On Fairy-Stories by J R R Tolkien

“On Fairy-Stories” is one of those rare windows — along with Lovecraft’s “Supernatural Horror in Literature”, Moorcock’s Wizardry and Wild Romance, and Le Guin’s key essays in The Language of the Night — into the thinking of a major fantasy writer about fantasy itself. They’re often as much (if not more) about what the writer thinks others are doing wrong than how to do it right, and usually end up having to be mined for a few insightful gems — which, though rare, are always well worth the mining. Tolkien’s idea of the Eucatastrophe, the “sudden, joyous ‘turn’” which he believes ends the truly effective fairy-story, doesn’t appear till about a page before the end of his essay, but it’s certainly worth everything that comes before.

He first presented this piece as “On Fairy Tales”, delivered on 8th March 1939 as an Andrew Lang Lecture at the University of St Andrews. (Other Andrew Lang Lecturers include John Buchan, the Scottish Symbolist painter John Duncan, and, much more recently, fantasy writer Jane Yolen.) It was then published as “On Fairy-Stories” in Essays Presented to Charles Williams in 1947, alongside C S Lewis’s “On Stories”, and others. It would only have reached a wider public in 1964, when it was collected in Tree and Leaf.

Tolkien starts by asking, “What are fairy-stories? What is their origin? What is the use of them?” Much of what he says might sound commonplace today, certainly among people who read — definitely among those who read about — fantasy, but even when I first read it in the late 80s, it was the first time I’d encountered such positive statements about fantasy as a literary form. Perhaps the only thing that seemed off at the time was that Tolkien was using the term “fairy-stories” for what by the 1980s was firmly called “fantasy”, but his definition certainly fit:

“…fairy-stories are not in normal English usage stories about fairies or elves, but stories about Fairy, that is Faërie, the realm or state in which fairies have their being.”

A lot of what Tolkien says in his essay serves to defend fantasy against what was then the generally held view, that it was basically for children, and wasn’t worth taking seriously once you’d grown out of it. Fantasy was seen, at the time, purely as an exercise in “the willing suspension of disbelief” (Coleridge’s phrase), and thus an indulgence, a temporary dip out of the real world. Tolkien instead puts forward the idea of fantasy being an exercise in Sub-creation, in which the writer “makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is ‘true’: it accords with the laws of that world.” This might at first sound basically the same as “the willing suspension of disbelief”, aside from its being presented from the creator’s, rather than the reader’s, point of view, but Tolkien’s language is already hinting at the conclusion of his essay. “Sub-creation”, and “Secondary Worlds” are secondary to “Primary Creation” and “the Primary World”, which were, to the Catholic Tolkien, the works of God. Human beings couldn’t create as God did, but also couldn’t help imitating their creator by some act of creation. (Which recalls George MacDonald’s idea that “The imagination of man is made in the image of the imagination of God”, and thus is a route to knowing God.) Fairy-stories, then, aren’t an indulgence, but a fulfilment of all that makes you human.

Tolkien goes on to present four terms for what he believes are the function of fairy-stories: Fantasy, Recovery, Escape, and Consolation. Of these, Fantasy is the vaguest, perhaps because this is the sense in which we now use the word (of literature, films, and so on, anyway). For Tolkien, “Fantasy” is:

“a word which shall embrace both the Sub-creative Art in itself, and a quality of strangeness and wonder in the Expression, derived from image… the power of giving to ideal creations the inner consistency of reality.”

Though perhaps he puts this best by saying:

“To the elvish craft, Enchantment, Fantasy aspires…”

“Recovery” is a more useful idea, though one that can, really, be applied to all creative art. By “Recovery”, Tolkien means a “regaining of a clear view”:

“We need, in any case, to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity — from possessiveness.”

Reading a poem about a cat, you might see all cats in a wholly new light; but having seen a dragon (even in your imagination), you’ll find all of reality renewed. One thing that’s interesting in the above quote is how Tolkien links the “drab blur of triteness” by which we can come to see the world when tired or jaded or cynical, with “possessiveness” — which recalls Gollum’s possessiveness of his Precious, and the One Ring’s even greater possessiveness of him.

As to “Escape”, it seems fantasy is less and less dismissed as pure escapism these days, but certainly it felt like the biggest criticism applied to it when I was growing up. Tolkien, though, ties Escape with Recovery in a neat comparison. Fantasy is not “the Flight of the Deserter” but “the Escape of the Prisoner” — the prison, in this case, being that “drab blur of triteness”. (Though in some cases it’s an actual prison, as with Malory or Bunyan.)

