On Fairy Stories and Why They Matter!

An essay is by British professor, Bruce G Charlton, who maintains a blog inspired by Tolkien’s The Notion Club Papers

Fantasy Fiction Is More Important Than ‘Real Life’:
completing the argument of JRR Tolkien’s essay On Fairy Stories

JRR Tolkien

JRR Tolkien’s most famous and influential essay, and indeed by far the most famous and influential essay on the subject, was On Fairy Stories. This was originally a lecture delivered in 1939 at the University of St Andrew’s, Scotland; it was published in a revised and expanded form in Essays Presented to Charles Williams, 1947 and reprinted in other volumes many times since.

The crux of the essay, and the reason for its large influence, is a defence of the value of Fairy Stories for an intended adult audience. Indeed On Fairy Stories became, pretty much, the standard explanation of, and rationale for, the genre of Fantasy Fiction – which is now a large and significant phenomenon in modern publishing

Tolkien’s basic argument is that the author of Fantasy is creating a ‘Secondary world’ with features that are both wonderful (typically magical) and internally-consistent. And this Secondary world potentially offers a sympathetic reader the triple benefits of Recovery, Escape and Consolation.

As such, On Fairy Stories serves to justify the Fantasy genre; but on the other hand it does implicitly consign Fantasy to Secondary status as contrasted with the Primary world.

Tolkien presents a strong case that Escape and Consolation are legitimate wishes. However, at the end of the day these are (merely) psychological justifications – ways of saying that Fantasy makes us ‘feel better’ in legitimate ways.

I believe that Tolkien’s argument can legitimately be extended to a stronger sense, which offers a ‘primary’ status to Fantasy fiction when understood in the context of the modern, mainstream world of public discourse.

More specifically, I believe that Tolkien’s argument about Recovery contains the seeds of a much more powerful explanation of Fantasy being (at its best) more real than (so-called) ‘real life’.

That Fantasy is (in some important respects) more real than real life I will take as an assumption rather than trying to argue; because it is something that all serious Fantasy readers already know to be true from personal experience (and it is, of course, why we continue to read Fantasy). But what is so-far lacking, and what Tolkien may be seen to imply, is an explanation for why and how it is true.

I think an explanation is valuable, and perhaps necessary, if fantasy, as a genre, is to be regarded (whether by ourselves, or more generally) as more than just a pleasing pastime – as something that is of potentially great cultural importance.

Tolkien’s argument about Recovery is that the material of magic, wonder, the fantastic – and the imaginative inhabiting of a different and complex but internally-consistent world – are what allow a refreshment of our appreciation. So we come to appreciate the basics of this (primary) world, now refreshed because we have come across bread, stone, trees in a new and unfamiliar context; and we also appreciate Men anew because we have met elves, dwarves and hobbits.

This is true but I think it underestimates the profundity of what Fantasy can do; especially when it is contrasted with the modern world. The key to the value of Fantasy – here and now – is its contrast with the modern world: Modern ‘reality’ is most deficient in the most important aspects of Life. And this is because modern reality is, mostly and ever-increasingly, a mass media-generated ‘virtual’ kind of reality.

Thus modern ‘Primary’ reality is deficient in terms of lacking destiny, meaning and purpose for Life; in its ignorance, denial, or blind terror of ageing and death; in terms of regarding the Human Condition as a mixture of mechanical determinism and random chaos; in its regarding of the major virtues of Love and Courage as mere products of social-conditioning and evolution; and its understanding that Tolkien’s joyful ‘eucatastrophe’ – the unexpected ‘turn’ of events in a Fairy Story that snatches the Happy Ending from apparently-inevitable defeat – is merely a statistically improbable coincidence…

The above list is not exhaustive – in particular the modern lack of a living and over-arching religion; and indeed lack of any spiritual reality and depth to experience – is another vital deficiency of the Primary world as we experience it in The West. But this list suffices to illustrate why, in our kind of world, Fantasy may be much more than just a pleasure or a preference. And why Fantasy does not simply enable a Recovery of appreciation for the basic essentials of Life – much more importantly, Fantasy may be our only sustained experience in which these real-realities are encountered.

The staleness and superficiality of modern life is a consequence of the way in which modern reality is the product of modern theories – the ‘ideologies’ that arise from science, law, politics, sociology etc. but which we mainly learn from the mass media; and to a lesser extent from a corrupted system of formal education, corporate advertising and official propaganda.

But how is it that Fantasy may be able to supply what the Primary word so horribly lacks? Well, Tolkien all-but said it – the creation of another internally consistent world of wonders provides us with stimuli, with perceptions, that do not automatically get plugged-into the subversive and inverting theories of modernism.

The magic and wonders of Fantasy quite naturally and spontaneously attach themselves to our built-in, universal concepts – the mythic understandings and interpretations of the ‘collective unconscious’, or our shared divine-endowments. And it is these universal concepts which enable us to apprehend and share reality.

