“Fantasy Incarnate” by Simon Cook (Guest Post)


The incarnate mind, the tongue, and the tale are in our world coeval.

– Tolkien, ‘On Fairy Stories’, lecture delivered in 1939


On the surface, the meaning of the above quotation appears straightforward: humans have always used language to tell stories to one another. But why, in the expression of this idea, do we find the noun ‘mind’ modified by the unexpected adjective ‘incarnate’? My attempt to answer this question generated the following reflections on the foundations of Middle-earth.

© 2016 Evan Palmer

First, the adjective itself. The Oxford English Dictionary gives two definitions of incarnate: (1) a god or a spirit in human form, and (2) a quality in physical form. The OED also provides general and particular definitions of the corresponding noun: the lower case incarnation: the living embodiment of a god, spirit, or quality; and the upper case Incarnation: the Christian belief that God the Son was embodied in human flesh as Jesus.

As a devout Catholic, the Incarnation (upper case) was for Tolkien an article of faith, a profound historical fact of the primary world. This provides an initial answer: Tolkien’s reference to the human mind as ‘incarnate’ invokes the idea that humans, as embodied souls, are made in the image of the Incarnate Divinity. As such, Tolkien can be seen pointing to the bold conclusion arrived at by the end of the passage in which our quotation appears, namely, that in making-up fairy stories humans imitate the creative activity of God:

But how powerful… was the invention of the adjective: no spell or incantation in Faërie is more potent… When we can take green from grass, blue from heaven, and red from blood, we have already an enchanter’s power… in such ‘fantasy’, as it is called, new form is made; Faërie begins; Man becomes a sub-creator.

Such imitation, it is important to note, occurs in means as well as ends: language is the instrument of both (divine) creation and (human) sub-creation.

And God said: ‘Let there be light’. And there was light… And God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day. (Genesis 3, 5).

Yet the role of language in sub-creation as explained by Tolkien does not exactly mirror the linguistic dimension of God’s creative work as described in Genesis. In creating first light and then time, God employs no adjectives. In emphasizing the adjective as the key to sub-creation, Tolkien’s ‘On Fairy Stories’ reveals what we might call an ‘incarnationalist theory of language’.

The human mind, endowed with the powers of generalisation and abstraction, sees not only green-grass, discriminating it from other things… but sees that it is green as well as being grass… The mind that thought of light, heavy, grey, yellow, still, swift, also conceived of magic that would make heavy things light and able to fly, turn grey lead into yellow gold, and the still rock into swift water. (‘OFS’ 41)

For sure, abstracting and remixing adjectival qualities is not an exercise in incarnation. The projecting of a novel quality (say, blue) onto a noun (say, the moon) to form an image (of a blue moon) occurs on a purely mental and linguistic level – a “new form is made”, as Tolkien puts it, not a new thing, let alone the embodiment of spirit in living flesh.

Nevertheless, the making of imaginary form is structurally similar to the Divine act of incarnation. This is because the objects given to us by language possess the same dual nature as the incarnate spirit: a concrete object (noun) possesses abstract qualities (adjectives). The speakers of human language engage in fantasy by putting novel qualities into different linguistic objects. Put another way, the ‘incarnate mind’ is an actual instance in the world of the same dual form – the fusion of concrete and abstract – that is given to us generally in language. Indeed, it is tempting to see the incarnate mind as the anchor in reality of our linguistic practice.

We can now answer our original question. Invoking the ‘incarnate mind’ at the start of his explanation of fantasy, Tolkien points not only to the maker of fantasy but also to its very nature: a linguistic process whereby an embodied soul creates a secondary world by embodying unexpected qualities in imaginary objects.

* * *

A careful reading of the quotations from this single passage in ‘On Fairy Stories’ suggests a further, complementary train of reflection. Our initial sentence identified stories and language as coeval. But Tolkien goes on to speak of the invention of the adjective, suggesting that such modifiers were a later discovery of the human mind. Could it be that this invention was of more than linguistic significance? Did the discovery of the dual nature of linguistic objects also provide illumination into the mysterious nature of reality?

