TOLKIEN AND THE FAIRY STORY
When J. R. R. Tolkien's trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, appeared some seven years ago it accomplished on a modest scale the sort of critical controversy which The Waste Land and Ulysses had occasioned a generation earlier. Like them, it could not be easily reviewed; it was anomalous; it forced examination of critical
It is nearly impossible to summarize the trilogy for those who have not read it. It is not the complications of a plot that cause the difficulty, but the complications of a world. The trilogy world, set in the Third Age, so far back in time that it precedes the earliest heroic age, is far richer in levels of being than our own is. Though there are "humans" in this world, they are by no means the central figures. The heroes are hobbits, creatures some three feet high with furry feet, who live in burrows in a land called The Shire. Other beings of varying degrees of rationality are the elves, the dwarfs, the ores (yahoo-like brutes), various monsters, spirits, ghosts, talking trees, even a kind of archetypal "vegetation god" (Tom Bombadil). There are nearly as many languages in this world as there are kinds of beings; and though there is a common language, most of the beings prefer to speak their own tongue. Tolkien has taken some care with these languages, paying most attention to the elvish speech, and part of the charm for those who like the trilogy lies in the songs written in elvish, and in the place names and the proper names of the characters, many of which are philological jeux d'esprit. Thus Sauron, the Enemy, lives in the smoky land of Mordor, "where the shadows lie." The heroic human who fights alongside the hobbits is named Aragorn. The incredibly old talking trees are called Ents. The courageous dwarf is Gimli, whose ancestors mined gold in the mines of Moria, under the Misty Mountains.
The story itself is of incredible adventure and of war on the largest scale possible in this world. By accident Frodo, the hobbit hero, gains possession of a magic ring of power lost years
Now The Lord of the Rings is certainly not a realistic novel, not a symbolic novel, perhaps not a novel at all as we usually understand the term. It would seem closest to "myth," except that we generally think of myth as some sort of adumbration of what was once either fact, or felt to be fact, or desired to be fact. But
Another critic, Patricia Spacks, refutes Wilson by pointing out the ethical character of the trilogy. It is not a matter of Good People versus Goblins; "the force and complexity of its moral and
Against all these opinions we must set Tolkien's own remarks on the work, made in a statement to his publisher. Wilson quotes these with great relish, regarding them as the last evidence he needs to show the inanity of those reviewers who found serious value in the work. Tolkien himself has confessed, Wilson thinks, that the work is only "a philological game." Tolkien has said, "The invention of language is the foundation. The 'stories' were made rather to provide a world for the language than the reverse. I should have preferred to write in 'Elvish'." When people ask him "what it is all about," he replies that it is an essay in "linguistic esthetic." "It is not 'about' anything but itself. Certainly it has no allegorical intentions, general, particular or topical, moral, religious or political." This last disclaimer is for Wilson the end of the matter: that will settle the Manichees!
For my purpose it does not matter much whether Tolkien was being ironic when interviewed, or whether writers' remarks on their own work are to be taken as final evidence as to the nature and meaning of their work. The aim of the critic, as Chesterton once remarked, is to show what the artist did, whether the artist meant to do it or not. But in the interest of truth it should be pointed out that Wilson makes the matter far too simple, and the internal evidence of the work shows this quite clearly. The trilogy may have begun as a philological game easily enough, but other things have grown beneath their makers' hands. And if it were relevant I could cite innumerable passages in the trilogy which are clearly not part of any game, philological or otherwise passages in which the heart of the author is laid bare for all to see who read them. No one ever exposed the nerves and fibers of his being in order to make up a language; it is not only insane but unnecessary.
However we take Tolkien's remarks, I believe that the genre and meaning of the trilogy are to be found in his essay on fairy stories, published seven years before the first volume of the trilogy, though he has said that the trilogy was some seventeen years in the making. The essay has not been completely ignored in discussions of the trilogy. Straight, for example, points out briefly that the trilogy accords generally with the specifications that Tolkien laid down for the fairy story. And Lewis' review of the second and third volumes spends some time defending the work on a basis which is really part of Tolkien's fairy story thesis, though Lewis does not mention this. But the total relevance of the essay to the trilogy, and the nature of the theory set forth in the essay, have not, I think, been sufficiently examined.
