On the irreplaceability of Han Solo

Where would I be without Facebook? It furnishes such a rich profusion of writing prompts. The other morning I encountered a most enlightening query regarding Star Wars, to wit: If you could only bring one of these characters back to life, which would it be? The options were: Han Solo; Anakin; Padme; Yoda; Obi-Wan; Qui-Gon. There is, of course, only one answer that any sane person could supply to such a query:

Han Solo.

You don’t even have to think about it, do you? I tried out the question on my wife, listing the options in the order given above, and she stopped me before I finished saying “Obi-Wan,” because the answer was so obviously Han. I’ve been trying to think about why it has to be Han, why my interest in Star Wars came to an end with the death of Han Solo, if not long before, with the end of Return of the Jedi.

Many of the comments on FB in support of resurrecting other characters (Han was preferred by the clear majority) were speculations regarding plot, the things that could happen differently in the plot if this or that character were to come alive again. This was illuminating, because it helped to show what is unique about Han Solo, namely that after his rescue from Jabba the Hutt and subsequent resuscitation, which made for an excellent story (and let’s note in passing that just a few years later Star Trek would pull off the same feat in The Search for Spock) — after The Empire Strikes Back, Han Solo’s importance to the plot was over. And when Solo is most important to the plot — when he’s frozen in carbonite — he’s not really Han Solo, because he’s… frozen in carbonite. On the other hand, all other characters fulfill their plot-roles precisely by acting according to who they are.

What I am getting at here is that the other main characters are defined by their roles in the story. They are, in fact, not really characters as we think of them in the modern sense, but types in a great, sweeping archetypal fantasy of good versus evil. But is Han Solo really a character in that modern sense inherited from the development of the novel? It could be fairly easily argued that he is not, that he is just as stereotypical as anyone else: the independent-minded gunslinger, loyal to his friends but ultimately only looking out for himself (but capable of some moral improvement or an instinctual sense of the good), as he plies an amoral life in a lawless world.

I don’t think Han Solo stands out because he’s a character in a fiction populated otherwise only by types. (There is one exception, at least potentially, to this critique of the other figures in the story, and that is Leia. She doesn’t quite get to flourish like she deserves but she has the makings for a more complex person — in fact a genuine literary character — in a way no one else does, not even Han. Note that we tend to care more, I think, about her bond with Han than with Luke.) Han Solo stands out because he is a light from another world, and whatever he comes into contact with shines in a different light than it otherwise would.

The world Han Solo comes from is the world of grim and gritty low comedy. (Leia does not come from this world, but she has comedic potential — part of what makes her so much more complex than others — and Han serves to actualize some of that potential.) Han is the paragon figure of that world, along with his sidekick, and there are of course other representatives sprinkled throughout, including all of the droids. But Han stands alone for comedy in its deeper sense, as the genre of the lowly, but the lowly that is capable of rising to heights unknown to the world of tragedy. The genius of Star Wars, or much of it, is to combine the lowliness of comedy with the loftiness of tragedy, and indeed to surpass that loftiness. It is a difficult achievement, for the two modes represent cosmic visions that are difficult to reconcile.

To elevate comedy, to allow stories enacted by menial folk and desperados, the luckless, the lonely, the unloved and the seemingly failed, to rise to a level of meaning and beauty previously only perceptible in stories of valiant heroes and magically powerful divine or semi-divine figures. — This is, historically, in European civilization at any rate, a result of the influence of the Christian story in the Gospels, as predicated upon and prefigured in the Hebrew Bible. Many have felt it important to note this elevation of comedy and the fusion of it with tragedy, from Nietzsche to Auerbach, Rosenstock-Huessy and, perhaps, Tolkien. In the work of that last we see how the addition of comedic characters — for that is what the hobbits are, and Gollum — transfigures what would otherwise be a heroic tale and, we can assume, a tale of defeat. Doesn’t Star Wars do the same thing?

From the point of view of pure tragedy, Luke’s quest to overcome his father’s legacy is the heart of Star Wars, for tragedy is about inherited and ineradicable guilt. But from the point of view of the higher comedy, the heart of the story is the marriage of Han and Leia, the redemption of the tragic cosmos through its union with the comedic. Their marriage may be contrasted with that of Anakin and Padme, who are two types from the same literary and spiritual world, namely tragedy. The doomed union of Anakin and Padme serves only a purpose within the plot (that is why it is doomed), while that of Han and Leia is the telos of the plot, it stands beyond the story as its triumph.






Point of order re: the universe(s)

I ran across a thing on Facebook today. It was a query, to wit: “Who created the greatest universe?” Six possible answers were provided, in the form of authors and their iconic works of fantasy. They are, I shouldn’t be surprised to learn, the six highest grossing fantasy franchises: Star Wars; Star Trek; Dragon Ball; Lord of the Rings; Harry Potter; Game of Thrones.

One of the larger points I am always trying to make is that geography matters, place matters. And for the love of the Actual Maker of the Actual Universe (and all potential universes, if you want to get technical about it), correct terminology matters. A universe is what it is: the extent of created reality. If you don’t believe in the transcendent, if you don’t distinguish creator and created, then the universe is just the totality of existence, even whatever, if anything, lies the other side of a black hole, or on the inside of the inmost folds of the eleventh dimension of quantum space, or what have you. That’s what the word ‘universe’ means. It doesn’t mean ‘fictional world,’ or ‘world in which a fiction occurs.’ If it meant that, then every fiction could be said to occur in its own universe. I don’t find this a helpful way of thinking about fiction, as it would make it impossible to think that one fiction could be part of a larger category of things we call fiction, and I take the essential unity of all fictions to be a very important point. But anyway, the point here is that, metaphysically speaking, no writer has ever created a universe.

