot create ex nihilo, and so human making is thus constrained by the world in which human beings are placed: Creation.[13] Flieger’s analysis of the practice of writing fantasy literature sub-creatively can also be applied to the sub-creative making of material things, especially in her assertion that the literary sub-creator sub-creates by combining adjectives and nouns into new combinations and thereby, quoting Tolkien, “‘new form is made; Faerie begins; Man becomes a sub-creator’ (MC 122).”[14] This dynamic can just as easily apply to the invention of a piece of technology, which brings about some desired change in the world through the creative ‘combining’ of matter to create never-before-seen objects.

In the creation story of the Silmarillion, the Ainulindalë, Tolkien provides a dramatic interpretation of the intersection between Eru Ilúvatar’s Creation ex nihilo and the Ainur’s (“rational spirits or minds without incarnation”) sub-creative participation in creation:

The Ainur took part in the making of the world as ‘sub-creators’: in various degrees, after this fashion. They interpreted according to their powers, and completed in detail, the Design propounded to them by the One. This was propounded first in musical or abstract form, and then in an ‘historical vision’…The One then presented this ‘Music’, including the apparent discords, as a visible ‘history’.[15]

The Ainur truly realized their sub-creative impulses, which instantiated real things in the world that was created; by the same token, they were limited by the overarching frame (the Design) with which they were presented by God (the One) and required his “Let it Be” for their work to be brought into existence.[16] Nevertheless, Tolkien is clear that, although sub-creation is ultimately derivative and circumscribed, it is not the case that human beings cannot create things that are outside “the channels the creator is known to have used already” in his response to a critic who took issue with his concept of the reincarnation of elves in the Lord of the Rings: “We differ entirely about the nature of the relation of sub-creation to Creation. I should have said that liberation ‘from the channels the Creator is known to have used already’ is the fundamental function of ‘sub-creation’, a tribute to the infinity of His potential variety.”[17] Given constraints imposed by the materials that human beings have to work with, human ingenuity and artifice really does not have any limits within those bounds. Sub-creation encapsulates the concept of techne, when understood as encompassing all the things made by human hands, and is a natural, even desirable, activity on the part of human beings.[18] How, then, does Tolkien conceive of science and technology in relation to sub-creation? It would seem that modern science, the acquisition of knowledge about the material world, and the subsequent creation of pieces of technology would be synonymous with sub-creation. Indeed, W. Christopher Stewart asserts that “Tolkien is sympathetic to the impulse of pure science—the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake without any thought of doing something with the knowledge acquired,” while Tom Shippey states that “Tolkien had a lifelong sympathy with all kinds of creative endeavor.”[19]

On the contrary, Tolkien seems to place sub-creation properly understood in opposition to modern science and technology. In his letter to Milton Waldman summarizing his legendarium, Tolkien provides a grand overview of the main themes of his legendarium, saying “All this stuff is mainly concerned with Fall, Mortality, and the Machine.”[20] Man, Tolkien argues, experiences the sub-creative desire even “apart from the satisfactions of plain ordinary biological life,” and that “This desire is at once wedded to a passionate love of the real primary world, and hence filled with the sense of mortality, and yet unsatisfied by it.”[21] It is this dissatisfaction that seems to be the root cause of the technological impulse, for as Tolkien continues,

It [the sub-creative desire] may become possessive, clinging to the things made as ‘its own’, the sub-creator wishes to be the Lord and God of his private creation. He will rebel against the laws of the Creator— especially against mortality. Both of these (alone or together) will lead to the desire for Power, for making the will more quickly effective, – and so to the Machine (or Magic).[22]

It is at this point that Tolkien provides something close to a definition of technology (the Machine): “By the last I intend all use of external plans or devices (apparatus) instead of development of the inherent powers or talents – or even the use of these talents with the corrupted motive of dominating: bulldozing the real world, or coercing other wills.”[23] In his comparison between the mythology of the Ainulindalë with the Creation narrative of Genesis, Shippey argues that “The Silmarillion then does not contradict Genesis; but it does offer an alternative view of the origin of sin, in a desire not for the ‘knowledge of good and evil’, but in the desires for creation, mastery, power.”[24] Tolkien’s vision of evil, then, seems intrinsically bound up with this “desire for Power” on the part of human beings, and he identifies technology as one of the primary means by which human beings make their “will[s] more quickly effective.”[25] Indeed, Tolkien’s characterization of Sauron, the “main representative of Evil” in the Lord of the Rings, emphasizes the intersection of the desire for power with the technological impulse; after the defeat of his master Morgoth, Sauron repents (imperfectly) and “lingers in Middle-earth. Very slowly, beginning with fair motives: the reorganising and rehabilitation of the ruin of Middle-earth, ‘neglected by the gods’, he becomes a reincarnation of Evil, and a thing lusting for Complete Power,” and thereafter, as Stewart says, citing Tolkien, Sauron becomes “the Lord of magic and machines.”[26]