Tolkien's essay attempts to determine the nature, origin, and use of fairy stories. As to the nature of them, no definition can be arrived at on historical grounds; the definition instead must deal with "the nature of Faerie: the Perilous Realm itself, and the air that blows in that country." But this is exactly what cannot be either defined or accurately described, only perceived. Faerie may be roughly translated as Magic, but not the vulgar magic of the magician; it is rather magic "of a particular mood and power," and it does not have its end in itself but in its operations. Among these operations are "the satisfaction of certain primordial human desires" such as the desire "to survey the depths of space and time" and the desire "to hold communion with other living things." Travelers' tales are not fairy stories, and neither are those stories which utilize dream machinery to explain away their marvels. If a writer attaches his tale of marvels to reality by explaining that it was all a dream, as in the medieval tradition, "he cheats deliberately the primal desire at the heart of Faerie: the realization, independent of the conceiving mind, of imagined wonder."
Now these remarks throw much light on the trilogy. It is a fairy story in the sense just described: it concerns itself with the air that blows through the Perilous Realm of Faerie. It attempts to satisfy "certain primordial human desires." It surveys the depths of time, as Lewis' interplanetary trilogy surveys the depths of space, and in Tolkien's sense, Lewis' trilogy is thus a fairy story. The story itself is of the Third Age, but the story is full of echoes out of the dim past; in fact, the trilogy is in great part an attempt to suggest the depths of time, "which antiquates antiquity, and hath an art to make dust of all things." The Third Age is, for the reader, old beyond measure, but the beings of this age tell stories out of ages yet deeper "in the dark backward and abysm of time," and in fact often suggest that these stories recount only the events of relatively recent times-Browne's "setting part of time"-and that the oldest things are lost beyond memory. All this is to satisfy that primordial desire to explore time, for "antiquity has an appeal in itself." Fairy stories, Tolkien's among them, "open a door on Other Time, and if we pass through, though only for a moment, we stand outside our own time, outside Time itself, maybe."
And the trilogy attempts to satisfy the other desire, "to hold communion with other living things"-again, as Lewis' trilogy does. The Ents, for example, the great trees of the Third Age, are among the oldest living things. They speak to the hobbits in a language as old, as slowly and carefully articulated, as the earth itself. And when Tom Bombadil speaks, it is as if Nature itself- nonrational, interested only in life and in growing things-were speaking. The elves, the dwarfs, even Gollum and the ores, are gradations either up or down-from the human level; they are "other living things" with whom the reader holds communion in the trilogy world of imagined wonder.
Readers of Lewis will recall that he has had much to say of the stories of Beatrix Potter: it was in these that he found the early glimpses of the thing he called Joy. And Tolkien finds something in them of Faerie. They are mostly beast fables, he thinks, but they "lie near the borders of Faerie" because of the moral element in them, "their inherent morality, not any allegorical significatio." And here is a partial answer to the question which, as we have seen, all the critics of the trilogy have dealt with: the relevance of the work to human life. It is not only through allegory that invented characters and actions may have significance. Allegory is ultimately reducible to rational terms; and in this sense there is no allegory in The Lord of the Rings. But there runs throughout the work an "inherent morality" which many critics have discerned, and which some have tried to reduce to allegory. It is the element of the numinous that is to be found throughout the work of George Macdonald and in Lewis' novels. It is the sense of a cosmic moral law, consciously obeyed or disobeyed by the characters, but existing nowhere as a formulated and codified body of doctrine. Patricia Spacks has commented that Tolkien has included in the trilogy "all the necessary materials for religion." It is even more accurate to say that he has included conscience, which may be defined, for the purposes of the trilogy, as an awareness of natural law. But it is not a rational awareness; that is, rationality plays almost no part in it. It is an emotional or imaginative awareness; the doctrine does not exist, but the feeling normally attached to the doctrine does. The value of this inherent morality, as we will see, comes under Tolkien's heading of "Recovery," which is one of the uses of the fairy story.
Fairy stories, then, are those which utilize Faerie, the "realization of imagined wonder," and which have, or may have, an inherent morality. Their nature is "independent of the conceiving mind," or, as Lewis said of Macdonald's myth-making, it comes to us on a level deeper and more basic than that of the conceptual intellect, and must be perceived with the imagination.
Tolkien's views of the origin of fairy stories take us a step closer to the heart of the matter. The history of fairy stories is "as complex as the history of human language." In this history three elements have figured in the creation of "the intricate web of Story": invention, diffusion, and inheritance. The latter two lead ultimately back to the first and do nothing to clear up the mystery of invention. For diffusion is merely "borrowing in space" from an inventor, and inheritance is merely "borrowing in time." Both presuppose an inventive mind, and it is the nature of the inventive mind that concerns Tolkien.
