"Suspension of disbelief" vs. "Secondary Belief": fictional worlds in Coleridge and Tolkien

  • Paolo Pizzimento University of Messina
Keywords: Fictional worlds, Suspension of disbelief, Poetic faith, Secondary Worlds, Secondary belief


This article aims to analyse S.T. Coleridge’s theory of suspension of disbelief and poetic faith, which seems to overshadow a conception of the literary work as displaying a “separate universe” capable of reconfiguring the experience of everyday reality. This theory, particularly through the mediation of Owen Barfield, exerts a considerable influence on J.R.R. Tolkien’s essay On Fairy-stories, which enters subtle controversy with Coleridge and opposes and opposes the suspension of disbelief with his “Secondary Belief”. The difference between the two authors can shed light on dissimilar conceptions of the ontological status of the fictional worlds.


Download data is not yet available.


Abrams, Meyer H. (Ed.), Literature and Belief, New York, Columbia University Press, 1958.

Abrams, Meyer H., Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature, New York, Norton, 1971.

Barfield, Owen, Poetic Diction. A Study in Meaning (1928), Oxford, Barfield Press, 2010.

Barfield, Owen, Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry (1967), Middletown, Wesleyan University Press, 1984.

Canuel, Mark, Religion, Toleration, and British Writing 1790-1830, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Carlyle, Thomas, The Life of John Sterling, London, Chapman and Hall, 1904.

Carpenter, Humphrey, The Inklings: C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams and Their Friends, London, Allen & Unwin, 1978.

Chandler, David, “Coleridge’s ‘suspension of disbelief’ and Jacob Brucker’s ‘assensus suspensione’”, Notes and Queries, 43, 1, 1996: 39-41.

Chesterton, Gilbert K., Orthodoxy (1909), Ed. David Dooley, San Francisco, Ignatius, 1986.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor, Collected Letters, Ed. Earl Leslie Griggs, 6 voll., Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1956-1971.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor, The Notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Ed. Kathleen Coburn et al., 5 voll., New York, Pantheon, 1957-2002.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor, Shorter Works and Fragments, Ed. H.J. Jackson and J.R. de J. Jackson, 2 voll., Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1969a.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor, The Friend, Ed. Barbara E. Rooke, 2 voll., Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1969b.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor, The Stateman’s Manual. Lay Sermons, Ed. R.J. White, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1972.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor, Marginalia, Ed. George Whalley and H.J. Jackson, 6 voll., Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1980-2001.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor, Biographia Literaria, Ed. James Engell and W.J. Bate, 2 voll., Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1983.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor, Lectures 1808-1819: On Literature, Ed. R.A. Foakes, 2 voll., Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1987.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor, Aids to Reflection, Ed. John Beer, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1993.

Dasent, George W., Popular Tales from the Norse, third edition, Edinburgh-New York, Edinburgh University Press-G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1888.

Davis, John R. - Nicholls, Angus (eds.), Friedrich Max Müller and the Role of Philology in Victorian Thought, New York, Routledge, 2018.

Doležel, Lubomír, Heterocosmica: Fiction and Possible Worlds, Baltimore-London, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.

Donald, Merlin, Origins of the Modern Mind. Three Stages in Evolution of Culture and Cognition, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1991.

Eagleton, Terry, The Ideology of Aesthetic, Oxford, Blackwell, 1990.

Edwards, Raymond, Tolkien, London, Robert Hale, 2014.

Flieger, Verlyn, Splintered Light. Logos and Language in Tolkien’s World, Kent, The Kent State University Press, 2002.

Flieger, Verlyn, Interrupted Music. The Making of Tolkien’s Myth, Kent, The Kent State University Press, 2005.

Gallagher, Catherine - Greenblatt, Stephen, Practicing New Historicism, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Griggs, Earl Leslie, “The Willing Suspension of Disbelief”, Elizabethan Studies and Other Essays in Honour of George F. Reynolds, Eds. Edward J. West - Robert L. Stearns, Boulder, University of Colorado Press, 1945: 272-285.

