Understanding Tolkien’s approach to writing and creation.
Tolkien gave a lecture in 1938 to present his thoughts on defining what ‘Fairy-Stories’ are, their validity and importance as a creative pursuit. Since that time it has been labelled as his ‘manifesto’ as a justification of his life’s work. His ‘Legendarium’.
In 1938 Tolkien was a prominent Professor of Anglo Saxon. He had already produced his seminal essay on Beowulf in 1936. Many academics have stated that without any of his fantasy writing Tolkien would have been famous in academia for this treatise alone. In fact those same academics spend rather a lot of time wishing Tolkien had put more of his energy into his scholarly writing rather than ‘waste’ his time with fanciful fictions. Perhaps this essay was a reaction? Or maybe he simply wanted to lay a foundation so his work could be better understood?
There are so many themes and ideas in this essay that can be seen though the world Tolkien creates. That is the reason I’ve decided to start by giving it a careful read. It gives an insight into how an author set about, not only, ‘world-building’ but how he gave deep thought into why this creative effort is not only important but vital to his life and the lives of others. I’m interested in what drove him to stick with his creation for decades despite it not reaching the critical acclaim it enjoys today. It must be noted his ‘larger’ works were not published until after his death and he always split opinion of the literary critics of his time (more of which later).
Tolkien begins by claiming that the subject he is about to broach is a “…rash adventure. Faerie is a perilous land, and in it are pitfalls for the unwary and dungeons for the overbold.” He states that he has enjoyed Fairy-Stories since he was a child but has never approached them “professionally”, which in his case means as a scholar. At the same time he goes to pains to reaffirm his credentials for such an attempt – “I have been hardly more than a wandering explorer (or trespasser) in the land, full of wonder but not of information.” This is reinforced by that now ‘hack’ move of trying to find a definition by quoting from the Oxford English Dictionary (but who could really blame him, as Tolkien was a regular contributor to the tome). This effort is ultimately fruitless as there was no entry defining what a ‘Fairy-Story’ was. ‘Fairy-tale’ was the closest entry: “(a) a tale about fairies, or generally a fairy legend; with developed senses, (b) an unreal or incredible story, and (c) a falsehood.” None of these definitions were to be of use in Tolkien’s own interpretation. Finding the language either too broad or totally at odds to his own opinion.
Upon looking up ‘Faries’ and finding a description of “supernatural beings”, Tolkien puts forth an interesting idea; a seed that will take root and blossom through the essay into it’s full potential.
“Supernatural is a dangerous and difficult word in any of its senses, looser or stricter. But to fairies it can hardly be applied, unless super is taken merely as a superlative prefix. For it is man who is, in contrast to fairies, supernatural (and often of diminutive stature); whereas they are natural, far more natural than he. Such is their doom.”
He considers fairies a part of the natural order of the world. Something that exists despite humanity’s interference. Like a plant that grows wild, uncultivated with no need of tending. There are forests and jungles that have never been seen by human eyes, they have a natural order of their own totally untouched and uninterested in people. If people were ever to venture to these places they would undoubtedly find great beauty and risk peril. Just like Faerie.
“Faerie, the realm or state in which fairies have their being. Faerie contains many things besides elves and fays, and besides dwarfs, witches, trolls, giants, or dragons: it holds the seas, the sun, the moon, the sky; and the earth, and all things that are in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, mortal men, when we are enchanted.”
This statement is as bald a description as Tolkien dares to attempt on the nature of ‘Faerie’. To me it conjures the idea of a force that is in everything around us if we take the time, or rather dare to seek it out. Suggesting that ‘Fairy-Stories’ are simply works that manage to observe this special element of our natural world, even though in the writing, to some, it will seem outlandish and fanciful.
“Faërie cannot be caught in a net of words; for it is one of its qualities to be indescribable, though not imperceptible. It has many ingredients, but analysis will not necessarily discover the secret of the whole.”
When a scholar of linguistics and inventor of languages proclaims a subject to be impossible to describe, it makes for a statement of huge significance. Tolkien was exacting in every word he used. None are frivolous or misplaced. His books were very rarely edited by anyone but himself. I think, Tolkien believed in the power of words and their ability to define our reality… And his fictional reality. So to concede that it was not in his powers to capture the idea of Faerie in writing should not be underestimated.
