True Fantasy: A Post for Tolkien Week

Today’s post in our ongoing Tolkien Week blog project is from Grey Havens Group member, Steve Eggleston. Steve contributes to GHG with his time, enthusiasm, scholarship and creativity. He led our Inklingsiana series of discussions on The Kalevala and is one of the official photographers for our young adult group, Grey Havens YA.

Tell us in comments. What do you appreciate most about Tolkien’s Secondary World?


Tolkien’s essay On Fairy-stories is unique in that it seems to assume the reader’s perception of reality is in tune with Tolkien’s. He speaks of elves as if they were in contact with him (which they may well have been) and he enlightens us to their use of magic, or rather Enchantment. He feels that Fantasy is the purest form of art when properly achieved.

Tolkien makes a clear distinction between poor Fairy-stories and those that actually bring the reader unknowingly into and beyond the Secondary World. “What really happens is that 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. The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed. You are then out in the Primary World again, looking at the little abortive Secondary World from outside” (The Tolkien Reader 37 Ballantine 1969 edition). “If you are present at a Faërian drama you yourself are, or think that you are, bodily inside its Secondary World . . . But in Faërian drama you are in a dream that some other mind is weaving, and the knowledge of that alarming fact may slip from your grasp. To experience directly a Secondary World: the potion is too strong, and you give to it Primary Belief, however marvelous the events. You are deluded—whether that is the intention of the elves (always or at any time) is another question. They at any rate are not themselves deluded. This is for them a form of Art, and distinct from Wizardry or Magic . . . The Primary World, Reality, of elves and men is the same, if differently valued and perceived . . . Art is the human process that produces by the way (it is not its only or ultimate object) Secondary Belief . . . Enchantment produces a Secondary World into which both designer and spectator can enter” (52).

Tolkien says that “fairy-stories offer also, in a peculiar degree or mode, these things: Fantasy, Recovery, Escape and Consolation; all things of which children have, as a rule, less need than older people” (46). He feels that a Happy Ending is vital; “Almost I would venture to assert that all complete fairy-stories must have it. At least I would say that Tragedy is the true form of drama, its highest function; but the opposite is true of the Fairy-story. Since we do not have a word that expresses this opposite—I will call it Eucatastrophe . . . It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind, that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the ‘turn’ comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art, and having a peculiar quality” (68-9).

Tolkien’s essay is fascinating on many levels, but his main point is that there has to be belief in the sub-created world for it to truly have the Faërian quality that is sought. Anything less would be transparently fabricated for cheap entertainment. If true Fantasy is achieved the reader will believe in the sub-created world as much as the Primary World and this will make the story completely applicable to real life—as real as any experience that we may actually live. This is all portrayed in Leaf by Niggle which not only exemplifies it but also shows how the end of every story is a beginning in the ever-continuing thread of possibility; Niggle goes on after the Consolation—beyond the frame of his imagination.

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