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  • Coleridge's Definition of Imagination and Tolkien's Definition(s) of Faery
  • Michael Milburn (bio)

Verlyn Flieger and Douglas A. Anderson have identified the word "Faery" as perhaps "the single most important term in Tolkien's critical lexicon," but it is not always clear what he means by it (OFS 85). Tolkien introduces his most basic definition of the word in his seminal essay "On Fairy-stories," when he writes that "fairy-stories are not in normal English usage stories about fairies or elves, but stories about Fairy, that is Faërie,1 the realm or state in which fairies have their being." However, when it comes to elaborating on "the nature of Faërie," he appears to back off: "I will not attempt to define that, nor to describe it directly. It cannot be done. Faërie cannot be caught in a net of words; for it is one of its qualities to be indescribable, though not imperceptible." Yet within this same paragraph, he does attempt to define Faery—as "Magic" (OFS 32). In earlier draft material for the essay (which has only recently been published with Flieger and Anderson's new edition) he also defines Faery as both "the occult power in nature behind the usable and tangible appearances of things" and "the power to achieve beauty" (OFS 264, 269). And, as Flieger and Anderson have pointed out, "On Fairy-stories" cannot be taken as "Tolkien's last word on the subject," for he later discusses Faery in a companion essay to his short story Smith of Wootton Major (OFS 157). There, he adds both "love" and "Imagination" to his definitions of Faery (Smith 101). Flieger insists that while Tolkien's spellings of the word may have varied,2 "his concept remained consistent" (Smith 60). But with no less than five definitions—none of which seem particularly consistent with each other—one is tempted to ask, "Well, which of them is it?" I believe there is in fact an answer to this question but one that nevertheless proves Flieger right. Imagination may be taken as Tolkien's "definitive" definition of Faery, not simply because it was the last one that he gave, but because it incorporates all of his previous attempts to define the term.3

When Tolkien defines Faery as "Imagination" in his essay on "Smith of Wootton Major," he specifies that the word "Imagination" is being given "without definition because taking in all the definitions of this word …" (Smith 101). That he did not have in mind Coleridge's definition of imagination when he wrote this is inconceivable, for it is certainly the most famous definition of imagination in the English language. Indeed, Tolkien immediately follows up with a series of epithets that confirm what he means by "Imagination": "esthetic: exploratory and receptive; [End Page 55] and artistic; inventive, dynamic, (sub)creative" (101). The phrase "exploratory and receptive" corresponds to Coleridge's "primary" imagination, the "prime Agent of all human Perception," while "artistic" and "inventive" correspond to Coleridge's "secondary" imagination, which differs from the primary not in kind but only by degree and "in the mode of its operation," for it "dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to re-create. … " The word "dynamic" corresponds to Coleridge's claim that imagination "is essentially vital, even as all objects (as objects) are essentially fixed and dead." Most importantly, "(sub)creative" is Tolkien's characteristic way of putting Coleridge's idea that imagination is "a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM." These are all the major features of Coleridge's definition (Biographia 1: 304). And it is precisely through this reference to Coleridge that Tolkien's definition of Faery as "Imagination" incorporates his other attempts to define the term.

To demonstrate this, I will begin with Tolkien's definition of Faery as "Magic." However, as soon as Tolkien has defined Faery as "Magic" in "On Fairy-stories," he immediately redirects the reader through a footnote to a later passage where he expresses regret for having used this word, since "Magic should be reserved for the operations of the Magician" (OFS 32, 64). Yet in earlier draft material for the...


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