28 October 2020

Tolkien’s “On Fairy Stories”: The Argument

Mr Birzer continues his discussion of JRRT's “On Fairy Stories” with a second essay. The first may be read here.

From The Imaginative Conservative

By Bradley J. Birzer

For J.R.R. Tolkien, Fairy was a world parallel to ours, embodying many of the rules and norms and ideas and things of this world, but far more expressive in its wonders, its perils, its beauties, and its enchantments.

The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: All manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords. In that realm a man may perhaps count himself fortunate to have wandered, but its very richness and strangeness tie the tongue of a traveler who would report them. And while he is there it is dangerous for him to ask too many questions, lest the gates should shut and the keys be lost.[1]

The two worlds, though, lived in a rough and incomplete harmony with one another, with certain persons—whether human or Elvish—able to cross from one to the other through certain paths and gateways. Yet, Tolkien warned, the path to Fairy is neither the path to heaven nor to hell. It might be somewhat purgatorial, however, and certainly otherworldly. Fairy itself, far from being supernatural, is the most natural of worlds. Indeed, it is extraordinarily natural, as natural things live only as themselves. Rather Platonically, the tree is truly the tree (Treebeard), wine is truly wine, and bread (Lembas) is truly bread in Fairy. That is, there is little if any separation of the accidents of a thing from the essence of a thing. Those in fairy, though, through pride of beauty, often present themselves in disguise and as things they are not, thus befuddling the wanderer.

Words, definitions, and analyses, Tolkien warned, can offer only so much understanding of Fairy. Instead, one must not only travel to and through Fairy, but he must also recognize that fairy—like all mythology—is an expression of our deepest longings and fears.

Philology has been dethroned from the high place it once had in this court of inquiry. Max Müller’s view of mythology as a ‘disease of language’ can be abandoned without regret. Mythology is not a disease at all, though it may like all human things become diseased. You might as well say that thinking is a disease of the mind. It would be more near the truth to say that languages, especially modern European languages, are a disease of mythology. But Language cannot, all the same, be dismissed. The incarnate mind, the tongue, and the tale are in our world coeval.[2]

With this key passage, Tolkien revealed his most Christian humanist self. Language, myth, and Fairy, he recognized, are deeply human things. Indeed, it is a natural right of humanity to produce fantasy, he proclaimed.

We fail completely when we believe that Fairy is for children, Tolkien argued, noting that traditionally Fairy deals with the most difficult human problems, and children—understood as yet-to-be-formed humans—fall into the category of human, but they have no special hold or understanding of Fairy. It has been an accident of English history that Fairy has been tied to closely to children. Though, Tolkien admitted, we might do well to emulate the innocence of a child when we enter into Fairy.

Children are meant to grow up and not to become Peter Pans. Not to lose innocence and wonder; but proceed on the appointed journey: that journey upon which it is certainly not better to travel hopefully and to arrive, but that we must travel hopefully if we are to arrive. But 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 wisdom of death can bestow dignity, and even sometimes wisdom.[3]

Those who explore Fairy as artists and writers became what Tolkien labeled “sub-creators.” He acts as an echo and shadow. Just as God is the creator, man—his creations—sub-create. They do not change fundamental things or rules, but when treating story and myth properly, they enchant what they find. The sub-creator “makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is ‘true’: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside. The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed.”[4] Tolkien offered the example of the Norse god, Thor, god of justice and thunder, wielder of the divine hammer.

But there would always be a ‘fairytale’ as long as there was any Thor. When the fairytale ceased, there would just be thunder, which no human ear had yet heard. Something really ‘higher’ is occasionally glimpsed in mythology: Divinity, the right to power (as distinct from its possession), the due of worship; in fact ‘religion.’ Andrew Lang said, and is by some still commended for saying, that mythology and religion (in the strict sense of that word) are two distinct things that have become inextricably entangled, though mythology is in itself almost devoid of religious significance.[5]

Ultimately, Tolkien argued, it is extremely difficult to separate myth from story, and history from myth, as they have the same origins. “Small wonder,” Tolkien continued with deep insight, that the word spell “means both a story told, and a formula of power over living men.”[6] Again, they are, fundamentally, of the same stuff.

Thus, the sub-creator must willingly employ his faculty of imagination.

