I wrote this as a final essay for a class on the history of Literary Theory this last semester (Winter 2013). It’s a bit of a slog (although not nearly as esoteric as the class itself), but it ends with my ‘coining’ of the “Tolkienian Sublime” as an important literary term. I’ve always hated the modern sublimists who limit the concept to some paltry ‘fear of the unknown’ whether it be technology, or economy, or simply cosmology. This is my (admittedly superficial) response to their machinations.

-Nobody Important

“Their ‘magic’ is Art, delivered from many of its human limitations.”[1]

         The sphere of literature is full of inexplicable paradoxes and unanswerable questions, expressed through the poesy of the creatively inclined. Literary criticism, by contrast, necessitates the tricksy disentanglement of said paradoxes and philosophical exposition for the benefit of a less forgiving audience. Not that criticism claims to explain all the enigmas of literature; it simply attempts to define that which can be defined, and put up a good show of categorizing the undefinable. After all, some things, by essence, are impossible to capture within the mundane restrictions of a definition. To do so would violate their very nature.

Sublimity, or that which is sublime, is one of those literary phenomena beyond the ken of mere critics. As many authoritative voices from Longinus to Kant have hinted, a rudimentary understanding of the sublime requires assumptions both psychological and metaphysical. In the centuries following the Romantics (as well as within a few, isolated earlier circles), the sublime has been divorced from its more supernatural aspects and reduced to something akin to the astonishing unknown. These concepts[2] include the technological sublime and economic sublime, and (in the opinion of this humble writer) strip the concept of much of its meaning and potency. The spiritual sublime of Longinus, Burke, and Kant is part of its proper manifestation as the simultaneous fear and awe of the divine. It is, as Tolkien might christen it, a full (within the limits of human understanding) appreciation of eucatastrophe, distilled through the lens of evangelium. More simply, the sublime is not only an intellectual appreciation of the intellectually ungraspable, or even the intellectual appreciation of profound terror, but instead the acceptance of utter vulnerability before an omnipotent God, and the eucatastrophic twist which prevents his judgment.

It is ironic, at least through a historical lens that the definition of the sublime has departed so far from its spiritual roots. The Greeks first discussed the sublime as that producing ekstasis, or ‘transport to a higher, profound (and short-lived) state of being. Longinus, the accepted father of the sublime tradition states, “the effect of elevated language upon an audience is not persuasion but transport … Our persuasion we can usually control, but the influences of the sublime bring power and irresistible might to bear, and reign supreme over every hearer.”[3] In later discussions the focus shifts towards this “irresistible might” (and it is from this that the economic and technological sublime are derived), but the idea of transport[4] has not been fully forgotten. Indeed, it is simply the method of transport which has been somewhat altered, as Longinus set his sublime firmly within the literary tradition as an effect of that same discipline.

It was Burke who first popularized the idea of “terror” as “the ruling principle of the sublime,”[5] and thereby allowed an artistic and philosophical application of the term. Terror is accomplished through the idea of pain, which Burke proposes

“in its highest degree is much stronger than the highest degree of pleasure; and that it preserves the same superiority through all the subordinate gradations. From hence it is, that where the chances for equal degrees of suffering or enjoyment are in any sort equal, the idea of the suffering must always be prevalent. And indeed the ideas of pain, and, above all, of death, are so very affecting, that whilst we remain in the presence of whatever is supposed to have the power of inflicting either, it is impossible to be perfectly free from terror.[6]

In this Burke moves away from the teachings of Longinus, who perceived the sublime as the highest quality of several passions, not just terror,[7] and paves the way for Kant and the Romantics. He continues with the idea first expressed in Longinus that “anything that is held in contempt cannot be dangerous, and therefore not sublime,”[8] and thus begins to tie in the idea of the sublime back to that of “irresistible might.” Terror, after all, is the emotional acknowledgment of helplessness before external, irresistible power. It is the realization that one’s choice to live or die has passed to anther agent, and the decision is being weighed.