The next section is titled ‘Origins’ and again The Professor begins with an admission of ignorance on the history of such tales. This underlines the notions behind the creation of this paper. It is clearly not an academic look at the subject, this is positing personal opinions of it. He doesn’t need to cite history or look elsewhere for anything that will reinforce his points. It becomes clearer that Tolkien is presenting his ideas as they are with little care of provoking argument. It is clear by this quote that he would find the historical research a moot:
“The history of fairy-stories is probably more complex than the physical history of the human race, and as complex as the history of human language. All three things: independent invention, inheritance, and diffusion, have evidently played their part in producing the intricate web of Story.”
By comparing the history of Fairy-stories with the history of language itself brings Tolkien into a very comfortable realm. As mentioned he is a philologist. His business is words and language. He posits it is the development of language that has made artful ventures into the land of Faerie possible:
“But how powerful, how stimulating to the very faculty that produced it, was the invention of the adjective: no spell or incantation in Faerie is more potent. And that is not surprising: such incantations might indeed be said to be only another view of adjectives, a part of speech in a mythical grammar. 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 a swift water. If it could do the one, it could do the other; it inevitably did both.”
In modern writing adjectives have been a critical punching bag. There is no end of writing advice telling authors to pare back their use. But Tolkien sees them as key to unlocking the writers method of invoking Faerie. By using language to describe something you instantly open up the possibility it can be ‘other’. To describe a rock as heavy sets a precedent that if broken, if suddenly made lighter and able to fly, will suggest the extraordinary:
“We may put a deadly green upon a man’s face and produce a horror; we may make the rare and terrible blue moon to shine; or we may cause woods to spring with silver leaves and rams to wear fleeces of gold, and put hot fire into the belly of the cold worm. But in such “fantasy,” as it is called, new form is made; Faerie begins; Man becomes a sub-creator.”
“This aspect of “mythology” —sub-creation, rather than either representation or symbolic interpretation of the beauties and terrors of the world—is, I think, too little considered.”
And there is is. ‘Sub-creator’. This label will become pivotal in how Tolkien views creativity. It’s a premise so strong that he weaves it into the very fabric of his own mythology. Defined as separate from representation and symbolism Sub-Creation is the distillation in art of something real derived from the ultimate act of creation, the natural world. With such lofty aims, if you can succeed, it would be trite not to agree with Tolkien’s assertion that such an achievement would be ‘too little considered’. By the end of the essay I think it becomes quite clear that Tolkien’s religious beliefs feed into the fantasy he created, but in a quite subtle way. There will be considerably more on this later.
The next section is titled ‘Children’. It becomes clear quickly that Tolkien is aggrieved that, at the time, fantasy fiction was seen as a childish interest. I believe this perception has moved on considerably in 80 years. It must be remembered that in 1938 the fantasy genre as we recognise it today was in it’s infancy. This essay was written as a defence and justification of a respected Professor choosing to use his time to create what was seen as childish-fancy. It soon becomes clear that Tolkien found this pigeon-holing frustrating, which is comforting to me now as I feel a similar way about how comics are currently perceived.
“Fairy-stories have in the modern lettered world been relegated to the ‘nursery,’ as shabby or old-fashioned furniture is relegated to the play-room, primarily because the adults do not want it, and do not mind if it is misused.”
There is a real hint of bitterness towards it’s implication. The suggestion that something can be discarded and is no longer cared for doesn’t quite scan properly to me in this context. I always feel the problem is interest in the first place. He was obviously battling against a sentiment from an adult audience to take the genre seriously, thinking it below them. Something to be passed along and maybe studied as a curiosity, but still not in the sphere of adult interest.
There is a notable comment on the treatment of child and adult tastes. The idea of treating children as separate or other than adults. Yes, now a lot of fiction is aimed directly at children, but 80 years ago I believe the market was a lot less varied. Tolkien is at pains to make clear that regardless of age a liking for fantasy fiction will out and when it does, it takes hold:
“But in fact only some children, and some adults, have any special taste for them; and when they have it, it is not exclusive, nor even necessarily dominant. It is a taste, too, that would not appear, I think, very early in childhood without artificial stimulus; it is certainly one that does not decrease but increases with age, if it is innate.”
It then becomes clear that the ‘schoolroom’ comparison was not idle (very little is with the Professor’s writing), he adds depth to it and makes it more rounded:
“It is true that in recent times fairy-stories have usually been written or ‘adapted’ for children… It is a dangerous process, even when it is necessary. It is indeed only saved from disaster by the fact that the arts and sciences are not as a whole relegated to the nursery; the nursery and schoolroom are merely given such tastes and glimpses of the adult thing as seem fit for them in adult opinion (often much mistaken). Any one of these things would, if left altogether in the nursery, become gravely impaired… Fairy-stories banished in this way, cut off from a full adult art, would in the end be ruined; indeed in so far as they have been so banished, they have been ruined.”