Tolkien’s final factor, “Consolation”, is perhaps the one that’s still easiest to dismiss, though it’s the one that, being tied to his idea of Eucatastrophe, is the key idea (for me) of this essay. Consolation is “the Consolation of the Happy Ending”, and is embodied in Eucatastrophe, “a sudden and miraculous grace” that provides “a piercing glimpse of joy, and heart’s desire”. It’s this point, probably, that most critics would say is the essentially escapist (as in “Flight of the Deserter” escapism) aspect of fantasy, because “real life” doesn’t have happy endings. But Tolkien’s point could be taken as saying that it’s to return to the belief in the possibility of happy endings, or at least happy turns, that leads to the strongest sense of Recovery. But Tolkien’s actual point was that there is a happy ending to life, only it’s not in life, but after it. For him, the “Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of the story of Man’s history”, and Heaven is the happy ending. But I don’t think you have to believe as he believed to accept the psychological benefits of experiencing a happy ending, however artfully (sub)created, every now and then.

Tolkien, Machen, Lovecraft

It’s interesting to compare Tolkien’s ideas to those of other creators in a fantastic vein. Just as “joy” is, for Tolkien, the true function of a fairy-story, Arthur Machen, in Hieroglyphics (1902), puts forward “ecstasy” as the only mark of “fine literature”. And even though Machen allows other words to stand in for “ecstasy”, it’s obvious he means something darker, perhaps wilder, and certainly more troubling than Tolkien’s “joy”:

“Substitute, if you like, rapture, beauty, adoration, wonder, awe, mystery, sense of the unknown, desire for the unknown. All and each will convey what I mean; for some particular case one term may be more appropriate than another, but in every case there will be that withdrawal from the common life and the common consciousness which justifies my choice of ‘ecstasy’ as the best symbol of my meaning.”

Machen’s is a mystic’s joy.

There’s even more of a contrast with Lovecraft, particularly over Tolkien’s idea that the “joy” he finds in fairy-stories is “a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality of truth”. For Tolkien, this is a glimpse of the underlying reality of Christian truth, but for Lovecraft, whose tales also sought to attain “a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality of truth”, that truth was the antithesis of anything remotely Christian. Nevertheless, for each author, it was the truth — the truth of how they felt about the world, anyway.

Both Tolkien and Lovecraft saw their chosen literary form — fairy-stories and weird fiction — as existing to convey a single feeling, the essence of the world they felt they lived in. And this seems true of many writers, and artists generally, that they have a single essential thing — that might be named by a single word, but which, to them, conveys a whole universe of meaning — a feeling more often than a thought, which sums up reality, or their take on it.

And these are the writers, I think, who keep being read long after their deaths. They come to represent, through their works and their fictional worlds, access to their particular feeling, the thing they were most focused on conveying. I don’t know if this is as true of Tolkien — who you can enjoy as adventure and whose actual happy ending is tempered by a sense of sadness — but it certainly rings true for Lovecraft and Machen.

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The Silence

For a long while, Ingmar Bergman was one of those filmmakers I’d heard a lot of people praise, but didn’t know much about, aside from a single viewing of his most famous film, The Seventh Seal, on TV. I set about watching a number of his films, and in the main they weren’t quite what I expected. (I’m feeling ready for a re-watch, for a better take on him.) Only one clicked with me, 1963’s The Silence, a dream-like and unresolved narrative whose characters, world, and story seem haunted by something unnamed, and which in turn came to haunt me. It seemed more like a Robert Aickman short story, replete with surreal and menacing tensions, than anything else I’ve seen.

Two sisters, Ester and Anna, along with Anna’s young son Johan, are travelling by train through an unnamed European country. Ester is ill, coughing blood with a strangled, silent cough into a handkerchief, and they decide to stop so she can rest. The remainder of the film takes place in and around a seemingly massive, and mostly empty, hotel, in a country whose language none of the three main characters understand, and where the tensions between the sisters come to a head. Eventually, it’s decided Anna and Johan will continue, while Ester remains behind.