The incarnate mind, the tongue, and the tale are in our world coeval. The human mind, endowed with the powers of generalization and abstraction, sees not only green-grass, discriminating it from other things . . . 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 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 swift water. If it could do the 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 minds awakes. It does not follow that we shall use that power well on any plane. 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 make 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.
Clearly, behind this description of the inventive mind is the romantic doctrine of the creative imagination. Faerie is a product of the "esemplastic" imagination, a product of Coleridge's Secondary Imagination, which is an echo of the Primary Imagination that creates and perceives the world of reality.
Nor is the creative imagination to be taken lightly or metaphorically in Tolkien's theory of the fairy story. The writer of the story is really a subcreator; he creates a "Secondary World" which the mind of the reader really enters. Further, the reader's state of mind is not accurately described in the phrase "willing suspension of disbelief," which indicates a kind of tolerance or tacit agreement. When the story is successful, the reader practices "Secondary Belief," which is an active and positive thing. So long as the writer's art does not fail him, "what he relates is 'true': it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are . . . inside."
Tolkien elaborates, and slightly qualifies, the doctrine of the creative imagination in his discussion of the use of fairy stories. He begins with a dictionary distinction between the Fancy and the Imagination. According to this distinction, the Fancy is the image-making faculty, what Coleridge called "a mode of memory emancipated from the order of time and space," while the Imagination is "the power of giving to ideal creations the inner consistency of reality." Coleridge thought of the two capacities as wholly distinct faculties, the Fancy being analogous to the Understanding, and the Imagination analogous to Reason. Tolkien would combine them because he believes "the verbal distinction philologically inappropriate, and the analysis inaccurate The mental power of image-making is one thing, or aspect; and it should appropriately be called Imagination. The perception of the image, the grasp of its implications, and the control, which are necessary to a successful expression, may vary in vividness and strength; but this is a difference of degree in Imagination, not a difference in kind." What gives "the inner consistency of reality" or Secondary Belief is not properly Imagination but Art, which is "the operative link between Imagination and the final result, Sub- creation." Needing a term to express both the "Sub-creative Art" and "a quality of strangeness and wonder in the expression, derived from the Image," he chooses to use the word "Fantasy." For the term in the sense in which he means it "combines with its older and higher use as an equivalent of Imagination the derived notions of 'unreality' (that is, of unlikeness to the Primary World), of freedom from the domination of observed 'fact,' in short of the fantastic."
He is aware of the implications of the word "fantastic," that it implies that the things with which it deals are not to be found in the "Primary World." In fact he welcomes such implications, for that is exactly what he means by the term, that the images which it describes are not extant in the "real"? world. That they are not "is a virtue not a vice." We recall Shelley's lines: "Forms more real than living man,/ Nurslings of immortality." Just because Fantasy deals with things which do not exist in the Primary World, Tolkien holds, it is "not a lower but a higher form of Art, indeed the most nearly pure form, and so (when achieved) the most potent." It is relatively easy to achieve "the inner consistency of reality" in realistic material. But good Fantasy is very difficult to write. Anyone, Tolkien points out, 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 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.
The fairy story, then, of which the trilogy is an example, uses Fantasy, and so far as it is successful is "story-making in its primary and most potent mode." That is to say, in dealing with fantastic things rather than with real ones it attempts the purest form of narrative art, and succeeds to the extent that it induces in the reader the state of mind called Secondary Belief. In short, invented stories, if successful, are better and on a higher level than stories which merely manipulate the materials of the Primary World. Here we are reminded of Coleridge's distinction between the Reason and the Understanding, the latter manipulating the "counters" of the real world. Now Fantasy is a higher form than Realism not only because such invented stories are harder to make but because they offer to the reader certain things which realistic stories do not offer, or do not offer to the same degree. These things Tolkien calls Recovery, Escape, and Consolation.
"Recovery (which includes return and renewal of health) is a regaining-re-gaining of a clear view." Recovery is a means of "seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them...." All things become blurred by familiarity; we come to possess them, to use them, to see them only in relation to ourselves. In so doing we lose sight of what the things themselves really are, qua things-and "things" here includes people, objects, ideas, moral codes, literally everything. Recovery is a recovery of perspective, the old Chestertonian lesson which Tolkien calls "Mooreefoc, or Chestertonian fantasy," the lesson of Manalive. Fantasy provides the recovery necessary to those of us who do not have humility; the humble do not need fantasy because they already see things as not necessarily related to themselves; their vision is not blighted by selfishness or egotism. Lewis, I have said, defends the trilogy's relevance to life, and he does so in terms of what Tolkien means by Recovery. He has said that the book has some of the qualities of myth:
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 re-discover it. As long as the story lingers in our mind, the real things are more themselves. This book applies the treatment not only to bread or apple but to good and evil, to our endless perils, our anguish, and our joys. By dipping them in myth we see them more clearly.