So Tolkien’s concern about fantasy being perceived as a childish interest, it seems, is not primarily concerned with commercial interests. He is worried about the perception and its affects upon the development of the genre as art. If fantasy were to be ‘adapted’, in his parlance, or written only for children it would stymie the scope of what is fully possible within the medium.
The Hobbit was completed before this essay was presented. It was a story that Tolkien originally began specifically to entertain his children. His wider ‘Legendarium’ was well in progress at this point. So this viewpoint on ‘adaptation’ of fantasy literature is of interest. It could be argued that Tolkien ‘adapted’ The Hobbit to better cater to his children’s tastes. When compared to The Lord of the Rings (which he had begun to write before this lecture) and particularly the stories that comprise The Silmarillion (snippets of which were written from 1914 onwards) the tone is very different, even though the scope and depth is still present, if only by passing suggestions. I wonder if these ideas are a reaction to the critical response for The Hobbit, or his worries that his commercial success might only be enjoyed by a significantly smaller audience than he might have liked or even perhaps that his work could be damaged by it’s classification as ‘children’s literature’?
Tolkien then moves onto exploring the very idea of ‘fantasy’. Again his philological knowledge comes to the fore, and his interpretation of a word adds dimensions to it’s use. He describes ‘imagination’ as the simple ability to form a mental image of something that isn’t actually present or doesn’t exist. He posits that ‘imagination’ has taken on a larger, and incorrect, meaning beyond the vague simplicity of projecting a mental image. The word has grown to encompass the implication that ‘imagination’ alone forms an “inner consistency of reality” to creations. Tolkien believes this to be untrue. It’s a subtle shift in meaning, but quite vital, as he elaborates:
“The achievement of the expression, which gives (or seems to give) “the inner consistency of reality,” is indeed another thing, or aspect, needing another name: Art, the operative link between Imagination and the final result, Sub-creation. For my present purpose I require a word which shall embrace both the Sub-creative Art in itself and a quality of strangeness and wonder in the Expression, derived from the Image: a quality essential to fairy-story.”
That word is ‘Fantasy’. The ability to take an ‘imagined’ object or creature and then imbue it with it’s own logical sense of reality to create something very real and natural in the readers mind while still retaining it’s sense of otherness.
“Fantasy (in this sense) is, I think, not a lower but a higher form of Art, indeed the most nearly pure form, and so (when achieved) the most potent.”
This aim of achieving the ‘inner consistency of reality’, I believe, is what modern authors coin, ‘a willing suspension of disbelief’, taken a step further. The aim being to make an unreality so absorbing and convincing that the reader simply accepts it as a complete and real account of an undiscovered history. This was Tolkien’s primary aim with his Legendarium. He wished to create a mythology that belonged to England. His books were written as though he discovered historical texts transcribed by his characters. Tolkien’s framing is something I’m interested to revisit and give a lot more thought to, but we must get back to ‘Fantasy’!
“Fantasy has also an essential drawback: it is difficult to achieve. Fantasy may be, as I think, not less but more sub-creative; but at any rate it is found in practice that “the inner consistency of reality” is more difficult to produce, the more unlike are the images and the rearrangements of primary material to the actual arrangements of the Primary World. It is easier to produce this kind of ‘reality’ with more ‘sober’ material.”
We are all guilty of heralding our own work as very difficult! But Tolkien isn’t trying to over-egg his particular pudding. The aims he puts in place for his work are unbelievably high. To achieve what he wants to achieve in his work must have seemed nearly impossible. There is a very interesting phraseology used, ‘Primary world’ and ‘primary material’. This, of course, refers to the world we all know and recognise in our daily lives. To make a believable ‘secondary’ or fictional world with it’s own ‘inner consistency of reality’ is a simpler trick to achieve when you are using premises and examples of things that the reader is already familiar with. Their own knowledge and experiences can fill in any blanks unintentionally left by the author.
“Fantasy thus, too often, remains undeveloped; it is and has been used frivolously, or only half-seriously, or merely for decoration: it remains merely ‘fanciful.’”
