Imaginary Realms and their Denizens

Christmastide coincides with the coldest and darkest days of winter here in Minnesota, and while the conditions would afford the more spiritually disciplined the opportunity for contemplation, reflection, and prayer, I find myself reading The Simarillion for the first time alongside The Lord of the Rings, which I haven’t read since I was in my early teens. Now, depending on one’s estimation of Tolkien and his legendarium, one might not distinguish much difference between those more traditionally sanctioned spiritual practices and attending to the details of the history of Arda and its peoples, but regardless of one’s estimation, it would be impossible to deny the cultural significance of Tolkien’s legendarium generally and The Lord of the Rings specifically. Even six decades after the initial publication of The Lord of the Rings, contemporary fantasy art, fiction, television, film, and tabletop games are recognizable by the features they share with the world that Tolkien conjured, and I find myself wondering: why? What about The Lord of the Rings inspires such wonder, joy, and moral dedication that artists, writers, filmmakers, and game designers perennially return to it as a kind of storehouse of materials for fashioning their own imaginary realms?

I’m less interested in answering that question specifically as it pertains to Tolkien and his legendarium than I am in how it pertains to fictional or imaginary realms generally. The same question could be asked about the films of Isao Takahata and Hayo Miyazaki, the Harry Potter novels, or the films that make up the so-called Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU): how and why do the cosmologies and characters of these imaginary realms come to inhabit and inspire us, and what might be the ontological status of these realms? In attempting to answer this question, I’m reminded of David Armstrong’s “Gnosticism and the Otherself,” and in particular the following passage:

Every piece of fantasy is an act of seeing as much as it is an act of creating: the two are really the same, of course, just as for God to contemplate all that subsists in the Logos in the delight of the Spirit is not other than to create it. Because God is qualitatively infinite, I cannot see how the number of such things which God beholds in the eternal Word are not also quantitatively infinite, …and therefore how our own acts of phantasia are not simply acts of communion with God, and insofar as seeing is creating, therefore acts of theurgy. God has long since eternally seen all that we see, at least insofar as what we see in the imaginal realm is true, good, and beautiful, or reflective thereof; and God permits, however temporarily, the twisting of the imaginal world to include the demonic underworlds that our souls contain and project into the cosmos beyond us.1

David has elsewhere elaborated on the metaphysics that support such speculation, and to my mind anyone committed to the classical conception of God and God’s relationship to the emanated or created cosmos must also affirm something like what David here describes: that God eternally sees in us the fullness of everything contained within our imaginations in analogous way to how God eternally sees and loves the logoi contained within the Logos.2 Further, if our imaginary realms afford us the possibility of encountering the “demonic underworlds that our souls contain,” then it seems to me the opposite must also be true: that our fantasies might also afford us the possibility of encountering the angelic within ourselves, which is always already an encounter of the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Spirit’s transfiguration of the cosmos into the manifestation of divine glory. Such an encounter is what we often seek when we turn to the imaginary realms of Tolkien and his ilk. We seek and find in these imaginary realms new faces and names through which to commune with God, and if we happen to be artists, writers, filmmakers, or game designers ourselves, this communion is also a co-creation.

I haven’t committed myself to any metaphysical exposition of the ontological status of the beings we encounter or create in our imaginary realms beyond a vague notion of their being in some way eternally present to God in a way that they are not for us, but such an eternal presence might account for the experience of many creative minds who describe the process of creation not as a bringing forth of something new but a discovery of something always already present but not yet fully revealed. That exposition will have to wait until another time. Tolkien beckons.

  1. Armstrong, David. “Gnosticism and the Otherself.A Perennial Digression (blog). Substack. October 9, 2021.
  2. Armstrong, David. “Worlds in the Word: On the Multiverse.” Mercy on All (blog). July 20, 2021.

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