Giuseppe Pezzini: "According to Tolkien, fantasy helps to recover the amazement in the face of reality".

Giuseppe Pezzini, professor at Oxford, is currently participating in the conference "Tolkien: the actuality of myth", held at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome. In this interview, he talks about fundamental concepts of Tolkien's thought, such as subcreation or his theory of fantasy.

Loreto Rios-April 19, 2024-Reading time: 7 minutes

Giuseppe Pezzini has been working at Oxford since 2021, although he has actually been at the prestigious English university since 2006, having spent his entire academic career there, including his PhD and postdoctoral studies. He is currently a professor of Latin and Latin literature there, as well as running a Tolkien research center within the university, in which many of his Oxford colleagues collaborate.

These days, he is participating in the VIII International Congress of Poetics and Christianity "Tolkien: the myth today"The event will be held at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome from April 18 to 19 and will feature speakers such as Eduardo Segura, John Wauck and Oriana Palusci, among others.

What does "subcreation", a term coined by Tolkien, consist of?

It is necessary to understand the prefix "sub", in the sense that the word "creation" we already know what it means, "to create something new", something that did not exist before, and this is important, it does not mean only "to reorganize" things. With the prefix "sub", however, it means that, when a creature creates, he does so under the authority of another. There is a higher authority than he, a Creator who is the one who truly gives being to everything, because man is not capable of effectively giving being to nothing.

Tolkien says at the beginning of the Silmarillion, where we see how the concept of subcreation is introduced very clearly, that the Ainur, the artists and subcreators par excellence in the Tolkienian universe, collaborate with the design of Eru, the only creator God of Tolkien's world, but the being of his creation is not given by them, but by God. One could use the image of childbirth: the woman gives birth to a child, but the soul, the being of the child, is not given by the woman. This means "to subcreate": to create under the authority of another. But, in addition, and this is also a meaning of the prefix "sub", it means to do it "on behalf", as one would say in English, by order of another: subcreation is something that has been entrusted to us. Therefore, you can carry it out because another, who is the Creator with a capital c, has entrusted you with this task.

In the Lord of the Rings, Gandalf says at one point to Denethor that he [Gandalf] is a steward, a guardian, a person entrusted with a duty. In subcreation, I must accept that the being is not given by me, but, positively, I do it because I have been entrusted with this duty. Therefore, it is also a vocation, not just a personal hobby, a whim, but a task given to me, to which I must respond. Subcreation is the invitation to creation.

Your lecture at the conference is entitled "'They will have need of wood': subcreation and integral ecology in Tolkien". What is the concept of "ecology" in Tolkien's work?

Etymologically, in Greek "ecology" is the study of the "oikos", which is above all the house, understood as the natural world. But, more precisely, ecology, developing the etymological meaning, is the study of the relationships between creatures. Ecology, for Tolkien, is not only, in a narrower sense, the relationship with nature, but the relationship between all living identities in the world. I think that in Tolkien nature is not to be understood as something static, like a rock.

The object of ecology is above all that which grows, it is the study of the relationship between all that grows in the world, and ecology is closely linked to the idea of subcreation, because the subcreator is always a gardener. A gardener has been entrusted with the growth of a plant, a field, but the seeds in this field have been planted by someone else, and therefore the task of the subcreator is to take care of the growth of these other elements.

Ecology means taking care of the lives that have been entrusted to us, therefore it is not only respect or a contemplation of the life of other creatures, but it is the relationship that living beings have with other living beings. And this relationship is always subcreative, that is, it is directed to help us grow, it is always a development. This is very interesting, because there are some ecological visions that conceive ecology as a "disengagement", a passivity, "I let things take their course".

Ecology tries to help nature to develop. We see it for example in the relationship between the Ents and the trees, but also Merry and Pippin grow, literally, after their encounter with the Ents. Gandalf himself is also an environmentalist, we could say, his object is the hobbits. He has the Valar's task of caring for the other creatures. The link between the hobbits and Gandalf is ecological and also subcreative, because the two are linked.

You have commented on occasion that Tolkien considered that the function of fantasy was to "recover the wonder of reality". What does Tolkien's theory of imagination consist of?