He goes on to suggest that it’s the very difficulty of achieving a believable Secondary world with fantastical elements that relegates the appreciation of the genre because the art is (or was) underdeveloped. The difficulty of the challenge reduces creators to paper over the cracks and ‘make-do’, resulting in works that fall short of that desired glimpse into Faerie. To combine reality and unreality and make the reader forget the fiction.
“Anyone inheriting the fantastic device of human language can say the green sun. Many can then imagine or picture it. But that is not enough… To make a Secondary World inside which the green sun will be credible, commanding Secondary Belief, will probably require labour and thought, and will certainly demand a special skill, a kind of elvish craft. Few 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.”
For me this is one of the central points in the entire essay boiled down to a simple thought experiment. ‘Anyone can say the green sun.’ It seems like such a simple sentiment. A fanciful notion. Just imagine that the sun was green. You can hold that image in your mind, maybe think about how the world would look under such a light? But to take that simple product of imagination and to then craft a narrative that makes the reader believe in such a world without question is an art form. I’m especially interested in the phrase ‘Secondary Belief’. I think that is certainly a substitute for total suspension of disbelief. When you are fully invested and lost in a narrative world. I think we’ve all read books like that. Read of places that feel so real you believe you could step into the page and experience them. In those moments an author has transported you. Used their craft to fully immerse your senses in their fiction. Tolkien’s aim was to make a Secondary World that was removed and unreal but made the reader feel like it still belonged as part of the Primary World.
The Professor and I then diverge rapidly. He goes on to say that Fantasy (remember that is the name has has chosen to describe the craft of a sub-creator to make something unreal feel real to the audience), is an art best used via words. It is the province of writers and ‘true literature’. He is very dismissive of other art forms in their attempts to render the fantastical. Almost to the point of cruelty.
“In painting, for instance, the visible presentation of the fantastic image is technically too easy; the hand tends to outrun the mind, even to overthrow it. Silliness or morbidity are frequent results. It is a misfortune that Drama, an art fundamentally distinct from Literature, should so commonly be considered together with it, or as a branch of it. Among these misfortunes we may reckon the depreciation of Fantasy.”
I’m struck by a very curious dismissal of visual art as a form of creating ‘Fantasy’. He claims it is too easy, and thus the results become overblown and silly. I can only make assumptions, but I know Tolkien to be an accomplished draughtsman. I have many books in which his own illustrations feature. I wonder if this issue with visual art is a comment upon his own efforts to realise his creation? Or maybe it speaks to frustration at his attempts? I can easily perceive instances where he might show a reader some drawings and they would be perfectly satisfied with the rendering, buying the world and seeing it’s place accompanying the text. However, I can imagine Tolkien would be displeased. No matter what, any image he might produce would surely be lacking? For any of his artistic skill, his linguistic powers would always far outstrip them. To him surely any attempt at rendering Middle-Earth through art would feel like making the attempt with a hand tied behind his back. He possessed more powerful tools to achieve his aims. As far as other people interpreting his work… Well, I can only assume he was very particular about such things. We are all guilty of being over-protective about our creations. This is something I’m hoping to learn about and expand upon as I read through his letters.
“I once saw a so-called “children’s pantomime,” the straight story of Puss-in-Boots, with even the metamorphosis of the ogre into a mouse. Had this been mechanically successful it would either have terrified the spectators or else have been just a turn of high-class conjuring. As it was, though done with some ingenuity of lighting, disbelief had not so much to be suspended as hanged, drawn, and quartered.”
Tolkien certainly has a comedic and biting turn of phrase when he wishes to use it! Again, his discomfort about other artistic mediums seems to stem from placing additional obstacles between the writer and the audience. By dramatising the written word you leave them open to interpretation, you ask actors to bring those words to life and you hope stage direction and illusions might be enough to portray the Fantasy that was written. In his assertion that literature and words are the best way to achieve ‘Fantasy’ in the mind of the reader I might partially agree. There is a special relationship between an author and the reader. Each reader will experience a piece of text differently, they will imagine and interpret the words based on their own experiences and capacity for imagination. Writing is a solitary activity until your text is read, then it become collaborative. A piece of text only finds life in the mind of the reader, it is the writers job to arrange the words in such a way that this act of ‘Fantasy’ can be successful. I’d argue the only other medium that can possibly exceed prose in this fashion is comic books. But that is a debate for another day! Though perhaps the next passage might reinforce my claim:
“Now “Faërian Drama”—those plays which according to abundant records the elves have often presented to men—can produce Fantasy with a realism and immediacy beyond the compass of any human mechanism… If you are present at a Faërian drama you yourself are, or think that you are, bodily inside its Secondary World. The experience may be very similar to Dreaming and has (it would seem) sometimes (by men) been confounded with it… To experience directly a Secondary World: the potion is too strong, and you give to it Primary Belief, however marvellous the events… The Primary World, Reality, of elves and men is the same, if differently valued and perceived.”