So, what are the tensions between the sisters? Ester, the older, is a literary translator, and we only need to witness her strangled-to-silence coughing to know how much she represses her body’s physicality. She’s both jealous and judgemental of the more sensuous Anna’s love life, including the love of her son. One interpretation (offered by Woody Allen in his foreword to Bergman’s autobiography) is that Ester is “the head”, the intellect, and Anna is “the body”, but this, I think, is to play into the sisters’ own trap. Ester is cut off from her body, but tortured by the absence of what it can provide. She longs to have physical contact — with her sister, her nephew — but can’t achieve it, and later confesses how repugnant she felt sleeping with men to be. “I wouldn’t accept my wretched role,” she says, of being a wife, a mother, a man’s lover. “But now it’s too damned lonely.” Perhaps the best illustration of Ester’s relationship with her body is when she turns on a radio while lying in bed. We only see her hand in the shot, and when lively music comes on, her hand dances on top of the radio, obviously enjoying it; then her head comes into shot, taking over, and the hand is forced to change the station to something more somber, more intellectual, and the dancing stops. She chain-smokes and chain-drinks, as though trying to stifle her body’s need for sensation. Whether her illness is an expression of her desire to be cut off from her body permanently, or is her body forcing her to pay attention to it — at several points, it literally cuts her off, leaving her choking for air, in what for me is the most frightening moment in any film I’ve ever seen — is one of the unresolved aspects of the film.

Anna, meanwhile, enjoys bodily pleasures — she likes bathing, she likes food, she likes wearing nice clothes, she likes caressing her son, herself, and men. Ester’s prurience and judgement makes her feel guilty for enjoying these things, but perhaps she’s forced into playing them up in front of her older sister, acting the role of the sybarite, as the two push each other to opposing extremes. Neither, then, is “the head” or “the body” — they’re too fully rounded as characters for that — but their unhealthy relationship forces them into these restrictive and self-damaging opposing roles.

For me, the film is not so much about the sisters’ conflict, as their dual influence on the boy, Johan, and his attempts to integrate these corresponding aspects of himself. He enjoys the physical contact with his mother, but is also intellectually curious, which is Ester’s territory. His warring sisters, though, provide no help in learning how to integrate the two, nor how to deal with the third element the film confronts him with: male sexuality.

Whenever Ester looks out of the hotel’s window, she sees an emaciated donkey pulling a cart, as though to remind herself of her own illness-wracked body. When Johan looks out of a window — either of the train or the hotel — he sees tanks. When he ventures into the hotel’s corridors, he takes his toy pistol. It all starts to seem a little Freudian, with him as the little boy, wielding his little pistol. And the world he enters, when he ventures out into the hotel’s corridors, is oddly fairy-tale-ish, as though it’s there to teach him how to deal with his little-pistol boyhood, before it becomes a dark and powerful tank-like masculinity.

What he finds are seven dwarfs (performers at a local theatre) and a giant (the hotel steward). When he shoots his cap-gun at the dwarfs they pretend to die, then invite him into the room and put him in a dress, as though to teach him to temper his manhood. One wears a chimpanzee mask and jumps up and down on a bed comically, perhaps asking him how much of an animal he wants to be. The boy wanders off and comes across the kindly giant of a hotel steward, who also puts on a comical performance, pretending to teach a sausage a lesson before biting its head off, as though to remind the boy how a man should keep his sexual urges in check. Elsewhere, the boy looks at a massive painting of the centaur Nessus taking Heracles’s wife, Deianeira, on his back — a scene which will lead to an attempted seduction or rape, and ultimately to Heracles’s own death. Johan is clearly fascinated by the painting, but when Ester mentions horses when talking to him of what’s going to happen in the coming summer, Johan says he’s scared of them. It’s perhaps the animal part of himself he’s talking about.

Ester suggests he read to her. The book we’ve seen him reading is Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, whose Byronic hero is single-mindedly intent on seducing women (is this really a suitable book for a boy of his age?). Johan at this moment looks outside and sees a tank in the street, as though to remind himself of the fear of his own sexual role, and instead of reading to his aunt, retreats further into childhood by putting on a Punch & Judy show. Punch kills Judy, then gets scared and (as Johan explains) starts talking in a funny language. Is the Punch & Judy show enacting what he’s starting to feel is the role of a man, culturally-implied by Nessus and Lermontov, to abuse women? Or perhaps it’s broader than that, and the tank made him think of death, and Judy’s death reminded him of Ester’s illness, and it’s losing her he’s afraid of.

“I’ll draw you a nice picture,” Johan says…

All of this is only lightly suggested, and none of it’s fully resolved. So much of the film remains dream-like, even after several close viewings. And perhaps that’s because The Silence, ultimately, has its origin in a dream, as Ingmar Bergman says in his autobiography:

“I am in an enormous, foreign city. I am on my way toward the forbidden part of town. It is not even some dubious area of ill repute with its steaming flesh pots, but something much worse. There the laws of reality and the rules of society cease to exist. Anything can happen and everything does. I dreamed this dream over and over again.”