One question that arises, then, is whether Tolkien would classify technology as inherently evil or simply neutral instruments used for bad ends, given that he defines technology as one of the primary means by which human beings can satisfy their evil wills. In his essay “‘The Lord of Magic and Machines’: Tolkien on Magic and Technology,” W. Christopher Stewart interprets Tolkien’s position on this question by means of the close connection in Tolkien’s works between magic and scientific advancements, ultimately arguing that Tolkien holds technology to be merely a neutral tool that can be used for evil ends.[27] Stewart distinguishes between two forms of effecting change in Tolkien’s thought, which are goeteia, the sub-creative art of the elves, and magia, or the magical/technological impulse to dominate and effect real change in the world.[28] In Tolkien’s own words, “Magic produces, or pretends to produce, and alteration in the Primary World [the real world] … it is not an art but a technique; its desire is power in this world, domination of things and wills.”[29] Stewart asserts that “Neither [goeteia and magia] is inherently good or bad, but it becomes so as the result of a magician’s (or scientist’s) ‘motives or purpose or use’ [unclear if he is quoting Tolkien or someone else].”[30] Quoting Tolkien, Stewart argues that the “basic motive” of magic, and hence technology, is “immediacy: speed, reduction of labour, and reduction also to a minimum (or vanishing point) of the gap between the idea or desire and the result or effect” and that “it springs from impatience and ‘the desire for Power, for making the will more quickly effective.’”[31] Thus, Stewart presents Tolkien as viewing technology as evil insofar as it is intended to accomplish or bring about evil purposes, but ultimately only a tool to be used; as he states,

Applied science is always undertaken with a view to solving a particular problem, and we often become blind to everything else in our pursuit of a solution, heedless of consequences we do not intend…technology both accelerates and amplifies the effect of our actions on the world, including those actions that stem from erroneous or malicious intentions.[32]

Thus, in Stewart’s opinion, Tolkien views technology as a neutral phenomenon, one that can ‘blind’ men to its potential drawbacks and ‘accelerate’ and ‘amplify’ the effects of their choices, but one that can nevertheless be used well or poorly.

Tolkien’s perspective seems to be more nuanced than Stewart may perceive, for Tolkien seems to suggest that man’s technology constitutes an externalization of his will in space and time. Although Stewart does not quote this particular passage, Tolkien states explicitly a sentiment that would seem to be in line with Stewart’s argument:

I should regard them as no more wicked or foolish…as Catholics engaged in certain kinds of physical research (e.g. those producing, if only as by-products, poisonous gases and explosives): things not necessarily evil, but which, things being as they are, and the nature and motives of the economic masters who provide all the means for their work being as they are, are pretty certain to serve evil ends.[33]

Nevertheless, Tolkien picks his words carefully: “physical research” rather than technological innovation, and “by-products” that do not seem to be intentionally created. Can this qualify as technology strictly speaking, the creation and “use of external plans or devices (apparatus),” or simply the accidents of scientific discoveries?[34] Tolkien offers a much more nuanced and complex understanding of technology, especially as presented in his works of literature, in one of his letters. When answering a question about the One Ring, he states,

The Ring of Sauron is only one of the various mythical treatments of the placing of one’s life, or power, in some external object, which is thus exposed to capture or destruction with disastrous results to oneself. If I were to ‘philosophize’ this myth, or at least the Ring of Sauron, I should say it was a mythical way of representing the truth that potency (or perhaps rather potentiality) if it is to be exercised, and produce results, has to be externalized and so as it were passes, to a greater or lesser degree out of one’s direct control.[35]

Tolkien seems to suggest in this passage the radical idea that human creations externalize human potentiality in a way that allows one to effect changes one otherwise would not be able to accomplish, while at the same time the creation becomes an extension of one’s will in space and time. Flieger seems to argue this interpretation in her treatment of the natures and roles of several magical artefacts in Tolkien’s legendarium, saying of the One Ring that its “medium and message are consistent with each other” because “the Ring contains power”; the Ring, ultimately a piece of fantastical technology, simultaneously symbolizes and facilitates (makes real) Sauron’s will, with Flieger going so far as to label it a “container…that houses Sauron’s power in an object outside of his body.”[36] Tolkien himself describes the Ring in this way: “the primary symbolism of the Ring, as the will to mere power, seeking to make itself objective by physical force and mechanism.”[37] Tolkien would thus seem to hold that technological objects ‘incarnate’ the wills of their creators just as much as they facilitate their achievement.

