Concerning Tolkien’s On Fairy-Stories – Pt 3

All tales may come true… (73)

You can find the rest of the posts in the series here under the category “Concerning Tolkien’s Work.” 

This is the third and last part in my series on Tolkien’s essay On FairyStories. Previously, I dealt with three questions posed by Tolkien: “What are fairy-stories?”,  “What is their origin?”, and “What is the use of them?” In this post, I’ll continue to look at the question “What is the use of them?”

©2011-2015 AlasseaEarello

Previously, we discovered that Tolkien viewed fantasy (fairy-stories) as something of a literary pinnacle. Fantasy endeavors to engender in the reader a sense of enchantment, a “secondary belief,” as opposed to “the willing suspension of disbelief.” In other words, good fantasy aims to create its own sense of reality.

In the last two sections, Tolkien drew some amazing conclusions on this basis. Having previously identified man as a subcreator, i.e. one who fashions a new reality from the raw materials of the world, he next outlines what we may hope for from good fantasy.

5. Recovery, Escape, and Consolation – The Effects of Fairy-Story

Here are the effects of a Fairy-Story according to Tolkien:

  • Recovery: Tolkien believes that fantasy allows us to recover the ability to see things as “we are (or were) meant to see them” (58). “By the forging of Gram cold iron was revealed; by the making of Pegasus horses were ennobled; in the Trees of the Sun and Moon root and stock, flower and fruit are manifested” (59). In fantasy, we can look into a thing and, understanding its nature, make of it something greater and more noble.
  • Escape: Tolkien was frequently accused of escapism, but he turned this criticism on its head: “Why should a man be scorned, if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home” (60). Living as we do in the modern world, we have a need to escape the philosophy of barren materialism and enter into a cosmos full of wonder and possibility. Furthermore, at the heart of Escape is the “Great Escape: the Escape from Death” (68). Every human being knows that death is coming, yet we nevertheless aim to put it off and, really, to escape from it. Even today, there are people trying to figure out how to preserve their consciousness after they die. Tolkien claims that man is able to envision this in fantasy. And that leads to the notion of consolation.
  • Consolation: Consolation is simply the joy of the happy ending.  Fantasy allows us to realize that not all endings must be tragic endings – that death might not necessarily be the final word.

From Consolation, Tolkien begins to speak of the idea of “Eucatastrophe,” the “happy turn.” We are accustomed to hearing about catastrophes of all kinds (what Tolkien terms “dyscatasrophes”), whether they be earthquakes, hurricanes, plane crashes, terrorist acts, wars, etc. Yet eucatastrophe is the reverse of this, the miraculous victory, the parting of the Red Sea, the arrival of the eagles at the Battle of the Five Armies, the unexpected return of Han Solo just as Darth Vader is about to gun down Luke’s X-wing. Simply put, fairy-story is meant to produce a joy that reaches beyond the confines of this world.

6. Epilogue – Tolkien Gets Mystical

Tolkien claims that eucatastrophe in fairy-stories may be a gleam or a hint of the evangelium in the real world. He believes that the history of mankind is centered around two great eucatastrophes, the Incarnation and the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth: “The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories” (72). Tolkien is not claiming here that the Gospels are not true history. Instead, he is claiming that we live in a reality that is in fact part of a larger fairy-story, indeed that human history is one great fairy-story.

Building upon this, Tolkien puts a subcreative spin on his conclusion. If man is called to be a maker, and if the Great Eucatastrophe, the Christian joy, is true, then “he may now perceive that all his bents and faculties have a purpose, which can be redeemed” (73). Man, by his ability to make, is called to “assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation” (73). In other words, man’s artistry both participates in and is destined for redemption, just as creation itself is.

Think of what this means! Art, music, writing – these modest little acts that we do are, in Tolkien’s view, waiting on the New Heavens and the New Earth to come alive! They are not simply trifles, things that we do to kill time, nor are they utilitarian functions, but they are creations waiting to be completed by glory and grace.

Tolkien concludes with this thought, and it is deserving of the final word here: “All tales may come true; and yet, at the last, redeemed, they may be as like and as unlike the forms that we give home as Man, finally redeemed, will be like and unlike the fallen that we know” (73).

Have you read On Fairy-Stories? What other concepts would you highlight from it?


3 thoughts on “Concerning Tolkien’s On Fairy-Stories – Pt 3

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