I initially read Tolkien’s famous essay “On Fairy Stories” when I was a young writer, still very much learning the craft. At the time, I had written little if any fantasy, though I had tried my hand at science fiction twice. I came to Tolkien late in life, reading The Lord of the Rings in my college years, even before (immediately before, in fact) I read The Hobbit. To this day, I have a hard time reading The Hobbit as anything other than a child-friendly prequel to the more profound, more potent, more serious fantasy I read first. (Apparently Peter Jackson shares this affliction; but that’s for another post.)
Tolkien’s essay came to my attention somehow, I forget how, and I checked it out of the library in some volume or other and read it. (You can read it now online; though I would recommend printing it first. Here’s a pdf. If you’re daunted by the length or style of the essay, here are some highlights).
Back then, I took strange courage from Tolkien’s essay. I read it as an invitation to the delights of the faerie realm, and I wanted to go—and chose to embark, not just as a reader or hearer, but also a writer. What a long, perilous road I was letting myself in for. It turned out that Tolkien was correct on many fronts: real “fantasy” is difficult and easily botched. It is, he claims, the highest form of literary artistry, because it’s the most demanding, using the “Imagination” to the fullest, and must work harder than most other literary types to create or maintain an inner sense of reality within the story.
But I didn’t recall any of those warnings until I picked the essay up recently to reread it. What I remembered from my rash youth, what lodged itself in my mind and inspired me back then, was Tolkien’s concept that fairy stories are created by dipping into a great cauldron or “pot,” into which many story elements have been dropped over countless generations of storytellers. The creator (or, as he calls it, the “sub-creator”) of a fairy story selects elements from this “pot,” mingling them also with elements from teller’s own world or imagination, to create a new tale.
Sounds simple, right? The trouble is–or perhaps I should say: the challenge is that the storyteller has to have mastery of two realms, in effect. The first is what Tolkien calls “faerie,” and is as elusive as an elf in the woods. It’s something that you absorb only by reading and imaginatively entering the fairy stories that have been handed down. Put another way, you have to know what’s in the pot, and how what’s in there can be used. What its purpose is, its value, or—to use a nice, old, fey sort of word—its “virtue.” Think of it this way: when you open your imagination out into “faerie” you need to know when you’ve crossed into the “other world,” and what you might expect to find there—even if you turn out to be wrong on both counts, as you usually are.
The second realm you have to master is what Tolkien calls “the Primary World,” the one we live in and work in. This one sounds easy, but it isn’t. It can be almost as elusive as the first, because what fairy stories do, says Tolkien, is enable us to “recover” awareness of, perception of, things and qualities—for example, a mountain and the color “green.” The creator of a successful fairy story in effect shows back or reawakens for the reader the world in which he or she lives. Needless to say, it is no small task looking at the world in which we live—that we take for granted—with fresh eyes, and then reflecting it back to a reader in a meaningful way, while telling a good, compelling story that also—by the way—intersects with “faerie,” drawing from a vast, bubbling pot of fairy tale elements only what is most apt for the new story—and not misusing anything in the process.
Haply, I missed the note of absurd difficulty and plunged in.
Maybe I was drawn by an enchanted piper. Who can say? Tolkien was himself “enchanted” in that sense, that he’d caught the melody of some elvish lay on the air and felt compelled to share his own poor transcription of the poetry he heard, like old Bilbo translating elvish tales into the common tongue.