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March 23, 2023

Tolkien and Creativity: Creation as Jazz - Part 2

Tolkien and Creativity: Creation as Jazz - Part 2

Where in all the fantasy worlds is the best place to be a Jazz player?

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One of the most inspiring aspects of Tolkien's work is his thinking about creativity. Following a question from a listener, Jacob Rennaker and Julia Golding discuss this using the poem Mythopoeia, the short story Leaf by Niggle and the essay 'On Fairy Stories' - all must-reads for Tolkien fans and anyone interested in writing fantasy. How does free will fit in the world of a Creator - and what has jazz music got to do with it? What was wrong with Feanor? And what is the value of the things you make? Stay tuned for musings about the spin-off series about the Star Wars Cantina band and much more! For those who are interested, here's a link to the Benjamin Saxton article mentioned during the conversation - well worth a read!

[Music] Welcome to part two of our discussion of Tolkien and creativity. Okay so let's move on to On Fairy Stories. For me, I mean again this is just a wonderful read. So many nuggets in this. I've got in my edition there's like sidebars of pencil all over the place. But one thing in particular I find really helpful is the answer to the question, is what I'm writing original? So that's really tricky. Somebody sort of doubts their own creativity. The anxiety of influence is another, you know, am I just writing too much like somebody else. There's a C.S. Lewis quote about this which is helpful. He says, "Man, but if a person doesn't give tuppence about being original but just wants to write truth, nine times out of ten they'll find they are being original." So you can just forget about that entirely and just try and tell the truth as you see it and you'll end up being original. But I think in this, on fairy stories in terms of our creativity, what Tolkien is saying, absolutely you're going to be using things that other people have used before because it's all gone into the cauldron of story. And he has this sort of long extended metaphor about the cauldron, about all the things that have gone into it. He's sort of mentioning all the things he loves that have gone into it, all the myths and legends and fairy stories of the past. And then he goes on to say, "But if we speak of a cauldron, we must not wholly forget the cooks. There are many things in the cauldron, but the cooks do not dip in the ladle quite blindly. Their selection is important." So that's your role. You've got available to you dragons and werewolves and vampires and ghosts and princesses, you know, the whole thing. And it's how you dip in your ladle. I think here, what he's pointing at is the role of the intentionality. And it did make me think, because I've been sort of worrying at this recently because of all the anxiety at the moment about chatbot GPT and all these other AI generated material, that you could say that they're doing a very similar thing. There's a massive cauldron out there of everything that's ever been written that this algorithm is skimming away at and producing parsable material. But what is lacking there is the cook. There's a cook behind the AI program, but there is no intention on the part of the algorithm. It's obeying an instruction from you, but it's blind to what it's putting together. It doesn't feel anything about it. It can't. Not until we're in the world of Star Trek and data. At the moment, as far as we're aware, they don't feel anything about this material. So I think one answer to what's right and what's wrong about AI doing this sort of selection is don't forget the cook. So even if the cook is using the equivalent of a microwave to heat up a meal by plugging something into the algorithm, there still has to be a cook doing more than just blindly following something that comes back out. don't just scoop out this stuff with a massive ladle and slop it onto the world, literally world. Because that is happening at the moment. There was a science fiction publisher who has said it's closed its list to new entries because it was being swamped by AI generated work. Of course, the front runner on this will be a science fiction publisher because people who write science fiction would be more techie and using these things, but it's going to be elsewhere too. It'll be going to romance and literary fiction and elsewhere. So we have to rethink the role of the cook in all this, I think, if we're going to have literature going forward. I can't imagine anything more anti-Tolkien than Chatbot GPT. Can you? He would be just, I don't know. Dropping his pride. I think he would say, yeah. So he would say, well, 'cause he's already suspicious of technology and things that are used just to further... So, like, so he would say, yeah, that that's essentially, that's Melkorian magic, right? It's just like enslaving words that other people have created, distinguishing them and then using them for your own ends. I feel like that's what Tolkien would say. That would be his hot take. Yeah. So what else did you draw out of the On Fairy stories in the sense of creativity? Yeah, in terms of the personal creativity for authors, artists, individuals, I think for me there's a couple different things. One of them was kind of again this capacity that we saw in mythopoeia where essentially right where we make in the law by which we're made, right, you're referring to TS Eliot, right, that each individual has something innate in them that allows them to create, right? The humanity, one of our shared capacities is for creation. That's what sets us apart from the other animals and trees. And like you were saying that or from AI chatbots is that we are doing something with language. And so like the