This is the effect Tolkien asserts the pinnacle of ‘Fantasy’ or ‘Fairy-Stories’ can achieve. To weave and create a ‘Secondary World’ so convincing the audience accepts it as part of their ‘Primary World’ no matter how outlandish it might seem. The reason I single comics out to be particularly successful in this endeavour is it’s highly collaborative relationship with the reader. When reading a novel the reading experience is happening completely in the readers head. It’s a very personal experience. I agree with the Professor that on a single person literature might be the most effective way to realise ‘Fantasy’. Comics, however, complete the same trick with a much more directed hand. The imagery is the same for every reader, part of the imagination is not needed. The creators are able to give the audience more input to work with, but the real collaboration happens in the gutters between panels. This is where the reader makes the story move, where they make it come to life.
I’d like to put Tolkien’s attitude towards other mediums down to the period. Perhaps art forms have developed beyond even his imagining since this paper was written? I certainly think it’s possible that the progression of art, theatre, film and television couldn’t possibly be predicted. There is always a note of caution that might confirm his sentiments though. As I stated literature is very personal. Readers can agree they all enjoyed the same book, for many different reasons, even though it is the same text. As soon as that text is adapted into another form, a film for example, then it becomes incredibly divisive. Because that film is one interpretation among thousands, millions even. For a lot of people the spell of ‘Fantasy’ will be broken. Personally, I like to think Tolkien was simply too in love with words and language to esteem any other method of transition for his work to reach it’s full potential.
I’ve struggled (quite well up to now, I think) to avoid using imprecise words to describe the function Tolkien is admirably describing. The desired effect on the reader has been defined as ‘Fantasy’ but what should we call the act perpetrated by the writer? I’ve tried to sidestep words like trick, magic, illusion, art. All good words but loaded with implications that dilute the intention.
“Art of the same sort, if more skilled and effortless, the elves can also use, or so the reports seem to show; but the more potent and specially elvish craft I will, for lack of a less debatable word, call Enchantment. Enchantment produces a Secondary World into which both designer and spectator can enter, to the satisfaction of their senses while they are inside; but in its purity it is artistic in desire and purpose. Magic produces, or pretends to produce, an alteration in the Primary World.”
The final sentence in that last quote is really important. The word ‘magic’ suggests a change, a tangible trick that transforms. What Tolkien keeps driving at is his idea of ‘Enchantment’ reveals something that was previously unseen to produce ‘Fantasy’. There is no hoodwinking, no suspension of disbelief, it is a natural revelation made more special and delightful because of how it is achieved. By collaboration with the reader. The writer isn’t forcing the reader to believe they are simply unveiling an unknown history.
“Fantasy is a natural human activity. It certainly does not destroy or even insult Reason; and it does not either blunt the appetite for, nor obscure the perception of, scientific verity. On the contrary. The keener and the clearer is the reason, the better fantasy will it make.”
This part begins to tackle the genre’s legitimacy. Returning again to the idea of it as ‘childish folly’ or as one colleague coined them ‘lies’ or more poetically ‘Breathing a lie through Silver.’ That criticism came from C.S. Lewis, which prompts many interesting questions on its own, but they will wait for another day. Part of his response is to highlight the function of facts and knowledge in relation to Fantasy. Imagination is contingent on having a firm grasp of reality. Fantastical ideas can only be viewed as such if you have the solid ground of the Primary World to juxtapose it. The better your understanding of reality the more possibilities you have to create Fantasy.
“For creative Fantasy is founded upon the hard recognition that things are so in the world as it appears under the sun; on a recognition of fact, but not a slavery to it.”
Then comes an admission that, like any other human activity, Fantasy can be marred or done improperly. Not all attempts will be up to the standard Tolkien sets for successful Fantasy. Some attempts might be overridden by the impure motives of the author. He concludes: “Abusus non tollit usum”. “Abuse does not take away use.” The misuse of something by a minority is not an argument against said thing existing in the first place.
“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.”
