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…