Tolkien, Sub-Creation, and Me: Confessions of a Student Filmmaker

by Natalie Mulvahill

I entered HBU as a cinematic arts student and began to burn out my first semester. I loved film — at least in theory — but came to dread filmmaking because I was crushed under the weight of my own standards. I sacrificed sleep, social interaction, and very nearly my boyfriend so I could focus on making the best films in my classes. But the more I wore myself out for a project, the more embarrassing the final product. I deeply regretted that we use digital film instead of the old-fashioned film strips; I would have liked to physically burn some of my videos.

Like most art students, I had lofty dreams about making important statements and changing the world with my creations; I wanted to make important films like Schindler’s List and Citizen Kane. And like most art students, I was actually just trying to justify my existence through my work. My standards for myself were overwhelming because my identity was at stake in my work. People say art is self-expression, after all. If I made something mediocre, that made me mediocre, right?

Oddly, what caused me to rethink the definition of art was when my boyfriend proposed. That happened the summer before my junior year. I realized my lifestyle (a continual uphill crawl through the fiery blazes of my own burnouts toward some vague but lofty goal) was incompatible with maintaining a healthy marriage. I was terrified that I had to choose between filmmaking and my fiancé. So I began to very seriously consider, “What does it mean to be an artist?”

Around that time, one of my classes assigned the Ainulindale, a story by the well-beloved Lord of the Rings author, J.R.R. Tolkien. The Ainulindale tells of how Middle-Earth was created, and it is essentially Tolkien’s thesis on what he believes making art is — and is not. In it, the God-like character Iluvatar forms the Ainur, who are essentially angelic beings. After teaching the Ainur music, Iluvatar begins a theme and invites them to embellish his composition with their own harmonies. Through Iluvatar’s power, the symphony they play together creates Middle-Earth. One Ainur’s harmony becomes the seas, another’s becomes the hills, another’s the winds, and so on, until the whole beautiful world is formed.

However, an Ainur named Melkor, wishing to make himself greater than the others, rebels against Iluvatar’s theme by playing his own melody. The result, of course, is musical discord, which becomes reflected in Middle-Earth. Because of Melkor, darkness enters Middle-Earth, and terrible places like Mordor are made.

This story sent me on a journey to understand the implications of Tolkien’s artistic theory. In his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” Tolkien explains explicitly his ideas about creation which underlie the Ainulindale. Essentially, God is the ultimate Artist because He is the Creator, who formed the universe ex nihilo (“out of nothing”). We cannot create ex nihilo; therefore we are what Tolkien calls “sub-creators.” Like the Ainur harmonizing with Iluvatar’s theme, we are invited to participate in God’s creative work by taking His materials and forming new things out of them – whether it be a sculpture, a film, a clay pot, or a cathedral. Collaborating with my department’s best cinematographers was enough to excite me, and here Tolkien was saying that to be an artist is to collaborate with God Himself.

Following my engagement, sub-creation seemed to become a theme in my classes as my professors elaborated on what collaboration with God looked like. God’s creation is full of patterns and rhythms that He established in the beginning: the laws of physics, the cycle of day and night, the seasons, truth, morality – and so forth. To harmonize with His “theme,” I need to be tuned into those rhythms. Think of Bach and Mozart and how studies on their music show that listening to their compositions increases happiness and intelligence, makes plants grow healthier, etc. They were men deeply tuned into the patterns of the world, and their music reflects the order and beauty of creation itself. There’s a reason people love making mixes of “Mozart with nature sounds” and “Bach with birds singing.” Their music and nature harmonize remarkably well.

Looking at my own lifestyle, I realized that nothing about it harmonized with God’s created order. In the first place, I pretended that the rhythms of day and night did not exist, working and sleeping at odd hours. I regularly worked for twenty-four hours straight so I could make a short film in one day. I also violated one of the oldest established patterns of creation — that of the Sabbath. The Creator Himself rested on the seventh day, but I considered my work too important to take a break from. Hebrews 4:10 states, “For he that is entered into [God’s] rest, he also hath ceased from his own works, as God did from his.” We are commanded to enter God’s rest and, as the psalmist sang, to “behold the beauty of the Lord” (Psalm 27:4). I, on the other hand, considered myself too busy trying to create beauty to spend time seeking the source of beauty. I cut myself off from nature, from people, and from God and wondered why nothing I made felt right.

Essentially, I was Melkor, trying to dominate instead of sub-create. Tolkien describes Melkor’s music as “loud, and vain, and endlessly repeated; and it had little harmony, but rather a clamorous unison as of many trumpets braying upon a few notes.” Like Melkor, I wanted to stand out from everyone else, and as a result, my films were as abrasive as his music, always either too dramatic or too saccharine. I had very personal messages that I wanted to get across. On the surface, they seemed good – elevating women, exposing injustice – but everything I made started to sound like a loud, broken record.

We’ve all watched films that tried to beat us over the head with some moral message. They’re never enjoyable, because even if the moral is good, they are the equivalent of Melkor blaring his trumpets to drown out Iluvatar. I realized this is why Christian films feel fake and abrasive. Movies like God’s Not Dead place the message above the storytelling, resolving character arcs through revelatory sermons and compelling plots into unrealistically perfect endings. Despite good intentions, they try to dominate by forcing their own agendas on their audience — the same thing propaganda does. According to Tolkien, this is the least Christian way to make art. I had always criticized such movies, but here I was guilty of the same mistake.

At the same time I was working through these thoughts, my health took a downhill turn. My physical weakness forced me to begin abiding by the rhythms of rest God intended for humans. I took a step back from some of my work and began spending more time with people and with God. Tolkien shows that sub-creation springs from community. The Ainur’s beautiful music is a result of their relationships with each other and with Iluvatar and listening to each other. This is ultimately reflective of the Trinity. God is Love because He is a community of three; thus He created through love, and art and love should never be divorced. My worry that making films and being married were incompatible proved I was doing it wrong.

Along with more time in community, I also became more intentional about enjoying beauty in nature, even through acts as simple as picking wildflowers from the campus grounds and putting them in jars. As a result of all these new habits, I have noticed myself becoming more aware of patterns and more tuned into beauty. My once-drained creativity has returned. I am certainly still passionate about promoting justice and all those other values I wanted to communicate. But instead of forcing myself and my agenda into my work, I would rather become so tuned into the order and beauty that God established that I begin to harmonize with Him as I respond to His creation with my sub-creation. So far from feeling my identity and values suppressed, I feel more myself than I ever have before. I am who I was made to be and I’ll make what I was meant to make when I submit to the Creator whose image I am created in.

Natalie Mulvahill is studying filmmaking and writing at HBU and works in communications and marketing. She thrives on coffee, tea, and great conversations.

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