He closes the section on a tantalising hint of how Tolkien will bring the essay to it’s crescendo. Humans make and we have a right to make because we were made in the image of a Maker (note the capital letter). This is where Tolkien’s religious beliefs begin to assert themselves and define how he perceives creativity. I won’t delve too deep into it here, but I’ll ask you to consider this: If writers that seek to realise Secondary Worlds that retain Primary Belief are called Sub-Creators, who or what is the Primary Creator?
The next section is titled ‘Recovery, Escape, Consolation’, and in describing these three things in relation to Fantasy literature Tolkien strives to define the chief benefits of the genre.
“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.”
“They have become like the things which once attracted us by their glitter, or their colour, or their shape, and we laid hands on them, and then locked them in our hoard, acquired them, and acquiring ceased to look at them.”
Tolkien uses the interesting analogy of a ‘hoard’. He used the premise of a Dragon horde in the Hobbit to fantastic effect. How the accumulation of riches can warp perception and erode appreciation. We are all guilty of this kind of petty avarice. Consumerism relies on it. We lust after the latest or fashionable ‘thing’ and once we have it something else catches our eye. The value of the previous bauble has diminished through ownership.
“Creative fantasy, because it is mainly trying to do something else (make something new), may open your hoard and let all the locked things fly away like cage-birds. The gems all turn into flowers or flames, and you will be warned that all you had (or knew) was dangerous and potent, not really effectively chained, free and wild; no more yours than they were you.”
By applying the principles of Fantasy to the familiar, the everyday we can apply recovery to our perceptions. The wonder is all the greater as we can be made to see the everyday in a new and exciting light. It is not changed in any way, but through Fantasy a fresh perception can be revealed. We can be Enchanted by objects that have grown tired to our eyes by viewing them anew. Perhaps through this process we may recover some of that original spark that so made us want to hoard the object in the first place? Maybe the application of Fantasy can help us appreciate our Primary World more through examination via a Secondary World?
The Professor then tackles Escape and Consolation together; suggesting one might lead to the other. He explains that “Escapist Literature” is treated with “scorn or pity” by certain critics. This seems to me to be a comment on the time, as this sort of thinking has certainly diminished over time due to cultural and commercial shifts. Escapism is used to sell products as a positive quality now. I assume back in the 1930’s it was viewed, much like Fairy-Stories as a childish idea. Perhaps akin to daydreaming?
“Evidently we are faced by a misuse of words, and also by a confusion of thought. 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. In using escape in this way the critics have chosen the wrong word, and, what is more, they are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter.”
He goes on quite a tirade about the industrialised world he witnessed growing around him. The rise of ‘robot factories’ and the ugliness of perceived progress. He points out that this sort of progress always seems to extort a toll from nature and the longer this trend persists the further we slide from our relationship with natural things. He uses this observation as a justification to invite escapism:
“It is part of the essential malady of such days— producing the desire to escape, not indeed from life, but from our present time and self-made misery— that we are acutely conscious both of the ugliness of our works, and of their evil. So that to us evil and ugliness seem indissolubly allied.”
It’s a theme set at the very heart of Tolkien’s Legendarium. It’s present in his creation myth Ainulindalë as the ‘discord or Melkor’ (I plan to dive deeper into that in the future). A more pertinent, simpler and quite literal example is something he was yet to write at the time of this essay; the battle of nature versus industry portrayed by the Ents’ attack on Isengard in The Two Towers. It’s clear Tolkien sees plenty in the Primary World around him that is not to his liking, making a good case in his mind for the validity of escapism.
He argues that escapism should not be derided as a distraction from “hunger, thirst, poverty, pain, sorrow, injustice, death”. Life is not a shower of rainbows. It is also not, in my opinion, something that needs to be taken very seriously. As I said earlier I believe this sort of attitude has eroded quite severely over time but we must remind ourselves that Tolkien is justifying this genre to it’s critics of the time, so perhaps I might be taking too wide a view of the sentiments?
‘Escape from death’ is singled out as a particular feature of Fairy-Stories. The Fantasy of shaking free the limits of mortality. To refer back to the hoard analogy used earlier, surely life itself is the ultimate example of something precious we all keep and quickly under-appreciate? To live peacefully we must forget our time is limited, otherwise we would be wracked with fear all of our days. But a reminder of how lucky we are to be alive, and that there is a limit can be one of the most powerful Enchantments Fantasy weaves.