However, there is a genre of fiction that posits an unreal setting, that is to say, a setting that is not supposed to be in any way connected with this world, or universe: not through somebody’s dream; not set in some heretofore overlooked corner of the Earth that can only be accessed by (for example) a very irregular and unusual train service; not some version of this Earth that is pretty much exactly the same as the one we know but with vampires or witches or whatever; not some alternative dimension accessed through a magical piece of furniture that is located in a fictional representation of this universe; not a galaxy far away (but in this universe, because what else could it be said to be far away from unless it were from us who live here in reality?); not a historical world of long ago, or this universe at some future time — none of that, I’m talking a totally fictive universe. The strictest definition for modern fantasy fiction that I can think of is the one that defines the genre as fiction that is understood, within the implicit logic of the fiction, to occur nowhere in this universe. In the case of this strictly defined fantasy, which is most contemporary high or epic fantasy, the author can be said to have, in a way, created a (fictive) universe, i.e. a (fictively) ontologically autonomous reality.

And guess what? Of the six options listed in the query that got me thinking about this, only one, George R R Martin’s, meets this criterion. All five of the other options are supposed, within the logic of the fiction, to occur in this universe. So there’s the correct answer: Martin wins by default. And that is all the more I will say about something I saw on Facebook. But maybe I’ll say later why I think the distinction at play here matters.


The Thief in the Cave (part 1)

A piercing glimpse of joy… a gleam coming through. This is what Tolkien leaves us with, what he insists fantasy offers, in his seminal essay, “On Fairy-Stories.” But what does this sort of statement really mean? How does it play out in literary fantasy — to begin with, in Tolkien’s own work? It may be helpful to reflect on the two neologisms Tolkien coined in “On Fairy-Stories,” subcreation and eucatastrophe. This two-part essay will do so by reference to key moments in The Hobbit, particularly the fifth chapter, wherein Bilbo steals the One Ring from Gollum. But first, I’m afraid, it is necessary to tarry in the world of contemporary ‘literary’ fiction.

When we look to the origins of modern fantasy fiction, as when we look to the origins of its medieval ancestor, we encounter, in its most essential form, the Christian worldview. This is a fact of literary history, regardless of whether one believes of the Gospel story, as Tolkien states in the epilogue of “On Fairy-Stories,” that “there is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true.” So in striving to understand what fantasy fiction is, or offers, we have to reckon with the Christian worldview. That worldview is defined in two ways, as a story of the redemption of the earth and its creatures, indeed of the kosmos entire (we’ll come back to that Greek word); and, consequent to that redemption, as a vision of the world, even in its unredeemed aspect, as a sacramental order. Another way of putting this vision is to say that it sees the universe as a single glorious sign of itself in its transfigured or redeemed state. And when we can perceive that signification, we might say, as Tolkien does, that we have caught a glimpse of something otherworldly or seen by an otherworldly light. Tolkien famously wrote to his son in 1945, that “certainly there was an Eden on this very unhappy earth. We all long for it, and we are constantly glimpsing it: our whole nature at its best and least corrupted, its gentlest and most humane, is still soaked with the sense of ‘exile.'” Here again is the language of glimpses.

But this is not quite the glimpse offered by fantasy; it is more like a prelapsarian memory. From the Catholic point of view that was the author’s, the end of the Christian story is not a return to Eden, not a restoration or repetition of the primal unfallen condition. Rather we could call the memory of Eden something like a necessary, or at least a fertile, precondition for glimpsing the otherworldly light that fantasy looks for. But I don’t want to reckon first of all and directly with theology. Although literature is inherently metaphysical, it is not, even when written by authors of religious conviction, ‘theology by another means.’ The purpose in reading works like Tolkien’s — or, if you prefer, explicitly metaphysical (and non-Christian) works like E R Eddison’s fantasies from the same period, or Mervyn Peake’s allegory, or David Lindsay’s — is not to arrive at a series of theological or philosophical propositions. The meaning of a work of art is precisely itself, not a paraphrasing of its thematic content stated in another discourse… But I am getting ahead of things.

For literary critical reasons it is necessary to deal with the Christian origins of fantasy, but for those same reasons it is equally necessary to demonstrate that the visionary content of fantasy is not the purview only of Christian tradition. It is not even restricted to the perspective of religious people generally. Lest you worry all this business about light from another world is the escapist claptrap of religious maniacs, I offer you the words of Karl Ove Knausgaard, self-avowed atheist:

What I ought to do was affirm what existed, affirm the state of things as they are, in other words, revel in the world outside instead of searching for a way out, for in that way I would undoubtedly have a better life, but I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t, something had congealed inside me, a conviction was rooted inside me, and although it was essentialist, that is, outmoded and, furthermore, romantic, I could not get past it, for the simple reason that it had not only been thought but also experienced, in these sudden states of clearsightedness that everyone must know, where for a few seconds you catch sight of another world from the one you were in only a moment earlier, where the world seems to step forward and show itself for a brief glimpse before reverting and leaving everything as before

The last time I experienced this was on the commuter train between Stockholm and Gnesta a few months earlier. The scene outside the window was a sea of white, the sky was gray and damp, we were going through an industrial area, empty railway cars, gas tanks, factories, everything was white and gray, and the sun was setting, the red rays fading into the mist, and the train in which I was traveling was not one of the rickety old run-down units that usually serviced this route, but brand-new, polished and shiny, the seat was new, it smelled new, the doors in front of me opened and closed without friction, and I wasn’t thinking about anything in particular, just staring at the burning red ball in the sky and the pleasure that suffused me was so sharp and came with such intensity that it was indistinguishable from pain. What I experienced seemed to me to be of enormous significance. Enormous significance. When the moment had passed the feeling of significance did not diminish, but all of a sudden it became hard to place: exactly what was significant? And why? A train, an industrial area, sun, mist?