All these questions, in fact, subcreation, ecology and imagination, are related, from different points of view. What is "imagination"? Tolkien calls it "Fantasy." He uses the word imagination too, obviously, but in the essay "On Fairy Tales", the term he uses is "Fantasy". It means, Tolkien says in a letter, to use our God-given capacities to collaborate in creation. When we subcreate, the cognitive instrument we use is imagination, we are creating an alternative world, or better, we are adding a branch to the world tree, which is another image Tolkien uses: God's creation as if it were a gigantic tree and subcreation as if it were a branch within this tree.

The tree of creation, or the tree of reality, as we know it, has a certain subcreator point: it makes a new plant grow, which at first seems to be different from the tree. This plant is born of the imagination, it is different from reality, it is not mimetic, it is not a mirror of what already exists, but it is something new, but later, with time, the subcreator understands that in reality that plant that seemed to be different is actually a hidden branch of the tree.

An important aspect is that imagination, necessarily, cannot use the realistic rules of the world, in that case it would be something else. Imagination, by its nature, confuses: green leaves make them pink, gray or blue skies make them purple, this disruption of the elements of reality is at the heart of imagination. This disruption of the elements of reality is the heart of the imagination. And why is it so important? Tolkien says it well in the essay "On Fairy Tales": because it helps to "defamiliarize" reality.

The great temptation of man is to possess reality, to believe that it is something he already knows. The great risk that man, the creature, has in the face of creation is to lose wonder. To use an image, it is as if someone were to compile what there is in reality and put it in his hut, in his "hoard", like Smaug, his "treasure": I already know this, I already understand it, I already know it, I already know it.

Imagination is a gift given by God to men to help free what has been locked in the prison of our possessiveness. And that is why it must be surprising, that is why it cannot be realistic, that is why there must be monsters, dragons, hobbits, anything that makes us unfamiliar with what we already know. This helps to understand it better and to recover, says Tolkien, a look at reality that is pure, of surprise, because the only true look at creation is a look of astonishment.

The human imagination helps to recover this gaze by disrupting the rules of reality, and it does so within a subcreative experience, not separated from the great tree of creation, but as a new branch added to it.

Tolkien states in his letters that he had no pre-established plan when writing. You have said that "the most catholic thing about The Lord of the Rings is its composition process". Can you comment on this idea?

Yes, this is an important element of Tolkien's idea of literature. Just as subcreation is analogous to creation in the sense that it creates something new, so subcreation is analogous to creation in the sense that it is gratuitous. This means that - Tolkien says it well in a letter - when God created things, he did it out of pure gratuitousness, it is a pure act of mercy. And this, at the level of literature, means that literature must also be a free gift, there must not be a calculation behind it. The true writer, the true artist, does not use literature or art to manipulate the minds of the readers. God does not do so with Creation, He did not create it to manipulate man, but as a gift. Also literature, subcreation, must be a pure gift.

More concretely, it means that Tolkien did not write with a project, with a communicative strategy, with an ideology, not even a Christian ideology. He did it as a gratuitous act of affirmation of beauty. Art and literature are above all the expression of a search for beauty. But this search, precisely because it is subcreative, and therefore because it participates in the one creation, has, like creation itself, a mysterious, hidden function, born of its gratuitousness. Creation attracts, generates questions in man, precisely because it does not have this intention.

Tolkien says it in a letter to a girl, that creation and reality exist first and foremost to be contemplated, as something free. But precisely because of this one begins to wonder where it comes from. The question of meaning, to be truly such, is born of an experience of gratuitousness.

Returning to your question, Tolkien does not write with a strategy, he does not want to reaffirm values, he does not even seek to express his Christian experience. Tolkien wants to make good literature, but, in doing so, precisely because he does it for free, his literature becomes full of meaning, and that meaning must be recognized in a free way by the readers.

That is why Tolkien is against allegory, not because his texts do not potentially have an allegorical meaning, that is, a relationship with primary reality, with Christian values. But this relationship is a gift, it is something that "happens", it is that link that the plant has with the big tree, it is a gift that comes from another, it is not the starting point of the artist. Otherwise, literature would not be literature, it would be philosophy, and it would not even be art, because art does not have this function. Subcreation does not express things that one already knows, it is a new experience, which we could call heuristic, of discovery of something that one does not know. In fact, for Tolkien the subcreative adventure is a journey into another world, and therefore he does not have a strategy: he is discovering something that does not belong to him.

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