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Sub-creation was a term used by J.R.R. Tolkien for a philosophical concept that he applied to all aspects of his life, including his work on the legendarium. It described the inclination of all living beings to create things within the primary world (i.e. the physical world in which they inhabit), using materials and experiences derived from the primary world. The primary world in this framework came to exist through an act of true creation - that is to say the creation of something from nothing.
In real life, Tolkien, as a Catholic, credited this act of true creation to the Christian God. Within the legendarium, however, the Creator is known as Eru Ilúvatar. When describing the relationship between the legendarium and the real world, Tolkien would often refer to Arda as his secondary world, constructed within a real primary world.
In Arda[edit | edit source]
"Sub-creation" was used to describe the creative efforts of the Ainur and Incarnates, such as Elves, Men, Dwarves, and Hobbits, all of whom are themselves either creations of Eru Ilúvatar or, in the case of the Dwarves, created by the Vala Aulë and later given life by Eru. These creations, therefore, come about through the process of "sub-creation", as true creation is the province of Eru alone.
A notable example of sub-creation and its limitations is Morgoth's efforts to produce races such as Orcs and Trolls. Unable to duplicate true creation, Morgoth instead corrupted or emulated beings already in existence: Orcs were produced either from corrupted Elves or Men, while Trolls were said to have been made in mockery of the Ents using the element of stone. Morgoth was hence unable to master true creation, and ultimately all that he did would in the end serve only to further the plan which Eru had set into motion at the beginning of Eä.
In reality[edit | edit source]
"Sub-creation" was also used by J.R.R. Tolkien to refer to process of worldbuilding and creating myths. In this context, a human author is a "little maker", creating his own world as a subset within God's primary creation. Like the beings of Middle-earth, Tolkien saw his works as mere emulation of the true creation performed by God.