I recognized the feeling, it was akin to the one some works of art evoke in me… it was striking to me that they were all painted before the 1900s, within the artistic paradigm that always retained some reference to visible reality. Thus, there was always a certain objectivity to them, by which I mean a distance between reality and the portrayal of reality, and it was doubtless in this interlying space where it ‘happened,’ where it appeared, whatever it was I saw, when the world seemed to step forward from the world. When you didn’t just see the incomprehensible in it but came very close to it. Something that didn’t speak, and that no words could grasp, consequently forever out of our reach, yet within it, for not only did it surround us, we were ourselves part of it, we were ourselves of it.

I see half a dozen important elements in this remarkable passage from the first volume of My Struggle:

  1. (fear of) escapism.
  2. sudden, unlooked for quality of the visionary moment.
  3. importance of objects natural as well as man-made.
  4. joy of such an intensity that it is confused or somehow bound up with pain.
  5. our experience of the chasm that extends between reality and its representation, i.e. an experience of art.
  6. awareness, within the art, of intimate participation in the visionary world but at the same time of the ineffability of that world and our participation in it.

I would say that these are all essential elements of fantasy, and all are addressed in one way or another in “On Fairy-Stories.” What I am calling the ‘visionary world’ of Knausgaard’s experience is, I believe, none other than Tolkien’s ‘Faërie.’ But isn’t this to turn the tables? Am I not taking what Tolkien called subcreation and positing it of the creation, of nature itself, if not of a super-nature? I believe that I am not. The ‘higher’ reality or super-nature that as rationalistic (if also emotional and Romantic) a man as Knausgaard perceives through the appearances of the primary, mundane world is one and the same reality as that to which a fantasist gains access. What I always want to do is to get away from the idea that fantasists, or storytellers generally, simply ‘imagine’ their stories and, in the case of fantasists, their worlds. That is how it feels and how it seems some of the time, to both reader and writer, but it cannot be all that is actually going on.

One of the reasons that it cannot be all that is going on is that if it were, fiction would be practically worthless, an idle entertainment or, if we are to accept an argument much older than the terms it adopts today, perhaps (though this is by no means demonstrably the case) good for cultivating ’empathy.’ But at the end of the day, fiction can be, in a universe foreclosed to the transcendent (other realities, like those of the sempiternal and eternal), only a circumlocutionary way of stating things about reality, which in such a universe means only the everyday world that cannot — how could it? — step forward, out of itself. Fantasy fiction, in this scenario, would be an especially inefficient way of making circumlocutionary statements about this diminished reality. Why not simply talk directly and clearly about the world? Because we are not, when we become participants in the action that is storytelling, talking about just the world. We are always talking about the other world as well: the world to which art grants us partial access.

The final point in the passage from Knausgaard is of utmost importance. I mean this business about artistic inadequacy — say, rather, the way even the most masterful artwork is overwhelmed by what it would depict. For all the earthy detail and world-building of fantasy, art is only an approximation or analogy of what the writer has intuited. The subcreation exceeds the subcreator’s vision: it is largely the purview of its readers, but even they can never exhaust it any more than they can exhaust the wealth of meaning that the primary creation possesses by the very fact of its gratuitous being. This is why Tolkien speaks, at the end, of fantasy as something that “rends indeed the very web of story.” If fantasy is a vision of the transcendent, how could it keep from rending a purely human and finite construction such as art? Language comes up short, but this can be triumphant failure. We see this peculiar triumph in art — in its visionary, as opposed to its diagnostic (or realist), function — as we see it in prayer and liturgy. Prayer and liturgy, or sacrament, rely on a special kind of signification, the so-called ‘efficacious sign.’ I don’t quite want to claim that a work of art, fantasy or otherwise, is such a sign, but I suspect there is an analogy to be made between visionary language and sacrament, the gist of which is that language that has been fashioned into the particular form that we call fantasy does not serve so much to gain for us something we retain in an unaltered state, as it does to open us to something dynamic and transfiguring, which will come on its own terms whenever it pleases and quite unconcerned with our conscious beliefs or wherewithal, as it seems to have done for Knausgaard.

But for now let’s leave this apophatic and mystical line of thought and focus, if we can, on what fantasy positively achieves. To briefly summon Knausgaard once more, there is a passage toward the end of the second volume of My Struggle where he declares that he writes “to recapture the world.” (It’s worth noting that the writing he was doing at the time that he, as a character, utters this statement, is not the autobiographical, seemingly hyper-realist novel in which we read the statement, but a book about angels, or the disappearance of angels, called A Time for Everything.) In any case, the phrasing may seem aggressive (bear in mind it is a translation), but one can read this as a somewhat desperate attempt to assert the ontological, as opposed to the merely rhetorical, power of language. He is concerned, it seems, not with predicating things about the world, but with re-presenting, making uniquely present to consciousness, through the medium of language, what is sometimes called the presence of the tangible, sensible things of the world. The realness of reality: Knausgaard expresses a hunger for it, alarm at the sense of its slipping away. I would suggest — and this is contentious, I cannot begin to prove it — that ‘recapturing the world,’ evoking the presence of things, is the same action as catching a glimpse of the world when it steps out from itself or catching a ray of the light of Faërie when it breaks through the superficial appearance of the world. Knausgaard has simply asserted as a deliberate aesthetic project what elsewhere we saw him describe as an involuntary experience.

