Tolkien on Fantasy: His Own Words

I thought it fitting to begin our series on Fantasy and a Christian Aesthetic with J. R. R. Tolkien’s own thoughts on the subject as found in his article “On Fairy-Stories” (a version of which can be found here; I am quoting from the article as it appeared in print, in which he references his talk at St. Andrew’s the year after The Hobbit was published).

Tolkien is credited popularly as “The Father of Fantasy” (a title Ed Power debunks in an article in The Boston Globe), yet according to Terry Pratchett, “Most modern fantasy just rearranges the furniture in Tolkien’s attic” and even Power admits that he helped make fantasy popular with a more “high-browed” audience. If he is not “The Father of Fantasy,” he is certainly one of the foremost pillars of Christian Fantasy, and as such, an important author to consider when examining Christian Fantasy.

According to Tolkien, “Most good ‘fairy-stories’ are about the aventures of men in the Perilous Realm or upon its shadowy marches” and “An essential power of Faerie is…the power of making immediately effective by the will the visions of ‘fantasy’. Not all are beautiful or even wholesome, not at any rate the fantasies of fallen Man.” Despite the prudishness some claim he has, Tolkien feels that the visions we encounter in fantasy would be weakened or lost altogether if the stories are purified to remove the horror from “the fairy-tale setting.”

What perhaps earns him censure from other fantasy writers and fantasy readers is his belief that fairy-stories’ highest function and true form is the “eucastastrophe,” “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)…a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur.” To achieve this, he argues that fantasy cannot “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.”

The entire article is well worth reading by those who read or write fantasy. He discusses fairy-stories’ origins, its core components (throwing out some fairy tales for not fitting the criteria), and examines the impact and effect of fairy-stories on its audience (which he argues is not children but those who have humility and innocence, like children). He feels fairy-tales offer “Fantasy, Recovery, Escape, [and] Consolation,” the last of which is achieved primarily by the eucatastrophe, the assertion that good will triumph over evil even when it looks like such a triumph is impossible. The escape it offers is not a bad thing, for it speaks to some of our deepest desires: to escape from “hunger, thirst, poverty, pain, sorrow, injustice, death. And even when [we] are not facing hard things such as these, there are ancient limitations from which fairy-stories offer a sort of escape, and old ambitions and desires (touching the very roots of fantasy) to which they offer a kind of satisfaction and consolation.” These include the desire to fly, to speak with and understand animals and other realms from which we are currently cut off.

One thing that surprised me was Tolkien’s belief that fantasy should stay out of the dramatic. He wrote that “Fantastic forms are not to be counterfeited. Men dressed up as talking animals may achieve buffoonery and mimicry, but they do not achieve Fantasy.” He felt that drama was, by its very nature, a form of magic where people were attempting to visually and audibly present imaginary people from a story and that to “introduce, even with mechanical success…a further fantasy or magic is to demand…a world too much.” Would he have been pleased with movie recreations of his own fantasy stories? We certainly have achieved mechanical success beyond what anyone of his time could have dreamt, but whether we have achieved true fantasy through them is open to debate.

Copyright 2014 Andrea Lundgren

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