In my previous post for The Symbolic World, I tried to show how telling and enjoying fairy tales is not a childish or simple-minded pursuit. It’s a noble calling, in some ways, especially in times of chaos.
Famed fantasy author J. R. R. Tolkien takes this thought even further in his wonderful essay “On Fairy Stories”:
If adults are to read fairy-stories as a natural branch of literature—what are the values and functions of this kind? That is, I think, the most important question. 1
Of course, I agree with Tolkien, and his answer to this most important question is one of the reasons why I recently started a new podcast. I will attempt to describe Tolkien’s essential point, and to show how important it is, not only for our enjoyment of fairy tales—I assume you enjoy them already—but to help you develop a more holistic and satisfying worldview.
Tolkien begins by defining the essential starting point for any well-told tale. He calls it Fantasy, but it’s not what we now know as fantasy—the genre with wizards and trolls and elves riding dragons. No, this is not what Tolkien is talking about at all. Here’s how he describes it:
I require a word which shall embrace both the sub-creative Art in itself and a quality of strangeness and wonder in the Expression, derived from the Image: a quality essential to fairy stories. 2
So Fantasy, as he defines it, is both the telling of the story and that special something that makes it different from everyday reality.
Fantasy starts out with an advantage: arresting strangeness. 2
In the first part of the tale of Marya Morevna, which I retell in episode two of my new podcast, that arresting strangeness is not hard to spot. It’s in the shapeshifting of the bird-princes and the apparent normality of such creatures coming to ask for the princess’s hand in marriage. It takes a bit of practice for our enlightened brains to come to accept this strangeness as something positive: as Tolkien says:
Many people dislike being arrested. They dislike any meddling with the Primary World, or such small glimpses of it as are familiar to them. 2
But the reason for this dislike may not be what you think. The resistance to the strangeness of fairy tales has at least something to do with a lie we’ve been told. That lie is that only realistic literature of a particularly snobby type is worthy of being called “great literature.” And even if we never read a word of those Nobel or Pulitzer prize winners, we often at least pretend that we should, even if we don’t really know why we should.
However, that kind of literature really only has a short history. If we consider the vast history of human creativity, the fairy tale predates the realistic novel by thousands of years. The reason for that is something that Tolkien calls “enchantment”—the ability to produce a secondary world into which both the writer and the reader can enter, to the satisfaction of both their senses. And it turns out that “enchantment” is something we need quite desperately.
Why? Well, different ages have answered this question differently. I think that in our own age, we need “enchantment” because of something that Tolkien calls “recovery.”
Tolkien briefly alludes to the fact that many people have lost the ability to perceive beauty, even in works of art. Partially that’s because many works of art are no longer beautiful. But partly it’s because of a kind of weariness that’s come over our society as a result of our decadent, materialistic lives. We’ve lost the ability to perceive beauty in the everyday.
But the true road of escape from such weariness is not to be found in making all things dark or unremittingly violent; nor in the mixing of colors on through subtlety to drabness, and the fantastical complication of shapes to the point of silliness and on towards delirium. Before we reach such states we need recovery. 3
How right he was! Compare the average amount of violence on a new Netflix show to what was allowed ten years ago. The difference, if you haven’t been paying attention, is shocking. And the problem with that is that there is no end to that slippery slope, except a very dangerous kind of spiritual darkness or even spiritual death.
Add to that the increasingly virtual way in which we live, constantly connected to a device that distracts us from our own inner emptiness. We need not more elaborate distractions, nor better virtual reality machines to simulate new and better worlds. No, we need to see this world again with fresh eyes. And the fairy tale is very good at helping us to do that.
Fantasy is made out of the primary world, but a good craftsman loves his material, and has a knowledge and feeling for clay, stone, and wood, which only the art of making can give. .. and actually fairy stories deal largely 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 the words, and the wonder of the things, such as stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass, house and fire; bread and wine. 4
But that still leaves the question of why we need such escape from drab reality and consolation through enchantment. Isn’t it all just morbid delusion? Well, no.
The Escape of the Prisoner
As with any self-respecting writer of fantasy fiction, I began as a reader. And as an Orthodox Christian, a child of a very literate mother, and a PK (priest kid) to boot, I was often faced with a dilemma that continued to hound me into my adult life.
It is insidious, because it sounds very righteous. Is reading fantasy spiritually damaging for you? I’m sure you’ve heard some variant of this dilemma. All these tales of wizards and goblins are morbid delusion, distracting you from the most important thing in your life—your relationship with God. Not only are they all distracting, but some of them might actually contain elements that may harm you, turning you, like it or not, into some kind of dark version of yourself.