So the fictional experiences of Fantasy are not just apparently but literally more real than everyday Life in the modern world. They are real because they are understood by means of the eternal, the universal, the Human, the God-given; whereas the Primary world is perceived, but not understood, merely by the manipulative and dishonest and ever-changing abstract theoretical ideologies of our time and place – ideologies such as the dreary incoherence of Leftist ‘identity’ politics, antiracism, feminism, economic hypotheses, anti-colonialism, and the ever-mutating lies and inversions of sexuality and the sexual revolution.

In sum; Fantasy fiction (Fairy Stories) may currently be the only source of sustained and convincing ‘good metaphysics’ available to many people in The West: our only access to the eternal and universal truths of real reality – as contrasted with the despair-inducing, hope-less, meaningless, purposeless fake-realities of modern life.

Seventy years after Tolkien’s essay was first conceived, we are in a situation that Fairy Stories have become something close to a necessity for those who want to experience Life as it could and should be experienced… even more, a necessity for those who want to live in the real world; rather than the hellish-yet-addictive media-Matrix of alternating distractions, intoxications, lust and fear which is the world of mainstream public discourse.

Consequently our demonic overlords hate, hate, hate real Fantasy (and Tolkien above all) and do their best to ignore or mock it – or else they reinterpret and subvert it in terms of the incoherent tendentiousness of modern ideologies (such as those deadly meditations on racism and sexism in The Lord of the Rings…). Or else they create fake-Fantasy which incorporates exactly those false ideologies to which Fantasy offers us a Real Life alternative. Instead of wonder and magic, we get parables of multiculturalism or gender-bending… just like modern, mainstream, bureaucratic ‘real life’.

I would therefore suggest that we should now drop Tolkien’s idea of Fantasy being a Secondary reality, in favour of a recognition that – at its best – Fantasy is now the Primary world. Fantasy fiction is therefore a way in which we may potentially (albeit partially and intermittently) escape The Matrix imposed upon us to our detriment; and begin living from true, universal and vital concepts: living real lives from the solid ground of universal metaphysics.

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For more by the erudite and fascinating Professor Charlton, visit his blog: Tolkien’s The Notion Club Papers:

http://notionclubpapers.blogspot.co.uk

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Superversive Blog: Guest Post — Where Religion and Fantasy Meet

This essay began as a post on John C. Wright’s blog. I mentioned that I’d love to post something on this subject for the Superversive Blog. And, here it is!

dore hell 5

Theologic License

by Matthew Schmidt.

An apologia before I begin. Being Christian, and more particularly Catholic, I am writing this from the perspective of a writer considering Catholic theology while writing. However, I believe the same issue will occur to anyone who is attempting to write but also is concerned about their theological accuracy, whatever their theology may be.

The problem of mixing speculative fiction with actual religion has existed since the first time Og told a ghost story around the cave’s fire, and, having returned to hunting the next day, wondered what ghosts meant for the Great Spirit. Whatever Og’s conclusion was has been lost to time, but we see it again more recently (relatively speaking) in The Divine Comedy. In the depths of Hell, Dante comes across Odysseus, who is eternally punished for attempting to reach Purgatory by the sole effort of humans. What exactly the presence of Odysseus implied for the panoply of feuding Greek divinities of the Iliad and the Odyssey, in the further reality of the True Divine, is not considered.

But while Og needed only entertain his tribesmen for a few minutes, and Dante used Odysseus as a symbol of the inadequacy of mortal powers, the modern speculative fiction author does not get off so easily.
The questions for the fantasy author have plagued the genre since Tolkien. They arrive like rubberneckers at the world’s construction site, incessantly pestering the author. If there is a fictional pantheon, are those gods “real?” Are they angelic like the Valar of Valinor, or noble beings like the Overcyns of Skai? Or are they mere frauds as Tash—a safe choice, but then Tash actually appears at the end of the Chronicles of Narnia and the issues are immediately raised. Add magic and ethical issues enter immediately, and whole essays have been written on the topic (see the excellent one by Tom Simon.)

The science fiction author can only avoid the same questions with sufficiently hard science and sufficient planning ahead. (Be sure to put three or so bishops on your generation ship to avoid issues of apostolic succession.) Reach for any other ingredient—time travel, artificial intelligence, or worse yet, extraterrestrial life—and now you have some irritating theological question, one that will devour your creative energies like a black hole.

And avoiding that singularity is the key. In my experience as a writer, attempting to write any kind of speculative fiction while staying behind every jot and tittle of established theology is futile. Fear of writing heretical ideas will do more damage to your writing than actually writing something theologically inaccurate.

After all, by the very definition of fiction, we write of things which God did not do. For Divine Wisdom did not see fit to make Mars habitable to life, allow steam to be able to power giant battle mechs, give information the ability to travel faster than light, or open doors to adjacent dimensions on a convenient schedule. Even “literary” fiction cannot escape this, as whenever it invents an character or happening that does not exist, it tells of an option that the Creator did not take. This leaves only fiction which describes events exactly as they happened, i.e. nonfiction.