Applying the theory of Recovery to the trilogy, then, we rediscover the meaning of heroism and friendship as we see the two hobbits clawing their way up Mount Doom; we see again the endless evil of greed and egotism in Gollum, stunted and ingrown out of moral shape by years of lust for the ring; we recognize again the essential anguish of seeing beautiful and frail things-innocence, early love, children-passing away as we read of the Lady Galadriel and the elves making the inevitable journey to the West and extinction, and see them as Frodo does, "a living vision of that which has already been left far behind by the flowing streams of Time." We see morality as morality by prescinding from this or that human act and watching the "inherent morality" to which all the beings of the Third Age the evil as well as the good-bear witness. And, perhaps, the devouring nature of time itself is borne in on us, as it was on the Elizabethan sonneteers, and we learn again from the trilogy that all things are Time's fools, that all comes within the compass of his bending sickle.
If Tolkien is right, if Recovery is what he claims it is, and if Fantasy provides Recovery, then it follows that Fantasy, far from being irrelevant to reality, is in fact extremely relevant to moral reality. And the trilogy, so far as Tolkien's art does not fail him, is an example of the dictum, so favored by the Renaissance critics, that literature is both dulce and utile, that Spenser can be a better teacher than Aquinas.
Finally, Tolkien holds that the fairy story, by the use of Fantasy, provides Escape and Consolation, two elements which are very closely related. In fact, Escape brings about Consolation as its end or effect. Now the fact that the fairy story is "escapist" is the very crux of the accusations brought against it, as we have seen in regard to the trilogy. But Tolkien will not admit that escape is a bad thing. The word, he thinks, has fallen into disrepute because its users too often confuse "the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter."
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.
Thus escape from Hitler's Reich was not desertion; it was really rebellion, a refusal to be identified with Hitler. And, Tolkien thinks, this is often the nature of escape. A man may refuse to write about the world in which he lives not out of cowardice the usual accusation -but because to write about it is in a sense to accept it. He may, like Thoreau, simply secede. And this is not desertion; it is war; it is "real Escape, and what are often its companions, Disgust, Anger, Condemnation, and Revolt."
But fairy stories, Tolkien thinks, provide other Escapes, and these bring about Consolations of various kinds. Fairy stories, like other kinds of literature and like many other things as well, can provide a kind of solace in a world of "hunger, thirst, poverty, pain, sorrow, injustice, death." And this kind of solace or respite is necessary; it is not refusal to face reality, it is a time needed to regroup one's forces for the next day's battle. Thus the poets talk of care-charmer sleep and the sleep that knits up the ravelled sleeve of care; but they do not advocate sleeping one's life away. Further, fairy stories, as we have seen, provide a kind of consolation in their satisfaction of "primordial human desires."
But the major consolation that the fairy story has to offer is one which it contains to a degree that no other kind of literature can equal. It 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 Fairy- story. 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 the fairy-tale, and its highest function.
What the fairy story pre-eminently presents is "the joy of the happy ending," and it is in this respect that the fairy story, for Tolkien, is related to reality. But the reality is not the reality of this world, the world of flux and opinion: rather the eucatastrophe "denies . . . universal defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief." The good fairy story, by means of its eucatastrophe, gives the reader "a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears," for in the eucatastrophe the reader gets "a piercing glimpse of joy, and heart's desire, that for a moment passes outside the frame, rends indeed the very web of story, and lets a gleam come through...." The relevance of the fairy story to reality lies in this gleam, which is a "sudden glimpse of the underlying reality of truth."
Thus there are two answers to the question, Is the fairy story true? The first and obvious answer is, It is true if it induces Secondary Belief, if the art has successfully translated the image of the "created wonder." But that is merely a question of art. The nature of the eucatastrophe suggests that the second answer is infinitely more important, for "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." It is in this second truth that the fairy story, for Tolkien, ceases to be merely literature and becomes explicitly a vehicle for religious truth.
God has redeemed man in all man's capacities, and one of his capacities is that of telling stories, especially fairy stories. As Redemption has once more made man in the image and likeness of God, so the capacities of man to some degree echo the capacities of God. In this sense, this second truth of the fairy story is "only one facet of a truth incalculably rich," for in all spheres of human activity there is necessarily something like the signature of God. The eucatastrophic fairy story, a product of redeemed man, echoes the Gospels, which contain a story "which embraces the essence of all fairy-stories." For the Gospels contain not only marvels, as the fairy story does; they contain the birth of Christ, which is "the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe," "the eucatastrophe of Man's history." And they contain the Resurrection, which is "the eucatastrophe of the Incarnation."
