Adult Consolations: Tolkien on Fantasy

Only in the English-speaking world are fairy stories relegated to the children’s section. In Germanic cultures, the Märchen is for everyone, and often too dark for children; in France, the Conte is a sophisticated, sometimes cynical genre. Tolkien is insistent that the best fairy stories are for adults. In his essay “On Fairy Stories,” written in 1939, over a decade before The Lord of the Rings, he wrote:  If fairy-story as a kind is worth reading at all it is worthy to be written for and read by adults. They will, of course, put more in and get more out than children can. (p.15) What, then, will adults “get” from a serious reading of The Lord of the Rings? Tolkien offers three benefits of reading good fantasy: Recovery, Escape, and Consolation.

   Great works of literature generally give us ways to experience our world afresh, to make the familiar unfamiliar. Our world is often lost to us through overfamiliarity, such that we no longer pay attention to the people and things around us; literature helps us to “recover” the world we have lost. Perhaps all art does this in some way. 

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. 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. Of all faces those of our familiares are the ones both most difficult to play fantastic tricks with, and most difficult really to see with fresh attention, perceiving their likeness and unlikeness: that they are faces, and yet unique faces. 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. We say we know them. 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. (19)

Fantasy literature “recovers” by getting us to imagine alternative worlds composed of elements from our world, but reassembled into new combinations and reshaped. Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series illuminates the world we think we know by making us live for a while in an alternate universe the features of which bear a distorted resemblance to elements of our own. The effect is to tickle and startle us into a new perception of our lives,  in much the same way as Chesterton’s word Mooreeffoc perplexes us:

Mooreeffoc is a fantastic word, but it could be seen written up in every town in this land. It is Coffee-room, viewed from the inside through a glass door, as it was seen by Dickens on a dark London day; and it was used by Chesterton to denote the queerness of things that have become trite, when they are seen suddenly from a new angle. That kind of “fantasy” most people would allow to be wholesome enough; and it can never lack for material. But it has, I think, only a limited power; for the reason that recovery of freshness of vision is its only virtue. The word Mooreeffoc may cause you suddenly to realize that England is an utterly alien land, lost either in some remote past age glimpsed by history, or in some strange dim future to be reached only by a time-machine; to see the amazing oddity and interest of its inhabitants and their customs and feeding-habits; but it cannot do more than that: act as a time-telescope focused on one spot. (19)

Tolkien then differentiates this valuable effect from the powerful thing that happens when “creative fantasy” unlocks what is inside you (your hoard) and liberates it to surprising transformations:

Creative fantasy, because it is mainly trying to do something else (make something new), may open your hoard and let all the locked things fly away like cage-birds. The gems all turn into flowers or flames, and you will be warned that all you had (or knew) was dangerous and potent, not really effectively chained, free and wild; no more yours than they were you. (19)

What does he mean by this? In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo’s long education through Bilbo’s stories and songs frees him to imagine possibilities for himself that those around him would never consider; it opens up his ability to undertake the grinding trek to Mordor and gives him the faith that the often perilous struggle might be good for him. It also renders him incapable of simply living in the Shire any more. Creative fantasy has the power to dissolve ties that we thought were natural and unbreakable.

   From unleashing the imagination it is only a small step to Escape, the second great benefit of fantasy. Tolkien disagrees strongly with people who denigrate “the literature of escape”:

I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which “Escape” is now so often used: a tone for which the uses of the word outside literary criticism give no warrant at all. In what the misusers are fond of calling Real Life, Escape is evidently as a rule very practical, and may even be heroic. In real life it is difficult to blame it, unless it fails; in criticism it would seem to be the worse the better it succeeds. Evidently we are faced by a misuse of words, and also by a confusion of thought. 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? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it. In using escape in this way the critics have chosen the wrong word, and, what is more, they are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter. Just so a Party-spokesman might have labelled departure from the misery of the Führer’s or any other Reich and even criticism of it as treachery. In the same way these critics, to make confusion worse, and so to bring into contempt their opponents, stick their label of scorn not only on to Desertion, but on to real Escape, and what are often its companions, Disgust, Anger, Condemnation, and Revolt. Not only do they confound the escape of the prisoner with the flight of the deserter; but they would seem to prefer the acquiescence of the “quisling” to the resistance of the patriot. To such thinking you have only to say “the land you loved is doomed” to excuse any treachery, indeed to glorify it. (20)

There is nothing in itself wrong with the need to escape; in many situations, escape is understandable and justified. It might be argued that most forms of literature are “escapes” from our ordinary lives, in that through them we are taken to different times and places and meet different people. This can be a very good thing — again, loosening our chains to the world we take for granted by getting us to entertain other possibilities. The escape from ideas of natural Necessity also includes what Tolkien calls “the Great Escape: the Escape from Death,” with which fairy tales and religions share a preoccupation. This fictional freedom from necessity may be the virtue and the vice of fairy tales: on the one hand, why should there be only one necessary way for things to be? — and on the other, surely the habit of thinking in terms of Escape will trap the prospective escapee in a permanent misery of resisting what in fact cannot be resisted — such as sickness, old age, and death.