Now recall what Tolkien said in “On Fairy-Stories” about the peculiar lucidity and vividness of subcreation. It was in reading fantasy, he said, that he “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.” Words and things (both natural and artificial, though only artificial in a basic way) — of what else are sacraments made? Bread, wine, water, oil; not to mention bells, candles, incense, vestments, and so on. But to be sure, we require words as well, not the things only, to gain access to the presence of things or see them in the light of FaërieIt is a strange and often unfortunate truth of our kind that we frequently fail to see the good that is right in front of us in the primary world but recognize it all too poignantly when we see it reflected or represented elsewhere — in the other worlds of story or of memory. This is why Tolkien talks about the potency of words as well as the wonder of things, and why Knausgaard could not write of his mystical experience for long before he invoked the aesthetic distance between us and the world, which art provides: it is into that distance that the world steps forth or is revealed in its supernatural aspect.

And so it is that The Hobbit is full of things and also full of artifice. That is to say that it does not conceal its artifice but sets it out in plain sight for our appreciation, so that we should not lose the aesthetic interval between ourselves and the world in either its natural or its supernatural aspect. There are many methods for doing this in fiction, and Tolkien employs several of the most venerable. The first, most time-honored method comes into play from the first page, in the sentences: “This is a story of how a Baggins had an adventure… you will see whether he gained anything in the end.” And, “I suppose hobbits need some description nowadays.” This is not just narrative omniscience — a style, by the way, that has become as rare these days as hobbits, though it was the basis of nearly all narrative until the 20th century. No, this is more precisely an omniscient narrator who is omniscient because he is a storyteller. Look, there you are! Right there on the first page, addressed by the person who is kind enough to tell you a story. You’re engaged in the act of storytelling and you should realize that your part is as crucial as the storyteller’s, for it is a joint effort, this business of storytelling. With such a narrator it is impossible to forget you are involved in so weighty an action as storytelling, impossible for you to be duped into losing yourself in a world that is merely ‘realistic,’ which is to say no world at all but the pale shadow of one. The storyteller is able to present a subcreation, a proper world, only because he or she is a storyteller, and so you consciously approach and view that world through story but you do not enter it. Without that distance between ourselves and the subcreation, we in fact do not have a world to enjoy, we are instead lost in the middle of things, swept up in a chain of events we cannot understand, in an indefinite terrain. — More on this matter of a world in a moment.

I would submit the many instances of poetry in The Hobbit as another example of the cultivation of aesthetic distance. Verse is by its nature formal, stylized, crafted, blatantly artificial. You’re not supposed to forget you’re listening to poetry when you hear it, and the same is true a fortiori for poetry that is sung. Whenever we see a character singing or reciting verse, we have art-within-the-art. But the paramount instance in the book of artificial language is the brilliant set piece of chapter five, “A Game of Riddles.” Nothing is more obviously artificial than a game that is made out of poetry. And it is in Bilbo’s life-or-death game with Gollum, in the lightless depths of a goblin-infested mountain, that the simple good things of the earth shine in all their brilliance. The setting could not more perfectly offset — usually by contrast but, paradoxically perhaps, at least once or twice by coincidence — the answers to the riddles. They are as follows: mountains; teeth; wind; sun on daisies; darkness; eggs; fish; the domestic scene of a man sitting on stool at table with a platter of fish and cat by his side; and finally, time — then Bilbo’s cheating question concerning the immediate and tangible, which he asks accidentally (just as he answered the last riddle): “What have I got in my pocket?”

I will have more to say about “Riddles in the Dark” in the next post. For now I simply note that fiction — and for peculiar reasons, as Tolkien admits in the essay, for some it is only that fiction which posits another world and thus never loses sight of itself as fiction — such fiction is a frame for the things of the world, subcreation the frame without which we cannot bring the creation into focus. But we need something more than language (or another artistic medium) and the secondariness or distance it provides, if we are to catch the much sought after glimpse of things in the light of Faërie. We need the sense of a world, or to use the Greek word, kosmos. I bring in the Greek because it carries two explicit senses that our English word either lacks or does not necessarily possess. The Greek word for world connotes order, on the one hand, and adornment on the other. One could say that to the ancient Greek mind, a world is an order of adornment. So it was to the Hebrew mind as well, in its mythical account of the creation of the world. In that story, not only is the universe created in an orderly manner, but it is finally pronounced good, and indeed very good. That is to say that there is a gratuitous beauty to the order of the world, that it is created in joy, endowed with a kind of being of its own that is good because it is endowed. In the case of literary fantasy, this endowment is palpable in the artificiality of story and of verse, as I’ve said. Could it be that the subcreation of modern fantasy is distinguished from creation in the first instance by being manifestly a world, or kosmos; whereas for us today in the West the universe is a kosmos only in visionary moments or by way of faith? Is this what makes modern fantasy modern, or rather anti-modern? Be that as it may, the logic Tolkien implies is simple enough: by virtue of its being a clear world, subcreation points us back to the creation and offers that primary world to us with the insistence that it, too, is a kosmos, could we but perceive it as such.

