January 2021

On Tolkien on fairy-stories

In 1939 J. R. R. Tolkien gave a lecture at the University of St. Andrews on the subject of fairy-stories, which was later published, with minor alterations, as an essay entitled On Fairy-stories. It is a long essay (over 50 pages in print) and gives a thorough defence of fairy-stories and an argument for their significance. It hints at ideas underpinning The Lord of the Rings, though Tolkien does not mention that work directly, possibly because at the time, he had only just started writing it (and it wasn’t published for another 14 years). Roughly the first third of the essay Tolkien spends on a sort of definition: where do fairy-stories come from, and what are they not? They are not concerned primarily with fairies. Such stories, he says, are ‘rare’ and ‘not very interesting’. Most fairy-stories are about the adventures ‘of men in the Perilous Realm’. This Perilous Realm and ‘the air that blows in it’, is ‘Faërie’ (with a capital ‘F’), or fairy-land, that ‘realm or state in which fairies have their being’, and it contains many things besides fairies:

Dwarves, 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.

Faërie is a version of the world in a particular mode or state, one that we enter only when enchanted. Tolkien calls it a ‘dangerous and perilous land’, and considers himself ‘full of wonder but not of information’ regarding it. He does not attempt to define or even describe Faërie, ‘for it is one of its qualities to be indescribable’, but says that it might be called magic ‘of a particular mood and power’ - not the magic of the scientist or magician - what he elsewhere calls ‘elven craft’, magic whose object is ‘art’ rather than ‘power’, the opposite of expedience. A fairy-story is ‘one which touches on or uses’ the art, magic or realm of Faërie.

There are several modes of storytelling which, for Tolkien, do not qualify as fairy-stories, and these give us clues as to what sort of tale does qualify. Travellers’ tales do not count because the only thing which separates them from us is distance, whatever ‘marvels’ they may contain. He considers The Time Machine, for example, to be closer to fairy-story than Gulliver’s Travels because the Eloi and the Morlocks live in ‘an abyss of time so deep as to work an enchantment upon them’. Dreams, if used to explain the Faërie elements, or as a frame to contain the story within another truer reality, invalidate a fairy-story. To present a tale as ultimately a dream is to ‘cheat deliberately the primal desire at the heart of Faerie’. Alice in Wonderland is, for Tolkien, not a fairy tale because of the dream frame around it and for its ‘mockery of unreason’. He thinks that satire is possible within fairy-stories only if it does not mock the magic that underpins the Faërie element. ‘Beast-fables’ (e.g. Orwell’s Animal Farm) are disqualified too because they use animals as proxies or metaphors for humans, not as creatures in themselves. None of these forms does Tolkien dislike, but he does consider them beyond the bounds of fairy-tale, and in so doing, imposes a certain strictness and dignity on the form: it must not be frivolous, must not present itself as a lie, and it should not explain itself away. The tale must live in its own world, not in a cipher or approximation of this world. Tolkien was averse to allegory, preferring what he called ‘applicability’: for a tale to speak of things beyond itself is inevitable and desirable, but for it to ‘really mean’ something else is to undo the tale as a tale. If a tale is allegory, then it is mere drapery over a true meaning which lies underneath and outside it, so the tale itself becomes secondary - perhaps even ultimately disposable once the ‘meaning’ has been assimilated.

Tolkien spends some time in On Fairy-Stories loosening the association between fairy-stories and children, an association he calls ‘an accident of our domestic history’ whereby fairy-stories have been ‘banished’ to the nursery. Only some children enjoy them, which, he says, is equally true of adults. And those with appetite for fairy-stories find their appetite grows with age. I’m not sure about this particular point. I suspect that children (up to a certain self-conscious age) are less likely than adults to consider fairy-stories beneath them and to dismiss them without trying. He does say however that children, because of their limited experience, find it hard to distinguish the fantastic from the strange, and from things of the adult world, which could suggest that children do not read one tale as fairy-story and another as ‘real life’, but see all tales as somehow equivalent. But he also says that this difference between children and adults is often one of degree rather than nature. Children might believe the next village contains ‘ogres’; adults may believe the same of another country.

