On Reading "On Fairy-Stories"

My long-awaited copy of J. R. R. Tolkien’s collection of essays, The Monsters and the Critics, arrived today (I didn’t realize my copy had come all the way from Merrie Olde England), but it was worth the wait. I ordered the book because it contains one essay I particularly wanted to read, “On Fairy-Stories,” that provides a particularly illuminating glimpse into Tolkien’s thought and a rousing defense of speculative and fantastic fiction, especially from a Christian perspective.

Originally delivered as a lecture at St. Andrews University in Scotland in 1939, “On Fairy-Stories” is a long and somewhat rambling essay that covers a lot of intellectual territory. Tolkien displays a near-encyclopedic grasp of ancient and medieval European literature to support his points. What I used to say about one of my own graduate school professors applies even more so to Tolkien: “He probably forgot more about medieval literature than I’ll ever know.”

Tolkien begins by trying to define fairy stories, freely admitting that he knows more about what fairy stories are not than about what they are. They are not mere juvenile stories about tiny beings with wings [e. g., Tinkerbell]; they are not merely stories about travels to exotic lands and faraway places on earth; and they are not simple falsehoods. What they are, Tolkien spends the rest of the essay elaborating. After briefly discussing the possible origins of fairy stories, Tolkien begins to warm to his topic when he describes how the mind works to create fairy stories in the first place:

 The human mind endowed with the powers of generalization and abstraction, sees not only green-grass, discriminating it from other things (and finding it fair to look upon), but sees that it is green as well as being grass. But how powerful, how stimulating to the very faculty that produced it, was the invention of the adjective: no spell or incantation in Faërie is more potent. . . .

 The mind that thought of light, heavy, grey, yellow, still, swift also conceived of magic that would make heavy things light and able to fly, turn grey lead into yellow gold, and the still rock into swift water. If it could do one, it could do the other; it inevitably did both. When we can take green from grass, blue from heaven, and red from blood, we have already an enchanter’s power—upon one plane; and the desire to wield that power in the world external to our mind awakes. . . . But in such ‘fantasy,’ as it is called, new form is made; Faërie begins; Man becomes a sub-creator.

  Tolkien takes particular exception to the belief that fairy stories are fit only for children, as if children are somehow more simple-minded than adults, more eager to believe the fantastic, and more willing to suspend disbelief than adults are:

Is there any essential connection between children and fairy-stories? Is there any call for comment, if an adult reads them for himself? Reads them as tales, that is, not studies them as curios. Adults are allowed to collect and study anything, even old theater-programs or paper bags. . . . Fairy-stories in the modern lettered world have been relegated to the ‘nursery,’ as shabby or old-fashioned furniture is relegated to the playroom, primarily because the adults do not want it and do not mind if it is misused.

(As an aside, I would say that thanks in large part to the phenomenal popularity of Tolkien’s own works, including The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion, their many imitations and derivatives published since, and contemporary works of fantasy such as the Harry Potter books, “fairy stories” are more widely accepted among adults than ever before. Tolkien’s next major point about the “willing suspension of disbelief” still holds):

Children are capable, of course, of literary belief, when the story-maker’s art is good enough to produce it. That state of mind has been called ‘willing suspension of disbelief.’ 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.

Having considered what fairy stories are (or are not) and how they are constructed, Tolkien next considers the purpose and value of fairy stories. “Fairy stories were plainly not concerned with possibility, but with desirability. If they awakened desire, satisfying it while often whetting it unbearably, they succeeded,” he writes. Based on memories of his own boyhood, Tolkien argues the most fundamental desire a successful fairy story can arouse is the desire to see those places, creatures, and things that are totally strange, totally Other, totally alien to one’s everyday experience, even if that Other is somehow dangerous:

The dragon had the trade-mark Of Faërie written plain upon him. In whatever world he had his being, it was an Other-world. Fantasy, the making or glimpsing of Other-worlds, was the heart of the desire of Faërie. I desired dragons with a profound desire. Of course I in my timid body did not wish to have them in my neighborhood . . . But the world that contained even the imagination of Fáfnir [a dragon from Germanic mythology] was richer and more beautiful at whatever cost of peril.

