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.
Resuming where we left off in part one of this post, we will now consider the remaining two important qualities of ‘fairy-stories’ from J. R. R. Tolkien’s essay on that topic, Escape and Consolation, and why he thought the gospel could be heard to echo through these qualities in particular.
Escape ‘is one of the main functions of fairy-stories’ (Tolkien OFS, 53), and therefore it is no surprise that fantasy literature is often disparagingly accused of being ‘escapist’, as Tolkien acknowledged. However, Tolkien thought those critics who so accuse fantasy have misunderstood the type of escape offered. In short, they have mistaken the flight of prisoner for that of the deserter. But ‘Why should a man be scorned,’ Tolkien queried,
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. (54)
As we saw with the quality of Recovery, then, fantasy literature may actually serve to take its reader deeper into, and not away from, reality. G. K. Chesterton, a Catholic writer from an earlier generation who was beloved of both Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, and who also dabbled in fantasy, stated the paradox memorably as follows: ‘No; the vision is always solid and reliable. The vision is always a fact. It is the reality that is often a fraud’ (Chesterton 2006, 33).
Though lesser degrees of Consolation are to be sought and found in fairy-stories through the ‘imaginative satisfaction’ of these ‘ancient desires’ (OFS, 60) such as escaping from prison or the ultimate jailer—death, it is ‘the Consolation of the Happy Ending’ that is most significant. The ‘Eucatastrophe’ (‘good catastrophe’) is the term Tolkien coined to describe the ‘true form’ and ‘highest function’ of fairy-stories—the unexpected ‘turn’ in the story which takes the reader from the brink of despair to the joyful consolation of the Happy Ending. In the eucatastrophe ‘we see in a brief vision that the answer may be greater—it may be a far-off gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world’ (62). Therefore it followed for Tolkien that ‘The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories’ including the ‘most complete conceivable eucatastrophe’ (62)—the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the God-man. If this is so, then God has chosen a means to redeem man consonant with his nature as a sub-creator and myth-maker, as Tolkien sought to explain to his son Christopher once in a letter:
Of course I do not mean that the Gospels tell what is only a fairy-story; but I do mean very strongly that they do tell a fairy-story: the greatest. Man the story-teller would have to be redeemed in a manner consonant with his nature: by a moving story. But since the author if it is the supreme Artist and the Author of Reality, this one was also made . . . to be true on the Primary Plane. So that in the Primary Miracle (the Resurrection) and the lesser Christian miracles too though less, you have . . . a glimpse that is actually a ray of light through the very chinks of the universe about us. (Letters, 100–101)
The immense difference therefore between the fairy-story elements of the Gospels and other fairy-stories is that the Christian story ‘has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfilment of Creation’ (OFS, 62). In other words, God did not merely walk through the pages of a book or the imaginations of those listening to a story but through the dry dust of first-century Judea. Jesus was not merely a type, a symbol of the dying God in some remote, unspecified time and location—he was God incarnate who ‘suffered under Pontius Pilate’, as the creed states, and was condemned to die by this historical Roman governor of Judea, and subsequently crucified on a hill outside Jerusalem. The gospel story is the ‘true’ myth, myth became fact, myth incarnate in primary reality. As Tolkien concluded, ‘this story is supreme; and it is true. Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men—and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused’ (63).
And this in the end may be the reason for the widespread and enduring appeal of fantasy literature (and of stories generally) to humanity—that through the fantastic, subcreative worlds of a Tolkien or a Lewis, even a J. K. Rowling or a Stephenie Meyer, primary truth may not only be tasted, but the voice of Ultimate Truth Himself overheard, even if only in echo.
Chesterton, G. K. ‘The Ethics of Elfland.’ Chap. 4 in Orthodoxy, by G. K. Chesterton, 33–50. Gloucester: Dodo Press, 2006; orig. 1908.
Tolkien, J. R. R. ‘On Fairy-stories.’ In Tree and Leaf, by J. R. R. Tolkien, 11–70. London: Unwin Books, 1970; orig. 1964.
____________. The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien. Edited by Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000; orig. 1981.