Tolkien objects to the treatment of children as a class. Of himself as a child he says:

I had no special childish ‘wish to believe’. I wanted to know. . . at no time can I remember that the enjoyment of a story was dependent on belief that such things could happen, or had happened, in ‘real life’. Fairy stories were plainly not primarily concerned with possibility, but with desirability. If they awakened desire, satisfying it while often whetting it unbearably, they succeeded.’

He does concede that child-like qualities – namely ‘humility and innocence’ – dispose one to enter the ‘Kingdom of Faerie’, though even in children these need not be uncritical or naive. He quotes G.K. Chesterton who writes that ‘children are innocent and love justice; while most of us are wicked and naturally prefer mercy’. There are certain truths – justice, perhaps a sense of fair play - which children may more keenly perceive. But he warns against too romantic a view of childhood and children, because ‘children are meant to grow up, and not to become Peter Pans. Not to lose innocence and wonder; but to proceed on the appointed journey’. And fairy-stories are instructive in the necessity and meaning of this journey:

It is one of the lessons of fairy-stories (if we can speak of the lessons of things that do not lecture) that on callow, lumpish, and selfish youth peril, sorrow, and the shadow of death can bestow dignity, even sometimes wisdom

I generally agree with Tolkien’s remarks about childhood and agree that it’s unfair to dismiss fairy-stories as the domain of children (or worse, to call them ‘childish’) but I suspect nevertheless that children are on the whole more disposed to like fairy-stories, because their imaginations seem to spill more readily and comfortably into ‘ordinary’ life than do the imaginations of adults. It may still be true that an adult imagination, if nurtured and trained, is more sophisticated, and perhaps this is the adult imagination which can take in (and give itself to) fairy-stories - but nearly all children have this ability or tendency (albeit in nascent form), whereas many adults have lost it or let it fall fallow.

Tolkien examines what it is fairy-stories draw out or appeal to in us, beyond the value common to all literary forms. He delineates four things: fantasy, recovery, escape and consolation, things of which ‘children have, as a rule, less need than older people’. Connecting and perhaps underlying these is a quality that awakens or stimulates a primordial desire, unrestrained by possibility, to ‘survey the depths of space and time’ and ‘to hold communion with other living things’. Note the phrase ‘other living things’, not ‘other people’: the desire is for fellowship and contact with the non-human, even the non-animal. The further we travel in time and space (away from a time where Man is, or at least appears to be, a dominating force) the more likely we are to meet things that are not ourselves.

Of particular interest to me were the sections on fantasy and recovery. Fantasy, for Tolkien, is ‘the most nearly pure form’ of art, although its ‘arresting strangeness’ has, he thinks, given it a bad name and led to confusion about its nature, partly because people dislike being ‘arrested’, or because they dislike any ‘meddling with the Primary World’. They ‘stupidly and even maliciously confound Fantasy with Dreaming, in which there is no Art; and with mental disorders, in which there is not even control: with delusion and hallucination’. Fantasy, unlike a dream or mental disorder, is rational. However it does not have the supports and shorthand referents of the real world, and therefore is harder to achieve the further it travels from so-called ‘realism’. This may explain a lot of bad or implausible fantasy, though there is bad realism too, and the truth of either depends not so much on the nature of the form as the success of the particular construction. Fantasy ‘can be carried to excess’ or ‘put to evil uses’. But, he asks, ‘of what human thing in this fallen world is that not true’?

Tolkien thought Fantasy ‘best left to words’. In painting, ‘the hand tends to outrun the mind, even to overthrow it’, from which follows ‘silliness or morbidity’. Drama (in his opinion wrongly considered a branch of literature) is ‘naturally hostile to fantasy’ because everything in a drama must be acted. ‘Men dressed up as talking animals may achieve buffoonery or mimicry, but they do not achieve fantasy’. He finds the witches in Macbeth bearable only when read. Drama already asks much of us, he says, in requiring us to transform actors on set into a reality. To add another level of belief within the play (i.e. to believe in witches) is too much. Drama is also delivered primarily through dialogue (or monologue) and therefore I think cannot help but centre on the human as opposed to nature, or creation, and on characters rather than ‘things’. It is interesting to note that in The Lord of the Rings the very world itself seems to be and have a character, different in kind from hobbits and elves, but no less present. The mountain Caradhras, for example, appears to have genuine ill will against the fellowship and it ultimately prevents them from climbing it, forcing them into Moria. In the film adaptations, the evil intent of the mountain is replaced with the ‘human’ Saruman.

