I have been re-reading J.R.R. Tolkien’s “On Fairy Stories,” and one of the things I have wanted to take away from the essay this time around is a good, clear definition of fantasy literature. What is it that distinguishes a tale of Faerie from other kinds of tales?
Tolkien himself in the essay does not attempt to directly provide a definition: “analysis will not necessarily discover the secret of the whole.” But he does provide many of the materials and resources for such a definition. I would like to try to see if I can make good use of these in an attempt to formulate something closer to a succinct and precise definition. Here goes…
Caveat lector: as a genre, fantasy is not essentially for children. It is “a natural branch of literature.” It has sub-genres: satire, adventure, morality tale, and pure fantasy. But how to define the genre?
Fantasy (or fairy tales) take us into Faerie, “the realm or state in which fairies have their being.” And not only fairies, but dwarfs, witches, trolls, giants, dragons and suchlike strange and marvelous creatures. “Fantasy, the making or glimpsing of Other-worlds, [is] the heart of the desire for Faerie.”
So Faerie is above all a mythical place, a fully-realized Secondary World with “the inner consistency of reality.” The fairy tale opens “a door on Other Time, and if we pass through, only for a moment, we stand outside our own time, outside Time itself, maybe.” In taking us into a fully-realized Secondary World the fairy tale is thus distinct from the traveler’s tale or beast fable [which means I have to adjust the taxonomy given in my last post. A journey to the center of the earth is not necessarily fantasy; neither is space travel.]
Fantasy is “not primarily concerned with possibility, but with desirability.” Still, fantasy’s aim is a glimpse into the truth about reality, the reality of the Primary World. Fantasy aims at a recovery of sight, a “seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them.” For this reason fantasy deals largely with the simple or fundamental things of nature: 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….”
Besides recovery of sight, fantasy allows us to “escape” [see my earlier posts on fantasy and escapism] and in so doing provides consolation. It not only allows us to escape from the hardships of the progressive dream and from every kind of want, it also allows us to escape into our desires: a desire to visit the deep sea, for example, or talk to other living things. Fairy stories also often portray the Great Escape, the escape from death.
The preeminent form in which death is eluded in fantasy is the eucatastrophe. This is fantasy’s “highest function.” What it is it? A “sudden and miraculous grace.” It is the disaster that saves. In depicting eucatastrophe fantasy “does not deny the existence of dycatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”
What is marvelous about Christianity is that it tells us that what we desire in fairy tales is essentially true and obtainable. Christ’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection is the ultimate eucatastrophe. But “the greatest does not depress the small.” The making of fantasy goes on, must go on, because it is natural to man. The Evangelium of Christianity “has not abrogated legends; it has hallowed them, especially the “happy ending.”” Tolkien puts the point poetically:
Man, Sub-creator, the refracted Light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.
Yes, fantasy goes on. “We make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made, and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.”