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, though the other world is also, paradoxically, simply the world. 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 symbolic Gormenghast, or David Lindsay’s allegorical Flight to Arcturus — 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:
- (fear of) escapism.
- sudden, unlooked for quality of the visionary moment.
- importance of objects natural as well as man-made.
- joy of such an intensity that it is confused or somehow bound up with pain.
- our experience of the chasm that extends between reality and its representation, i.e. an experience of art.
- 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 — for all religions. 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 Faërie. It 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 — 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.