This link between terror and might is key to a preliminary classification of the sublime. Just as contemptible things cannot be sublime, neither can might “whenever strength is only useful, and employed for our benefit or our pleasure,” for “nothing can act agreeably to us, that does not act in conformity to our will; but to act agreeably to our will, it must be subject to us, and therefore can never be the cause of a grand and commanding conception.”[9] Burke attempts (somewhat amusingly) to determine what physical stimuli can potentially create the sublime, and includes extreme light, complete darkness, and loud and/or repetitive sounds.[10]  Kant cautions that “nature can be regarded by the aesthetical judgment as might, and consequently as dynamically sublime, only so far as it is considered an object of fear,”[11] but both agree that limited human perception allows many things to seem sublime, which, on a greater scale, are merely petty. Whether or not these seemingly petty things are truly representatives of the sublime depends upon whether the terror and astonishment generated by their presence is inherent to the thing itself, the human perception, or another variable.[12]

Ultimately Burke and Kant depart from Longinus in the breadth of their application of the term ‘sublime’. Burke states explicitly that he is not following Longinus into criticism of the sublime in art ,[13] although he does seem to assume Longinus’s premise that “the very fact that there are some elements of expression which are in the hands of nature alone, can be learnt from no other source than art.”[14] This does not stop Burke from making observations about the sublime in visual art, or theorizing that the relative “Difficulty” of a work is a source of “greatness,”[15] but it does prevent the devolution of his work into a subjective case study of sublimity in selected works. Instead he blazes a trail (upon which Kant follows) into a philosophical categorization of the sublime and its differentiation from other pleasurable forms.

In a contemporary society that largely ignores the difference, Burke’s preoccupation with the division of the beautiful and the sublime may seem semantic, but the reality is quite different. Kant would argue that (despite the sublime’s basis in terror and might) “the beautiful and sublime agree in this that both please in themselves,”[16] but that is the closest to a reconciliation either author achieves. Burke gives perhaps the best explanation of the division:

“ON closing this general view of beauty, it naturally occurs, that we should compare it with the sublime; and in this comparison there appears a remarkable contrast. For sublime objects are vast in their dimensions, beautiful ones comparatively small: beauty should be smooth and polished; the great, rugged and negligent; beauty should shun the right line, yet deviate from it insensibly; the great in many cases loves the right line, and when it deviates it often makes a strong deviation: beauty should not be obscure; the great ought to be dark and gloomy: beauty should be light and delicate; the great ought to be solid, and even massive. They are indeed ideas of a very different nature, one being founded on pain, the other on pleasure.[17]

Beauty is therefore a perception that satisfies human sensibilities, while the sublime is a perception that inherently violates them. Kant would go so far as to state that the beautiful is “preadapted to our judgment”[18] while “the feeling of the sublime may appear … to violate purpose in respect of the judgment, to be unsuited to our presentative faculty, and as it were to do violence to the imagination; and yet it is judged to be only the more sublime.”[19]  When remembering Burke’s earlier assertion, that the idea of pain is always more potent than pleasure, Kant’s reasoning gives the sublime an entirely different purpose and sphere than the beautiful. Such distinctions beg the question, why is the sublime so attractive to a mind allegedly repelled by it? The answer implied by Longinus, and stated explicitly by Burke and Kant is one that transcends the physical, and has been largely ignored by more recent explorations of the subject.

As mentioned above, the first step towards a spiritual sublime is the rejection of the mundane, the contemptible, and the powerful (yet useful). Longinus states, “You must know … that it is with the sublime as in the common life of man. In life nothing can be considered great which it is held great to despise. For instance, riches, honors, distinctions, sovereignties, and all other things which possess in abundance the external trappings of the stage, will not seem, to a man of sense, to be supreme blessings, since the very contempt of them is reckoned good in no small degree.”[20] Surprisingly, Longinus argues the opposite as well, that the true sublime will convince “men of different pursuits, lives, ambitions, ages, languages, [to] hold identical views on one and the same subject … mak[ing] our faith in the object of admiration strong and unassailable.”[21] This assumption of unanimous agreement would be inconceivable within modern philosophy or literary theory, but it does point to something Longinus assumes is implicit in the human condition. To him, the artistic sublime is uncontestable, and recognized by something within the human spirit (as opposed to being simply a type of natural phenomena).