“Fairy-stories are made by men not by fairies. The Human-stories of the elves are doubtless full of the Escape from Deathlessness. But our stories cannot be expected always to rise above our common level. They often do. Few lessons are taught more clearly in them than the burden of that kind of immortality, or rather endless serial living, to which the “fugitive” would fly. For the fairy-story is specially apt to teach such things, of old and still today.”
The phrase ‘endless serial living’ is particularly interesting. It’s a clear definition separate from immortality. Immortality suggests that a being cannot be killed. Of course the Elves in Tolkien’s myths can be slain, but if left to be they will not die a natural death. ‘Endless serial living’ describes the burden of longevity and through it’s exploration via Fantasy Tolkien can juxtapose the mortality of Men against the ‘Serial Longevity’ of Elves. Men wish for longer lives and envy the Elves, the Elves see the mortality of Men as a gift. This subject alone is worthy of further study, but it stands as an excellent example of how the fantasy genre can inspect and comment upon the nature of reality in an interesting and thought provoking fashion.
We then move onto ‘consolation’ and the coining of a new word. Tolkien is ever the philologist:
“Far more important is the Consolation of the Happy Ending. Almost I would venture to assert that all complete fairy-stories must have it. At least I would say that Tragedy is the true form of Drama, its highest function; but the opposite is true of Fairystory. Since we do not appear to possess a word that expresses this opposite—I will call it Eucatastrophe. The eucatastrophic tale is the true form of fairy-tale, and its highest function.”
The first pertinent point that catches my eye is the assertion that tragedy is the highest form of drama, used to make the point that the opposite is true for Fairy-Stories. You might assume from this that Fairy-Stories must always be of a cheerful bent, which of course is not the case. Just as a well executed tragedy will only pierce the heart if the sadness follows bliss. A ‘eucatastrophe’ is only effective if sadness and despair is already well established. In fact it must be a part of the story to lend the device any power. The end of that quote once again reminds us of Tolkien’s perspective for his thoughts. All of the points he presents are markers that, in his opinion, must be present in the highest examples of the art he practices and loves. It doesn’t discount other methodologies of story-telling in the fantasy genre, he is simply marking his personal high watermark.
It’s very easy to read this and take the Professor’s meaning too simplistically. You could assume fantasy stories need to have happy endings. All Fairy-Tales must end with ‘happily ever after’. That is not the point he’s trying to make, he goes on to make his meaning very clear and specific:
“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.”
The most important definitive is “the sudden joyous ‘turn’”. If we think about Tolkien’s most famous books it is very easy to find examples of these moments of eucatastrophe. In the main it’s any time the Eagles show up! Oddly it’s also the main bug-bear for people that aren’t interested in the deeper lore behind WHY it makes sense for them to swoop in and save the day (again another essay for another day). This device, this eucatastrophe, goes against modern story-telling structure. In fact most of Tolkien’s work simply wouldn’t be considered in the modern publishing world. He’d be getting notes on characterisation, diversity, act structure and target market demographics. That’s why his work is singular and special. Despite all of the ‘rules’ that exist now, the story works because it works on it’s own terms and merits; including the eucatastrophic elements.
There are two other points that I think are telling of Tolkien’s idea of his larger Legendarium. The idea that ‘there is no true end to any fairy-tale’, an easy enough point to digest. There is never an end to any story, there is only the point at which the teller decides to stop. Take cinderella, the story works when Cinders marries the prince and they live happily ever after, that isn’t the end of their story. I’d hope they had plenty of adventures after they got married and I’m pretty sure that ‘happily ever after’ does contain plenty of arguments and disagreements. The second phrase is ‘universal final defeat’. I believe this sort of thinking applies to the span of the world Tolkien is creating. It reaches from his conceptual creation myth then bleeds into our real world and forward into the future to an undefined apocalypse. Within that span stories rise and fall and moments of eucatastrophe will act as arresting peaks. The points where stories within a mythology would suggest an ending to a teller.
“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.”
It is undeniable that Tolkien went on to succeed with his use of eucatastrophe. Frodo failing to cast the ring into the fires of Mt. Doom and Gollum intervening. This is a moment of ultimate despair, we’ve been with Frodo every step of the way and at the end, after all his trials, he fails the last and most vital, only to be saved by Gollum who claims his final victory and ends up saving all. It is a moment where you catch your breath, you read on hastily hoping and wondering what will happen next then not quite believing what you read. You could define a successful eucatastrophe as much by the technical writing beats as you can by the emotional or physical reaction it elicits in the reader.
