Seers and Singers: Tolkien’s Typology of Sub-creators

A Wilderness of Dragons Essays in Honor of Verlyn Flieger
A Wilderness of Dragons: Essays in Honor of Verlyn Flieger, edited by John D. Rateliff.

I was very pleased to have an essay recently published in A Wilderness of Dragons: Essays in Honor of Verlyn Flieger, edited by John D. Rateliff and published by Gabbro Head Press, not only because I’m in fabulous company – take a look at the table of contents! – but mainly because I’m a great admirer of Verlyn Flieger. 

My essay, “Seers and Singers: Tolkien’s Typology of Sub-creators” discusses three of Tolkien’s works, “The Notion Club Papers,” “Leaf by Niggle,” and Smith of Wootton Major. I talked about some of my ideas when I gave a paper at the 2017 Tolkien Society Seminar, but this essay goes into much more detail and is part of a larger project I’m working on about Tolkien’s typological imagination.

I’ll quote from my introduction and give a summary of my main points in the hopes that you might be interested in buying A Wilderness of Dragons and reading more.

The Great Music sung by the Ainur gives rise to a vision of Arda and, attracted by what they have sung into potential existence, the Powers descend into the world to achieve its creation. Music and Light are of the essence of this created world, and as time goes on these primordial elements splinter into ever diminishing recapitulations. Music becomes manifest in song, in words, in voices, in the sound of waters flowing. Light illuminates the sky, the earth, the vision of creatures. As Flieger points out, “Both words and light are agents of perception” (Splintered Light 44) and both “can be instruments of sub-creation” (Splintered 46). Light and Music become manifest as vision and language, or image and word – either or both acting as the catalyst in the sub-creative process as described by Tolkien …. The seers and singers in these stories represent a typology of sub-creators – a repeated categorization of types – who demonstrate the powers of splintered music and light, word and image.”

(“Seers and Singers,” A Wilderness of Dragons, p. 258)

The Sub-creative Process

Tolkien, The Hills of the Morning
Tolkien, “The Hills of the Morning”

The three stories that I picked for commentary deal with the sub-creative powers of light and music or image and word by describing how different characters create art, whether it be through language, storytelling, vision, painting, blacksmithing, singing, and even baking. These activities always occur in collaboration with someone else; Tolkien does not subscribe to an image of a lone, heroic artist. Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy-Stories” reinforces much of what we see in these three stories.  I also include in a discussion of Smith of Wootton Major how Tolkien used the cooking metaphor in some of his unpublished essays and how it might apply to this story.

Faërian / Elvish Drama

Tolkien, "The Elvenking's gate from across the river"
Tolkien, “The Elvenking’s gate from across the river”

All three stories take us into faërian or elvish dramas so that we can examine their characteristics.  I discuss the faërian drama as a palimpsest, allowing the participant a kind of double vision. All three stories also suggest that participants are guided in their experiences by an often unseen force.

Genealogy / Tradition

Tolkien, "The Tree of Amalion"
Tolkien, “The Tree of Amalion”

All three stories establish what I call a “genealogy of sympathy,” ensuring that the subcreative inspiration is passed on, thus creating a tradition.  The inheritance is not always within a family, and the inspiration and valuing of sub-creative powers is not often appreciated by others.

Typological Patterns

Tolkien, detail from Three Friezes
Tolkien, detail from “Three Friezes”

Tolkien loved repeated patterns. In discussing typology, I’m discussing the narrative patterns that Tolkien establishes in his work. In this essay, I’m focusing on the seers and singers who are sub-creative collaborators. As I state in my conclusion:

Because of its recurrence in various texts, a type accumulates significance. Each seer and singer is a distinct character in a unique narrative, but each also partakes of a repeated pattern of meaning in Tolkien’s fiction. The appearance of a type brings into the narrative its associated meanings.”

(“Seers and Singers,” A Wilderness of Dragons, p. 277).

Anyone who has read Verlyn Flieger’s work will recognize the immense influence she has had on my views. This volume compiled in her honour by John Rateliff proves that she is the inspiration for a long and wide-ranging genealogy of students and scholars following in her footsteps.

Tolkien, detail from Three Friezes
Tolkien, detail from “Three Friezes”

The book is available in hardcover and paperback and will soon be available as an e-book as well. Gabbro Head ships through to anywhere in the world.

Image sources: Most of the pictures above by Tolkien appear in J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist & Illustrator, Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull, HarperCollins: “The Hills of the Morning,” fig. 1; “The Tree of Amalion,” fig. 62; details from “Untitled (Three Friezes),” fig. 59. “The Elvenking’s gate from across the river” appears in The Art of The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, also by Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull, HarperCollins, fig. 50.

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