Burke, centuries later, claims that perspective alone can change the mundane into the sublime,[22] reinforcing the notion that the terror and astonishment of the sublime is in the recognition of something transcending the natural. Kant explicitly states that “[s]ublimity, therefore, does not reside in anything of nature, but only in our mind … Only by supposing this idea in ourselves and in reference to it are we capable of attaining to the idea of the sublimity of that Being which produces respect in us.”[23] Here is a reference not only to the disorientation precipitating the mathematically sublime[24] but also to a supernatural “Being” in which sublimity is manifested. It is the recognition of this being, through nature, through magnitude, through the human spirit, which constitutes the sublime experience.

Although this is an explicitly Christian interpretation, it is central to both Burke and Kant’s understanding of the subject. “Irresistable might” (omnipotence and omniscience) is God’s alone, and that might provokes profound fear and astonishment. Of course, God also draws praise and rejoicing, but as Burke states:

“If we rejoice, we rejoice with trembling: and even whilst we are receiving benefits, we cannot but shudder at a power which can confer benefits of such mighty importance. When the prophet David contemplated the wonders of wisdom and power which are displayed in the economy of man, he seems to be struck with a sort of divine horror, and cries out, Fearfully and wonderfully am I made![25]

Burke proposes earlier in his work that the sublime must be the intellectual acceptance of danger without the direct imminence of harm (perhaps staring at a violent storm through a window), but when extrapolated against the power of an omnipotent God the window ceases to offer any protection. Therefore the explanation must be slightly interpreted to propose a sublime that allows the intellectual terror of overwhelming power balanced by absolute trust in the righteousness of that power. While this interpretation is never stated explicitly by Burke, his tendency to use Miltonic passages as examples of the sublime shows a certain affinity for the idea. As well, he takes great pains to reconcile the pain and terror of the sublime with its religious effect:

“In all these cases, if the pain and terror are so modified as not to be actually noxious; if the pain is not carried to violence, and the terror is not conversant about the present destruction of the person, as these emotions clear the parts … they are capable of producing delight; not pleasure, but a sort of delightful horror, a sort of tranquility tinged with terror; which, as it belongs to self-preservation, is one of the strongest of all the passions. Its object is the sublime. Its highest degree I call astonishment; the subordinate degrees are awe, reverence, and respect….[26]

God is not a God of pain and terror, but the realization of magnitude, his infinitude, violates the very fundaments of human perspective and therefore our instinct of self-preservation. The spiritual sublime is the aura of the creator God manifested through his creation, and all sublime experience is a recognition of that aura, a peek into the divine.

Yet how has the legacy of this ‘spiritual sublime’ continued into contemporary tradition? Ironically, it is all but gone from popular culture. As [my prof] has noted, “In our world, the ‘sublime’ is a matter relegated to adventure and fantasy,”[27] and so it is those two genres we must turn. Still, the spiritual sublime is even further removed, and remains only in very specific works within the larger library. Arguably the best examples (coupled with the best exposition of intent) is that of J.R.R. Tolkien, who combined a strong Roman Catholic tradition and comprehensive study of European mythology into a philosophical spiritual, and intellectual statement in his works of fantasy. The word ‘sublime’ is never used within his doctrinal essay “On Fairy-Stories,” but the concept is arguably present, albeit in different form and jargon. The ‘Tolkienian sublime’ is centred in his coined term, eucatastrophe, and his idea of Faerie, and once again contains a strong Christian element.

The biggest obstacle to a comparison of Burke and Kant with Tolkien is simply a matter of jargon. To understand Tolkien requires first of all an understanding of his definitions of Faerie, of Magic, of Sub-Creation, and of Fantasy. All are inter-connected, and all begin with an attempt to argue fairy-stories as more than simply children’s literature (and therefore contemptible). His first step is to replace ‘fairy’ with the archaic (but more compelling for a philologist) ‘Faerie’ and argue for an understanding of the term that seems curiously akin to Longinus’s sublime.[28] Secondly, he rejects ‘Magic’ as an appropriate word for describing the art of Faerie since “its desire is power in this world, domination of things and wills,”[29] and instead proposes “Fantasy.”[30] ‘Fancy’ he no longer considers derogatory (nor as something different than ‘Imagination’), and ‘Art’ retains its archaic meaning as both the product and the method (e.g. ‘lost arts’ or ‘arcane arts’) of the creative craft:

“The mental power of image-making is one thing, or aspect; and it should appropriately be called Imagination. The perception of the image, the grasp of its implications, and the control, which are necessary to a successful expression, may vary in vividness and strength: but this is a difference of degree in Imagination, not a difference in kind. The achievement of the expression, which gives (or seems to give) ‘the inner consistency of reality’, is indeed another thing, or aspect, needing another name: Art, the operative link between Imagination and the final result, Sub-creation.[31]

‘Sub-Creation’ is Tolkien’s stated purpose for his fantastical work (and for ‘Art’ in general), and embodies both his general dissatisfaction with the mechanical age[32] and his desire to imitate Divine creativity. In his mind, Sub-Creation is a sacred task through which is reflected divine power and glory. In this it begins to resemble some aspects of the spiritual sublime, although the moment of ekstasis, of terror, in Tolkien’s vision of art inspired him to coin his own term to define it.

There comes a moment, in both adventurous and fantastical literature (and perhaps this is what [my prof] was referring to), when the fate of the characters, of the plot, of the whole undertaking rests upon the edge of a knife. In many tales this moment is reconciled by a surprise admission or action from an unexpected source; in Tolkien’s literature, this moment is resolved (twice) by the sudden appearance of giant eagles to save the day from the overwhelming forces of evil. Some might call this Deus ex Machina, and truthfully it is, except Tolkien would see no condemnation in this glimpse of God in the mechanism, but instead the full expression of eucatastrophe.[33] “It is the mark of a good fairy-story…” he explains, “[that] it can give to child or man that hears it, when the ‘turn’ comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art, and having a peculiar quality.”[34] The eucatastrophe in story allows for a “sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth,”[35] a crystallization of the Faerie as a reflection of reality, and an admission of God as the ruler of both.

The similarity to the ‘spiritual sublime’ of Burke and Kant is obvious. In a moment of extreme danger, a moment when pain and perhaps death are imminent, the curtains are swept back from the stage and one sees the omnipotence of God on infinite scale (or as infinite as human perspective can achieve). In that moment are two stark possibilities: dyscatastrophe (deserved pain, sorrow, defeat) or eucatastrophe (undeserved grace, joy, triumph). The terror of expected annihilation, and the awe of sudden, unexpected reprieve in the same climactic moment together create the ‘Tolkienian sublime.’ Kant may speak of it as the “sublimity of the Being,” Burke as the “irresistible might,” but all agree upon the “spiritual sublime” as the terror of Divine revelation coupled with the awe of Divine grace.

Fantasy, according to Tolkien, is neither escapist nor fugitive, but instead the opportunity for “sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”[36]

By its very extremity, the sublime necessitates a spiritual component. The sublime is a product of the infinities, and yet what, in comparison to a Divine Being, can be considered to be infinity? What is the awe of natural events such as lightning, storms, or combustion, if not the refracted glory of God? As Burke concludes, “But the Scripture alone can supply ideas answerable to the majesty of this subject. In the Scripture, wherever God is represented as appearing or speaking, everything terrible in nature is called up to heighten the awe and solemnity of the Divine presence.”[37] The sublime of nature is merely the spiritual sublime at an elementary level, just as the mathematical sublime is simply its scale of magnitude. Sublimity, in its terror, its awe, its might, is the appropriate response of finite beings to an infinite God.

The rudimentary structure to which the sublime has been reduced in the post-Romantics period is laughable compared to the potency of its spiritual ideal, and it is only through the hybrid works of theorists such as Tolkien[38] that the true concept survives. Hopefully, in this moment of truth the sublime tradition will be met with a eucatastrophe of its own and undergo the renaissance of which it is desperately in need.


Burke, Edmund. On the Sublime and Beautiful. Vol. XXIV, Part 2. The Harvard Classics. New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1909–14; www.Bartleby.com (accessed April 8, 2013).

Carpenter, Humphrey Ed. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000.

Immanuel Kant. “From Critique of Judgment” in The Critical Tradition. Trans. J.H. Bernard. Ed. David H. Richter. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2007. 251-274.

Longinus, “From On the Sublime” in The Critical Tradition Trans. W. Rhys Roberts. Ed. David H. Richter. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2007. 97-108.

Tolkien. J.R.R. “Mythopoeia.” http://home.ccil.org/~cowan/mythopoeia.html (accessed April 9, 2013)

——-. “On Fairy-Stories.” Tree and Leaf. London: Unwin Books, 1981.

[1] On the topic of elves. From a letter written by J.R.R. Tolkien to his friend Milton Waldman circa 1951. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000), 146.

[2] Polemical parlor tricks of petty pseudo-intellectuals [Note: I make a habit of having one eccentric footnote within the first two pages of a paper. It signals to the professor that they better read the entire piece because I’m full capable of slipping in little ‘easter eggs’ for the to find].

[3] Longinus, “From On the Sublime” in The Critical Tradition, Trans. W. Rhys Roberts, Ed. David H. Richter (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2007), 97.

[4] Edmund Burke refers to it as “astonishment” explaining that the sublime “anticipates our reasonings, and hurries us on by an irresistible force. Astonishment, as I have said, is the effect of the sublime in its highest degree….” On the Sublime and Beautiful in The Harvard Classics Part 2 (New York: Collier & Son, 1909-1914), n.p. (accessed April 8, 2013).

[5] Burke, On the Sublime and Beautiful, n.p.

[6] Burke, On the Sublime and Beautiful, n.p.

[7] Longinus discusses the romantic poetry of Sappho as an example of the sublime. On the Sublime, 103-104.

[8] Longinus complains of the mercantile sentiments of his peaceful age, and how such passions cannot be sublime. Burke makes the same point in more general terms. On the Sublime and Beautiful, n.p.

[9] Burke, On the Sublime and Beautiful, n.p.

[10] According to Burke, binary opposites are often sources of the sublime. He states that extreme light or darkness are “not the only instance wherein the opposite extremes operate equally in favour of the sublime, which in all things abhors mediocrity.” On the Sublime and Beautiful, n.p..

[11] Immanuel Kant. “From Critique of Judgment” in The Critical Tradition, Trans. J.H. Bernard, Ed. David H. Richter (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2007), 268.

[12] A variable which Burke, Kant, and Tolkien considered to be divine presence. An assertion that will be elaborated on later in this essay.

[13] “It was not my design to enter into the criticism of the sublime and beautiful in any art, but to attempt to lay down such principles as may tend to ascertain, to distinguish, and to form a sort of standard for them; which purposes I thought might be best effected by an inquiry into the properties of such things in nature, as raise love and astonishment in us; and by showing in what manner they operated to produce these passions.” On the Sublime and Beautiful, n.p.

[14] Longinus, On the Sublime, 98.

[15] Burke, On the Sublime and Beautiful.

[16] Kant, “From Critique of Judgment,” 263.