In his famous letter to Milton Waldman (circa 1951), Tolkien wrote:

I believe that legends and myths are largely made of ‘truth,’ and indeed present aspects of it that can only be received in this mode; and long ago certain truths and modes of this kind were discovered and must always reappear (Letters, letter 131).

The Christian doctrine of the Incarnation is generally absent from Arda (although it is clearly alluded to as an ‘Old Hope’ of mortal men in Tolkien’s late dialogue, the ‘Athrabeth’). Yet the general idea of the embodiment of spiritual power in material objects is a recurring theme in Tolkien’s mythology.

In the very first pages of The Silmarillion we are told how the world was first made by music, then appeared as a vision, and then came into being with the speaking of a word. Yet this created world only “came alive” when some of the Ainur descend into it: “so that they are its life and it is theirs. And therefore they are named the Valar, the Powers of the World”.

This incarnation of the Valar in the world is not some incidental detail of Tolkien’s creation story. It is the reason why Arda – in contrast to the mechanistic world envisaged by Newtonian science – is alive, enchanting, and purposeful.

Incidentally, I suspect that we here discern the reason why Saruman’s ambitions are bound to fail. Of this treacherous wizard, Treebeard tells Merry and Pippin:

He is plotting to become a Power. He has a mind of metal and wheels…

In our modern world, machines are purely physical means of generating and utilizing power. But a true Power in Middle-earth draws on a spiritual force that Saruman loses even as he builds in Isengard the superficial appearance of industrial and military power.

Further acts of incarnation – or, at least, the embodiment of the spiritual within a material object – provide the defining moments of Tolkien’s mythology. Fëanor embodies the spiritual light of the Valar in physical form – the Silmarils. And long ages later, Galadriel places the light from one of these Silmarils in a phial that she gives to Frodo, who, together with Sam, carries it all the way to Mordor.

Again, Sauron puts much of his own power into the Ring – a seemingly inanimate object with a will of its own. Here is a useful reminder that not all incarnations in Arda are good. Morgoth was one of the Valar incarnated in the world, which is why more than one power strives to shape the fate of Middle-earth.

There was more than one power at work, Frodo. The Ring was trying to get back to its master… I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker…

* * *

Our reflections upon Tolkien’s reference to the ‘incarnate mind’ in his 1939 lecture on ‘Fairy Stories’ have led us to the following tentative conclusions concerning the foundations of Middle-earth.

The central fact of Tolkien’s worldview was, undoubtedly, the Incarnation: the Christian doctrine that the Word was made flesh. This fact has no direct bearing on either the form or the content of Tolkien’s mythology, which concerns a world that has not received the Gospels.

Indirectly, however, it is of cardinal importance.

Arda is a mythological world that does not know the Incarnation, but which is largely made of the discovered ‘truth’ of incarnation.

* * *

Simon J. Cook is an independent scholar. His essay on Tolkien’s lost English mythology is published by Rounded Globe and may be downloaded from the Rounded Globe website. Links to his other publications may be found on his personal website, Ye Machine.

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The Tolkien Road – Ep. 50 – The Silmarillion – Ch. 19 – Of Beren and Lúthien – Pt 1

Concerning “Of Beren and Lúthien”, Chapter 19 of The Silmarillion…

Hey there fellow travelers! Welcome to The Tolkien Road, a long walk through the works and philosophy of J.R.R. Tolkien. It’s our 50th episode! And it also just so happens to be the episode where we discuss Chapter 19 of The Silmarillion, “Of Beren and Lúthien.” It’s an amazing chapter, an epic tale all by itself, so epic that we weren’t able to cram it all in to one episode. So this is part 1, with part 2 to follow next time. If you haven’t read the story before, we hope you’ll be inspired to do so by our conversation.  By the way, if you haven’t already, please leave The Tolkien Road a rating and feedback on iTunes. We’d love to know what you think of the podcast. Enjoy the show!

