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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

"Sub-creation" was used to describe the creative efforts of created beings, 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 Ilúvatar.[1]

Tolkien used sub-creation in middle earth to demonstrate sin and free will. In order for beings to have true free will no limits can be put on it. Ilúvatar created an unflawed Eä but his created beings were capable of erring and doing evil,[2] (Though never being wholly evil[3]). All evil that existed in Arda was of sub-creative origin.[2]


Ilúvatar gave special sub-creative powers to the Ainur. The Ainur (along with all other sub-creators) are unable to change any of the fundaments aspects of Arda, hence why the Valar called upon Ilúvatar when the Númenóreans broke the Ban of the Valar.[4]

When Aulë created the Dwarves they did not have souls and lacked free will,[1] this was because the creation of souls was not a power given by Ilúvatar to sub-creators.[4] Ilúvatar viewed this action as an mockery of him and stated that Aulë had tried to usurp the Creator's powers.[2] Similarly when Morgoth created races such as Orcs and Trolls he was unable to duplicate true creation and instead corrupted or emulated beings already in existence: Orcs were produced either from corrupted Elves or Men,[note 1] 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 his created beings lacked real souls.[4]

Ilúvatar gave the Ainur sub-creative powers with some limitations of how they should you use the Ainur being created beings had free will and could use sub-creation against the will of Ilúvatar.[4] Ilúvatar tolerated this,[4] and ultimately all that he did would in the end serve only to further the plan which Ilúvatar had set into motion at the beginning of .[5]

In reality

"Sub-creation" was also used by J.R.R. Tolkien to refer to process of worldbuilding and creating myths.[6] 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.[4]

...liberation 'from the channels the creator is known to have used already' is the fundamental function of 'sub-creation', a tribute to the infinity of His potential variety, one of the ways in which indeed it is exhibited...

See also


  1. There are several theories as to the origins of Orcs all of which rely on sub-creation by Morgoth. For a more in-depth explanation see Orcs/Origin