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.
– Tolkien, On Fairy Stories, as found in A Tolkien Miscellany, 97.
We are tempted to believe that this is all there is. Poverty, violence, hunger, and suffering are very real objects. These themes saturate the media, bombard us in our living rooms every morning and night, and confront us day after day. We look around and see death and disease, corruption and seeming chaos. We perceive everything to be in constant flux. Even the beautiful colors of the changing trees are signs of dying life. If our thoughts are confined to the immediate we will be immediately disheartened. The Scriptures, however, tell us a different story. Though they acknowledge the reality of suffering, they also acknowledge, for the believer, its impermanence. Though they accept and validate pain and flux, they also teach us that pain is temporary, and that there is Permanence beyond all things changing. There is indeed a higher Reality, a more stable, immutable and sovereign Reality over all things. We have hope from God’s Scriptures, the only infallible, inerrant source of truth, that Christ is real, that the perils and trials of the world we live in are short-lived compared with the life offered to us in eternity.
In connection with fantasy, Tolkien tells us in his famous essay, On Fairy-Stories, “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,” (119). Here we come across a fundamental function of good fantasy; the awakening of desire and indeed, truth. He says in a letter to Milton Waldman in 1951, “After all, I believe that legends and myths are largely made of ‘truth’, and indeed present aspects of it that can only be received in this mode,” (Preface to The Silmarillion, Second Edition, xv). And yet we tend to relegate fantasy to nurseries, daycares, and primary education. The connection is profound. Our ideology of good fantasy, of story in general, goes something like this; fantasy is fiction, therefore it isn’t relevant to our reality. But oh, how we have been fooled. Here, Tolkien calls us to remember something we knew as a child when reading good fantasy, good fairy-story. Good fantasy does not distort the truth, it illumines it and draws us into it. Fairy story, for Tolkien, has the ability to draw us into Reality. This drawing into reality involves the communicating of three things indispensable to the Christian life: recovery, escape and consolation. For the next couple of blog posts, I would love to look at these things individually. Though sometimes Tolkien’s words are elusive and hard to grasp, I believe that he brings up important, crucial points about the power of good story and its relevance for our sojourning in this foreign land.
Recovery (which includes return and renewal of health) is a regaining- regaining of a clear view. I do not say ‘seeing things as they are’ and involve myself with the philosophers, thought I might venture to say ‘seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them’- as things apart from ourselves. We need, in any case, to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity- from possessiveness.
– Tolkien, A Tolkien Miscellany, 129
The longer we live, the less we tend to be amazed at the things given to us everyday. If a person lives seventy years, he or she has been through over 25,000 sunrises and sunsets, seventy or so changing seasons, seventy or so Christmas mornings, and has eaten (assuming three meals a day) over 76,000 meals. It is safe to say that the sunrises and sunsets, the leaves of Fall, the wonder of a Christmas morning, and the joy of eating food (though some of those meals, no doubt, were less than beautiful) tend to become a part of our grey mundane. They can lose their sparkle in our knowledge that they will simply repeat themselves in the next day or the next year. Even if we still get excited about Christmas and even though we may still stand in wonder of the changing leaves, all things tend toward grey-ness. Marriage is a good example of this. We spend our time pursuing our spouses in the vivid colors of dating, enjoying and savoring the moments we spend together. And yet when the marriage rings go on, grey-ness tends to creep in, and because “the work” of dating is done we are tempted to take the person we treasure the most for granted.
Those things that are the most familiar are in the most danger of loosing their splendor. Tolkien tells us, “Of all the faces those of our familiares are the ones both most difficult to play fantastic tricks with, and most difficult to see with fresh attention…this triteness is really the penalty of ‘appropriation’: the things that are trite, or (in a bad sense) familiar, are the things that we have appropriated, legally or mentally,” (129). We are reminded that these grey things are the things that we have gained, the things that we have incorporated into our mundane. In our incorporation of them they lose their wonder, their mystery, and become to us as simply normal. They have “become like the things which once attracted us by their glitter, or their colour, or their shape, and we laid hands on them, and then locked them in our hoard, acquired them, and acquiring ceased to look at them,” (129). It is in acquisition that the most sought after things have the greatest tendency to become the most dull, like a Christmas present eagerly awaited for but forgotten hours after its unveiling.
But fantasy aims at the reclaiming of lost beauty and lost wonder. By incorporating truth into the fantastic, we are made to see things in a reclaimed light. Tolkien exclaims, “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 in glory,” (130). As we witness the Pegasus climbing higher and higher into the sky, Tolkien demonstrates that our thoughts are turned once more to the horse, and its nobility is regained. As we wander the woods of Lothlorien, the wonder of the forest outside of our own door is brought back to life. As we taste of the comfort of Bag End, our own hearths and homes are reclaimed as places of rest. It is in the story of Beren and Luthien, love fought for and won, that our own passions for our spouses can be awakened with vigor. As we journey with the Smith of Wootton Major through the pass in the Outer Mountains as he came “through a narrow cleft and looked down, though he did not know it, into the Vale of Evermorn where the green surpasses the green of the meads of Outer Faery as they surpass ours in our springtime,” (20) that our world comes back to life as one of excitement, adventure, wonder, and beauty.
Fantasy is after the recovery of truth. Fantasy is about coming back to Reality. It is about seeing with new eyes what is in front of us but what has become trite with incorporation and acquisition. For Tolkien, “It was in fairy-stories that I first divined the potency of the words, and the wonder of the things, such as stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine,” (130). Recovery is crucial to our lives as Christians. It is, indeed, what we attempt to do every day in putting our faith in Christ. We are coming back to remind ourselves of the beauty of marriage because of Christ, the wonder of creation as proclaiming the beauty and glory of God, the reality of our salvation in the midst of our sin, and the hope of what’s to come among the myriad of other truths that the world tempts us to deny. As the saying goes, “things are not always what they seem”, and the job of fantasy is to help us see clearly, to recover what was lost, to scale the cliffs of the Valley of the Shadow of Death to see the wide view of glory which surrounds us.