The kosmos of fantasy, being not only order but adornment, is desirable, as Tolkien says, but what is good about it that it should be so desirable, in what does its adornment consist? I believe that what fantasy offers is a world of aesthetic perfection. It is very obviously not a world of perfected justice. So whatever degree of reality we accord the fantasist’s subcreation, it is not a reality where beauty and justice are as yet commensurate — at least not on the surface. I have never had any patience for people who call fantasy escapist because it lacks a suitably downtrodden peasantry or something along those lines. As a visionary, rather than diagnostic, mode of writing, fantasy tends to bring into its ken a different aspect of injustice, one that is less political and social. It is better fitted to represent what you might call spiritual warfare, both between and within individuals. If you want to read Turgenev or Dickens or Balzac, you can go to the nearest library and have at it. Although as it happens I think there are plenty of fantasies that do represent the mystery of natural evil and systematic oppression or exploitation of masses of people — and of the earth itself. I think of Tigana or The Fifth Season, for example.

Visionary fantasy offers no escape from passion and desire, or from — as the example from Knausgaard expresses — from pain and moral confusion. I will discuss the moral dimension of “Riddles in the Dark” in the sequel when our focus will move from subcreation to eucatastrophe. I want to end this excessively long rumination by gesturing to a different kind of pain. Even in the domain of aesthetic perfection, those worlds of warriors and dragons and the like that Tolkien speaks of finding obviously desirable when he was a youth, there is something heartbreaking. Perfection is not really the word for the fantasy aesthetic, because we never attain to perfection even in imagination. Beauty is painful. It is painful because it demands a response and the response we can give is never adequate but only a reminder of our finite capabilities and apparently infinite desires. No art, no moment in daily life, offers more than a glimpse of Faërie or can do more than prepare us for the next such moment we are vouchsafed, be it on the page or on the street. The visionary moment, the glimpse, in part because it is ephemeral and in part because it is ineffable, partakes of that pain that is inextricable from joy.



The Eros of Fantasy

The previous post, no more than an aside, drew attention to a remarkable sentence in J R R Tolkien’s essay, “On fairy-Stories.” In fact that entire piece of writing — I hardly want to call it an essay — is remarkable. To be sure, it is one of the seminal efforts to theorize literary fantasy, and in the essay Tolkien offers a number of useful distinctions and formulations, but if “On Fairy-Stories” is theoretical, it is so in a more basic, ancient sense of the term that is closer to the notion of contemplation — or, so as not to commit an injustice against the mystical tradition, what we might call discursive meditation. In any case, it is far more than an effort in literary criticism, as I hope to demonstrate. All quotations, unless otherwise noted, are from the essay.

One of the more unfortunate elements of Tolkien’s essay is its title. It is almost impossible for a native English-speaker, particularly one living in the 21st century, to take seriously any utterance involving the word “fairy.” The trouble is that “fairy” does not mean, or did not originally mean, what we take it to mean. Tolkien points out the confusion that entered English when we took Faërie from the medieval French. Fairy is not a creature but a place. Perhaps it would help if we didn’t say “fairy” but “Faërie”; that is, “fah-ay-ree.” And you have to make sure you get a nice guttural ‘r’ in there… Anyway, fairy-stories, so to call them, are therefore “stories about Fairy, that is Faërie, the realm or state in which fairies have their being.” And so fairy-stories are not necessarily concerned with fairies at all. For as Tolkien continues to explain, “Faërie contains many things besides elves and fays, and besides dwarfs, witches, trolls, giants or dragons: it holds the seas, the sun, the moon, the sky; and the earth, and all things that are in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, mortal men, when we are enchanted.” That is our earth he is talking about. But as for a definition of Faërie itself, Tolkien proceeds with caution:

Faërie cannot be caught in a net of words; for it is one of its qualities to be indescribable, though not imperceptible. It has many ingredients, but analysis will not necessarily discover the secret of the whole… Faërie itself may perhaps most nearly be translated by Magic — but it is magic of a peculiar mood and power, at the furthest pole from the vulgar devices of the laborious, scientific magician.

We are accustomed to seeing fantasy fiction — essentially what Tolkien means by the term fairy-story — defined by its use of magic. I have always resisted this definition of fantasy, perhaps because I have sensed that, to reverse Tolkien’s formulation, if fantasy is defined by magic then that magic is a place, a world, a realm, a dimension, which in one strand of the European tradition is called Faërie; it is not some mechanism or technical system. So when I come upon a statement such as the following, which is to be found among the submission guidelines of a prominent publisher of fantasy, I am perturbed: “Any magical system must be both rigorously coherent and integral to the plot.” This ‘magic’ is no more than technology by another name, or Tolkien’s lower, vulgar form of magic. He goes on to further define this lower magic, the only kind that is usually meant by the term anymore, as one that “produces or pretends to produce an alteration in the primary world… it is not an art but a technique [we would now say technology]; its desire is power in this world, domination of things and wills.”

Even a higher form of magic will not suffice for Tolkien as the defining feature of fairy-stories. It is a matter of recognizing deeper purpose. Note the appearance in the last sentence quoted of the idea of desire. We are beginning to approach the heart of the matter. Of magic — the higher, more mystical or at least mysterious kind — in the literary genre that treats of Faërie, Tolkien makes this important reservation:

The magic of Faërie is not an end in itself, its virtue is in its operation: among these are the satisfactions of certain primordial human desires. One of these desires is to survey the depth of space and time. Another is to hold communion with other living things. A story may thus deal with the satisfaction of these desires, with or without the operation of either machine or magic, and in proportion as it succeeds it will approach the quality and have the flavor of fairy-story.