   Against the facts of the irresistible, the third benefit of fantasy literature is Consolation, which is the essence of the fairy tale and which is manifested as a “eucatastrophe”:

…Tragedy is the true form of Drama, its highest function; but the opposite is true of Fairy-story. Since we do not appear to possess a word that expresses this opposite—I will call it Eucatastrophe. The eucatastrophic tale is the true form of fairy-tale, and its highest function. (22)

Kata-strophe itself literally means “downturn,” or “overturn.” The prefix eu (“good,” “well”) expresses a reversal of the downturn, a fixing of the upset. A good example would be the confused action leading to the destruction of the Ring: in spite of Sam’s incapacitation, Frodo’s sinister change of heart, and Gollum’s frenzied triumph — or because of them — the Ring is destroyed in a sequence of events that nobody would have imagined beforehand. 

   But is the Eucatastrophe a mere plot element, just another form of peripeteia? — or is it a an irruption of grace, even when the downward plunge of plot has not been reversed? Tolkien seems to mean both of these.

The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially “escapist,” nor “fugitive.” In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it 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: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; 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.  It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind, that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the “turn” comes, 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. (22-23)

Far more powerful and poignant is the effect in a serious tale of Faërie. In such stories when the sudden “turn” comes we get a piercing glimpse of joy, and heart’s desire, that for a moment passes outside the frame, rends indeed the very web of story, and lets a gleam come through. (23)

These “piercing glimpses of joy” arrive as revelations of a world behind or held within our world; they irradiate the surface world of the narrative, giving it a luminous transparency in  which the hidden dimension expressed through song and poetry suddenly becomes manifest. Such moments are “eucatastrophic” because they unexpectedly redeem or save the seemingly hopeless world. Of all the characters, Sam is the most receptive to the “turn,” as when he encounters the magic of Lothlorien:

He turned and saw that Sam was now standing beside him, looking round with a puzzled expression, and rubbing his eyes as if he was not sure that he was awake. “It’s sunlight and bright day, right enough,” he said. “I thought that Elves were all for moon and stars: but this is more elvish than anything I ever heard tell of. I feel as if I was inside a song, if you take my meaning.” (Fellowship, 341-2)

Even in the depths of hardship he has the intense sensitivity to beauty that we see in Japanese literature, where a hardened warrior can be brought to tears by a glimpse of the moon:

There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach. His song in the Tower had been defiance rather than hope; for then he was thinking of himself. Now, for a moment, his own fate, and even his master’s, ceased to trouble him. (Return, 199)

There are several extraordinary moments like this throughout the book. Another memorable moment is the one at the end of the “Siege of Gondor” chapter in which Gandalf, about to be assailed by the Black Rider, hears a cock crow:

Gandalf did not move. And in that very moment, away behind in some courtyard of the City, a cock crowed. Shrill and clear he crowed, recking nothing of wizardry or war, welcoming only the morning that in the sky far above the shadows of death was coming with the dawn.
   And as if in answer there came from far away another note. Horns, horns, horns. In dark Mindolluin’s sides they dimly echoed. Great horns of the North wildly blowing. Rohan had come at last. (193)

Here, we have eucatastrophe on two levels: the horns of Rohan signal a happy turn of the plot, while the cock’s crow — which does nothing to further the plot — illuminates the darkness of the situation with a reminder of the beauty of the dawn.

   Without such moments, the story would be not much more than a chain of events, an action narrative, without “heart” or “soul.” Tolkien’s point is that the outer sequence of events is held together by an “inner consistency” that gives it solidity and depth. The sequence of events is not all there is, but issues from a meaning or logos that lights it up to one who is sensitive. The reader who is attuned to this inner consistency can feel how all the disparate elements of the story cohere into a meaningful pattern — just as Gandalf is able to sense at the outset that Gollum might have a function in the whole. 

Probably every writer making a secondary world, a fantasy, every sub-creator, wishes in some measure to be a real maker, or hopes that he is drawing on reality: hopes that the peculiar quality of this secondary world (if not all the details) are derived from Reality, or are flowing into it. If he indeed achieves a quality that can fairly be described by the dictionary definition: “inner consistency of reality,” it is difficult to conceive how this can be, if the work does not in some way partake of reality. The peculiar quality of the ”joy” in successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth. It is not only a “consolation” for the sorrow of this world, but a satisfaction, and an answer to that question, “Is it true?” (23)

   Tolkien compares the eucatastrophe to the evangelium (eu-angelium: good news), a kingdom of grace that permeates the world and redeems it all from its sins and stupidities. The novel, however, does not necessarily announce any such religion: there is no God, apparently also no gods, no afterlife, no linear plot of ascension and salvation, no theology of sacrifice. A Buddhist might well experience the eucatastrophe as nirvana in samsara; a Hindu might see a flash of the One Brahman in the multifarious universe. In Middle-earth there are beings like Tom Bombadil who have existed from the beginning of an uncreated universe, and there are many hints of long ages that succeed one another with cyclical logic. The world-weary Elrond speaks as one who has seen it all before and knows that we will see it again. The history of Middle-earth is not redeemed by any Deliverer from high, but from something that glows within it and transfigures it with unearthly beauty. Tolkien is adamant that any true Fantasy will be lit by this, and that it is something that adults will be moved by more than children. The Consolation consoles because it brings us back into contact with something that we tend to lose with age: an attunement with the magic of the world, the fairy improbability of everything.


2 thoughts on “Adult Consolations: Tolkien on Fantasy

  1. Krishnan,
    The best essay in the series so far. So brilliant in its vivid exposition, in its limpid illustration of the desiderata of a good fairy tale, transcending the generation gap, and as profoundly charted out and portrayed in its epitomal or is it epitomic text – The Lord of the Rings.

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