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A Chapter That Changed My Life: J.R.R. Tolkien’s “On Fairy-stories”

September 21, 2020


I don’t remember when I first read J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings; these tales seem to have always been part of the furnishings of my imagination. However, I do recall precisely when I encountered Tolkien’s groundbreaking essay “On Fairy-stories,” in which he explores the origins, nature, and purpose of fantasy literature. I was a young teenager, and while browsing through a book-table at a flea market, I came across a book called The Tolkien Reader, in which this essay was included. Little did I know that this battered paperback with its trippy 1970s cover art would change my life in so many ways.

“On Fairy-stories” is a powerful analysis of how fantasy works. Originating as a lecture in 1939, it came about after he had published The Hobbit and had begun work on the Hobbit sequel that would become The Lord of the Rings. Here, Tolkien sets out his vision of what fantasy is and what it can—and should—do.

A genuine fantasy, according to Tolkien, creates an immersive experience for the reader. In a successful fantasy, the author is a ‘sub-creator’: as Tolkien puts it, “He 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.”

He goes on to argue that this sort of fantasy has three essential functions: recovery, escape, and consolation. Using the metaphor of a dirty, smudged window—whose film of grime obscures what we see through it—he says that we need “to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity—from possessiveness.” Fantasy helps us with this recovery of clear vision. He distinguishes the literary escape offered by good fantasy from the negative quality of escapism. And he explains the idea of consolation by coining the word eucatastrophe. It is formed of ‘eu,’ meaning good, attached to ‘catastrophe, and it means “the good catastrophe”: the unexpected happy ending, which gives us a profound taste of joy. We see it in The Lord of the Rings with the rescue of Frodo and Sam, after the destruction of the Ring, when they are sure that all is lost; we see it even more fully in the final chapters and indeed the final pages of the tale.

“On Fairy-stories” is, then, a fascinating and complex mix of ideas and subjects; I’ve been returning to it, thinking about it, and writing about it for more than thirty years now, and I still haven’t gotten to the bottom of it.

Tolkien’s essay was my first exposure to literary criticism—and what an introduction that was! Deeply learned in the subject (though with English self-deprecation that I would not appreciate until decades later), Tolkien also loved the material about which he wrote. He explored the topic with academic precision but also with poetic delight. He did not distance himself from his material—quite the contrary.

In this way, Tolkien opened my eyes to the way that literature could have meaning and significance that included, but went beyond, the pleasure of story and character. And he did so in a way that made me more interested in reading, not less, and gave more, not less, enjoyment of what I read. Tolkien’s perspective, and its effect, is not, I am sorry to say, typical of modern academic literary criticism, as I would discover in graduate school. But “On Fairy-stories” had both set the standard and awakened my interest, and it gave me a direction for my academic interests.

Not that I guessed at any of this at the time as a high schooler whose goal then was to become a doctor of veterinary medicine, not a doctor of philosophy!

“On Fairy-stories” made me a literary critic, and—though I wouldn’t realize it until decades later—showed me what kind of critic I wanted to be. Tolkien inoculated me against pretension, and showed me a vision of literary criticism as something that respects the author and the work, and that enhances and deepens our appreciation of what we read—rather than as a practice of tearing-down, debunking, and flattening-out. He showed me both what I could do, and how I should go about doing it.

Indeed, Tolkien’s discussion of his reading of fantasy and fairy-tales in that essay would, in due time, spur me to ask the question: Where did The Lord of the Rings come from? What had Tolkien read of modern fantasy—or even of other modern literature—and might it have had an influence on his work? I decided to find out. Now, after nearly ten years of work, the resulting book is set to be released in a few months: Tolkien’s Modern Reading: Middle-earth Beyond the Middle Ages.

But that’s only the first way that “On Fairy-stories” changed my life, and not even the most important one.

As a teenager opening the pages of that pocket-sized paperback, I didn’t yet call myself an atheist (that would come soon enough) but I had a firm, albeit tacit, view that religion in general, and Christianity in particular, was irrelevant, uninteresting, and certainly nothing that I could possibly believe. I had never read the Bible (any of it, at all). I didn’t know the first thing about Jesus.

In “On Fairy-stories,” Tolkien used a word that I hadn’t seen before: evangelium. He writes:

The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending . . . 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. . . . 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.

“Joy beyond the walls of the world”: a profound, intriguing image. He goes on, writing that the Gospels “contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. . . . 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.” I did not yet know anything about faith, but I knew my experience of fantasy, and Tolkien spoke to that:

It is not difficult to imagine the peculiar excitement and joy that one would feel, if any specially beautiful fairy-story were found to be “primarily” true, its narrative to be history, without thereby necessarily losing the mythical or allegorical significance that it had possessed. . . . The joy would have exactly the same quality, if not the same degree, as the joy which the “turn” in a fairy-story gives: such joy has the very taste of primary truth. . . . The Christian joy, the Gloria, is of the same kind; but it is pre-eminently (infinitely, if our capacity were not finite) high and joyous. Because this story is supreme; and it is true. Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men—and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused.

The Christian joy, the Gloria, is of the same kind. . . . This story is supreme, and it is true.

Why did this stick with me, even when I fully embraced atheism a few years later?

For one thing, it’s one of the most powerful pieces of writing I’ve ever read (do read the Epilogue in full, and indeed the essay in full! I’ve only quoted a bit of it. It appears in Tree and Leaf, which is worth getting as it also has Tolkien’s marvelous poem “Mythopoeia.”)

I realize now that it also stuck with me because of the way that Tolkien was both passionate and matter-of-fact at the same time. He wasn’t shoving a Bible lesson into an essay on a different topic; he wasn’t preaching at me; he was simply unfolding, naturally, what fantasy might mean in the larger sense, what it might point to in reality. A devout Catholic, he wasn’t trying to showcase his piety for Christian readers or argue with potential atheist readers; an academic at a secular university, a world-renowned expert in his field, he had no reason to bring in the Incarnation, the Resurrection, the Gloria, except that he knew that it was all true, and knew it so thoroughly and deeply that he was unselfconscious about saying so when it was relevant to his argument in his essay.

Though at the time I didn’t even really understand what he says here, much less believe or accept it, Tolkien’s words nevertheless made a shiver go up my spine.  Here was an expression of the haunting, convicting beauty that I experienced in reading The Lord of the Rings. Here was Tolkien saying that there was a reason that I was so moved by stories like his books, and Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles. It stuck with me, and in time, The Lord of the Rings and “On Fairy-stories” were at the heart of my PhD dissertation—the positive heart, not something I contested or rejected—which I wrote at a time I was convinced that God did not exist and I would snuff out like a candle-flame at death.

Even then, it would be some years before I finally asked the questions: What did Tolkien actually believe about God, about the Resurrection, about Christianity? And could it possibly be true?

But the seeds had been planted long since, and they bore good fruit.

It’s fair to say that “On Fairy-stories” set me on the way to an academic career as a literary critic, and helped me to become a Christian. I would end up not only researching Tolkien’s reading in the very Oxford libraries that he used, but also attending Mass as a fellow Catholic at the very same parish church where Tolkien worshiped.

A chapter that changed my life, indeed.