Tolkien and Fantasy

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When I’m writing, I want to tell true stories. Not true in the sense of nonfiction. True in the sense of relatable and meaningful. I firmly believe that this is possible even in fantasy, which is the genre closest to my heart.

To explain this a little better, I was going to give you a brief description of Tolkien’s thoughts on fantasy as a Secondary World. So for inspiration, I looked up the papers I wrote in January of 2011 when I was studying Tolkien at Oxford. Then I remembered that I wrote an entire paper on this, and it’s really quite a fascinating subject. So instead of rewriting something I’ve already written, here is a shortened version of my paper, focusing on the part that relates to true story, which is a core aspect of my heart for writing.

Tolkien defines fantasy as “the making or glimpsing of Other-worlds” (Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories” 135). To be more specific, fantasy explores ideas that cannot be realized in the real world. There are “‘ancient limitations from which fairy-stories offer a sort of escape, and old ambitions and desires (touching the very root of fantasy) to which they offer a kind of satisfaction and consolation’” (Duriez 140). Fantasy can address any desire and any ambition because it is not bound by the rules of the real world. Authors are free to explore the possible and the impossible nearly without restriction. In fact, fantasy stories are “not primarily concerned with possibility, but with desirability. If they awakened desire, satisfying it while often whetting it unbearably, they succeeded” (Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories” 134). People want to know what it is like to live in a world different from their own, and reading about it is the easiest way to do so. An author’s success in writing fantasy, therefore, is evident when people truly feel themselves to be part of the world they are reading about, fully immersed in the story.

But fantasy is not merely escapism. “Tolkien believed that worlds of the imagination are properly based upon the humble and common things of life…Such fantasy is the opposite of escapism. It deepens the reality of the real world for us – the terror as well as the beauty” (Duriez 137). Proper fantasy, according to Tolkien, removes the reader from the real world only to teach him truths about it for when he returns. In fact, Tolkien “believed that Man, made in the image and likeness of a Maker, fulfilled that Maker’s will by creating with words, thereby helping him to gain a better understanding of his existence and uncovering underlying truth” (Agøy 34). Writing and reading fantasy, therefore, helps people to discover truth in the real world rather than removing them from it. Fantasy, in fact, is limited by the real world in that we “cannot, like God, create ex nihilo, out of nothing. We can only rearrange elements that God has already made, and which are already brimful with his meanings” (Duriez 138). Thus, fantasy authors cannot help but reveal truth, even if they desire not to. The very materials that they work with were created by God and already have meaning in the real world. Anything that they attempt to create has some origin in something real, and this will inevitably cause some association with real life in the mind of the reader.

One “of the virtues of [fantasy] is that its remote adventures can so well symbolise quite ordinary and usual predicaments” (Brewer 257). While experiencing life in this other world, far different from his own, a reader nonetheless feels at home because the characters he is reading about are going through trials that he himself has faced. This helps him to believe the story. And in fact, the reader can learn from the story how to deal with such situations himself. However, he does “not need to believe that the story is likely in ordinary life for [him] to be deeply engaged in it, to be moved and illuminated” (Brewer 254). A reader can believe the story and learn from it without thinking that such a thing might happen to him in real life. For this reason, “Tolkien called the basis of narrative fantasy…‘a recognition of fact, but not a slavery to it’” (Curry 141). An author must see the facts of life and then incorporate them into the story. Telling a direct story that could actually happen would not be fantasy, and making up dilemmas that no one will ever face would not be interesting to a reader. The happy medium is a story with real dilemmas in an unknown, made-up world. This is recognizing the facts—real world predicaments—without being chained to the real world.

“Tolkien believed that the art of authentic fantasy or fairy-story writing is sub-creation: creating another or secondary world with such skill that it has an ‘inner consistency of reality’. This inner consistency is so potent that it compels Secondary belief on the part of the reader” (Duriez 135).

  1. Creating another world: The author has a vision of another world, and by the power of his will, he causes it to come into being through his writing. But that is not quite enough. “Anyone inheriting the fantastic device of human language can say the green sun. Many can then imagine or picture it. But…to make a Secondary World inside which the green sun will be credible, commanding Secondary Belief, will probably require labour and thought” (Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories” 140).
  2. The created world’s inner consistency of reality: “Probably every writer making a secondary world…wishes in some measure to be a real maker, or hopes that he is drawing on reality: hopes that the peculiar quality of this secondary world (if not all the details) are derived from Reality, or are flowing into it” (Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories” 155). When an author’s created world draws on characteristics of the real world, that’s when it feels real. In addition, the created world must be consistent within its own reality. There must be great detail in the created world, and all of these details must work together logically.
  3. A reader’s belief in that world: Belief is achieved not simply through quantity of detail in the created world, but rather through a logical choice of what that detail is about. “There must be no question which, according to our interests, we ask about the real world to which [the author] cannot give a convincing answer” (Auden 50). The laws of an imaginary world “may be different from those which govern our own, but they must be as intelligible and inviolable. Its history may be unusual but it must not contradict our notion of what history is” (Auden 50). The author must make “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…inside. The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic…has failed. You are then out in the Primary World again, looking at the little abortive Secondary World from outside” (Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories” 132).

Finally, Tolkien disregarded the idea that fantasy stories are only for children and those with childish minds, though this was an opinion held commonly when he was writing. He thought that if fantasy “is worth reading at all it is worthy to be written for and read by adults. They will, of course, put more in and get more out than children can” (Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories” 137).

Tolkien believed that successful fantasy awakens and appeases desire in a reader. He believed that quality fantasy allows authors and readers to explore the possibilities of other worlds while learning truth about reality.

I feel the truth of this as I look back on all the fantasy books I read as a child. I continue to recognize the truth of it as I read fantasy as an adult. And I am profoundly aware of the truth of it as I write my own fantasy stories. One day, if I do it justice, perhaps my stories will affect someone the way that Tolkien’s stories affect me.

Works Cited

Agøy, Nils Ivar. “Quid Hinieldus cum Christo? New Perspectives on Tolkien’s Theological Dilemma and His Sub-Creation Theory.” Proceedings of the J. R. R. Tolkien Centenary Conference. Ed. Patricia Reynolds and Glen GoodKnight. Milton Keynes: Tolkien Society, 1995. 31-38.

Auden, W.H. “The Quest Hero.” Tolkien and the Critics: Essays on J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Ed. N.D. Isaacs and R.A. Zimbardo. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1969. 40-61.

Brewer, D. “The Lord of the Rings as Romance.” J.R.R. Tolkien, Scholar and Storyteller: Essays in Memoriam. Ed. M. Salu and R.T. Farrell. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1979. 249-64.

Curry, Patrick. Defending Middle-earth: Tolkien: Myth and Modernity. London: HarperCollins, 1998.

Duriez, Colin. “Sub-creation and Tolkien’s Theology of Story.” Scholarship and Fantasy: Proceedings of the Tolkien Phenomenon, May 1992, Turku, Finland. Anglicana Turkuensia 12. Ed. Keith Battarbee. Turku: University of Turku, 1993. 133-150.

Tolkien, J.R.R. “On Fairy-Stories.” The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. London: HarperCollins, 2002. 109-161.

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