The Wonderful World of Sub-Creation

Continuing from our previous session.

The world is complex. To say it is irreducibly complex is no exaggeration; every aspect of nature speaks to overarching principles, underlying mechanisms, infinite interactions, and webs of cause-and-effect inextricably entangled in a wondrous, organic system. Examining one element of nature (be it mathematical, chemical, or biological) can easily lead to the investigation of another, and together they not only form a broader picture of the whole, but also lend more meaning or significance to the individual components when viewed in relation to each other. The same is true of human beings concerning our nature, the societies we build, their histories, and the institutions which support and enrich our lives.

It then follows that to study the idea of “art” only, apart from the historical and societal context in which specific works or styles were first created, is a step short of forming a deeper understanding of particular pieces of art beyond their mere appearance. Indeed, the entire concept of the liberal arts in education is the need to study and learn about the whole in order to better understand its pieces, and not merely remain in compartmentalized academic disciplines.

This lens—the examination of the whole-which-is-greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts—reveals something similar when using it to consider narrative. By definition, a story presents a particular series of events through certain perspectives and uses a closed set of characters; the storyteller limits the elements of the story to highlight what matters within it. This limitation to the essential is why readers of novels can ingest such works in their entirety, identify their themes, and then derive lessons that unfold over the course of pages and chapters.

As with the liberal arts, even when a reader is presented with a limited narrative, the tale retains connections and significance beyond its own scope, which then opens doors for an audience to inquire further into questions raised by literature. The incidents in Hamlet’s play might be resolved after its performance or reading, for instance, but the character’s struggle with both indecision and the desire for revenge lingers after the curtains close. Audience members carry that with them beyond the play’s pages. From that moment on, they have a reference point for the same feelings that may arise from their own experiences, or by which they might examine the actions of others. Shakespeare’s words are bounded by their context and can be encountered on their own terms, but they nevertheless point outward and upward into the living world of man in myriad ways.

With this premise of work-within-the-whole in mind, I offer the perspective of J.R.R. Tolkien and his understanding of man as a sub-creator, “an artist made and making in the image of the ultimate creator, God.” As a writer, Tolkien used words to craft an imaginary world that nevertheless holds true moral lessons, reflects a cosmology rooted in Judeo-Christian faith, hints at its shaping in light of linguistic and historical realities (particularly in British and northern European culture), and inspires wonder in its readers. Middle-earth’s artistry and profound substance are artifacts made by man, but devoting one’s attention to this fictitious world almost inevitably invites readers to also examine the real world with a moral imagination framed by Tolkien’s tenets of humility, heroism, and beauty.

Tolkien explicitly thought of Middle-earth and all its lore as “a single entity revealed to him over time,” which he merely received and recorded “as a scrivener of God’s myth.” For Tolkien, sub-creation by man reflects God’s work in creation, pointing us towards more foundational truths, in which the sub-creator plays the role of a revealing spotlight. The elements that man cobbles together already exist independently of himself, and their particular combination then speaks to a higher design.

Likely, few other authors think of their work in terms quite so self-effacing, but there is something to be said for the idea that their works are neither wholly their own. The elements they draw together to form their stories find their roots elsewhere, be it in other stories or external personal experiences. Neither are their stories nor wholly contained, because a reader has the freedom to take and apply what he has read into his own life. 

If this is true of writers and novelists, I propose that the same is true for GMs who craft and run RPGs for their players. The mechanics are much the same: a GM presents a setting to his audience, crafts scenarios for them to consider, but then also invites participants to play out those situations themselves. Indeed, the collaboration between GM and players nurtures a living world unique in its expression and development, with every participant contributing to the work at large. All involved may appreciate the (apparent) spontaneity of events within a campaign—especially since no one involved can be absolutely certain how things will turn out before the dice are rolled—but their role in the GM’s design, especially when examined after the fact, can become a remarkable reminder of the perspective that we ought to hold as living beings in a designed world of God’s creation.

The complexity of our world is so omnipresent that we become inured to it; its constant presence inoculates us against the wonder it rightfully inspires. When we delve into new worlds of fantasy and imagination, if they are constructed thoughtfully, we can be struck anew by such distilled connections that linger just below and beyond our first encounters with them. Players may hear hints of the GM’s worldbuilding in passing (the names of lost artifacts, fallen kingdoms, and the like) while focused on trivial things, like gathering supplies or exploring the wilderness. Then, they might unexpectedly find that those elements have shaped not only the setting’s past but also their characters’ present circumstances, and give weight to the consequences of their decisions. 

Perhaps by rescuing a villager from strange beasts, the players are following threads in a tapestry which will later reveal them as heroes in the making, with grand powers and responsibilities. Even when the characters are not “important” to the wider fictional world—that is, if they are merely getting by within it, telling a small personal story, and not saving it from calamity—they still interact with that world, with all its imaginary townsmen, threatening monsters, and mysteries not yet examined. Players and their actions are little stones constantly thrown into a pond, sending out ripples which call for introspection and careful consideration. How different is that from their everyday lives outside the game? How then should they act not only within but outside it?

Telling a compelling story through any such artful means may be not only a useful, but laudable way to remind players of the nature of their own world and the glory in its creation.  As a spark can set a fire, or a glance turn into a gaze, an encounter in an engaging RPG world can orient its participants toward the higher, true world outside it—and from there, to the Maker over all, with all the duties and gifts revealed in His designs.

Author: Aaron Kilgore

Aaron Kilgore graduated from Hillsdale College with a B.A. in Classical Studies, and from the University of Michigan with a Master's degree in Library and Information Science. He currently works as a librarian, acquiring and preserving the intellectual fruits of civilization. His interests revolve primarily around storytelling, fiction, and language.

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