There are two things happening here. The first is easily dealt with. It is the assertion that escapism is inherently bad. Good literature is only tolerable because it is serious and deals with serious spiritual realities. But fairy tales? Come on!
Luckily for us, the great J. R. R. Tolkien comes to our rescue once again.
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 of Escape 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. 5
Central to Tolkien’s ideas about Fantasy is this—the real world is not a very nice place at all. It is a place filled with ugliness, with industrialization, and with AI surveillance states who are more interested in putting down a compliant populace than in nurturing intelligent, virtuous citizens of a polis. To want to escape from this real life is nothing less than heroic.
Reading stories that ignore this so-called real life does two things. First, it provides consolation and rest to a soul exhausted by the never-ending machine-movement of our modern lives. But second, it reminds us that the real life of the 21st century, in its post-industrial, pandemic-ridden context, is not real life at all. It is the perversion of a real life that used to be, and might still be yet, but only in the purified human heart. As Tolkien says,
I heard a clerk of Oxenford declare that he welcomed the proximity of mass-production robot factories, and the roar of self-obstructive mechanical traffic, because it brought his university into contact with real life. The notion that motor cars are more alive than centaurs or dragons is curious; that they are more real than horses is pathetically absurd. How real, how startlingly alive is a factory chimney compared with an elm tree: poor obsolete things, insubstantial dream of an escapist! 6
Add to the external ugliness of “real life” the sad reality that we human beings are all fallen creatures who prefer the comfort of our own self-damaging habits to the wholesome discomfort of actually living a life of virtue. But fairy tales, the good ones, plant little seeds of discontent with our fallen lot, and remind us that we are made for better things. We are all heroes waiting for a wizard to give us a call to adventure. But not an adventure of self-seeking pleasure or “finding your authentic self”. No, I’m talking about the adventure of choosing the difficult, painful, and largely selfless life of seeking after virtue.
Escapism is more important, it turns out, than we expected. Tolkien goes even farther with this idea :
There are other and more profound escapisms that have always appeared in fairy tale and legend. There are other things more grim and terrible to fly from than the noise, stench, ruthlessness, and extravagance of the internal-combustion engine. There are hunger, thirst, poverty, pain, sorrow, injustice, death. And even when men are not facing hard things such as these, there are ancient limitations from which fairy stories offer a sort of escape, and old ambitions and desires (touching the very roots of fantasy) to which they offer a kind of satisfaction and consolation. 7
Whatever materialists say and believe, all cultures on earth contain stories of an ancient pining after a primeval state of beauty and bliss. When we are not endlessly distracting ourselves to death with the pings of our smartphones, when we are actually faced with the emptiness and danger of daily existence (pandemic, anyone?), we suddenly remember that ancient desire for Eden. Fairy tales remind us of that place and that time, and more than that, they make it clear that to desire escape to that place is not delusion. It is what makes us human.
The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending, or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous turn: this joy 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 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. 8
Here, then, is the ultimate gift of fairy tales and good fantasy. It reminds us that all pain, all grief, all suffering, all death ultimately is neither without purpose or without meaning. They find their meaning in the Cross, in the Resurrection, and the deification of man. But how can stories do all that? They’re fictions, aren’t they? They’re lies, in a manner of speaking, aren’t they?
Not at all. Good fairy tales and fantasies can achieve that most difficult thing: a quality that can be defined as “the inner consistency of reality.” But what does that mean? As Tolkien beautifully explains, it is difficult to imagine how exactly a good story can simulate the inner consistency of reality,
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, actually, an answer to the question, ‘Is it true?’ 9
That’s why fairy tales are not morbid delusions. On the contrary, they remind us of the most essential reality of all.
In one of the most remarkable passages in this essay, Tolkien writes the following:
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 of their strange nature. 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 fulfillment of Creation. The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe (the good catastrophe) of man’s history. 10
If we are to ever end the quest of our own personal “hero’s journey” with the ultimate happily ever after, we first have to understand the terrain. We have to study maps. We have to read fairy tales. They remind us, in approachable, understandable, pleasant images, of the joy we’re supposed to feel in Church. Because Christ’s own story is true. As Tolkien concludes,
Art has been verified. God is the Lord of angels, and of men—and of elves. 11
If you’d like to read more of Nicholas Kotar’s writing, listen to his podcasts, or purchase one of his books, please visit his website at https://nicholaskotar.com.
- Tolkien, J. R. R., The Monsters and the Critics, at 138. HarperCollins, 1997
- Ibid. at 139
- Ibid. at 145-146
- Ibid. at 147
- Ibid. at 150
- Ibid. at 149
- Ibid. at 151
- Ibid. at 153
- Ibid. at 155
- Ibid. at 155-156
- Ibid. at 156