Tolkien’s understanding of the modern scientific enterprise and the technological impulse is grounded firmly in his understanding of the human person as having been created in the image and likeness of a Creator. As creators in the image of the Master Creator, human beings have the right to exercise this creative impulse using the materials of the universe God placed alongside us. But as Tolkien also figured out, the creative impulse cannot be separated from the desires of the human will. A will that desires to create objects for the betterment of himself and others in conformity to the pattern of Creation glorifies God and engages in the divinely-sanctioned activity of sub-creation; an evil will, one that seeks to realize its desires even if they are contrary to God’s design, perverts sub-creation and engages in the technological project of creation for the sake of power.[38] It is this desire for power to control, dominate, and coerce that concerns Tolkien most, and what ultimately makes technology an evil.[39] Tolkien seems to go further, however, in suggesting that the technological objects that man creates, because they are so encompassed by the intention of his will, not only facilitate this desire for power but in a sense become a real externalization of the will and thus the perverse desire. Would Tolkien then assert that all technology is inherently and intrinsically evil? I do not know for certain. But I would suggest that Tolkien seems to believe that man’s good or bad will can impart an aspect of his being to the objects he creates, and in this sense they are not neutral instruments. In fact, perhaps Tolkien is suggesting that man can, through sub-creative activity (whether it be good or perverted), ‘incarnate’ his will, and this ‘incarnation’ has a sacramental character: the object created both signifies his will and effects what it signifies.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Carpenter, Humphrey, selected and ed. with assistance of Christopher Tolkien. The Letters of       J.R.R. Tolkien. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1981.

Flieger, Verlyn. There Would Always Be a Fairy Tale: More Essays on Tolkien. Kent, OH: The   Kent State University Press, 2017.

Fulton Brown, Rachel. The Forge of Tolkien. On Unauthorized.tv (subscription video platform).             https://unauthorized.tv/channel/forge-of-tolkien/.

Keating, Daniel. “Subcreation in Tolkien and Sayers.” In The Chronicle of the Oxford University             C.S. Lewis Society, vol. 3, no. 2 (May 2006), 11-20. JSTOR (accessed September 19,   2021).

McInerny, Dr. Daniel. “Rod Dreher, the Benedict Option, and Technology.” PHIL 493:    Philosophy of Technology. Class lecture, Christendom College, Front Royal, VA, USA,   August 26, 2021.

Shippey, Tom. J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000.

Stewart, W. Christopher. “‘The Lord of Magic and Machines’: Tolkien on Magic and       Technology.” In The Hobbit and Philosophy: For When You’ve Lost Your Dwarves, Your    Wizard, and Your Way, ed. by Gregory Bassham and Eric Bronson with series editor          William Irwin, 147-160. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 2012.

Tolkien, J. R. R. “Mythopoeia.” http://home.agh.edu.pl/~evermind/jrrtolkien/mythopoeia.htm      (accessed September 19, 2021).

Tolkien, J.R.R. “On Fairy-Stories.” In The Tolkien Reader, ed. with an introduction by Peter S.    Beagle. New York, NY: Ballantine Books, 1966.


                [1]J.R.R. Tolkien, “Letter 131 To Milton Waldman,” in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, selected and ed. by Humphrey Carpenter, with assistance of Christopher Tolkien (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1981), 145. All subsequent citations will be from this edition and will be cited in the footnotes with letter number and page number.

                [2]J. R. R. Tolkien, “Mythopoeia,” 3 (printed page number). http://home.agh.edu.pl/~evermind/jrrtolkien/mythopoeia.htm (accessed September 19, 2021).

                [3]“Mythopoeia,” 3: “We make still by the law in which we’re made.”

                [4]Verlyn Flieger, Introduction to Part Two, “‘Faerie Begins’: The Nuts and Bolts of Sub-Creation,” in There Would Always Be a Fairy Tale: More Essays on Tolkien (Kent, OH: The Kent State University Press, 2017), 69. All subsequent footnotes will be from this edition and include the essay title and page number.

                [5]Tolkien, “Letter 153 To Milton Waldman,” Letters, 188. “Since the whole matter [his Legendarium] from beginning to end is mainly concerned with the relation of Creation to making and sub-creation (and subsidiarily with the related matter of ‘mortality’), it must be clear that references to these things are not casual, but fundamental.”

                [6]I am indebted to Prof. Rachel Fulton Brown’s online lecture series The Forge of Tolkien, in which she discusses various aspects of Tolkien’s thought and literary works, for greatly informing my own understanding of Tolkien as a scholar, thinker, and sub-creator; all of her lectures have been illuminating, but her lectures “Through a Glass Darkly” and “Magic Words” have been particularly formative for my thoughts on this topic. Rachel Fulton Brown, The Forge of Tolkien, on Unauthorized.tv (subscription video platform). https://unauthorized.tv/channel/forge-of-tolkien/.

                [7]J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” in The Tolkien Reader, ed. with an introduction by Peter S. Beagle (New York, NY: Ballantine Books, 1966), 75, and Daniel Keating, “Subcreation in Tolkien and Sayers,” in The Chronicle of the Oxford University C.S. Lewis Society, vol. 3, no. 2 (May 2006), 13. JSTOR (accessed September 19, 2021).

                [8]J. R. R. Tolkien, “Mythopoeia,” 3.

                [9]Verlyn Flieger, “Re-Creating Reality,” in There Would Always Be a Fairy Tale: More Essays on Tolkien (Kent, OH: The Kent State University Press, 2017), 33-34, 35.

                [10]Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” 75.

                [11] Keating, 15, 19.

                [12]Keating, 19: “If they are right, then to be human is to be creative; to be fully human is to make in the image of the Maker.”

                [13]Rachel Fulton Brown, The Forge of Tolkien, on Unauthorized.tv (subscription video platform). https://unauthorized.tv/channel/forge-of-tolkien/. Throughout her lectures, Fulton Brown emphasizes the importance Tolkien placed on properly framing our understanding of the world, history, and all creative endeavors in the context of the divine story of Creation (“finding oneself in the story”).

                [14]Flieger, “Re-Creating Reality,” 35-36.

                [15]Tolkien, “Letter 212 Draft of a continuation of the above letter [to Rhona Beare] (not sent),” Letters, 284-285.

                [16]Tolkien, “Letter 212 Draft of a continuation of the above letter [to Rhona Beare] (not sent),” Letters, 284-287. Melkor’s ‘fall’ dramatizes the perversion of sub-creation, but even his unharmonious additions to the Music of the Ainur were included in the creation of the universe: “In the first interpretation, the vast Music of the Ainur, Melkor introduced alterations, not interpretations of the mind of the One, and great discord arose…In this Myth the rebellion of created free-will precedes creation of the World (Ea); and Ea has in it, subcreatively introduced, evil, rebellions, discordant elements of its own nature already when the Let it Be was spoken.”

                [17]Tolkien, “Letter 153 To Peter Hastings (draft),” Letters, 187-188.

                [18]Dr. Daniel McInerny, “Rod Dreher, the Benedict Option, and Technology,” PHIL 493: Philosophy of Technology (class lecture, Christendom College, Front Royal, VA, USA, August 26, 2021).

                [19]W. Christopher Stewart, “‘The Lord of Magic and Machines’: Tolkien on Magic and Technology,” in The Hobbit and Philosophy: For When You’ve Lost Your Dwarves, Your Wizard, and Your Way, ed. by Gregory Bassham and Eric Bronson with series editor William Irwin (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 2012), 155, and Tom Shippey, J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000), 169-170.

                [20]Tolkien, “Letter 131 To Milton Waldman,” Letters, 145.

                [21]Tolkien, “Letter 131 To Milton Waldman,” Letters, 145.

                [22]Tolkien, “Letter 131 To Milton Waldman,” Letters, 145.

                [23]Tolkien, “Letter 131 To Milton Waldman,” Letters, 145-146.

                [24]Shippey, 242, 237-242.

                [25]Tolkien, “Letter 131 To Milton Waldman,” Letters, 145.

                [26]Tolkien, “Letter 153 To Peter Hastings (draft),” Letters, 190 and “Letter 131 To Milton Waldman,” Letters, 151, and Stewart, 154-155, 153-154.

                [27]Stewart, 149.

                [28]Stewart, 152-153.

                [29]Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” 73.

                [30]Stewart, 153.

                [31]Stewart, 153.

                [32]Stewart, 155-156.

                [33]Tolkien, “Letter 153 To Peter Hastings,” Letters, 190 (emphases mine).

                [34]Tolkien, “Letter 131 To Milton Waldman,” Letters, 145-146.

                [35]Tolkien, “Letter 211 To Rhona Beare,” Letters, 279, which is cited and interpreted by Flieger, “The Jewels, the Stone, and the Making of Meaning,” 108-109. Flieger comments on this passage from Tolkien’s letter on page 109: “The word mythical here seems to betoken a nonrealistic treatment weighted with symbolic meaning.”

                [36]Flieger, “The Jewels, the Stone, and the Making of Meaning,” in There Would Always Be a Fairy Tale: More Essays on Tolkien (Kent, OH: The Kent State University Press, 2017), 100-102, 108, and Flieger cites Tolkien, “Letter 211 To Rhona Beare,” Letters, 279.

                [37]Tolkien, “Letter 131 To Milton Waldman,” Letters, 160.

                [38]Keating, 15.

                [39]Tolkien, “Letter 131 To Milton Waldman,” Letters, 145-146.

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