Wednesday, 16 January 2019

Billy Liar and Tolkien's Sub-Creation

Once more, with feeling.

There are certain hobbies - D&D, certainly; model railways and model village-making, definitely; arguably also military-modelling - for which the creation of miniature worlds is a chief component. Whether it's a DM creating his own campaign setting (which could be literally an entire world or just a small region of one), a model railway enthusiast setting up a rail network complete with villages and mountains in his attic (like, weirdly, Jools Holland), or a military history enthusiast setting up a diorama of a battle in his study, these people are united by an interest in a peculiar activity: the making up of imaginary places for its own sake.

There is a certain armchair psychological view that would have it that this sort of hobby is the exclusive preserve of socially-inept neckbeards who live in their mothers' basements and compensate for their complete lack of real-world success and influence by playing God with made-up places where the shackles which currently bind them do not apply.

The best statement of this view is probably Billy Liar, the novel/play/film about Billy Fisher, a young man still living with his parents, with a dead-end job, who fantasises about becoming a comedy writer, compulsively lies to make his life sound much more interesting than it really is, and spends much of his free time dreaming about a made-up place he calls "Ambrosia", of which he is the ruler. It's a kind of tragicomedy about a character who is endearing but also sort of monstrous: a warning about the perils of daydreaming.

Tolkien would take a different view. For him, God was the creator par excellence, and because we are made in his image we have a desire to create, too (to "subcreate"). This manifests itself in different ways, and can be good or bad (for Tolkien, staunch Catholic that he was, acts of subcreation which echo God's creation honour Him and are therefore good; those which mock it are bad) but all our creative (subcreative) activities are inescapably done in that context.

I think, though, that there is a perfectly credible non-religious interpretation of Tolkien's thesis, though, which is simply that human beings clearly have an urge to make places of their own. It's in D&D and model railways, but it's also in fiction writing, in gardening, in DIY, and in any sort of painting that isn't strictly representative. There is an impulse in all of us to take joy in, broadly speaking, imposing a desired sense of place in either physical reality or figurative-imaginative space. The socially inept nerd down in the basement drawing up his never-to-be-played D&D campaign setting is doing something deeply and wonderfully human, and should be congratulated for it.


  1. It’s fun to make pretend, but don’t forget its make pretend.

  2. isnt billy symphatetic character? along the lines, by tolkien i think, that the only ones that would object to escapism are jailers? maybe our problem is that jailers have followed us to the ambrosia?

    1. I think [spoiler alert!] the main point is that Billy basically achieves nothing and loses out on the love of good women because he is too attached to his fantasy life, no?

  3. no, he can not leave his family. his ambrosian fantasy is the only coping mechanism that is left to him. he could have left with liz, who is by the way the only one that understands his "life of mind", but he chooses to stay not beacuse he is coward and can not face the real world but beacuse he has to stay and face the mess of his grieving family.