What, exactly, is Faerie? While not quite the realm of the supernatural, it is the realm of grace (and its enemies), and it can be, even in its greatest beauty, dangerous in the extreme. It is also, by its very nature, sacramental, tangible, and incarnational.
On March 8, 1939, just five months shy of the joint Germany-Soviet invasion of Poland, J.R.R. Tolkien delivered one of his two most famous academic addresses, “Fairy Stories,” later printed as “On Fairy-Stories.” The setting was the bucolic and fairy-like Scottish town of St. Andrews. At times meandering, at times lingering, and, at times finely honed, Tolkien’s address offered a wide as well as a deep look at the unusual topic. In 1939, genre terms such as science fiction and fantasy had yet to come into common currency and would not for at least another decade and a half. One might talk about speculative fiction or weird tales or fabulism, but these could be terms of derision as much as of appreciation. All such genres, whatever the label, though lead to forms of escape, and Tolkien had no problem with escapist literature. “For it is after all possible for a rational man, after reflection (quite unconnected with fairy-story or romance), to arrive at the condemnation, implicit at least in the mere silence of ‘escapist’ literature, of progressive things like factories, or the machine-guns and bombs that appear to be their most natural and inevitable, dare we say ‘inexorable’, products,” Tolkien claimed, not so subtly critiquing the Progressives of his day. And, to give his own position weight, Tolkien reminded his audience that he had served in the First World War. “A real taste for fairy-stories was wakened by philology on the threshold of manhood, and quickened to full life by war,” he noted.
This was not Tolkien’s only autobiographical note, to be certain. As a child, he had loved stories of American Indians—almost certainly those of James Fenimore Cooper—the Arthurian legends, and, most of all, the legends of the “nameless North of Sigurd of the Volsungs, and the prince of all dragons.” Indeed, nothing moved the young Tolkien as much as did the thought and horrors of dragons. “I desired dragons with a profound desire,” he admitted. “Of course, I in my timid body did not wish to have them in the neighborhood, intruding into my relatively safe world, in which it was, for instance, possible to read stories in peace of mind, free from fear.” Children, Tolkien argued, must mature and become adults, but, as they do, they should not “lose innocence or wonder,” but recognize that life unfolds in a mysterious, if appointed, manner. As Tolkien admitted, “It was in fairy-stories that I first divined the potency of words, and the wonder of all things, such as stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine.”
Too often, to protect children, adults dumb down stories, taking out the sin and the corruption. Yet, Tolkien cautions, in their innocence, children have a deep and abiding understanding of justice. Regardless, the lessons of proper fairy stories could fundamentally shape a person. “On callow, lumpish, and selfish youth peril, sorrow, and the shadow of death can bestow dignity, and even sometimes wisdom,” he wrote. “Their books like their clothes should allow for growth, and their books at any rate should encourage it,” Tolkien noted.
Adults, too, Tolkien feared, created their false fantasies and gave power to things that should never have power.
Not long ago–incredible though it may seem–I heard a clerk of Oxenford declare that he ‘welcomed’ the proximity of mass-production robot factories, and the roar of self-obstructive mechanical traffic, because it brought his university into ‘contact with real life.’ He may have meant that the way men were living and working in the twentieth century was increasingly in barbarity at an alarming rate, and that the loud demonstration of this in the streets of Oxford might serve as a warning that it is not possible to preserve for long an oasis of sanity in a desert of unreason by mere fences, without actual offensive action (practical and intellectual). I fear he did not. In any case the expression ‘real life’ in this context seems to fall short of academic standards. The notion that motor-cars are more ‘alive’ than, say, centaurs or dragons is curious; that they are more ‘real’ than, say, horses is pathetically absurd. How real, how startlingly alive is a factory chimney compared with an elm tree: poor obsolete thing, insubstantial dream of an escapist.
Exactly, then, what is Faerie, and how does it differ from the clerk’s vision? While not quite the realm of the supernatural, it is the realm of grace (and its enemies), and it can be, even in its greatest beauty, dangerous in the extreme.
The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords. In that realm a man may, perhaps, count himself fortunate to have wandered, but its very richness and strangeness tie the tongue of a traveler who would report them.
Should one probe too deeply, he might very well find him a permanent exile from its shores and border.
In Faerie, one encounters Elves and dragons and every assortment of the fantastic, but he also encounters the shepherds and sheep, the clouds and the sky, the oceans and the rivers, men and women, the trees and the grass, the mountains and the hills, water and rain, bread and wine. Faerie is, by its very nature, sacramental, tangible, and incarnational. One might also encounter “hunger, thirst, poverty, pain, sorrow, injustice, death.”