The film, at one point, was to be titled “Timoka”, the name of the city the sisters stop in; at another time, it was to be “The Silence of God”. I think a lot of the film’s power comes from the unspecific nature of the title. Calling it “Timoka” might have made it sound like a political allegory (and some contemporary reviewers did read it as an allegory of the Cold War). Calling it “The Silence of God” would have made it sound as though the whole mess could be, and ought to be, blamed on a creator. (Ester does at one point, in the midst of her illness’ worst paroxysms, beg “Dear God, please let me die at home”, but we never learn if that prayer is answered or not.) Calling it simply The Silence leaves it open to so many interpretations that it takes on a generalised existential quality: silence as the human condition. There’s the silence of the unspoken tensions between the sisters, and the silence (or inability to communicate) between people generally. Contrasted with this, there’s a positive silence, in the way some things can be communicated without words: Johan’s playing with the dwarfs and the hotel steward, Anna’s seduction of a café waiter (to whom she says “How nice that we don’t understand each other”), the universality of music (it’s the only thing Ester says that the hotel steward immediately understands, along with “Johann Sebastian Bach”, whose music even Anna says sounds nice, in a rare moment of accord). There is, of course, also the silence of death, and the silence of Ester’s distressingly breathless choking, her soundless gasping for air. There’s the silence of Ester’s loneliness, too (“All this talk… There’s no need to discuss loneliness…”). At several points in the film — which doesn’t have a musical score — a fast ticking plays over the soundtrack, like a sort of intensified silence. The ticking of mortality? It comes to each of the major characters, though at one point might be mistaken for the sound of the hotel steward’s fob watch. What does it all mean?

“What does it all mean?” is still my attitude to The Silence. It’s a film with a perhaps bottomless well of meanings. As Robin Wood has written in his book on Bergman:

“One watches the film almost emotionlessly, as if paralyzed, and comes out feeling that one has experienced very little. Then hours—or even days—later, one comes to realize how deep and disturbing the experience has been…”

Bergman influenced a whole generation of filmmakers. Johan wandering the corridors of this unnamed hotel in single-point perspective reminds me of Danny in Kubrick’s Overlook Hotel; the bizarrely-dressed dwarf troop in league with a young boy can’t help reminding me of Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits; and there’s more than a touch of David Lynch about the whole thing. (Plus, Bergman’s probably singlehandedly responsible for all of Woody Allen’s non-funny films. The intentionally non-funny ones, anyway.)

The Silence seems to me like a Symbolist work of art, something like Munch’s The Scream, perhaps, with which it shares an archetypal purity and ambiguity. Munch’s central figure with the wailing mouth — is it screaming, or hearing a scream, or screaming to drown out a scream, or mouthing a scream it can’t produce but can hear? And what of The Silence — the silence before a scream, the silence after one, the silence in longing for one? To all this, perhaps the best answer is — …

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The Changeover by Margaret Mahy

1984 HB, art by Bruce Hogarth

The Changeover (1984) is Margaret Mahy’s second YA novel, and her second Carnegie Medal Winner (following The Haunting in 1982). According to her postscript to the 2003 Modern Classics edition, it started out as the story of an 11-year-old girl who sought the help of a somewhat witchy girl of her own age to save her younger brother from a supernatural menace, but that story faltered until Mahy changed the witchy girl to an older (though still witchy) boy, and upped the protagonist’s age to 14, introducing an element of incipient sexuality to the mix. (The novel was initially published with the subtitle, “A Supernatural Romance”, though that seems to have been dropped in modern editions.)

Laura is a part-Maori girl of 14 who takes care of her 3-year-old brother Jacko after school while her mother Kate runs the local branch of a chain bookstore. (Laura and Jacko’s father went off with another woman, leaving the family in something just above poverty. As Kate says: “It’s not that we’re poor… But we’re usually short.” I particularly like how Mahy puts it when an unexpected expense comes up, and Kate “gritted her teeth in financial agony”.)

1985 HB

Bringing Jacko home one day from his daytime babysitter, the pair pop into a new shop, Brique à Braque, run by the eccentric/creepy Carmody Braque, who Laura thinks smells of “rotting time”. (He’s later described as “an improbable cross between Dracula and Mr Pickwick”.) Braque playfully stamps the back of Jacko’s hand with a rubber stamp, but afterwards the boy is bothered by it, and the image won’t come off. Jacko falls ill, a doctor is called, and pretty soon he’s comatose in hospital. Laura is convinced it’s Braque, through his stamp, magically draining her brother of his life, but her mother dismisses this with a “Don’t frighten me any more with your Space Invaders rubbish!” (A rare 80s-specific moment for the book.)