“On Fairy-Stories” is concerned, above all, with desire, with certain primordial human desires, as the author says. But which desires exactly? The two that Tolkien enumerates above hardly exhaust the matter. As the essay proceeds the sense of what I would call the Eros of Fantasy expands. It may be possible to name other specific desires, but I come to think there is a single great desire in back of it all (or, if you must, One Desire to Rule Them All). The great fantasist’s instinct for this one desire, he avows, goes back further than youth and early manhood — further than his introduction to philology and war. Thinking of the fairy-stories he read as a boy, Tolkien claims that he knew then that they “were plainly not primarily concerned with possibility but with desirability. If they awakened desire, satisfying it while often whetting it unbearably, they succeeded.” Again there is the question of the specific desire, but in this instance we have a clearer answer than this or that primordial urge or intimation. Instead Tolkien makes mention of the settings of the stories he loved, some of them, for example the sagas, ostensibly set in this world. It is that setting — if that is not too deadened and weak a word for it — that seems to be important, for it is “such lands,” he says, that “were preeminently desirable.”

But this is still only to say that Faërie itself is desirable, and that we would therefore seek it out in writing fairy-stories (or fantasy, as we would now say). What does it mean to say that the lands of Faërie are preeminently desirable? I can’t get away from this notion of place. The most basic question to ask about a place would seem to be, Where is it? But the answer, in the case of Faërie, is complex. Before I come to Tolkien’s answer to that question, consider that a way of answering what it means to desire this land of Faërie is to desire a kind of magic, or we could say a kind of making. There are two neologisms that have entered the language, at least among small circles of adepts, from Tolkien’s essay. One of them is subcreation. One of Toalkien’s crucial points in the essay is that fairy-stories, or literary fantasy frequently includes, in the form of the magic or enchantment that one encounters in fantasy, fictional instances of subcreation. “The primal desire at the heart of Faërie,” declares the fantasist, is “the realization, independent of the conceiving mind, of imagined wonder.” That is to say that the enchantments, as Tolkien calls them (as opposed to mechanistic magic), often ascribed to those who dwell or venture in Faërie are supreme images of our creative drive; furthermore, fantasy fiction itself is, to a limited degree, this kind of creativity — but Tolkien, being metaphysically precise and moreover a Catholic Christian, calls it subcreation. For our author — or explorer — of Middle Earth, subcreation is celebration and an act of beauty, and it is what some might prefer to call humanistic and affirmative:

At the heart of many man-made stories of the elves lies, open or concealed, pure or alloyed, the desire for a living, realized sub-creative art. That desire is only cheated by counterfeits, whether the innocent but clumsy devices of the human dramatist or the malevolent frauds of the magician. Uncorrupted it does not seek delusion, nor bewitchment nor domination; it seeks shared enrichment, partners in making and delight, not slaves.

In the next post I will suggest that what fantasy presents, in a humanistic language, is an aesthetically perfect world. Another writer than J R R Tolkien would have ended his lecture or essay with the above statement. But that is not where “On Fairy-Stories” ends. Where we go from here is perilous territory indeed. A great many of the admirers of Tolkien’s Middle Earth literature do not share — as, for the record, I do share — Tolkien’s religious and metaphysical commitments. That is to be expected and nothing to be condemned. But “On Fairy-Stories” is very much a personal essay in that its highest theory comes to us from its author’s deepest convictions about the nature of reality.

For Tolkien, the prototype of all fantasy was the story of the Gospel. That is to say, the Incarnation of the Word of God, his Passion, Resurrection, Ascension, and the redemption of man and all of creation. That “all of creation” is important. Tolkien believes that God is the God of elves as well as of men. He also asserts that the creatures of Faërie are more natural or nearer to nature than human beings — this is something he understands not only from his faith but from his philological researches. There is a passage, to which I will return in the next post, that evinces the fantasist’s understanding of fantasy as a genuinely cosmic vision: “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.” For now, simply consider the extraordinary conclusion to the essay, in which the fantasist, speaking of the Christian revelation, describes the ultimate fantasy:

Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels and of men — and of elves. Legend and history have met and fused… in fantasy man may actually assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation. All tales may come true. And yet, at the last, redeemed, they may be as like and as unlike the forms that we give them as man, finally redeemed, will be like and unlike the fallen that we know.

Not everyone will be able to assent to such a statement. But at least within the context of the essay, of its author’s beliefs, we can finally say that we are able to answer the most obvious question about Faërie: Where is it? In fact, though, we had the answer at the beginning: Faërie is this very world in which I type these words. But it is this world transfigured, this world illuminated by an otherworldy light, this world when it has become a new heaven and a new earth. The world is already is that. The eternal is by definition not some future, some destination in time. The fairy-story, thus, is what reveals the eternal world in which we already live. Tolkien uses language that reminds me of Leonard Cohen’s wonderful lines, There is a crack, a crack in everything: that’s how the light gets in. His other famous neologism in this essay is eucatastrophe. He describes this literary hallmark of fantasy as “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.” What does it mean to rend the web of story if subcreation is a kind of storytelling? And what is this gleam, a gleam of what? We shall see…






“A real taste for fairy-stories was wakened by philology on the threshold of manhood, and quickened to full life by war.”

J R R Tolkien says this of his own literary development in the essay “On Fairy-Stories,” which will be the subject of the next post. That post in part, and the one following it in whole, will address the subject of escapism as it is commonly associated with fantasy fiction. Before getting to that I wanted to draw attention to this one remarkable sentence that appears as an aside in the middle of Tolkien’s essay.

I find the last six words of this sentence — quickened to full life by war — in particular to be haunting. It is all the more disquieting to encounter such a sentence delivered in an off-hand fashion. “On Fairy-Stories” was originally a lecture given in March of 1939, though I do not know if this sentence was part of that lecture or if Tolkien inserted it later: I am reading a version revised in 1964. But I would imagine such an aside would have been present in the original lecture, as it isn’t the sort of thing one adds later on.