The dark and perilous aspects of some fairy stories, far from being harmful to children, can actually be beneficial to them, Tolkien argues:

Children are meant to grow up and not to become Peter Pans. Not to lose innocence and wonder; but to proceed on the appointed journey: that journey upon which it is certainly not better to travel hopefully than to arrive, though we must travel hopefully if we are to arrive. But it is one of the lessons of fairy stories . . . that on callow, lumpish, and selfish youth peril, sorrow, and the shadow of death can bestow dignity, and even sometimes wisdom.

One of the greatest purposes of a fairy-story, Tolkien seems to imply here, is to impart a great truth about life in our “Primary World,” even as it moves and delights us by relating the adventures of characters in a totally imaginary “Secondary World.” Far from being a waste of the human being’s creative or imaginative abilities, the making of a genuine fairy story is the highest achievement of narrative art:

Anyone inheriting the fantastic device of human language can say the green sun. . . . [but to] make a Secondary World inside which the green sun will be credible, commanding Secondary Belief, will probably require labor and thought, and will certainly demand a special skill, a kind of elvish craft. Few will attempt such difficult tasks. But when they are attempted and in any degree accomplished then we have a rare achievement of Art: indeed, narrative art, story-making in its primary and most potent mode.

 Indeed, Tolkien insists, the human ability to create Secondary Worlds in fiction and to create tales of the beings who populate those worlds is not just an idle amusement, but a fundamental defining characteristic of human beings, a right given to them by God, who is Himself a creator of worlds and beings:

Fantasy remains a human right: we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.

The ability to create secondary fictional worlds in which strange and fantastical things happen should give us the ability to look at our Primary World with fresh and appreciative eyes:

We should look at green again and be startled anew (but not blinded) by blue and yellow and red. We should meet the centaur and the dragon, and then suddenly behold, like the ancient shepherds, sheep, and dogs, and horses—and wolves. This recovery, fairy-stories help us to make. In that sense only a taste for them may make us, or keep us, childish.

Tolkien concludes his essay by discussing what he believes to be the most important characteristic of fairy-stories: what is sometimes called the happy ending, but more than that, the dramatic unexpected turn of events that heals and restores the characters and brings about real profound joy that was also totally unexpected. Tolkien calls this moment the complete opposite of tragedy or catastrophe and coins the term eucatastrophe to describe it:

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 dyscatatrophe , 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.

 Evangelium, of course, is the Latin word for the gospel, the “good news” of the Birth, Death, and Resurrection of Christ. By the Birth, Death, and Resurrection of Christ, “God redeemed the corrupt making-creatures, men, in a way fitting to this [story-making] aspect, as to others, of their strange nature.” Tolkien suggests here that just as human nature may be redeemed by the death and resurrection of Christ, human fairy-stories and the human ability to make them, may be redeemed as well. The gospel, Tolkien suggests, is the ultimate fairy-story—not in the sense that it is false or imaginary—but in the sense that it contains marvels worthy of the best fairy stories and the greatest eucatastrophe imaginable. The Death and Resurrection of Christ, which looked at first like the greatest defeat in all of history achieved the salvation of the world. The most mind-boggling reality about the gospel, however, is that it is true:

But this story has entered History  and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation. The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation.

Does this mean, then, that once the greatest fairy-story has been told, there are no other fairy stories to tell? No, says Tolkien. On the contrary, if human nature has been redeemed by the Death and Resurrection of Christ, human fairy-stories and the human ability to make them may be redeemed as well. A well-made fairy story, with its evangelium and eucatastrophe, a message of incredible good news about a totally unexpected turn of events that brings incredible, unexpected joy, may awaken readers’ imagination to the greatest and truest evangelium and eucatastrophe of all: the Death and Resurrection of Christ:

. . . in God’s kingdom, the presence of the greatest does not depress the small. Redeemed Man is still man. Story, fantasy, still go on and should go on. The Evangelium has not abrogated legends; it has hallowed them, especially the ‘happy ending.’ The Christian has still to work, with mind as well as body, to suffer, hope, and die; but he may now perceive that all his bents and faculties have a purpose, which can be redeemed. So great is the bounty with which he has been treated that he may now, perhaps, fairly dare to guess that in Fantasy he may now assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation. All tales may yet come true; and yet, at the last, redeemed, they may be as like and as unlike the forms that we give them as Man, fully redeemed, will be like and unlike the fallen that we know.

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