Tolkien’s Fairy-Story Gifts: Fantasy

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I intended to continue on the Moral Imagination series by referring to portions of Tolkien’s excellent essay, “On Fairy-Stories;” but the essay itself deserves its own series of posts.  I’ll start backwards, by reflecting on the latter half of Tolkien’s essay, in which he describes four gifts of the true fairy tale: Fantasy, Escape, Recovery, and Consolation.

The term “fantasy” is often used to denote that genre for only very weird geeks who dress up (ahem) like their heroes in wizard’s robes, carry around swords, and go to odd conventions. In other words, it’s usually accompanied with an eye-roll so forceful that there are documented cases of blindness-by-condescension-toward-fantasy-lovers.

Fantasy, Tolkien argues, is “not a lower but a higher form of art, indeed the most nearly pure form.” Great news for the geeks among us. But why is this so?

Fantjrr-tolkienasy is the ultimate act of sub-creation, because one has to create an entire Secondary World which is different from the Primary World (giving it an advantageous “arresting strangeness”), but is as entirely internally consistent as the world in which we live. This is difficult, because the Secondary World must be consistent enough to “command Secondary Belief.”

Against those who think that Fantasy is a waste of time or even evil, because it creates a “lie” (a story that didn’t happen), Tolkien argues that Fantasy is “a natural human activity,” because being made in the image of a Creator, making stuff is a natural human activity. The Fall may have damaged us severely and causes distortions in creative activity, but our right and inclination to do so is not lost, and in Christ, it may be redeemed. God created a world; Christ created us new; we create secondary worlds.

I opened my book, Harry Potter & Imagination, with a quote from a Christian man complaining thusly about the Harry Potter stories and fiction in general:

I recommend that people stop wasting their time reading fiction (lies) for entertainment, and that parents teach their children by good example to spend more time reading wholesome nonfiction with literary value (including the Bible) for education.

To that, I think the old fairy-tale ending is a sufficient counter-argument, and in line with Tolkien on Fantasy:

The Dreamer awakes
The shadow goes by
The tale I have told you,
That tale is a lie.
But listen to me,
Bright maiden, proud youth
The tale is a lie;
What it tells is the truth.

“They are not lies,” Tolkien said to C.S. Lewis, when the latter used that label for Myths. By “they are not lies,” Tolkien wasn’t saying, “These myths literally happened.” He was saying, “What they tell is the truth.” The traditional folk-tale ending is saying, “Sure, this tale did not actually happen; but it still tells you the truth” – the deeper truths of life about love and sacrifice.

Fantasy is a gift of the true fairy-story because the desire, ability, and right to create is a gift from God, and through our creating, we communicate the truth about God.


8 Comments

  1. brent g

    I have been learning the value of this slowly, b/c I tended to be like the man commenting on Harry Potter. I wasted alot of time.

  2. Aaron Roughton

    Thanks for this post Travis. I am constantly in need of reminder that fantasy is not just ok, but that it can actually serve a purpose. I know this is a silly example, but I struggled with whether or not to tell my children that (*****SPOILER ALERT*****) Santa isn’t real the very first time they asked me. I want them to trust me, and I pictured myself someday saying, “Ok, all that stuff about Santa and the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy? Fake. Jesus? Real. Get it?” (I’m not implying that we handle the name of Jesus in the same way that we handle those other characters in our house. I’m just overthinking.) Then I re-read the Lion Witch and Wardrobe as an adult. When Santa came and delivered the gifts to the children I teared up. He pointed them with joy toward the true Giver of Gifts. This, combined with several posts in the Rabbit Room have eased my engineering mind about fantasy and its propensity for truth. Thanks for being a part of that.

  3. Aaron Roughton

    No no no. Sorry Jonathan. That was a misspelling. Of course Santa is real. I meant Satan. Satan isn’t real, and it’s something my kids are always asking about.

  4. Drew

    When I saw the film version of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the Father Christmas scene had me nearly bawling.

    Okay? Okay? I’m a sap, yes?

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