ability so that's one thing that so each person but by a true the fact that we use language and that we can be aware about the language that we use we can use it intentionally. And so he so I love this how he equates language with magic. And so I just want to read a little bit of here. This is again from from fairy stories says the the human mind endowed with the powers of generalization and abstraction sees not only green grass discriminating it from other things, but sees that it is green as well as being grass. So, you can separate not just like green grass as like a single word, a single object, but this is grass and it is green. So, he says, but how powerful, how stimulating to the very faculty that produced it, the invention of the adjective. No spell or incantation and inferiority is more potent. So he's saying that adjectives, by qualifying nouns-- so I'm not saying grass, but green grass-- that's something that is powerful, our ability to qualify, give quality to a particular object. So he goes on to say, "the mind that thought of light, heavy, gray, yellow, still, swift"-- and those are thoughts that we've all had daily-- "also conceived of magic that would make heavy things light and be able to fly, turn gray lead into yellow gold, stoke into a swift water. When we can take green from grass, blue from heaven, and red from blood, we have all the an encounter's power. So each person, essentially-- and I love the way that that kind of reframes just our conversations, like what we're having right now. This is kind of a-- and it's not like a magical duel. That's an argument. And an argument, any argument, can seen as a duel of magic because you're using words and you're using them for certain purposes and you can use words to make people hurt, you can use words to make people laugh, you can use words to make people feel joy and think and it's the words themselves how you're shaping them not just using those sounds or just saying words but your intention as the creator to do that. You can do it and fashion things and so he says using those adjectives so just the fact like just that I think is remarkable and is revolutionary for me is like, yes, like just the fact that I can qualify a noun, I can say that it is green grass, that I can then say, oh, well, what about blue grass? And Tolkien uses this idea here, like the green sun, right? Positing and creating a world in which these things can be other than what we're experiencing right now. He says, we may put a deadly green upon a man's face and produce a horror. We may make the rare and terrible blue moon to shine, or we may cause woods to spring with silver leaves and rams to wear fleeces of gold and put hot fire in the belly of the cold worm. But in such fantasy, as it is called, new form is made. Fairy begins, man becomes subcreator." So this is going back to that term subcreator that we saw in Nithapia. And so he kind of essentially says this aspect of mythology or subcreation, rather than either representation or symbolic interpretation of the beauties and terrors of the world is, I think, too little considered. So, where you have mythology, he's addressing people that are talking about Andrew Lang and the mode of understanding myth is good to this school. And what he's addressing is people who are looking at the idea of creation of mythology, that how this has happened historically are the humanities longing for putting order and making sense of the world. So, this is essentially, these are just kind of allegories, if you will, for how the world works. So Thor is actually just thunder and lightning. That's the and they're just creating there because they're too simple to people are too simple to understand it in terms of like barometric pressure and precipitation and these sorts of things and how, you know, liquids become solid and evaporate and that. So, they're kind of a more simplistic in this way of saying, more simplistic mode of engaging the world is just understanding what's already there in kind of symbolic, visceral terms. But what Tolkien is saying here is, well, another type of mythology is taking the language and remixing it, right? Rearranging it intentionally to create something wholly new to create a green sun to create dwarves to create beings so that they then become something wholly new that doesn't actually exist in our world but then becomes part of this what he calls a secondary world which is what you're creating. Yeah so that's something I don't know from on various stories Julia for you where he's talking about sub-creation and the creation of fantasy. What did you take away as a fantasy author? What were the implications for you? Oh, so many things. But I think one of the things is don't patronize our ancestors. So don't think, "Oh, Thor is only..." Going back to your example, "Thor is only an explanation for thunder." It's not. Thor is a character. He's grown into his own world. He's much more than just a pseudo-scientific explanation of a just-so story, I suppose. And another thing I took away, and I think this is why so many of us love Tolkien, is that sense of intensity. When you look at the way fantasy captures and describes the tree, the hill, the home, the hearth. There is something extra, that silver-breathed idea of Lewis, but with retaining the magic. And that runs all the way through this essay, is that sense of how you're entering a special atmosphere and why we want to go there and go home. and he has a phrase about this actually, which is a sort of defense of escapism. Why should a man be scorned if finding himself in prison he tries to get out and go home? Or if then when he cannot do so he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison walls? So there's a sense of there is a kind of home that you can find within fantasy and that's not... it has meaning. It's