“Even modern fairy-stories can produce this effect sometimes. It is not an easy thing to do; it depends on the whole story which is the setting of the turn, and yet it reflects a glory backwards.”
Tolkien isn’t alone in employing eucatastrophe. He did coin the term and I do wonder how much of an effect it might have had on media and story-telling in general. So much so that it’s easy to think of modern examples. End of Raiders of the Lost Ark where Indy is spared and the Nazi’s are destroyed when they open the Ark. Han Solo turning up and taking out Darth Vader as Luke is on his final bombing run in the Death Star trench. The Shawshank Redemption when that stone goes through the poster and the tunnel is revealed.
Then we get to the Epilogue of the essay. It’s safe to safe Tolkien saved the meat of his thoughts for the end. My interpretation of what he writes suggests that his entire belief system fed into the world he wanted to create.
“The peculiar quality of the ”joy” in successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth. It is not only a “consolation” for the sorrow of this world, but a satisfaction, and an answer to that question, ‘Is it true?’ The answer to this question that I gave at first was (quite rightly): ‘If you have built your little world well, yes: it is true in that world.’ But 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. The use of this word gives a hint of my epilogue.”
Tolkien is trying to explain that the ‘joy’ of a fully rendered and successful eucatastrophe has the ability to transcend the Secondary World to which it belongs and echo powerfully into the Primary World of it’s reader. But more than that, this joy can be a hint of ‘evangelism’ or ‘gospel truth’. Tolkien was a very religious man. A staunch Catholic and this belief system has a huge impact upon his work, but not in an obvious way. To my mind it is never preaching, nor is it a simple, comparative parable. The themes and messages are much broader, and while representative of religious morality, unfettered by any sort of proscriptive dogma. It is in the construction and ideology of Tolkien’s Legendarium where parallels to Tolkien’s beliefs can be plainly seen.
“The Gospels contain a fairystory, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels—peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: “mythical” in their perfect, selfcontained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe. 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. This story begins and ends in joy.”
The Professor cites the Gospels as a mythology that exists as a Secondary creation with Primary, historical truth. Something that has the ability to produce joy; in this case joy would be akin to seeing or feeling the presence of God. The story of Christ’s birth, death and resurrection are the ultimate eucatastrophes and function within religion to have a deep and profound affect on the reader.
“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 actually assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation.”
This is my understanding of Tolkien’s beliefs: There is only one Primary Creator. God. He created everything, and everything happens according to His will and plan. Humanity is made in His image. We were created to be creators ourselves, however we will never be able to surpass the one true Creator. Our creations are merely contrivances of His work. He made the Primary World, our creations can only be of a Secondary nature. Everything we make is shaped and crafted from the raw materials available to us. Unfortunately these raw materials are also able to be twisted, corrupted and fashioned into horrors. All results of sub-creation (for good or ill) remain within the purview of God and are made according to His will. We cannot be privy to His ultimate plan, but faith in His benevolence would lead to the idea that no matter what, on a celestial scale His plan will have the ultimate joyful conclusion. Along the way euphoric moments of eucatastrophe will install belief, repay faith and show a small glimpse of the machinations beyond our sight.
The more you read through that description, and the more you learn about Tolkien’s Legendarium, the less clear it becomes as to what I might be referring to. Tolkien’s religious beliefs and worldview… Or how he chose to construct his particular Secondary World.
Personally, I have no religious beliefs and I’m not particularly spiritual but this doesn’t mean I can’t relate to Tolkien’s mythological construction. For me the idea of a Primary and Secondary world transposes perfectly over to my own creative reasoning. In my mind the Primary world is reality and all that exists within it, with all of the secondary materials that have been produced. I don’t particularly believe that originality exists, but I don’t state this as discouragement to creative pursuit. In my own Secondary Worlds my hope is to emulate Tolkien’s aims. To Enchant the reader, to weave a Fantasy. However I don’t believe that by succeeding I might capture a glimpse of anything celestial. I believe that if I’m successful I manage to capture glimpses of my own personal truths. Truths that the reader can relate to and feel less alone. Our ideologies differ, but I believe the result to be the same.
Fantasy has the unique ability to tell ultimate truths without the hindrance of our physical existence and static mentalities.
Feel free to get in touch or comment below if you’d like to start a discussion on anything you’ve read or if you have any corrections to aid further study.