Tolkien of course was referring to the Great War, and as he spoke few could have doubted that Europe was preparing to go to war again. I suppose a man could make such a comment casually, even vaguely, only if he were addressing a room full of people who had been through the same civilization-altering war to which he referred. I cannot imagine a literary scholar today standing up in front of a room of academics at a prestigious school (JRRT delivered the lecture at the University of St Andrews) and mentioning, in passing, a traumatic experience like the Great War, and doing so with the knowledge that many of the people he addressed, certainly the majority of his colleagues present, had first-hand experience of that same trauma.

I was nineteen years old, just about to begin my sophomore year in college, when the terrorist attacks of 9/11/01 occurred. I was most certainly getting into philology. But the war which was shortly to begin, and pick up significantly during my junior year when the US invaded Iraq, was something I was barely conscious of. I didn’t go to a prestigious school for undergrad, a place full of rich people. I was at the University of Cincinnati. But it made no difference, I was totally isolated from the conflicts, nobody talked about them except as a reason for despising the president.

As is the case with many people roughly my age, both my grandfathers fought in the Second World War. I grew up hearing their stories of the war — and their silences, when they came to that of which they could not speak. I was very interested in military history when I was a boy, and I spent a lot of time studying it in all of its phases, from antiquity to the present. In America of course military history does not extend beyond the advent of firearms, but I was always most interested in pre-modern warfare. I encountered plenty of it in fantasy, which genre, for reasons I’d like to talk about soon, does not mix well with gunpowder.

My father shared much of my interest in military history and he encouraged my reading about it when I was growing up. But after 9/11 and the wars that it entailed, he could no longer find it in him to study such things in his spare time. Neither did it anymore seem to me the sort of thing one could take a merely casual interest in. But I retained what knowledge I had gathered (along with a couple of swords that are, to this day, taking up space in my parents’ home). One summer, when I was a graduate student in Chicago, I was at a professor’s house with a bunch of my fellow classmates. We were outside on the porch. A couple of military jets flew overhead and I identified them — F-18’s — to the shock and evident disgust of my peers and the professor. To possess knowledge of such matters was taboo.

I will soon have occasion to quote from Sir Philip Sidney, who was a man of letters and a soldier that died what was considered a heroic death in the Low Countries in the 1580’s. There was quite a long period when men of letters like Sidney and philologists like Tolkien went off to war. They may have done it proudly or they may have done it as a matter of course, but the point is they went. My country has been at war, more or less, for most of the time since I came of age, but for the most part those wars have been, to me, something less substantial than a dream, something I would occasionally catch sight of flickering on a TV screen. In general, war is, for me, something I have studied, something I remember fascinating me as a boy in the occasional reenactment I would see, say at Gettysburg or perhaps a joust or two — something choreographed. My generation has not been tested in the way that Tolkien’s was tested, and I wonder sometimes if that lack — how strange to call it so — is visible in our fantasies.



It is not down in any map…

…true places never are.

So says Melville’s Ishmael, and often I’m inclined to agree with him. But it takes a bit of doing to understand what this statement really means — At least it does for me, because the fact is that I love maps. All maps. I grew up in a house full of atlases and from these, as a boy, I committed to a deep level of my mind as many as I could of the places that are down in maps. And of course those are true places, they exist. You can actually go to Gotland or Hokkaido. There is real knowledge to be had about the Congo and Patagonia and Paris. You can follow the river and get to the sea.

Suppose we modified Ishmael’s statement a bit and said that true maps show places that are not anywhere down in the world. That may seem quite a modification, but perhaps it’s only an inversion that ends up saying the same thing. It all depends on just what we’re talking about when we talk about maps and the world: the world as an arrangement of matter and event which the mind is perfectly adequate to perceive and mediate; and the map as no more than informational, for the world, in this construal, contains nothing that is not reducible to information of one sort or another. But a place is one of those things that is so much more than itself. If a map is a representation of a place, or perhaps the symbol of a place, then it is more than an index of something in the reductively materialist world just described.

The chart of the territory, the plan, the map — it is, to be sure, highly informational. Especially modern maps are full of information, products as they are of detailed technological and scientific knowledge of the physical world. But that is not all that maps can be. It is possible to discover another dimension, so to speak, in some maps. They can be illustrative in the deepest sense, that is to say they can shed a certain luster, or light, on things, and as such I think maps bear a relation to painting. I often wonder, when I look at landscape painting — something I spend an inordinate amount of time doing, thanks to the internet — whether painting or cartography comes closer to depicting a place. I believe Domenico Theotokopoulos — El Greco to you and me — entertained thoughts of a similar nature and perhaps came to the conclusion that his own medium was superior as revelator and communicator of local truth. Consider, for example:


This is one of the two whole views of Toledo that El Greco painted. (The city appears as a background in other paintings.) A portion of the other, far more apocalyptic view of Toledo appears as the header image of this blog. This View and Plan of Toledo, as it’s called, is interesting and beautiful in a slightly different way. There is, as with everything the displaced Cretan painted, an otherworldly light. But I want to think first about the different kinds of information, if we can call it that, contained in this image. The picture of the city is detailed and precise. It is not, of course, strictly accurate. There is, most obvious, the youth (some think him El Greco’s son) holding the plan (i.e. map) of Toledo. The map, though proudly unfurled, is quite useless (to us), we can’t make out anything in it. Surely it can tell us nothing important about Toledo that we can’t glean from the rest of the painting. Also in the foreground is an allegorical representation of the River Tagus — that’s water spilling out of the jug. Historically, the Tagus has been poetically associated with the entire Iberian Peninsula, of which it is the largest river; Toledo sits near its source. Above Toledo is an explicitly otherworldly image, the Blessed Virgin endowing Saint Ildefonsus with a special vestment. Ildefonsus — Hildefuns, as he would have been known to his Visigoth people — was a bishop of Toledo in the seventh century, almost a thousand years before the time of this painting. He was intense in his lifelong devotion to the Blessed Virgin, and for that he received, in a visitation that made Toledo famous throughout Christendom, the garment depicted here. What this last element shows so delightfully is the power of an image (or, if we are thinking of the entire painting, the portion of an image), necessarily static, to evoke story — quite an ancient story at that.