not just a lie and answering to the C.S. Lewis problem that he raised back when he was writing Myth Appear. But let's do a little nice little segue to Trian Leaf, which is at one point in this essay, he says, "Who can design a new leaf? The pattern from bud to unfolding and the colours from spring to autumn were all discovered by men long ago, but that is not true." He's basically saying there's yet more places that you can develop a leaf and that's Niggle's problem. He's trying to paint, he wants to paint the whole landscape, but he's got stuck doing a leaf because he's trying to get it right. Clearly there is a bit of self-satire here because Tolkien did niggle away at his world in a delightful sense. And the neighbor who pulls Tolkien away, possibly the neighbor who's cutting down the tree, you know, going back to that issue, Mr Parrish stands for Parrish Duties, I suppose. It could mean the calls on your life by, you know, admin at the university and having to fix the car and wash the windows, you know, that stuff. He liked doing the garden, but feed the chickens, whatever it was that he found more of an onerous task. Mr. Parrish is...I think Tolkien's aware that he...that person, that thing is necessary in his life because what happens in the story is, for old Niggles trying to do this leaf, he doesn't get very far and then when he goes on his journey, which is a sort of metaphor for death, and he gets to the other side, Mr. Parrish is there and together, putting Mr. Parrish's knowledge with Niggle's artistry, they're able to create something even more beautiful. So it's a is pretty much an allegory. I don't know, am I allowed to say it's an allegory? Because Tolkien hated allegories. It feels very allegorical to me if you think about... it does feel more within the kind of Pilgrim's Progress sort of structure. So I don't know. Am I am I committing some kind of... I think I don't think I hear. Yeah, I think, no, I think, yeah, I think you'd, I would like to think, Tolkien would be okay with us thinking about this as allegory, because this is again, this is like a different mode. This is him kind of reflecting upon his own creative life and its impact, right? So I do not think he would be, or is turning in his grave at this sort of conversation because I'm taking it seriously and putting it in the context of his life. Yeah, and we're free to apply it to other things. So that word applicability he was he was happier with. So with this, he does actually, there is the pressure in Niggle's life that what he's doing isn't worth anything. Why are you spending all this time just working on one leaf? And then finding that that leaf is actually a thing that creates a whole new world after death. I'm reminded of the sort of, um, the last battle, um, the different versions of Narnia. There's a sense that you enter in new worlds and it becomes more real and there's more to discover. So, both Lewis and Tolkien have a sort of concept of the next, what happens after death, as being creative and more real. And I think both of them are drawing on the sense of that fairy tales are capturing something more visceral, more profound. So maybe that's something that we see after, now we see through a glass darkly, then we shall see face to face. It's obviously the biblical way of phrasing that. So I think it's quite an optimistic work about the value of art. MG Yeah, I see it. Yeah, no, no, go ahead. I was going to say, I think that's a really good way for Tolkien to reconcile himself to the fact that he's never going to finish his project to write The Silmarillion. And maybe in a sense he doesn't want to. Because you know, you'd never say, "Oh yes, I've finished writing the history of my world." Because that would close it down and make it hermetically sealed and maybe it would die. Whereas this, by having it branching off and continuing, keeps it alive. Yeah, yeah, no, I think that's a beautiful way of putting it that and like in, you know, personal letters, and you kind of alluded to this earlier that he saw what he was doing with the creation of Middle Earth is something that that he said, the language he uses that other, you know, hands and minds would be able to work with and that they could work out other corners of this canvas, they could, you know, in an opera, right in an art, and it would inspire people. So it's an open system, like you're saying, instead of a closed system. And I think that's that idea of openness to creation. Like you said, that maybe he'd never actually really wanted to finish the Silmarillion. - I don't know, I was psychoanalyzing Tolkien. - 'Cause he keeps tinkering, he keeps nickeling with it to his dying day, right? He's still like playing with these different ideas. And so here, yeah, in this story, you see that beautifully illustrated by somebody who just like keeps going and he's like, I can't possibly do this. And then he realizes that he's going to die. And so he knows that it's coming. He's like, well, I can't focus on one thing. Or maybe, maybe I'll, and he's rushing to figure like, I'm going to just do this leaf or this tree. And then it just kind of keeps growing and expanding. But for me, yeah, this, this, this leaf by niggle speaks to a few different things. I said like this optimistic view of the creative act and our creative legacy as well. So it's the, creative atmosphere, right? The kind of context in which we create is inseparable from the community in which we live. And so with the leaf, when - so he's painting - recap of the story, you know, he's painting this leaf and this tree and that's kind of his life work and he's always thinking about it and he's annoyed at his neighbor for asking him to help fix his house and help with his wife who's sick and everything else is an inconvenience and he'll curse at them in his mind or under his