The incarnate mind, the tongue, and the tale are in our world coeval.
J.R.R 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.
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.
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 but also the very nature of fantasy: a linguistic process whereby an embodied soul creates a secondary world by embodying unexpected qualities in imaginary objects.
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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 has no place in Arda. Nevertheless, 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…
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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.
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‘Fantasy Incarnate’ is a footnote in a broader collaborative project on the magic of Middle-earth. I am grateful to my co-authors – Jeremiah Burns, Tom Hillman, Richard Rohlin, and Oliver Stegen – for permission to publish this note here.
Image: ‘Hagia Sophia ceiling’, (c) Timothy Neesam (creative commons license).