Though drama may be human-centred by nature, it does not follow that drama or realism is most natural to us, or more true than fantasy.

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 the fantasy it will make. If men were ever in a state in which they did not want to know or could not perceive truth (facts or evidence), then Fantasy would languish until they were cured. If they ever get into that state (it would not seem at all impossible), Fantasy will perish, and become Morbid Delusion.

Fantasy could not function without reality because it is ‘founded upon the hard recognition that things are so in the world as it appears under the sun’ and on ‘a recognition of fact, but not a slavery to it’. If we were incapable of logic or reason, we would be unable either to subvert it (as in nonsense), or to extend it beyond the world of the known, the seen, the historical, into the realm of imagination or speculation. If we could not to a certain extent systematise what we see we would be unable to make plausible images of things unseen and imagined. A picture of an imagined landscape can function only through our knowledge and perception of the world, through comprehension of certain kinds of facts, not in spite of or in opposition to them. Imagination does not work against the senses, but in concert with them.

Throughout the essay, Tolkien speaks of ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ worlds. The Primary World is this world, the world we all live in, the world of daily life and experience. Our creations are ‘sub-creations’, and an invented world is a Secondary World. A successful Secondary World induces what he calls ‘secondary belief’: which is different from suspension of disbelief. He regards suspension of disbelief as a kind of trick we play on ourselves when trying to enter an insufficiently realised or inconsistent or shallow Secondary World. In suspending disbelief we never forget the Primary World, and our honest feeling about the Secondary World is that it is not real, not true. Secondary belief is genuine, and does not require pretence. It is more like a state of enchantment, and is not unique to fairy-stories. Tolkien considers it possible for a cricket enthusiast to experience this enchantment while watching a cricket match. Although cricket takes place in the physical world it is a kind of fiction, having a place in reality but governed by laws and beliefs of its own. I don’t play cricket but I do play badminton, and sometimes I can become completely involved in – enchanted by – the ‘secondary world’ of the game: the bounds of the court, the rules of play, the etiquette. I need not suspend disbelief, because it is real, merely a different order of real from the real of the Primary World.

The other of the aspects Tolkien lays out which particularly interested me was the idea of recovery, or the ‘regaining of a clear view’. In looking at ourselves in ‘old age’ (that is, the old age of humanity, having been alive and productive for a very long time) and in considering whether and what (and how) to add to the legacy, we might feel disabled and impotent, that all that can be said has been said, that all that can be shown has been shown, that the only available course is repetition, ’mere manipulation and over-elaboration of old material, clever and heartless’, or to become severely original to the point of disregarding or rejecting beauty altogether in favour of some shocking fad. We may feel it is impossible or worthless to make in line with a tradition, and so must become oppressively new. But Tolkien believed:

The true road of escape from such weariness is not to be found in the wilfully awkward, clumsy, or misshapen, not in making all things dark or unremittingly violent; nor in the mixing of colours on through subtlety to drabness, and the fantastical complication of shapes to the point of silliness and on towards delirium. Before we reach such states we need recovery. We should look at green again, and be startled anew (but not blinded) by blue and yellow and red. We should meet the centaur and the dragon, and then perhaps suddenly behold, like the ancient shepherds, sheep, and dogs, and horses – and wolves. This recovery fairy-stories help us to make.

The fairy-story provides a route back to a more innocent apprehension of a nature that has become, for us, plain and repetitious, or even invisible. It is not a back-door from which to escape nature or a cosy place to hide from the real (though it can be a kind of escape from an impoverished here and now), but a way to experience reality afresh and to rejuvenate our perceptions.

Each leaf, of oak and ash and thorn, is a unique embodiment of the pattern, and for some this very year may be the embodiment, the first ever seen and recognised, though oaks have put forth leaves for countless generations of men.

In the creation of a fairy-story what matters is the success with which it embodies the pattern, not the invention of a new pattern altogether. And it is the embodiment of the true which contributes to the ‘regaining of a clear view’. To make a parallel with image-making: the most beautiful and rejuvenating images are not products of extreme invention or self-expression or striking originality, but those that have seen, and embody, the thing itself and in so doing, teach us to look at it again as if for the first time. Works like these (late self-portraits by Rembrandt, for example) always look new, even if they are centuries old, and look far newer than much that was painted in our century. Newness is not relative to history nor does it fade in time, because it is a quality of true perception, which is timeless. Tolkien said fairy-stories teach us to see things not as they are but ‘as we are (or were) meant to see them - as things apart from ourselves.’