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Topics of discussion…

    • Haiku – 6:30
    • Tolkien’s letters concerning Beren and Lúthien – “The Seed of Middle-earth” – 16:00
    • Barahir’s band – 25:00
    • Gorlim & Sauron – 26:30
    • Beren and Lúthien meet – 35:00
    • Thingol’s brideprice – 49:00
    • Finrod vs. Sauron: A Battle of Song – 1:04:00

By the way, here’s a link to the three-part summary of this chapter I did for Beginner’s Guide: (Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3).

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The Tolkien Road – Ep. 49 – The Silmarillion – Ch. 18 – Of the Ruin of Beleriand and the Fall of Fingolfin

Concerning “Of the Ruin of Beleriand and the Fall of Fingolfin”, Chapter 18 of The Silmarillion…

Hey there fellow travelers! Welcome to The Tolkien Road, a long walk through the works and philosophy of J.R.R. Tolkien.  On this episode, we continue our discussion of The Silmarillion with Chapter 18, “Of the Ruin of Beleriand and the Fall of Fingolfin”, wherein Angband breaks loose upon Beleriand with incredible fury. There’s a whole lot to discuss!  By the way, if you haven’t already, please leave The Tolkien Road a rating and feedback on iTunes. We’d love to know what you think of the podcast. Enjoy the show!

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Topics of discussion…

    • Poems 4:00
    • Fingolfin’s forebodeing 15:00
    • The Battle of Sudden Flame 19:00
    • Barahir Saves Finrod 25:20
    • Fingolfin vs. Morgoth 30:00
    • A New High King 42:50
    • Minas Tirith 45:00
    • Húrin and Huor in Gondolin 51:00
    • Missions to Valinor 57:00
    • Barahir’s Band 59:45

By the way, here’s a link to the two-part summary of this chapter I did for Beginner’s Guide: (Part 1 | Part 2).

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The Tolkien Road – Ep. 48 – The Silmarillion – Ch. 17 – Of the Coming of Men Into the West

Concerning “Of the Coming of Men Into the West”, Chapter 17 of The Silmarillion…

Hey there fellow travelers! Welcome to The Tolkien Road, a long walk through the works and philosophy of J.R.R. Tolkien.  On this episode, we continue our discussion of The Silmarillion with Chapter 17, “Of the Coming of Men into the West”, wherein we learn of the origin of the Edain, also known as Men. Chapter 17 is the last bit of stage-setting before the pace really begins to pick up again. By the way, if you haven’t already, please leave The Tolkien Road a rating and feedback on iTunes. We’d love to know what you think of the podcast. Enjoy the show!

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Topics of discussion…

  • Poems 1:30
  • The 3 Houses of Men 14:00
  • Finrod’s Music 18:30
  • The Darkness That Lies Behind 21:00
  • Green-Elves & Men = Unfriends 26:45
  • Finrod & Bëor 28:30
  • Edain/Atani/Men 29:45
  • Thingol & Melian’s Prophecy 32:00
  • Bereg’s Rebellion 34:15
  • Haleth and the Haladin 38:45
  • Beör’s Death 42:30

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The Tolkien Road will return soon!

There’s been a slight delay in our return after the long Christmas break. We plan to have episode 48 (on The Silmarillion Ch 17) posted in the next few days. Thanks for tuning in!

It was not long therefore before Felagund could hold converse with Bëor; and while he dwelt with him they spoke much together. But when he questioned him concerning the arising of Men and their journeys, Bëor would say little; and indeed he knew little, for the fathers of his people had told few tales of their past and a silence had fallen upon their memory. ‘A darkness lies behind us,’ Bëor said; ‘and we have turned our backs upon it, and we do not desire to return thither even in thought. Westwards our hearts have been turned, and we believe that there we shall find Light.’

