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Why Fantasy? | Richard Purtill | From the Introduction to Lord of the Elves and Eldils: Fantasy and Philosophy in C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien

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Those who enjoy reading and discussing Lewis and Tolkien often encounter an impatient, even irritated, reaction from friends or acquaintances. Why read fantasies or fairy stories? Aren't such things for children? Shouldn't grown-ups read about "real life"? (One literary critic called Tolkien's trilogy a "children's story which got out of hand".) A former student of Lewis, novelist and critic John Wain, once challenged Lewis' own praise and enjoyment of fantasy.
A writer's task, I maintained, was to lay bare the human heart, and this could not be done if he were continually taking refuge in the spinning of fanciful webs. Lewis retorted with a theory that, since the Creator had seen fit to build a universe and set it in motion, it was the duty of the human artist to create as lavishly as possible in his turn. The romancer, who invents a whole world, is worshipping God more effectively than the mere realist who analyses that which lies about him. Looking back across fourteen years, I can hardly believe that Lewis said anything so manifestly absurd as this, and perhaps I misunderstood him; but that, at any rate, is how my memory reports the incident. [1]
Here we have very neatly the whole basis of the conflict between Lewis and Tolkien on the one hand and many modern writers and critics on the other. Wain maintains, and many moderns would agree, that a writer's task is to "lay bare the human heart". Judged by this standard, practically nothing written by Tolkien and only a few things written by Lewis carry out "the writer's task". The theory attributed to Lewis, which is a recognizable caricature of the theory developed by Tolkien in his essay "On Fairy-Stories", is dismissed as "manifestly absurd". Before discussing who is more nearly right, let us first try to understand more thoroughly the theory proposed by Lewis to Wain.

The theory, presumably, is that espoused by Tolkien in his essay "On Fairy-Stories". According to Tolkien, "the story-maker proves a successful 'sub-creator.' He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is 'true': it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it while you are, as it were, inside." [2] This could be said of other forms of writing, but fantasy has special characteristics.
The achievement of the expression, which gives (or seems to give) "the inner consistency of reality," is ... Art, the operative link between Imagination and the final result, Sub-creation. For my present purpose I require a word which shall embrace both the Sub-creative Art in itself and a qual- ity of strangeness and wonder in the Expression, derived from the Image: a quality essential to fairy-story. I propose to use Fantasy for this purpose .... Fantasy (in this sense) is, I think, not a lower but a higher form of Art, indeed the most nearly pure form, and so (when achieved) the most potent. [3]
Note several things to begin with. First, this is a theory about one kind of writing. Tolkien indeed suggests that it may, if properly handled, be the "most potent" form of narrative art or story-making. But this is not to say that it is the only allowable form even of narrative art, much less the only allowable form of writing. Wain, on the other hand, seems to suggest that the purpose of all "writing" (presumably by "writing" he means primarily "fiction") is to lay bare the secrets of the human heart. Second, the two views are not necessarily in conflict, even considered at their most extreme. One might consistently hold both that the purpose of fiction is to lay bare the secrets of the human heart and that the "most potent" way of doing this is to create a "secondary world" in Tolkien's sense.

This could be done in various ways. In strict allegory (e.g., Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress), every figure, incident, or place in your secondary world will stand for some person, emo- tion, or idea in the primary world. In a well-worked-out strict allegory, it should be possible to say what each person, place, or incident "stands for" (its signficatio), and the whole story could be retold without the use of a secondary world (though it would lose something by this, or the allegory is useless).

In a loose allegory, on the other hand, it is impossible to find a signficatio for each person, place, or incident, but the secondary world as a whole is intended to give a general impression or idea--for example, an idea of "the human condition". (Kafka and Beckett are good examples.) A work may be classified as loose allegory if the author seems to be saying, or trying to make us say, "That is what life is like."

With illustrative fantasy, the author wishes to make a point about some aspect of the primary world that can best be made by isolating or exaggerating certain aspects of that world by the use of a secondary world (as in Golding's Lord of the Flies). The author of illustrative fantasy is saying, "This couldn't happen, of course; but if it did, this is how people would behave."

But there is a fourth use of secondary worlds that does not seem suited to "laying bare the heart". In appreciative fantasy (for example, Alice in Wonderland), the secondary world is enjoyed purely for its own sake. The characters, places, and incidents do not have a signficatio, do not "stand for" anything in the primary world. The secondary world is not intended to show what "life is like", and there is no attempt to show that people would behave in a certain way given certain improbable occurrences. So although the first three of these sorts of allegory and fantasy can be used to "lay bare the secrets of the heart", this last sort of fantasy seems unsuited to that purpose. To write appreciative fantasy is, in fact, to "spin fanciful webs".

Now Lewis and Tolkien do not in the main write strict alle- gory or even loose allegory, nor do they write illustrative fantasy. [4] By their own statements, they aim at writing largely appreciative fantasy. Legolas the Elf or Tumnus the Faun have no signficatio, illustrate no possible or plausible reaction of human nature, no views of what life is like. Tolkien writes about Legolas, Lewis about Tumnus, because they enjoy contemplating elves and fauns. They like to think about them and write about them. If such tastes were to disqualify them as "significant" writers, they would be undisturbed. They would rather write about FaŽrie than about "modern problems". And why not, if they and others enjoy it?