Hedley, Douglas, Coleridge, Philosophy and religion: Aids to reflection and the Mirror of Spirit, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Herder, Johann Gottfried, Werke, vol. I, Ed. Wolfgang Pross, München, C. Hanser, 1984.

Hill, John S., Imagination in Coleridge, London and Basingstoke, Macmillan Press, 1978.

Lang, Andrew, Custom and Myth, London, Longmans, Green and Co., 1884.

McCoy, Richard C., Faith in Shakespeare, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2013.

McFarland, Thomas, Shapes of Culture, Iowa City, University of Iowa Press, 1987.

McGann, Jerome, The Romantic Ideology: A Critical Investigation, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1983.

Medcalf, Steven, “‘The Language Learned of Elves’: Owen Barfield, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings”, VII: Journal of the Marion E. Wade Center, 16, 1999: 31-53.

Mee, Jon, Romanticism, Enthusiasm, and Regulation: Poetics and the Policing of Culture in the Romantic Period, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2003.

Monta, Susannah B., “‘It is requir’d you do awake your faith’: Belief in Shakespeare’s Theater”, Religion and Drama in Early Modern England: The Performance of Religion on the Renaissance Stage, Ed. Jane Hwang Degenhardt and Elizabeth Williamson, Burlington, Ashgate, 2011: 115-137.

Muirhead, John H., Coleridge as philosopher, New York, McMillan, 1930.

Müller, Friedrich Max, Lectures on the Science of Language: Delivered at the Royal Institution of Great Britain in 1861 and in 1863 (1863), Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Pavel, Tomas, Fictional Worlds, Cambridge (Mass.), Harvard University Press, 1986.

Richards, Ivor A., Science and Poetry, London, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., 1926.

Richards, Ivor A., Coleridge on Imagination, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1960.

Sapir, Edwar, Language: An Introduction to the Study of Speech, Harcourt, Brace, 1921.

Seppilli, Anita, Poesia e magia, Palermo, Sellerio 1962 [2011].

Simonelli, Saverio, ‘Tolkien e Coleridge. I rabdomanti della fantasia’, Tolkien e i classici, Ed. Robert Arduini et al. 2015, Cantalupa (TO), Effatà, 2015: 119-130.

Smith, Ross, Inside Language. Linguistic and Aesthetic Theory in Tolkien, Zollikofen, Walking Tree Publishers, 2007.

Tolkien, J.R.R., The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Ed. Humphrey Carpenter, London, Allen & Unwin, 1981.

Tolkien, J.R.R., Tree and Leaf: Including Mythopoeia and The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth, London, Allen & Unwin, 1988.

Tolkien, J.R.R., On Fairy-Stories. Expanded Edition, with Commentary and Notes, Ed. Verlyn Flieger and Douglas A. Anderson, London, HarperCollins, 2008.

Tomko, Michael, British Romanticism and the Catholic Question: Religion, History and National Identity 1778-1829, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

Tomko, Michael, Beyond the Willing Suspension of Disbelief. Poetic Faith from Coleridge to Tolkien, London-New York, Bloomsbury, 2016.

Wellek, René, Immanuel Kant in England 1793-1838, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1931.

Whalley, George, “The Bristol Library Borrowings of Southey and Coleridge”, The Library, 4, 1949: 114-132.

White, Daniel E., Early Romanticism and Religious Dissent, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Whorf, Benjamin L. Language, thought, and reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf, Ed. John B. Carroll, Stephen C. Levinson, and Penny Lee, Cambridge (Mass.), The MIT Press, 1956.

Wordsworth, Jonathan, “‘The infinite I AM’: Coleridge and the Ascent of Being”, Coleridge’s Imagination, Ed. Richard Gravil – Lucy Newlyn – Nicholas Roe, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1985: 22-52.

How to Cite
Pizzimento, P. (2024). "Suspension of disbelief" vs. "Secondary Belief": fictional worlds in Coleridge and Tolkien. Between, 14(27), 111-136. https://doi.org/10.13125/2039-6597/5807