[17]Burke, On the Sublime and Beautiful.

[18] Kant, “From Critique of Judgment,” 264.

[19] Kant, “From Critique of Judgment,” 264.

[20] Longinus, On the Sublime, 100.

[21] Longinus, On the Sublime, 100.

[22] Burke uses the example of a horse, which can be viewed as either a “useful beast” or a vision “whose neck is clothed with thunder, the glory of his nostrils is terrible, who swalloweth the ground with fierceness and rage.” On the Sublime and Beautiful, n.p. (emphasis in original).

[23] Kant, “From Critique of Judgment,” 271.

[24] For the mathematical sublime, I find Burke’s explanation of ‘magnitude’ more compelling than Kant’s work: “the great extreme of dimension is sublime, so the last extreme of littleness is in some measure sublime likewise: when we attend to the infinite divisibility of matter, when we pursue animal life into these excessively small, and yet organized beings, that escape the nicest inquisition of the sense; when we push our discoveries yet downward, and consider those creatures so many degrees yet smaller, and the still diminishing scale of existence, in tracing which the imagination is lost as well as the sense; we become amazed and confounded at the wonders of minuteness; nor can we distinguish in its effects this extreme of littleness from the vast itself. For division must be infinite as well as addition; because the idea of a perfect unity can no more be arrived at, than that of a complete whole, to which nothing may be added.” On the Sublime and Beautiful, n.p.

[25] Burke, On the Sublime and Beautiful, n.p.

[26] On the Sublime and Beautiful

[27] [My Prof], ENG364 Class Notes February 2013.

[28] “Faerie cannot be caught in a net of words; for it is one of its qualities to be indescribable, though not imperceptible. It has many ingredients, but analysis will not necessarily discover the secret of the whole … Faerie itself may perhaps most nearly be translated by Magic — but it is magic of a peculiar mood and power, at the furthest pole from the vulgar devices of the laborious, scientific, magician.” J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories” in Tree and Leaf (London: Unwin Books, 1981), 16.

[29] Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” 48.

[30] “Fantasy (in this sense) is, I think, not a lower but a higher form of Art, inded the most nearly pure form, and so (when achieved) the most potent.” Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” 44.

[31] Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” 44.

[32] A section from Tolkien’s poem “Mythopoeia” describes both his revulsion and his stated link between worship, autonomy, and artistry:


“I will not walk with your progressive apes, /
erect and sapient. Before them gapes

 the dark abyss to which their progress tends / if by God’s mercy progress ever ends,

/ and does not ceaselessly revolve the same /
unfruitful course with changing of a name.

/ I will not treat your dusty path and flat, /
denoting this and that by this and that, /

your world immutable wherein no part /
the little maker has with maker’s art. /
I bow not yet before the Iron Crown,/
nor cast my own small golden sceptre down.”

http://home.ccil.org/~cowan/mythopoeia.html (accessed April 9, 2013)..

[33] “The eucatastrophic tale is the true form of fairy-tale and its highest function.” Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” 60.

[34] Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” 60.

[35] Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” 62.

[36] Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories, 60.

[37] Burke, On the Sublime and Beautiful, n.p.

[38] Another piece of “Mythopoeia” and perhaps the crux of the poem is included here not necessarily as an integral piece of the logos of this paper, but instead a profound statement upon the relationship of God, humanity, and Sub-Creation:

“The heart of Man is not compound of lies,
/ but draws some wisdom from the only Wise, /

and still recalls him. Though now long estranged, /
Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed. /

Dis-graced he may be, yet is not dethroned, /
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned,

/ his world-dominion by creative act:
/ not his to worship the great Artefact,

Man, Sub-creator, the refracted light
/ through whom is splintered from a single White

/ to many hues, and endlessly combined
/ in living shapes that move from mind to mind.”

I'm a graduate student at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta. I used to be a journalist, and I moonlight as a sports writer/church intern/LOTR nerd.

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