Eucatastrophe – Tolkien’s On Fairy Stories

Most of my earliest reading on my own was novels.  After reading a lot of John Grisham and Michael Crichton, I started to get into sci-fi and fantasy.  I read more Star Wars novels than I care to remember.  Eventually I got into The Wheel of Time and Game of Thrones (before it was cool).  Then I went to college and seminary and began reading theology, history and philosophy.  I still read novels occasionally, but most of my reading for the last decade has not been fiction.

This year that is changing.  I’ve already read two novels (The Fault in Our Stars by John Green and The Book Thief by Markus Zusak), as well as continuing the complete Sherlock Holmes.  And I’ve read a good bit of Tolkien.  His work On Fairy Stories, while not fiction itself, gives a strong philosophy of fantasy literature.

First, fantasy literature is not just for children.

“Among those who still have enough wisdom not to think fairy-stories pernicious, the common opinion seems to be that there is a natural connection between the minds of children and fairy-stories, of the same order as the connexion between children’s bodies and milk.  I think this is an error; at best an error of false sentiment, and one that is therefore most often made by those who, for whatever private reason (such as childlessness), tend to think of children as a special kind of creatre, almost a different race, rather than as normal, if immautre, members of a particular family, and of the human family at large…Fairy-stories have in the modern lettered world been relegated to the ‘nursery,’ as shabby or old-fashioned furniture is relegated to the playproom, primarily because the adults do not want it, and do not mind if it is misued” (58)

“If fairy-stories as a kind is worth reading at all, it is worthy to be written for and read by adults” (67)

I don’t know if I thought I had out-grown fantasy novels as I moved into “serious” works of theology and history.  But it is interesting that so many of the best stories are fantasy stories, taking place in mythical realms.  And those who read such stories are often seen as less serious.  Oh, you’re reading Harry Potter…why not try Dickens?

Yet, according to Tolkien, a good fairy story is entirely believable within its universe, or as he calls it, sub-creation:

“What really happens is that the story-maker 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” (60).

“Fantasy is a natural human activity. It certainly does not destroy or even insult Reason; and it does not either blunt the appetite for, nor obscure the perception of, scientific verity. On the contrary.  The keener and the clearer is the reason, the better fantasy will make it…If men really could not distinguish between frogs and men, fairy-stories about frog-kings would not have arisen” (74-75)

All writers write from within their own worldview.  Tolkien wrote as a Christian.  This does not mean his stories are fronts for evangelism or simple allegories where such-and-such character stands in for a biblical character.  Tolkien’s world is more complex than that.  Yet we see in On Fairy Stories how his Christian faith relates to his writing, with the term Eucatastrophe:

Escape is a key part of fairy-stories – escape from death – “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.  Since we do not posses a word that expresses this opposite – I will call it Eucatastrophe.  The eucatastrophe tale is the true form of fairy-tale, and its highest function” (85)

Why do the good guys always win?  Because there are other forces at work, forces for good and justice that work behind the scenes, that have a hand in things.  When seen in this light, even a depressing Tolkien story, like that of Turin Turambar, can be seen in a larger context of hope and the setting right of all things.

Further, when we see good win out we feel joy, for we are cheering for this.  This is how we hope our world turns out, even if in our day-to-day lives we are so unsure of it.  Tolkien writes, “The peculiar quality of the ‘joy’ is successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth” (88)

Ultimately, the story of this world as Christians tell it is the greatest Eucatastrophe:

“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, as to others, of their strange nature.  The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essences of fairy-stories.  They contain many marvels – peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: ‘mythincal’ in their perfect, self-contained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete eucatastrophe. 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 of Man’s history.  The resurrection is the Eucatastrophe of the Incarnation.  This story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the ‘inner consistency of reality.’ There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many skeptical men have accepted as true on its own merits.  For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation.  To reject it leads either to sadness or wrath” (88-89)

As I read this work, I couldn’t help but think about other popular fantasy stories and how they include or don’t include this idea of eucatastrophe.  But that’s for another post.

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