A fairy-story also provides escape, and escape for Tolkien is not cowardly but ‘very practical, and may even be heroic’. He points to a man in prison - would that man not wish to escape? ‘The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it’. The escape he speaks of suggests an escape from a domineering and fickle now into a deeper and truer world. Often the things that adorn and litter so-called ‘real life’ are fleeting technologies and fads. Fairy-stories are concerned with ‘more permanent and fundamental things’. The escapist (by implication the reader of fairy-stories) is ‘not so subservient to the whims of evanescent fashion’. He doesn’t ‘make things his masters or his gods by worshipping them as inevitable’. Fairy-stories do not deal in the inevitable but in the possible, and perhaps in a simpler and more permanent vision of the necessary or the real than the present can give us.

I live in London, and usually the furthest one can see is no more than a fraction of a mile into the distance, and most of what is in view is man-made. I often have the sense that this provides us a comfortable illusion. The hardness and stillness of the brick buildings and the concrete streets hides things, allows us to forget or ignore our essential vulnerability to Nature. A large and complex (and admittedly often beautiful) city like London can easily convince one that it offers all that can be needed or wanted, but only if one doesn’t know what else there is. Samuael Johnson, in saying ‘when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life’, betrays a peculiar idea of what ‘life’ consists of which I’m sure Tolkien would find deeply wrong-headed. Arguing against the idea that the world in front of us is the most real and important, he says:

The notion that motor-cars are more ‘alive’ than, say, centaurs or dragons is curious; that they are more ‘real’ than, say, horses is pathetically absurd. How real, how startlingly alive is a factory chimney compared with an elm tree: poor obsolete thing, insubstantial dream of an escapist!

Might it be that when one tires of London one is not tired of life but is in fact yearning for life? And is it possible that sometimes, when we find the present and the proximate wanting, we are not denying reality, but seeking something vital from which we have been divorced?

The final of the four qualities is Consolation, in particular the consolation of the happy ending: the fairy-tale’s natural conclusion, which Tolkien called ‘Eucatastrophe’ - a ‘sudden joyous turn’:

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 so 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.

This puts fairy-story at odds with much literature of the present (and of the recent past), which although not necessarily ending in catastrophe (dyscatastrophe), prefers to leave things unfinished and open-ended, or on a downward or pessimistic note. No story in the world is truly finished of course, even a fairy-story. If a story has any power at all it has convinced us that a world exists beneath or beyond the pages of the book, and therefore we or feel or know that all that has ended are the mere reports from a world which goes on living without us. However the modern (I use this word loosely and cautiously) novel tends towards anti-climax or even anti-ending. I suspect this is because the realist mode of storytelling is centred on (and held captive by) the human and the human-rational. It sets people in relationship to themselves, each other and society only, to the exclusion of large areas of life and reality that are not human: the primitive areas of the mind, wild nature, the unnameable, the transcendent, and other things. Fairy-stories stimulate and perhaps satisfy a desire to transcend the merely human or the merely social. Though a question comes to mind: what if it is unquenchable? Desire is stirred in the heart and soul, not in the head, and may not be constrained by possibility or sense. What are the consequences when desire falls on things forbidden or impossible? If the thing desired is forbidden, we may seek it, and we may get it - for good or ill. But if it is impossible, if it cannot or doesn’t exist, where are we to direct and how are we to sate the desire?

Near the end of the essay, Tolkien says that every writer of fantasy hopes:

to be a real maker, or hopes that he is drawing on reality: hopes that the peculiar quality of this secondary world (if not all the details) are derived from Reality, or are flowing into it. If he indeed achieves a quality that can fairly be described by the dictionary definition: ‘inner consistency of reality’, it is difficult to conceive how this can be, if the work does not in some way partake of reality. 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?’

Fantasy that works on us does so because it is true. The joy of the eucatastrophe has ‘the very taste of primary truth’. The fairy-story is more than a consolation for the ills or failures of the world (or of ourselves), it is an anticipation of happiness and redemption at the end of the world and beyond.