In his classic essay “On Fairy Stories,” J. R. R. Tolkien claimed that these stories offer special gifts to humankind. What they do for us, they do better than anything else. He calls these gifts fantasy, recovery, escape, and consolation.
“Fantasy”—it doesn’t mean for him what you might think.
First, it’s obvious when reading Tolkien’s essay that he’s using the term in a new way. He describes “fantasy” as the almost elfish craft of creating stories that involve the “faerie” realm—or at least magical, non-realistic elements from “faerie.” But—and this is equally important—such stories also maintain an internal consistency or “reality” (or “truth”) within them.
Tolkien is not trying to invent a new “genre” here. He is (or so he says) trying to revitalize an age-old practice or aspect of human culture—“a right of humanity” I think was his phrase. That “human right” is to create and prize such stories, for adults. In his time, fairy tales had been relegated to children and studied (but not openly enjoyed) by adults. I suspect things haven’t changed that much, except that more adults today would probably admit they enjoy fairy tales. But fairy tales are still, as then, enjoyed by … not everyone.
Fast forward sixty plus years. I think it’s fair to say that, currently, more fantasy novels are being published and read than fairy tales—although (as I’ve discovered) some fairy tale collections score prominently in the rankings, and people who like fairy tales really like them. Ironically, Tolkien acted as midwife to the creation of this genre we call “fantasy.” Well, he had plenty of help from the publishing industry, which saw an opportunity for profits, subsequently realized. The results are staggering. One website dedicated to such things lists almost twenty subgenres under the “fantasy” label, and condescends to include Tolkien in its lists, though not without severe criticism of his Middle Earth novels.
I offer no quibble to the bewildering array of fiction marketed under the label “fantasy,” though my personal preference is for fantasy with links to folktale and myth. (I also like sci-fi, which I experience as a different genre; its roots go back well before Tolkien’s work.) In my own tastes, I’ve obviously been influenced by Tolkien’s. For him, “fantasy” that is not somehow drawing on folktale or myth, set in some form of “faerie,” is a sort of contradiction in terms. But then, as I said, he was talking about a faculty, a human capacity for storytelling that washes and revitalizes the world: not a genre of fiction. And, in fact, Tolkien viewed “fantasy” as high literary art, superior in many respects to what is usually classed as “literary fiction.” His quibble with literary critics runs through various parts of the essay, and is probably familiar to every serious Tolkien fan.
I think it’s fair to say that not all “fantasy” (even on NPR’s 100 Best list) is “high literary art,” even when it sells well. The production of books that entertain lots of people and consequently make huge amounts of money … is what it is. But commercial success and high literary art have no intrinsic correlation: a novel can be one or both or neither. Tolkien’s LOTR is obviously both: a pioneering work of stunning imaginative power, realized potential, and rich complexity, with a lingering effect on the reader—and it’s sold many, many copies.
But Tolkien’s epic is “fantasy” because it takes place in “faerie”—of a particular sort, if I can put it that way. And yet, LOTR is a new creation that gathers many leaves from the “tree of tales” and weaves of them a compelling story that makes the reader see the “real world” in a new way. By Tolkien’s terms, then, his own work is “fantasy,” while much that followed in his train is … not so much.
Which leaves us with the obvious question: Was Tolkien right? Should fantasy, rightly conceived, invoke “faerie”? Should it be high literary art? Is there some major aspect of fantasy that Tolkien’s account leaves out?
I’d love to hear your thoughts.