The Tolkien Road – Ep. 47 – The Silmarillion – Ch. 16 – Of Maeglin

Concerning “Of Maeglin”, Chapter 16 of The Silmarillion…

Hey there fellow travelers! Welcome to The Tolkien Road, a long walk through the works and philosophy of J.R.R. Tolkien.  On this episode, we continue our discussion of The Silmarillion with Chapter 16, Of Maeglin, wherein we learn the story the dark elf Eöl and the Noldorin princess Aredhel. By the way, if you haven’t already, please leave The Tolkien Road a rating and feedback on iTunes. We’d love to know what you think of the podcast. Enjoy the show!

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Topics of discussion…

  • Pronunciation 1:30
  • Poems 4:20
  • Aredhel’s Wanderlust & Travels 9:00
  • Concerning Eöl – 23:30
  • Concerning Maeglin – 31:30
  • The Escape – 37:30
  • Curufin and Eöl – 41:00
  • Turgon, Eöl, and the Tragedy of Aredhel – 45:00
  • Idril and Maeglin – 52:00

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The Tolkien Road – Ep. 46 – The Silmarillion – Ch. 15 – Of the Noldor in Beleriand

Concerning “Of the Noldor in Beleriand”, Chapter 15 of The Silmarillion…

Hey there fellow travelers! Welcome to The Tolkien Road, a long walk through the works and philosophy of J.R.R. Tolkien.  On this episode, we continue our discussion of The Silmarillion with Chapter 15, Of the Noldor in Beleriand, wherein we learn of the founding of Gondolin, and the wicked deeds of the Noldor come to light. By the way, if you haven’t already, please leave The Tolkien Road a rating and feedback on iTunes. We’d love to know what you think of the podcast. Enjoy the show!

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Topics of discussion…

 

  • Haiku Time
  • Turgon, Ulmo, and Gondolin – 11:15
  • Galadriel and Melian – 23:30
  • Thingol’s ban – 29:45

 

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The Tolkien Road – Ep. 45 – The Silmarillion – Ch. 14 – Of Beleriand and Its Realms

Concerning “Of Beleriand and Its Realms”, Chapter 14 of The Silmarillion…

Hey there fellow travelers! Welcome to The Tolkien Road, a long walk through the works and philosophy of J.R.R. Tolkien.  On this episode, we continue our discussion of The Silmarillion with Chapter 14, Of Beleriand and Its Realms. In Chapter 14, we get a detailed run down of the geographical layout of Beleriand. It’s not the most exciting chapter, but hey, that never stopped us from going on and on about something. By the way, if you haven’t already, please leave The Tolkien Road a rating and feedback on iTunes. We’d love to know what you think of the podcast. Enjoy the show!

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The Tolkien Road – Ep. 44 – The Silmarillion – Ch. 13 – Of the Return of the Noldor

Concerning “Of the Return of the Noldor”, Chapter 13 of The Silmarillion…

Hey there fellow travelers! Welcome to The Tolkien Road, a long walk through the works and philosophy of J.R.R. Tolkien.  On this episode, we continue our discussion of The Silmarillion with Chapter 13, “Of the Return of the Noldor”. In this chapter, the Noldor arrive in the north of Beleriand after their mass exodus from Valinor, only to be greeted by the armies of Morgoth. A lot happens in this chapter, and that means there’s a ton to discuss. By the way, if you haven’t already, please leave The Tolkien Road a rating and feedback on iTunes. We’d love to know what you think of the podcast. Enjoy the show!

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The Tolkien Road – Ep. 43 – The Silmarillion – Ch. 12 – Of Men

Concerning “Of Men”, Chapter 12 of The Silmarillion…

Hey there fellow travelers! Welcome to The Tolkien Road, a long walk through the works and philosophy of J.R.R. Tolkien.  On this episode, we continue our discussion of The Silmarillion with Chapter 12, “Of Men”. In this short chapter, we learn a bit about the early history of Men in Tolkien’s secondary world and how they relate to the Elves and the Valar.  By the way, if you haven’t already, please leave The Tolkien Road a rating and feedback on iTunes. We’d love to know what you think of the podcast. Enjoy the show!

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Thanks for listening to The Tolkien Road! To see a list of our previous episodes, go here.

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