breath, but never to their faces. And he's always willing to do nice things, but it's kind of grudgingly. But he just wants to get back to this work, and then he dies. And then ultimately, he sees this work represented in some other place. It's been made real. And when he looks at this tree that he's been painting and kind of imagining and trying to work out, he sees that the tree has all these leaves, and they're familiar. He knows that it's the tree that he was painting, but as it really is, or as he really wanted it to be in his mind. But as he looks at each of the leaves, they each have a little date on them for when which part was created. And he said that the leaves that he thought the very best leaves were also done in conjunction with Parrish, this annoying neighbor. So, your creative output, you can't divorce it. You can't just and shouldn't just isolate yourself, you know, kind of monastically or even monasteries. That was still in the comics of community. You can't just be like an anchorite, like out in the desert and just like be completely segregated because the best art that we do is when we are engaging with others as people in the world and taking them seriously. And this speaks to that, right? So the best parts of his creation were done with some sort of input influence, as grudging as that was from his annoying next door neighbor. And so it kind of opens us up, I believe, as creatives to the idea of welcoming in interruptions, right? Welcoming what's annoying, taking life seriously. And like you said with CS Lewis, you know, if you end up writing truth, like the truth of your life and your experience, your genuine engagement with humanity, that's going to be a real, that's going to be far more original and interesting than anything that you're kind of trying to do yourself for your own purposes. Again, that kind of Melchorian, I'm doing this for my own world because I want to create this and I want to be seen as this creator of this world. One of the things that it one of these voices that is talking about Nicol and they're trying to say like do we let him out of essentially purgatory yeah into the next stage. There's two voices arguing one saying like no he was he wasn't kind to his neighbors. He was he and he didn't even paint that well? Like why should we let him go? He needs to kind of keep working this out. But then this other voice, kind of the voice of mercy, says well he was a painter by nature in many ways. He's still in many ways still a leaf by niggle has a charm of its own. He took a great deal. He niggle took a great deal of pains with leaves just for their own sake but he never thought that made him important. So again there's that attitude and intention. It's not writing for the sake of becoming a famous painter, a famous author. This is concerning yourself with the creative work for its own purpose and because it's inherently good and you're bringing something beautiful in the world not just for you to look at like Feyenor or your family to look at and peek at and shield from others but this is really the act of creation is an act of a gift to the world or should be in its highest and best sense. And so, because when art is done in that mode, then it becomes something that enriches others and can inspire them to do the same or do other things in their lives. And so, really, what we see at the end of the story that's really inspiring is, you know, Nicol didn't think that he drew well, right? And he draws - and the little - what was left behind when he died ended up getting burned ultimately. A little bit was recovered, put in a museum, but then like that museum burned and later so nobody knew it. But the idea of it and when people did interact with it, as small as it was and as meager as it was, what these kind of voices say at the end of the story is that this leaf in this other world, you know, as he lived on, So the legacy of this story that he was creating, or this leaf, this painting that he was doing just for its own sake to make something beautiful, one of the voices says, "It is proving very useful indeed as a holiday, as a refreshment, or as in fairy stories you'd say as an escape. It is splendid for convalescence. And not only for that, for many it is the best introduction to the mountains." And so in this story, the mountains is higher truth, higher reality. So this little leaf that he was-- wasn't doing even that well, that because it was a genuine, generous, creative act, it's serving as kind of a conduit for people to see something bigger that lies behind it and kind of inspires people to move on to bigger, better, and brighter things in their world. And this voice says, it works wonders in some cases, and I'm sending more and more there. So more people are being referred to, their friends are referring each other to this work because it's doing something for them. And we do see, and again, this is before, contextually in Tolkien's life, this is before he's created, before he's published Lord of the Rings. So this is, I think, in a sense, prophetic, like unimaginably prophetic. So this is kind of optimistic. It's funny, isn't it? Yeah. But this actually, because this happens, this is what actually happens with Lord of the Rings, right? recommends it to each other and you're inspired by it, you reread it. And for some, like, it touches a nerve in people that makes them, they want to live inside this world. This makes them aware of, it doesn't shy away from sorrow, sadness, pain, heartache, and tragedy, but there's something in it that inspires, that can give you the strength to go on and to do good in whatever way that is, in whatever small, hobbitish way that is, that you can bring something and do something good to help the world move in a better, brighter direction and you're part of it. - I must bear these lessons in