One most, however, remain cautious, even in embracing fairy stories or, for that matter, any serious art. We might, after all, misuse our ability to fantasize and, as Tolkien puts it, sub-create. We are, to be certain, fallen, and fallen men often behave in fallen ways.
Fantasy can, of course, be carried to excess. It can be ill done. It can be put to evil uses. It may even delude the minds out of which it came. But of what human thing in this fallen world is that not true? Men have conceived not only of elves, but they have imagined gods, and worshipped them, even worshipped those most deformed by their authors’ own evils. But they have made false gods out of other materials: their notions, their banners, their monies; even their sciences and their social and economic theories have demanded human sacrifice.
If free of corruption, however, it “does not seek delusion, nor bewitchment and domination; it seeks shared enrichment, partners in making and delight, not slaves.” When good, Faerie leavens rather than diminishes, making us better than we really are.
Too often do we become disillusioned or apathetic in our approach to it. Comparing art to the world of trees, Tolkien stated:
It is easy for the student to feel that with all his labour he is collecting only a few leaves, many of them now torn or decayed, from the countless foliage of the Tree of Tales, with which the Forest of Days is carpeted. It seems vain to add to the litter. Who can design a new leaf? The patterns from bud to unfolding, and the colours from spring to autumn were all discovered by men long ago.
Of course, the speaker admitted, one might readily see—that is, actually see—the reality of the good, the true, and the beautiful at any moment. It, after all, always exists, whether we recognize it or not. “Each leaf, of oak and ash and thorn, is a unique embodiment of the pattern, and for some this very year may be the embodiment, the first ever seen and recognized, though oaks have put forth leaves for countless generations of men.” In our impatience or indifference, we may strive to be either relentlessly dark or absurdly non-chalant. “In this inheritance of wealth there may be a danger of boredom or of anxiety to be original, and that may lead to a distaste for fine drawing, delicate pattern, and ‘pretty’ colours, or else to mere manipulation and overelaboration of old material, clever and heartless,” Tolkien said. “But the true road of escape from such weariness is not to be found in the willfully awkward, clumsy, or misshapen, not in making all things dark or unremittingly violent; nor in the mixing of colours on through subtlety to drabness, and the fantastical complication of shapes to the point of silliness and on towards delirium.” In the best of Faerie, though, we see not merely the centaur, but also the human being.
This, of course, is Tolkien’s main point. If no leaf—of whatever variety and species—is ever repeated and never can be repeated in the entire history of time and space, then how much greater is each unique human being, unrepeatable and dignified in his free will and moral agency? “We should look at green again, and be startled anew (but not blinded) by blue and yellow and red,” Tolkien continued. “We should meet the centaur and the dragon, and then perhaps suddenly behold, like ancient shepherds, sheep, dogs, and horses–and wolves. This recovery fairy-stories help us to make.”
Far from being escapist, Tolkien concluded, Faerie always helps us to see a thing for what it really is, beyond its accidents and into its essence. As such, a clarifying moment might excite the imagination as well as the soul. “In such stories when the sudden ‘turn’ comes we get 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,” he said. It is this joy that is the greatest strength of Faerie, and it offers a glimpse not merely into joy but into the greatest joy of all, that which is eternally true. To explain this, Tolkien even created a word, “Eucatastrophe,” the opposite of a catastrophe.
I would venture to say that approaching the Christian Story from this direction, it has long been my feeling (a joyous feeling) that God redeemed the corrupt making-creatures, men, in a way fitting to this aspect, as to others, of their strange nature. The Gospel contains a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels–peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: ‘mythical’ in their perfect, self-contained significance; and among the (155) marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe. But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfilment of Creation. The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. The story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the ‘inner consistency of reality.’ There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many skeptical men have accepted as true on its merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it either leads to sadness or wrath.
Though clearly related to mythology, Faerie for Tolkien was equivalent of the deepest grace. A pagan might very well see the bread in mythology, but only the Christian can see the Body of Christ in that same bread.
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 Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” 151.
 Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” 135.
 Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” 134-135.
 Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” 135.
 Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” 147.
 Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” 137.
 Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” 149.
 Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” 109.
 Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” 151.
 Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” 144.
 Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” 145.
 Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” 145.
 Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” 145-146.
 Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” 146.
 Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” 154.
 Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” 155-156.
The featured image is “Plate from The Song of Los” (1795) by William Blake (1757-1827) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.