All of this — the youth holding the unclear map, the allegorical representation of the Tagus, the heavenly figures, the expansive and clear image of the real city — combines to great effect for me: the indication of an infinite, or at least undefined, world. The View and Plan of Toledo tells me more than any purely informational modern map could tell me about the city because it invokes dimensions of the city’s life (poetic, spiritual, topographical and even, in the young man, the personal and subjective), that no map can invoke or suggest. When I look at the painting of Toledo I catch a hint of a cosmos that extends beyond the image on the canvas not just spatially but temporally and, you could say, not just horizontally but vertically. But a map does not suggest or hint. Usually a modern map tells you just what it tells you and no more. If you wanted more, you would look to another map.

At least that is how I imagine it is for most sane people. If it is otherwise for me, if certain maps evoke for me whole worlds that extend beyond the import of the map, perhaps it’s because when I was young I spent a lot of time poring over not just atlases of what we commonly call the real world, but also over the maps I found in fantasy fiction. They were almost always then (as they are now) badly drawn and badly printed, creased in just the wrong place… and I loved them all the more for it, somehow the suggestive power was augmented in inverse ratio to the quality of the map. Long before I knew or cared anything about painting (and I still know almost nothing about it), fantasy maps taught me something that the stories they were attached to also taught me: the infinity of the fictional world, which mirrors the infinity of our own. I don’t know if it is like this for many other young readers of fantasy, but for me (with some friends), I would continue the adventures of this or that hero, or else my avatar in the other world would be some person unnamed and unheard of in the story, yet part of the world. Likewise I would extend the maps, I would draw other parts of the fictional world. Sometimes they would connect with the parts given by the author of the fantasy, and sometimes it sufficed me simply to know that they were part of the same world — another continent, perhaps. It is more than a bit weird, if you think about it. But don’t images like the one below encourage such thought and play? Note all the arrows pointing beyond the edges:


The arrows do more than orient the reader of the map, and even when a fantasy map does not possess arrows, the reader supplies them in his or her mind if he or she has become convinced of the authenticity of the world. But note as well, in this image from The Hobbit, the marginal hand pointing into the map. And by that pointing hand there is writing. There is quite a bit of writing on the map, in fact, some of it decipherable and some not. Does that writing not serve a purpose similar to that of the images in El Greco’s painting (other than the city itself)? The writing here, like the painter’s images, furnishes narrative, aura, meaning. This map, like the painting, implies a world beyond its bounds and a wealth of story both beyond and within itself.

What I think is at stake here is the degree of reality, or you could say the scope, of what Tolkien called subcreation. Writers do very little imagining, if what is meant by that is some sort of weaving of fictional worlds out of whole cloth. Borrowing and discovery are much better words for describing what writers do: the subcreation exceeds its creator. The writer’s work, if it is good, is a point of entry, not a whole world unto itself. Many fantasists attest to the feeling that the world they have supposedly created is actually one they have only discovered, and that only very partially. I remember David Eddings telling somewhere how he began his Belgariad by doodling the map, unpremeditated, one day in the parking lot before he went in to work. Similarly Tolkien, it is reported, found himself writing “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit,” and had to write an entire book to find out what he meant by that sentence. Ursula LeGuin — I think it was her, but I could be wrong — says somewhere that she wrote an entire book, it may even have been an entire series, because she wanted to find out more about some aspect of the subcreation, a character or a whole culture. My memory is a little fuzzy on that last one, but the point is that a writer is a kind of explorer reporting back to the reader what he or she finds. Explorers are a sociable and professional group, though, it’s important to keep that in mind: they rely, for their own work, on that of their peers and predecessors.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what I most enjoy in fantasy and what it is in fantasy that we might seize on as a defining element. And both lines of thought have led me to the idea of maps; or, to state the matter more conceptually, to the infinity of the fantasy world. I used to tell students that King Arthur and Clarissa Dalloway were equally fictional, and that the only reason we might think of, say, The Once and Future King as fantasy and Mrs Dalloway as “literary” fiction is because even though T H White’s book is supposedly set on the island of Great Britain, we all know that it’s not the “real” Great Britain and that it never really happened, whereas for Virginia Woolf’s book to work we have to pretend to ourselves that it really happened and this means that the story is set in the “real” London. In other words, I thought that what makes a work of fantasy fiction uniquely fantasy is its geography, the world — the other world — that its author catches sight of and imparts to the reader.

But I’m not satisfied with this definition of fantasy fiction, at least not without a great deal of fine tuning. The problem would seem to be that Clarissa Dalloway’s London and King Arthur’s are, like their associated characters, equally fictional. But perhaps this is the wrong way to go about thinking of the fantasy world. The matter is susceptible to further inspection. The next step is to take a look at one of the more helpful essays on the subject of fantasy and the place where it exists, Tolkien’s “On Fairy-Stories”…