Was Tolkien right about fantasy?

Tolkien's monogram, and Tolkien Estate trademark

Tolkien’s monogram, and Tolkien Estate trademark (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

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8 thoughts on “Was Tolkien right about fantasy?

  1. I wouldn’t say he was “right” in the sense that anything else is “wrong.” A healthy genre shouldn’t have faerie police 🙂

    But I will say I, too, am heavily influenced by Tolkien. While I’m not super fond of the departing faeries and dawn of an iron age (in the old Greek sense of Gold -> Silver -> Iron progression where everything gets worse and decays over time), I do really like what he has done with myths and faerie tales. I think some of his genius is not just re-imagining these tales but also creating a setting that is an analog to the setting in which these tales arose. In particular, I’m thinking of Rohan which harkens to the Germanic/early English period from which the Nordic and Germanic myths spring.

    I really enjoy the Norse myths in particular and building a world where both the day to day culture and organization is similar to early Viking and pre-Viking era and the gods and spirits are interpretations of the Norse ones.

    • Agreed: No faerie police!
      I really like your point about how Tolkien’s world imitates the world that created the myths. There’s something in there that just never hit me before, that helps explain the power of his fantasy. How it can be a world we can really imagine, and yet have that added layer of power and mystery. Thanks for that!

      • I think half of understanding and appreciating faeries tales & myths is understanding the world in which they were created. The real faerie tales captured by the Grimm brothers are playful and wonderful but they are also harsh, stories where children cut out the hearts of giants. Sometimes that’s a bit hard to appreciate these days but in age of early death, high childhood mortality, real danger in the woods, they don’t seem quite so cruel.

      • Yes. I also think that people were closer to nature and (maybe paradoxically) to what we today would call “supernatural” or magical beings/forces. Even if those were imaginary, they weren’t as imaginary or unreal to the people who lived in that world. Part of what Tolkien taps into is the sense that (for instance) ghosts really do haunt the barrows. He just pushes that a little further, making them real within the story. In other words, taking them seriously. And because the world he makes is so life-like in other ways (works by consistent rules, a notion he was keen on), we get to experience what it’s like to be in a world that has elves and dragons and goblins–for real and not just in stories.

      • Without a doubt- there definitely was a belief in these other world forces. One of my projects has a setting where local spirits are very much real; a tree spirit, a water spirit, they are very key to the story.

        I think the consistent rules you mention are interesting. In the end, I don’t think too many writers are guilty of being inconsistent but without a well reasoned mechanic behind the magic (or spirits), the consistency might be superficial.

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