The joy which the happy ending of the fairy story gives, says Tolkien, is of the same quality, though not the same degree, as the joy which we feel at the fact that the great fairy story of the Gospels is true in the Primary World, for the joy of the fairy tale "has the very taste of primary truth." This is the justification of the fairy story-and thus of the trilogy-that it gives us in small, in the beat of the heart and the catch of the breath, the joy of the infinite good news. For "Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of Angels, and of men-and of elves. Legend and history have met and fused."
It is not too much to say that Tolkien's view of the fairy story has made explicit Coleridge's claim for the worth of the creative imagination. The Secondary Imagination, which created literature, was for Coleridge an "echo" of the Primary Imagination, which is "the living Power and prime Agent of all human Perception, and . . . a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM." For the fairy story-and the trilogy-are sheer creation, the making of a Secondary World out of, and by means of, the Imagination. That is the special activity of the fairy story maker, and one by which he becomes, not a writer, but a subcreator of a kind of literature analogous-or more than analogous-to the universe created ex nihilo by the divine Creator. In his degree he creates Joy-or creates what gives Joy-as God, in the purposeful drama of creation, has created what also gives Joy, the world with the Christian happy ending. Speaking of Blake's definition of poetry, Northrop Frye has commented:
We live in a world of threefold external compulsion: of compulsion on action, or law; of compulsion on thinking, or fact, of compulsion on feeling, which is the characteristic of all pleasure whether it is produced by the Paradiso or by an ice cream soda. But in the world of imagination a fourth power, which contains morality, beauty, and truth but is never subordinated to them, rises free of all their compulsions. The work of imagination presents us with a vision, not of the personal greatness of the poet, but of something impersonal and far greater: the vision of a decisive act of spiritual freedom, the vision of the recreation of man.
Tolkien's defense of Fantasy and, I would add, of the trilogy, in verse in which there is perhaps more truth than poetry, is also a defense and, it may be, the last defense, of the doctrine of the creative imagination, which brings the making of God and the making of man so close that they nearly touch:
Although now long estranged, Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed. Dis-graced he may be, yet is not de-throned, and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned: Man, Sub-creator, the refracted Light through whom is splintered from a single White to many hues, and endlessly combined in living shapes that move from mind to mind. Though all the crannies of the world we filled with Elves and Goblins, though we dared to build Gods and their houses out of dark and light, and sowed the seed of dragons-'twas our right (used or misused). That right has not decayed: we make still by the law in which we're made.
1 Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1957), p. 42.
2 Some of the materials for such a history have of course already been examined: Hoxie Fairchild's Romantic Faith (New York: Columbia University Press, 1949), C. T. Sanders' Coleridge and the Broad Church Movement (Durham, N. C.: Duke University Press, 1942), and Basil Willey's Nineteenth Century Studies (London: Chatto & Windus, 1949), for example.
3 The hobbits were introduced in Tolkien's children's book The Hobbit (Boston: Houghton, Miffin, 1938).
4 "Oo, Those Awful Orc!" Nation, 182 (April 14,1956), 312-313.
5 "Adventure in English" Essays in Criticism, 6 (January, 1956), 450-59.
6 The "Fantastic World of Professor Tolkien," New Republic, 134 (January 16, 1956), 24 26.
7 "Ethical Pattern in The Lord of the Rings," Critique, 3 (Spring-Fall, 1959), 3041.
8 The "Hwaet We Holbylta . . .," Hudson Review, 9 (Spring 1956 - Winter 1956-57), 598609.
9 The "The Dethronement of Power," Time and Tide, 43 (October 22, 1955), 1373-74.
10 Quoted by Wilson.
11 "On Fairy-Stories" in Essays Presented to Charles Williams (London: Oxford University Press, 1947). All of Tolkien's subsequent remarks on the fairy story are quoted from this essay.
12 Preface to George Macdonald, An Anthology (New York: Macmillan, 1947), pp. 16-17.
13 The Dethronement of Power," p. 1374.
14 Biographia Literaria, Ch. XIII.
15 Anatomy of Criticism, p. 94.
This article appeared in the Spring 1963 issue of "Thought: A Review of Culture and Idea" published by Fordham University.
Provided Courtesy of: