Friday, June 8, 2007

Tolkien - Chapter One

Fantasy and Tolkien

by Michael I. Colwill

When people talk about the fantasy genre of literature it is not uncommon for them to think about J.R.R. Tolkien. In fact, it is in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings that we see a catalyst for shaping a lot of contemporary fantasy today. Tolkien has had a profound influence on the fantasy genre and writers in that genre. However, it is also true to say that fantasy has had a profound influence on Tolkien. To see the relationship between to the two we will examine fantasy as a genre and look at other’s opinions before discussing the effects of Tolkien’s masterpiece on the genre.

It is difficult to find a definition of fantasy as a genre that fully encompasses all that it is. The Oxford English Dictionary lists no less than seven separate meanings with many additional subdivisions. According to Dieter Petzold in his Modern Fiction Studies article, Fantasy Fiction and Related Genres, “The definition ‘a genre of literary compositions’ appears only in the 1972 supplement” (12). In Webster’s New World College Dictionary, we find fantasy to mean, “a) a work of fiction portraying highly imaginative characters or settings that have no counterparts in the real world b) such works, collectively, as a literary form; specifically, those works dealing with dragons, elves, ghosts, etc.” (491). Even this definition is rather broad compared to how a lot of experts have defined fantasy.

It should be expected that writers and workers in the field will not come to a consensus as to what the definition should be. As long as we are aware that every author is likely to have his or her own concept of fantasy we will be able to enter a discussion of the topic and not get confused.

Dieter Petzold shares some of the problems that people face in attempting to define fantasy. He tells us that fantasy “cannot be defined in terms of subject matter, form, or function. Though all of these aspects are certainly important for an understanding of the genre, they are secondary insofar as they do not provide categories that can be used in a rigorously systematic way. Any list of ‘typical traits’ will be in danger of appearing arbitrary” (13). Whenever taking a particular trait to define the genre, one will always be forced to exclude certain works that are normally considered fantasy simply because they do not meet the requirements in the description. Take, for instance, the descriptor of magic. If we consider the presence of magic to be the key factor in what is and isn’t fantasy, look at all of the fantasy works that would no longer be considered part of the genre. Two that come to mind right away are Doktor Faustus and Watership Down.

John H. Timmerman has attempted to define and describe the fantasy genre in his book, Other Worlds: the Fantasy Genre. In this study Timmerman has identified “six traits which must be present to some degree to characterize the work as fantasy…. These six traits are the use of traditional Story, the depiction of Common Characters and Heroism, the evocation of Another World, the employment of Magic and the Supernatural, the revelation of a Struggle between Good and Evil, and the tracing of a Quest (4).

Timmerman’s process of determining if a work is fantasy or not is an acceptable one to an extent. However, we must keep in mind that he did express the fact that each element only has to be present to some degree. In Tolkien’s creative world of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings we are experiencing an environment that is foreign to us. However, throughout the narrative we discover that the world we know is simply the age that follows that in Tolkien’s story. So Tolkien has included elements of another world, but only in the way of describing our own world so that we can’t recognize it.

The purpose of fantasy is another area where opinions differ. Sometimes authors stress the use of allegory in fantasy as a means to share their own ideals, or enlighten their readers. Others describe fantasy as a form of escapism. And then there are those who say that it is simply a story, something for personal pleasure and enjoyment.

Tolkien has first and foremost stressed the fact that he wrote his books and tales for the sake of the story. It was not with the purpose of influencing the reader or impressing his personal opinions on the reader through any form of allegory. In fact, Tolkien has often expressed his dislike of allegory in literature. He writes for the sake of creating a world for the wonders of his imagination to take breath in, for the sake of his readers’ enjoyment.

One thing that Tolkien does not place the highest importance on in his fantasy is the believability of the story. For him it’s not a matter of whether or not the story is true, as he describes in his essay On Fairy-Stories:

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 (Tolkien, 63).

One of the things that Tolkien believes a person should get out of reading a Fairy-story is recovery. According to Tolkien himself, “Recovery (which includes return and renewal of health) is a re-gaining—regaining of a clear view. I do not say ‘seeing things as they are’ and involve myself with the philosophers, though I might venture to say ‘seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them’—as things apart from ourselves. (Tolkien, 77). This, in a sense, could be like renewing the prescription of the lenses in your glasses. We’ve spent so much time in this world with so little change that all the common things in our lives have fallen out of focus.

When we read a fantasy novel we see these common things set against some very uncommon characters and stories. We begin to notice them more and realize what it is they are. The success of a fantasy novel could, in one way, be judged by how much you notice the trees and flowers and grass when you put down the book. Not to mention the very nature of humanity as is moves about you. “Actually fairy-stories deal largely, or (the better ones) mainly, with simple or fundamental things, untouched by Fantasy, but these simplicities are made all the more luminous by their setting…It was in fairy-stories that I first divined the potency of words, and the wonder of the things, such as stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine” (Tolkien, 78).

Another element of the Fairy-story that Tolkien touches on is escape. He speaks of how fairy-stories, though not the only form of escapist literature, is probably the most obvious and outrageous form. Escapism in literature is not always looked highly upon. This is mostly true with those who believe literature should be a tool which allows people to reach a higher level of human understanding. In fact, there are several people that believe the use of fantasy, and other literature, for escape can be harmful to one’s personality. In fact, Ursula K. Le Guin recalls a story in her collection of essays, The Language of the Night, that one of her good friend’s told her. “All right, I’ll tell you something fantastic. Ten years ago, I went to the children’s room of the library of such-and-such city, and asked for The Hobbit; and the librarian told me, ‘Oh, we keep that only in the adult collection; we don’t feel that escapism is good for children’” (39).

Tolkien defends the use of escapism with a couple questions, “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?” (Tolkien, 79). Like the prisoner, there is no reason to scorn the sub-creator of a fantasy for wanting to break though the prison-walls of real life. Nothing can offer as great an escape from real life as the fairy-story that carries its reader to another world where, though real life may influence the events, a happy ending is a more likely occurrence than not.

There are people who would say that using forms of literature for escape is not healthy. We can already see this from the story that Ursula K. Le Guin shared above. But when you take this combined with the recovery and consolation that one receives from fantasy literature you find that it is not a dangerous thing. It is not harmful to dream, or fantasize of a place that is different than our own lives. Sometimes we need that change to bring about a recovery from the everyday routine that has become boring to us. And some people may long for the consolation that is to be found in fantasy. Readers realize that they are not physically departing from the world around them. But for a few brief hours they can dream about their world becoming a fantastic place, where their imagination learns to see things from a different point if view.

This brings us to an explanation of the third element that Tolkien claims we receive from fairy-stories, consolation. This is the resolution of the fairy-story that lets the reader know that everything will turn out right in the end. As Tolkien puts it,

the ‘consolation’ of fairy-tales has another aspect than the imaginative satisfaction of ancient desires. Far more important 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 (85).

Tolkien has termed this happy ending Eucatastrophe; being the sudden joyous turn in the story where everything starts to bring the ending together through a kind of grace. This is the turn that can never recur in the narrative, it is the pinnacle of the story. Tolkien claims that this is not simply denial of the existence of dycastrophe, being sorrow and failure. In fact, he says that it is the possibility of failure in the narrative that is necessary for the so called deliverance brought about by the eucatastrophe. It is this that readers rely upon when looking for consolation in the fairy-story. It can bring to the reader a feeling of deliverance. Even though the deliverance they read about is in an imaginary world it can give them something that may relate to their own world. They realize that happy endings are not a myth, they have occurred in the past and will occur again in the future. One must simply be patient and enjoy the journeys in between.

Tolkien often related things to his personal faith as a Christian. He was a very devout Roman Catholic and he saw the Fairy-story as a way of looking at the Christian story:

in God’s kingdom the presence of the greatest does not depress the small. Redeemed Man is still man. Story, fantasy, still go on, and should go on. The Evangelium has not abrogated legends; it has hallowed them, especially the “happy ending.” The Christian still has to work, with mind as well as body, to suffer, hope, and die; but he may now perceive that all his bents and faculties have a purpose, which can be redeemed (89).

These are the things that a reader will find in a truly great fairy-story. The recovery of everyday creation, the escape from the prison-walls of everyday life, and the consolation that is brought about by the joyous deliverance at the end of the fairy-story. All of this is brought about by the sub-creation that every writer experiences when their fantasy world is first given birth in their minds. Brian Attebery discusses this in his book, The Fantasy Tradition in American Literature,

Coleridge divided the imagination into two parts, a primary imagination that perceives and a secondary one that invents. J.R.R. Tolkien postulates a similar division in the power of belief. Using Coleridgean terminology, Tolkien describes a ‘primary belief,’ which can be applied to a tree, to the laws of entropy, or to a myth, and a ‘secondary belief,’ which is applied at will to the creations of the (secondary) imagination (34).

“What really happens is that the storymaker proves a successful ‘sub-creator.’ 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” (Tolkien, 60).

When you have entered this secondary world you live by the rules that apply to that world. You see and experience many of the things that are common to real life, yet with them is combined those extraordinary characters, events, and elements of the secondary world that help to make the fairy-story so fantastic. While ‘inside’ this secondary world the common things that are so familiar will help to strengthen the reality of the writer’s narrative, causing the reader to believe the events that are taking place in the world. As Timmerman states, using Tolkien’s words, “fantasy is that ‘power of giving to ideal creations the inner consistency of reality’. Fantasy arranges the image, and the artist’s vision and beliefs, into a perceptible form” (51-52).

And so we see the things that Fantasy can bring to us through the Fairy-story. We see the effects of having been recovered, and having escaped, and having been consoled. But these things are more things felt, emotions that are the effects of the fairy-stories. As C.N. Manlove puts it in his book, Modern Fantasy: Five Studies:

The only way we will really know that ‘Recovery’ has worked is by going out for a walk and seeing whether trees, grass or stones have a new fullness of identity. The only proof of our having been ‘consoled’ is a form of mystical experience; of our having ‘escaped’, a shiver of delight down the spine; of our having ‘turned’, ‘a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by )tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art, and having a peculiar quality’ (169).


Attebery, Brian. The Fantasy Tradition in American Literature. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980.

Le Guin, Ursula K. The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction. Ed. Susan Wood. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1979.

Manlove, C.N. Modern Fantasy; Five Studies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975.

Petzold, Dieter. “Fantasy Fiction and Related Genres.” Modern Fiction Studies. 32 (1986): 11-20.

Timmerman, John H. Other Worlds: The Fantasy Genre. Ohio: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1983.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Tolkien Reader. New York: Ballantine Books, 1966.

Webster’s New World College Dictionary. 3rd Ed. New York, Macmillan.

1 comment:

Jason Heath said...

This is extremely good writing, Mike. Very impressive, and quite interesting. I hope that you find time to continue this kind of high-quality writing, and I'll do what I can to help promote what you're doing. Hope to see you in SF this summer--I'll try to come to town in July.