Travis Buchanan just completed his M.Litt. at the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts at the University of St Andrews and is beginning research for his PhD.
The huge success of the books and subsequent film adaptations of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, and most recently Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight saga, is a strong and perhaps surprising testimony to the extreme popularity that fantasy literature currently has with contemporary audiences.
A partial explanation as to why this genre has such engrossing and enduring appeal to people may perhaps be found in a lecture given by J. R. R. Tolkien at the University of St Andrews on 8 March 1939, simply entitled ‘Fairy-stories’. Beyond their inherent literary value, which itself is not unique to fairy-stories, Tolkien noted in his essay on the topic specifically that which ‘fairy-stories’ do offer ‘in a peculiar degree or mode’, namely ‘Fantasy, Recovery, Escape, Consolation’ (43). It is these qualities in conjunction with the most crucial and characteristic feature of fairy-stories, the consolation of the ‘happy ending’, that help illumine their strong attraction to readers and audiences all over the world. In part one of this post, we will look briefly at the first two qualities Tolkien mentioned—Fantasy and Recovery—before concluding in part two tomorrow with the final qualities of Escape and Consolation and the ‘echo’ of the gospel Tolkien thought could be (over)heard in fairy-stories.
In a word Tolkien called ‘Fantasy’ ‘the making or glimpsing of Other-worlds’, which is ‘the heart of the desire of Faërie’ (40). This work of making he would famously label ‘sub-creation’—creativity derived from and exercised under God, the original and only true Creator—and vital especially to the genre of fantasy, wherein fairy-stories find their home. ‘In such “fantasy”, as it is called, new form is made; Faërie begins; Man becomes a sub-creator. An essential power of Faërie is thus the power of making immediately effective by the will the visions of “fantasy”’ (25; cf. 49). In other words, fantasy offers a godlike potency to man’s imagination to, through language, will things into being: ‘And Man wrote, “Let there be a green sun in the sky”, and it was so. And man saw that the green light was good.’
What Tolkien meant by ‘Recovery’ was that fairy-stories offered a peculiar degree of not simply the ‘return and renewal of health’ humans are so desperate for (see, e.g., the ever expanding ‘self-help’ and pop psychology sections of one’s local popular bookstore), though those ideas are included, but of ‘a re-gaining—regaining of a clear view (52)’. That is, fantasy uniquely offers the chance of ‘“seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them”—as things apart from ourselves’ (52). What is recovered or regained by the reader of fantasy is a clearer vision of reality; a window cleaning of sorts for the imagination ‘so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity—from possessiveness’ (52). ‘If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite’, William Blake insisted (Blake, 28). Subcreative fantasy, or fairy-story (‘a thing built on or about Fantasy, of which Fantasy is the core’ (53)), Tolkien reminds us, is mainly concerned not just to make new things but also to ‘make something new’ (53): it sets free and makes wild again what we have locked away, the things we have domesticated as familiar, and so made trite. Tolkien’s good friend and a fellow lover and writer of fantasy literature, C. S. Lewis, captured well this effect of recovery in a review of Tolkien’s own great ‘fairy-story’, The Lord of the Rings:
The value of myth is that it takes all the things we know and restores to them the rich significance which has been hidden by ‘the veil of familiarity’. . . . By putting bread, gold, horse, apple, or the very roads into a myth, we do not retreat from reality: we rediscover it. As long as the story lingers in our mind, the real things are more themselves. . . . By dipping them in myth we see them more clearly. (Lewis 1982, 90)
Thus one of the paradoxes of fantasy is that through seeing objects and qualities in a secondary world of subcreation (whether Middle-earth, Narnia, Hogwarts, or Forks, Washington) one (re)gains a clearer perception of those same things and their true nature and ‘weight’ in the primary world of God’s creation.
In our next post we will look at the important qualities of Escape and Consolation, and why Tolkien thought the gospel could be heard to echo through these qualities of fairy-story in particular.
Blake, William. ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.’ In The Book of Thel, and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, by William Blake, 11–40. Gloucester: Dodo Press, 2008; orig. 1790.
Lewis, C. S. ‘Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.’ In On Stories and Other Essays on Literature, by C. S. Lewis, edited by Walter Hooper, 83–90. Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1982; orig. 1954 and 1955.
Tolkien, J. R. R. ‘On Fairy-stories.’ In Tree and Leaf, by J. R. R. Tolkien, 11–70. London: Unwin Books, 1970; orig. 1964.