2018 cover

The only thing to do, then, is for Laura to get help for Jacko in her own way. She has long felt that an older boy at school, Sorensen Carlisle (known as “Sorry”), is something of a witch, and she’s often found him looking at her, as though he knows she knows. She decides to call on him at his home and ask for help. There, she meets his witchy mother and witchy grandmother, and learns his mother became pregnant assuming she’d have a girl, a young witch to complete the traditional trio of crone, mother, and virgin. But he was a boy, so she gave him up to be fostered, only to learn, much later, that he nevertheless had a witch’s powers. By that time, Sorry had had to learn to live with and understand his powers on his own, as well as having become the focus for his alcoholic foster-father’s rages. He turned up in a terrible state at the Carlisle home, and now, though somewhat better, is still highly reserved and at times almost alienated, emotionally. (When he speaks of what’s happened to Jacko, Laura thinks “He behaved as if something had gone wrong with a car, not a brother.”)

But the family agree to help. Braque, they think, isn’t a human being at all — at least, not now, anyway — but “an old and careful demon”, “a wicked spirit that has managed to win a body for itself once more and has probably gone on by absorbing the lives of others…” The only way to break his hold on Jacko, though, is to put Braque under a similar hold. He’d be too wary of any of the Carlisle family to let them get close enough, but Laura might. However, she’d only be able to put him under a hold if she was a witch herself. And so the family suggest she become one. She’s already proved she’s a “sensitive” through being able to see the witchiness in Sorry, and Braque won’t be expecting her, previously not a witch, to have suddenly become one. The Carlisles can initiate her through “the changeover” of the book’s title:

“We will marry you, if we can, to some sleeping aspect of yourself, and you must wake it.”

1994 Puffin PB cover, art by Tom Stimpson

The world of The Changeover feels very much like that of Mahy’s earlier novel, The Haunting. In both, certain families have a strain of magic, and though this means they can do wonderful things, they’re also far more emotionally reserved — not because of their powers, but because they are so much more sensitive. (Sorry’s mother says “We are a fond family rather than a loving one”, but this may be an emotionally cool family’s inability to judge just how cool it is.) Both the Carlisles in The Changeover, and the Scholars in The Haunting have the power to change reality, but this doesn’t make life easier for them — rather, the opposite, considering the distance this puts between them and their fellow human beings, and all the pitfalls the misuse of power throws in front of them.

In a way, in The Changeover, we get a glimpse of three stages in the life of a “magical” person, and how they might or might not go wrong. Braque, if not an actual demon, has certainly become one through multiple lifetimes of preying on others, till he has come to enjoy it, calling himself “something of a gourmet”. Sorry, on the other hand, has been abused by life and now stands at a crossroads, unsure how much he wants to invest himself in being an ordinary human, or how much he wants to take ownership of his capacity to feel. And Laura, taking her first steps into the world of power, is hovering over its first pitfall: once she has Braque at her mercy, she can do anything she likes to him. She tells herself “He’s not a real person, Mr Braque isn’t”, and he has, after all, been torturing not just her brother, but herself and her mother with all he’s been doing. But it leads to the question:

“Given the chance to be cruel did you get cruelty out of your system by acting on the chance, or did you invite it in?”

Laura’s story is also about her learning to understand — or at least come to terms with — men. She likes Jacko, of course, but he’s only a boy. She’s grown to resent her “dark, powerful father” who abandoned the family, and feels her mother’s new boyfriend, Chris, is taking her mother away from her rather than adding to the family. She’s attracted to Sorry, but finds his oddly distanced personality, and his frank sexual curiosity in women, somewhat difficult. And of course Braque is the ultimate example, to Laura, of how a powerful and selfish man can behave. But through coming to understand Sorry, and his own rather sorry story, she starts to understand her father and her mother’s boyfriend a little more, while knowing to draw the line at ever forgiving something like Braque.

The Changeover was made into a feature film, released in 2017, with Timothy Spall perfect as the creepy Braque, and a brief appearance from Xena’s Lucy Lawless as Sorry’s mother. It’s a dark, quite effective take on the story, set some years after the earthquake of 2011 that hit Christchurch, New Zealand (which is where Mahy’s novel is set). The plot makes a few abrupt departures from the book (I thought one element of the ending took things a bit far, but perhaps because I was mentally comparing it to the book). It’s the feel that’s the most different thing. Mahy’s book is infused with the coming-into-magic air of an adolescent’s burgeoning awareness of themselves, the world, and their place in it; the film is much more of a supernatural thriller, creepy and compelling, but without so much of the positive magic of Mahy’s novel. A good film, nonetheless, keeping some of the book’s restraint as far as magical powers go, and upping the presence and menace of Braque.

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