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. 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 the quality of strangeness and wonder in the Expression, derived from the Image: a quality essential to fairy-story.[7]

If one employs the imagination properly, Tolkien believed, he had reached toward the perfection of a very high art. Tolkien even went so far as to suggest that such mythmaking was a “pure” art, not just a great one, especially when the artist achieved and maintained the “inner consistency of reality,” that is, the ability to make the enchantment seem real and honest, something meaningful for both the artist and the spectator. “Fantasy is made out the Primary World, but a good craftsman loves his material,” Tolkien argued, “and has a knowledge and feeling for clay, stone and wood which only the art of making can give.”[8]

Tolkien cautioned, however, that the art of mythmaking is best expressed through the written word, rather through drama and the visual arts. In the visual arts, he feared, one would be tempted to make fantasy extremely dark and morbid in an effort to stave off appearing light in weight and tone. He further cautioned against making a god out of one’s own sub-creation, thus believing it, falsely, to be level or superior with creation. To prevent this, Tolkien urged, one should be armed with reason.

It certainly does not destroy or even insult Reason; and it does not either blunt the appetite for, nor obscure the perception of, scientific veracity. On the contrary. The keener and the clearer is the reason, the better fantasy will it 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.[9]

However beautiful Fairy might be, our right to sub-create, like all human rights and goods, could and most likely would be perverted.

Fairy, Tolkien held, could perform deeply humane functions in society. First, it could remind us of the deepest truths of existence. In some of Tolkien’s most powerful writing and thinking, he stated:

It is easy for the student to feel that with all his labour he is collecting only a few leaves, many of them now torn or decayed, from the countless foliage of the Tree of Tales, with which the Forest of Days is carpeted. It seems vain to add to the litter. Who can design a new leaf? The patterns from bud to unfolding, and the colours from spring to autumn were all discovered by men long ago. But that is not true. The seed of the tree can be replanted in almost any soil, even in one so smoke-ridden (as Lang said) as that of England.[10]

And yet, Tolkien reminded the reader, every new leaf and every new seed is unique in time and space, however many trees had been producing leaves and seeds since the first days of creation. Here, of course, Tolkien is not so subtly comparing the human person to the tree. If each leaf is unique, imagine how much more so each human being—endowed with free will—is. Each human being, unique in time and space, reveals a universal truth in a particular way. “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 recognized, though oaks have put forth leaves for countless generations of men.”[11] Again, how much truer of the human person, endowed and armed with free will. In our seeing the universal and the particular of each thing, Tolkien continued, we engage in an act of “recovery,” truly seeing the thing for what it is. “It was in fairy-stories that I first divined the potency of words, and the wonder of all things, such as stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine.”[12] Tellingly, given the importance of transubstantiation in Catholic theology as well as in Tolkien’s ideas of fantasy, he mentioned “bread and wine” three separate times in his essay.

Second, Tolkien stated, sub-creation allows for real escape in a hazardous world defined by progressive things: such as concentration camps and efficient bombs.

For it is after all possible for a rational man, after reflection (quite unconnected with fairy-story or romance), to arrive at the condemnation, implicit at least in the mere silence of ‘escapist’ literature, of progressive things like factories, or the machine-guns and bombs that appear to be their most natural and inevitable, dare we say ‘inexorable’, products.[13]

Only Jailers truly hate escape, Tolkien famously noted.

These two things, however, lead to a greater third thing, the consolation of a happy ending, a eucatastrophe. In this, as in much else, Fairy allows for a Christian understanding of the world. Not surprisingly, God allowed salvation to take shape in a way particular to human beings, His own creation. It is worth quoting Tolkien at length on this.

I would venture to say that approaching the Christian Story from this direction, it has long been my feeling (a joyous feeling) that God redeemed the corrupt making-creatures, men, in a way fitting to this aspect, as to others, of their strange nature. The Gospel contains a fairy-story, 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, self-contained 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 fulfilment of Creation. The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. The story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the ‘inner consistency of reality.’ There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many skeptical men have accepted as true on its merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it either leads to sadness or wrath.[14]

This essay is the second in a series on J.R.R. Tolkien’s “On Fairy Stories.” The first may be read here.

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.


[1] J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” in The Monsters and the Critics, ed. Christopher Tolkien (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1983), 109.

[2] JRRT, “On Fairy Stories,” 121-122.

[3] Ibid., 137.

[4] Ibid., 132.

[5] Ibid., 124.

[6] Ibid., 128.

[7] Ibid., 138-139.

[8] Ibid., 147.

[9] Ibid., 144.

[10] Ibid., 145.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 147.

[13] Ibid., 150.

[14] Ibid., 155-156.

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