But suppose you are willing to stretch the bounds of theology. Should you create a new theology to encompass your alterations? It depends. I’ve found that attempting to construct a sound theology for an idea before using it, unless this is actually relevant to the story, is also pointless, and also hamstringing. There was no point in Lewis breaking off onto a discourse on what Tash actually was in the middle of The Last Battle. At the same time, had he never considered what Jesus would be like in a world like Narnia, we would never have Aslan.

But let us return to Dante for a moment. The Divine Comedy is inaccurate in multiple ways, even setting aside the unexplained existence of various figures of Greek myth. The Catholic Church does not teach anyone specific is in Hell, let alone their location and specific punishment, and Dante must have been well aware of this. But the point of the Inferno is not to map judgments to sinners, or a soapbox for Dante to place his adversaries in eternal damnation. The Inferno depicts the soul of the unjust, and whatever liberties it takes to do this are to show poetic truths, not theological ones. Odyesseus is placed where he is to show the inadequacy of natural powers to reach the supernatural.

But could Dante had succeeded if he had stayed within the boundaries of theology? No. There was no one more suited to attempt Purgatory than Odysseus, and fail. Had Dante even invented another figure, that figure would require his own odyssey, which, to have the same power, would require yet more theological inaccuracies to create dangers against which mortal strength could prevail. Only then could this new Odysseus fail against the supernatural.

In that sense, even the Odyssey must contain poetic truths, no matter its pantheon. So, too, can we bring a great many works into the realm of the holy things.

But how far can we stretch this?

I will now take an example from the world of videogames. Of all the games I have ever played, Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor: Overclocked is by far the most blasphemous. Aside from the game-enforced necessity of summoning demons (in the post-apocalyptic Tokyo of the game’s dark plot), and the consequentialism which drenches every “choice”, its greatest offense against sound theology is its “God.” The theology of “God” (as identified by the direct use of the Divine Name) is bizarre and contradictory, both shown as an omnipotent Judeo-Christian Deity and also only a most powerful being that overpowered the previous most powerful being. Said “God” is as if from the Old Testament filtered through a pagan lens: no mercy for sins, no remorse over doing evil to do good, and no ability to raise the dead. (Not even the Messiah can raise the dead, one character says to another in one scene.)

But even despite that theology, and the extreme liberties which the game takes with biblical stories, even then there is a kind of poetic truth that would have been lost with a more accurate theology. Only if resorting to the use of demons, and only if demons are powerful, can it speak of the desire of power and its abuse. Only with the pagan need to justify blood with blood can it offer the choices it does, which sacrifice a few for the many. And only if God would create a paradise on Earth through violence would there be any reason against joining Him, and only if God could possibly be defeated would there by any reason for attempting to oppose Him. By a bad theology, it makes that final real choice: paradise of ruthless order, or hellscape of freedom. And even with all its darkness, at the very end of one of the last battles comes one of the most moving scenes I have ever seen in a game, a true eucatastrophy.

Do I recommend anyone go as far as DSO? No. I think there are ways to tell a similar story with much less darkness, and far less blasphemy. But such a different story would only be able to tell different truths. Yet, while different, possibly better.

And that is my final advice. What matters not is if a work fiction bends the truth. What matters is the truth it tells. A story can be utterly, and knowingly, inaccurate, yet still show a beauty it could not otherwise. Or, I believe, a story can stay within the boundaries of theology, and show nothing but evil. (For even demons believe there is a God.) And that is determined not by studying theology, or ignoring it, but hearing the call of Beauty in the wild.

For more about our author: http://oandhbooks.theinspiredinstructor.com/

 

The Hobbit, the Tolkein Fan Edit

tolkienedit_iconThere has been an interesting rework of The Hobbit by Peter Jackson, with the 3 gargantuan episodes stripped of all of their extraneous material and cut down to a 4 hour movie that is more faithful to the original book. You can check it out at The Hobbit: The Tolkien Edit. I haven’t watached it yet, but it is on my list. I wonder what John C. Wright would make of it given his well know hatred for The Desolation of Smaug that he really took to task in Transhuman and Subhuman: Essays on Science Fiction and Awful Truth.

The Silmarillion in 4 1/2 minutes

Have you ever wondered about the back story and creation accounts of the Lord of the Rings universe? J.R.R Tolkein was a prolific creator of worlds and he penned a great deal of the background mythology of his universe in a book called The Silmarillion that fleshes all this out. C.G.P Grey has you covered.

H/T io9

Tolkien, Creativity and Criticism with Brandon Rhodes

Thanks to Tom Simon for the link to this talk How to shutdown Tolkien, an interesting video worth the watch. It was given at a Python developer conference but it is still interesting even if you aren’t a software engineer (well I think so, I am one so maybe I can’t tell).

While Tolkien had friends who could devise ingenious ways to critique his work without sounding critical, he had others whose remarks were merciless and direct — to the point that Tolkien simply stopped sharing new chapters as he wrote The Lord of the Rings. As programmers we share many of the struggles of writers and artists, and we often react just as badly to critique of our code. From Tolkien’s experience we will draw lessons about how to make critique generous instead of damaging, and actionable instead of personal.

More Mr Simon