mind when I'm writing. I've actually just this week handed in a 90,000 word novel to my publisher for editing. And when you're doing that, at the end, there is an element of, you go through a whole kind lifecycle when you're writing a novel. Part of it is the business side of it. The sort of outward focus, how does this work in the market, all that kind of thing. The bit that you really want to protect and to value is the leaf by niggle bit, which is the how can I make this a distinct world, something which is my sub-creation. And it's keeping hold of those whilst also doing it as a profession that is, can be quite a challenge. Anyway, so thank you. I think we've covered that quite a lot of ground there, but there is always more to say. I'm sure we'll dip back into this in many different directions over the course of our conversations. But I thought I would wrap this up by asking you the usual question about where in all the fantasy worlds is the best place to be something. And in honor of the idea we all get to play jazz in and have riffs of our own, what about jazz? Where do you think is the best place to be a jazz player in all the fantasy worlds? Why would you like to wander on with your saxophone or your drums? I know I've already used this answer for a previous one. We're talking about a professor. OK, so you're going back there again. Going back, yes. So Temerant, the world of the name of the wind with Patrick Rothfuss. So it had some of the most gorgeous descriptions of music. And in that world, again, so language is power. And knowing the names, the true names of things, much like in Ursula Gwynne's works with Earthsea, words have power and one of these characters you know is because they're concerned about words and the beauty of sounds and stories they're essentially a bard and sing and then it's this beautiful description that can like stop the breaths of an entire stadium, an auditorium, uh where the the description it has of right this main character there and how everybody's kind of hanging on every note, every word of that song. He's kind of, he really is casting a spell on them. And that just, yeah, that part. The lute playing. Yes. Yes. Yeah. And actually it does have that freestyling thing because he, in one scene, he's playing, hoping that a female voice is going to join him. He doesn't know if it is going to happen or not. Right. But there's a sense of, if this is going to work, it sends a jeopardy. It's going to work if someone else joins me, but not if they don't. Right. Right. Yeah, so for me, I think I'd like to extend the Star Wars world. I know they've extended it in many, many ways through all their Mandalorians and what have you. But obviously we all know about the Cantina Band. Why is nobody making the Star Wars extension about that Cantina Band? I think that would be hilarious. It'd make a wonderful cartoon. I want to be in the Cantina Band because they don't seem to get hurt. They seem to survive, which is good. But you could imagine them, you know, getting a gig at the back there and perhaps getting a bit of fame and then going off to another location and you can have a whole sort of subset story about their Troubadour life, seeing sort of side views of the main Star Wars action. That's where I would go. It's a great idea. I love that. And what about a top fantasy tip? Have you got something you'd like to share with us? I do. And I can finally talk about it now because it is officially on shelves and available for purchase on Amazon and other places, but it is for those of you who are saying I have here the Lord of the Rings adventure book game produced by Ravensburger, this is a company that I work for. And so yeah, so this is a great game. It's based off of the films and not the book specifically, so it's taking, drawing kind of narrative beats from the film specifically. So there's, unfortunately you will not find Tom Bob Baddill in here. >> So very kindly, you sent me an advanced copy of this when I started playing it with my family. What I really like about it is I hate really competitive games like Monopoly, where you can spend hours feeling really miserable because you've got only the old Kent Road to your name. In this, you are working cooperatively and you have to be aware of what everybody else has got in order to achieve the story. And because my children no longer live at home but come back from time to time, we can go back into this game and say, "Right, we're on to the next chapter. Let's have a go of that." It doesn't take hours and hours like diplomacy or something. -Right, yes. -So we've thoroughly enjoyed what we've played so far and it's very pleasingly got a nice book that you sort of work your way through. My top tip this week is, um, not Star Wars, it's Star Trek, that Star Trek Picard has come back. And I thought the last season was a bit weak. I didn't really like it that much. It was okay, but I really am enjoying this third and final series. There's the pleasure for people who followed Star Trek, of seeing old faces coming back. But, you know, there's a few creaky bones out there, in terms of they're all much older, obviously. But there's a, I think it seems to be quite an interesting story and it's building quite nicely. So I am looking forward to the weekly episodes. So if you're a Trekkie who's not been following the Picard, you might enjoy this. You could actually join it in the last season. You don't need to have watched the previous ones to understand what's happening. Yeah, so they're still being creative out there in the world of Star Trek and I wait for the call from the Star Wars studio for me to pitch my cantina band side story. Thank you, Jacob. Thank you so much. And thank you very much for listening. Thanks for listening to Myth Makers Podcast. 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