In preparation for Writing with Hobbits, I’ve been reading Tolkien’s “On Fairy Stories,” in which he makes a case for his kind of fantasy. It gets pretty technical, but there are also some real gems in there. Dear reader, I have waded through the technicalities, and here I offer some of Tolkien’s gems.
Most of the essay is very specifically about fantasy storytelling, which, Tolkien points out, is as old and as natural as any other storytelling, which is as old and as natural as language (and people). Toward the end of the essay, however, he makes some observations whose relevance extend beyond fantasy.
Three benefits of fantasy stories, according to Tolkien, are Recovery, Escape, and Consolation. I’d like to think about how these benefits apply to stories more broadly.
Fantasy stories, according to Tolkien, reawaken us to the truth that the world where we live is itself pretty fantastic. There are other ways to be shaken awake from the spell of familiarity, but fantasy stories, according to Tolkien, is one of the most reliable. This reawakening he calls “Recovery”:
Recovery (which includes return and renewal of health) is a re-gaining–regaining of a clear view. I do not say “seeing things as they are” and involve myself with the philosophers, though I might venture to say “seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them”–as things apart from ourselves. We need, in any case, to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity–from possessiveness.
I’m especially interested in those last few words, in which Tolkien equates triteness and familiarity with possessiveness. Those things that we possess (or think we possess) quickly become trite and familiar. When we understand that the world is a gift that is constantly being given to us, we can see that this is indeed a world of wonders.
This all reminds me of something very similar that G.K. Chesterton said in Orthodoxy (and I hope you’ll forgive the lengthy quotation):
When we are very young children we do not need fairy tales: we only need tales. Mere life is interesting enough. A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door. Boys like romantic tales; but babies like realistic tales—because they find them romantic…This proves that even nursery tales only echo an almost pre-natal leap of interest and amazement. These tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green. They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water… We have all read in scientific books, and, indeed, in all romances, the story of the man who has forgotten his name. This man walks about the streets and can see and appreciate everything; only he cannot remember who he is. Well, every man is that man in the story. Every man has forgotten who he is…We are all under the same mental calamity; we have all forgotten our names. We have all forgotten what we really are. All that we call common sense and rationality and practicality and positivism only means that for certain dead levels of our life we forget that we have forgotten. All that we call spirit and art and ecstasy only means that for one awful instant we remember that we forget.
The great stories, whether they are fantasy stories or not, remind us that we have forgotten. They tell us a truer story than the world is telling about itself. All the great stories are a kind of recovery.
You may be surprised to learn that Tolkien, the godfather of “high fantasy,” freely admits that fantasy stories are escapist literature. And escape, he points out, is almost always a good thing…except in literary criticism: “In what the misusers are fond of calling Real Life, Escape is evidently as a rule very practical, and may even be heroic.” He goes on,
Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it.
So what if a reader desires to escape what passes for reality around here? That might simply be good sense.
I can’t get behind any effort actually to escape Reality. But the Status Quo isn’t the same thing as Reality. As Tolkien says, we must not confuse the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter.
The last bit of “On Fairy Stories” is probably the most well-known section of the essay. Here Tolkien introduces the word Eucatastrophe–the highest of all comedies, the opposite of Tragedy.
The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially “escapist,” nor “fugitive.” In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a 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. It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind, that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, 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.
In short, Tolkien is making the claim here that fantasy is especially well suited to communicate the Gospel. In the Christian vision, that “sudden joyous turn” is the pivot-point of history and, for that matter, the pivot-point of human experience, when every sad thing comes untrue, as Sam Gamgee put it.
Is the fantasy genre uniquely suited to depict eucatastrophe? I’m not convinced it is. But I am convinced that we need stories, fantastical or not, that enact the “sudden joyous turn.” However tragic things look from here, Reality turns out to be a comedy, not a tragedy. We need stories that provide Recovery, Escape, and Consolation.