This statement may seem somewhat surprising. Surely both Tolkien and Lewis illustrate all kinds of religious values--and even, in Tolkien, Catholic values. But we must distinguish between the intent of the authors and its effect on their readers. Neither Tolkien nor Lewis set out to write books that were Christian or Catholic "propaganda". They wrote the kind of stories that they enjoyed reading. Being the kind of men they were, the kind of stories they wrote were very Christian. This was not, however, the purpose for which they wrote the stories: they wrote them to enjoy them.

The idea that Lewis, for example, was writing Christian apologetics in his Narnia books (an accusation that was made on the release of the recent Narnia film) is absurd. If Lewis wanted to write Christian apologetics, he could do it quite effectively (e.g., in Mere Christianity, Miracles, or The Problem of Pain). But a fictional presentation of a story with strong underlying Christian values is not an apologetic. Fiction can prove nothing because the "fictional facts" it contains are wholly up to the author. What fiction can do is to illustrate what it is like to have the values it embodies. A story written from a Buddhist perspective or even a Nazi perspective would give you an understanding of that perspective: it wouldn't necessarily convince you to become a Buddhist or a Nazi. If you want to say that Lewis' and Tolkien's works are, in a certain sense, illustrative as well as appreciative, you may, if you like.

May we then merely say "laying bare the secrets of the human heart" is one legitimate purpose of literature and the creation of secondary worlds is another? I fear that reconciliation is not likely to be so easy. For Wain, the creator of secondary worlds is "taking refuge in the spinning of fanciful webs". Tolkien's reply to this is that "fantasy is a natural human activity. It certainly does not destroy or even insult Reason; and it does not either blunt the appetite for, nor obscure the perception of, scientific verity. On the contrary. The keener and the clearer is the reason, the better fantasy will it make .... For creative Fantasy is founded upon the hard recognition that things are so in the world as it appears under the sun; on a recognition of fact, but not a slavery to it." [5]

Of course, fantasy, like everything else, can be abused.
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 evil. 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. Abusus non tollit usum. Fantasy remains a human right: 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. [6]
What Tolkien says here is connected with his theory about the uses of fantasy, which is to say the uses of creating secondary worlds. In his view, fantasy has three purposes: Recovery, Escape, and Consolation. By Recovery, he means a "regaining of a clear view . . . 'seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them'". [7] Familiarity has dulled our sense of the wonder and mystery of things; fantasy restores it. "You will be warned that all you had (or knew) was dangerous and potent, not really effectively chained, free and wild; no more yours than they were you." [8] Notice that this implies two things. First, that many of us fail to see any wonder and mystery in things, which is undeniable. Second, that in so failing we are failing to see the truth, and this I suppose some would dispute.

By Escape, Tolkien means nothing especially original. We must define Escape as the turning of our thoughts and affections away from what is around us to something else--the past, the future, a secondary world. Tolkien's originality lies in defending Escape when so many have deprecated it. His reasons are several. First, the modern world is preeminently something desirable to escape from. "Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?" [9] And the modern world is, to Tolkien, prisonlike: ugly, cruel, and unjust.

A deeper reason for Escape, however, is the human longing to flee from our limitations. First is the hardness of life even at its best; but beyond this is our isolation from each other and from the living world around us. Finally, the great limit, Death, is something that men have tried to escape from in many fashions.

Here Tolkien's discussion of Escape merges into a discussion of the third use of fantasy. Consolation is secondarily the imaginative satisfaction of ancient desires, such as the desire really to communicate with species other than our own. But primarily it centers on the happy ending, the "eucata-strophe", the "sudden joyous 'turn'". [10] This Consolation arises from the denial of "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". [11]

In fantasy we have a happy ending, a joyous "turn" within the secondary world, to which we give secondary belief, and it gives such consolation as such things may, which is a good worth seeking. But Tolkien concludes by discussing the "Christian Story" as "a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories". [12] This is a eucata-strophe in the primary world, a happy ending to which primary belief can be given. Such belief leads to true Consolation. "There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath." [13]

So we see in the end that Tolkien's view of fairy stories is not just a view about literature, but a view about life. Tolkien could, if he liked, use Wain's formula about "laying bare the secrets of the human heart". But Tolkien would not agree with Wain or with most moderns on what those secrets are. For in Tolkien's view the important secret of the human heart is this longing for the real happy ending. And the most important thing about this longing is that it can be satisfied.


[1] John Wain, Sprightly Running: Part of an Autobiography (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1963), p. 182.
[2] J. R. R. Tolkien, "On Fairy-Stories", in Tree and Leaf, in The Tolkien Reader (New York: Ballantine Books, 2001), p. 60.
[3] lbid., p. 68.
[4] The exception for Lewis is The Pilgrim's Regress, a strict allegory, and for Tolkien, "Leaf by Niggle", a loose allegory found in Tree and Leaf.
[5] Tolkien, "On Fairy-Stories", pp. 74-75.
[6] Ibid., p. 75.
[7] lbid.
[8] Ibid., p. 78.
[9] lbid., p. 79.
[10] Ibid., p. 86.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Ibid., p. 88.
[13] lbid., p. 89.

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Richard Purtill, former Professor of Philosophy at Western Washington University, is an accomplishd author of fantasy as well as textbooks on philosophy. Other books by him include J.R.R. Tolkien: Myth, Morality, and Religion and C.S. Lewis's Case for the Christian Faith.

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