Archæology

The assorted finds of Artefact Publishing

Suspension of disbelief

The phrase “suspension of disbelief” (more fully “willing suspension of disbelief”) comes up a lot when people write about Tolkien and Middle-earth. Here’s what Tolkien himself had to say about that phrase, from his essay On Fairy‐Stories:

But this does not seem to me a good description of what happens. What really happens is that the story‐maker proves a successful ‘sub-creator’. He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is ‘true’: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside. The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed. You are then out in the Primary World again, looking at the little abortive Secondary World from outside. If you are obliged, by kindliness or circumstance, to stay, then disbelief must be suspended (or stifled), otherwise listening and looking would become intolerable. But this suspension of disbelief is a substitute for the genuine thing, a subterfuge we use when condescending to games or make-believe, or when trying (more or less willingly) to find what virtue we can in the work of an art that has for us failed.

This is serious stuff, and a critical element in understanding what Tolkien was doing with his Middle-earth writings.

And — a coincidence, you think? — I have just noticed that the author of the criticism of the films I mentioned yesterday is not willing to hang, draw, and quarter her belief, a phrase Tolkien used later in that same essay.

Posted by jamie on January 16, 2004 16:13+13:00

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