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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Wylding Hall by Elizabeth Hand

Wylding Hall, from PS Publishing. Art by David Gentry; cover design by Michael Smith.

Wylding Hall, from PS Publishing. Art by David Gentry; cover design by Michael Smith.

Like the classic children’s adventure story problem of how to get the adults out of the way so the action can begin, the basic problem of so many haunted house stories is how to get a bunch of (usually emotionally rickety) people into the most haunted house you can find, then keep them there once the ghosts start appearing. Shirley Jackson solved the problem by having a psychic researcher, Dr Montague, seek out some paranormally-charged individuals for a stay in Hill House for the express purpose of seeing ghosts; Stephen King had his would-be-author Jack Torrance take on the job of winter caretaker at the Overlook Hotel so he can finish his novel. Wylding Hall isn’t a haunted house story — it deals with faeries, not ghosties — but Elizabeth Hand presents an elegant solution to the same problem: it’s 1972, and producer/manager Tom Haring hires an out-of-the-way country house so acid-folk band Windhollow Fayre, still recovering from a recent tragedy, can write songs for their crucial second album.

Of course, he’s chosen the wrong house. Wylding Hall is a ‘vasty house’ — one of those dream-like labyrinths of hidden nooks and winding passageways, locked doors and dark stairways, far bigger on the inside than they should be, with an ancient library here, a corridor of locked doors there, maybe the odd roomful of dead birds. Outside in the woods there’s a ‘rath’, a hill fort or barrow-mound whose sides, when you start to climb them, seem oddly steep, and when you reach the top you find yourself looking out over the country for miles around, even though, when looked at from below, the top should surely be much lower than the surrounding trees. The local pub is no better. It has a wall display depicting an ancient custom wherein local boys, on one particular day of the year, are allowed to kill wrens and walk around displaying their bodies in little cages, like little musical sacrifices. It’s a custom that died out over most of the country many years ago, but these are recent photographs.

Fairport_Convention-Liege_LThe basic story of Wylding Hall borrows as much from the legends of real folk-rock as it does from haunted houses and fairy tales: in an interview over at the Coode Street Podcast, Elizabeth Hand mentions Fairport Convention’s renting a house (Farley Chamberlayne) to work on their (excellent) Liege & Leaf album, shortly after a tour-van crash killed two people and injured others; she also mentions Nick Drake, the figure who in part inspired her genius-level guitarist/singer/songwriter Julian Blake, a somewhat otherworldly, overly-distanced member of the band, and the one around whom the supernatural events in the story focus. The book itself takes the form of interview snippets from a documentary about the band’s now-legendary stay at Wylding Hall, recorded forty years after the event. The one member not able to take part is Julian Blake, because he disappeared shortly after the band made their only recordings of the songs they’d been working on. What happened to him? The answer lies in the mysterious figure of ‘the girl’ who appears on the cover of the album, which shows the band standing in front of Wylding Hall. The thing is, none of the band recall seeing ‘the girl’ at the time the photo was taken — she only appeared later, very briefly, when most of the band dismissed her as an over-young and more-than-slightly-fay groupie-type, drawn like a moth to the flame of Julian Blake’s talent. Only, it seems more likely she was the flame and Blake the moth. He was, after all, interested in bringing a little magic into his already spellbinding songwriting…

Eliade_SacredProfaneYoung Julian Blake is fascinated by the idea of ‘sacred time’. He reads Mircea Eliade’s book, The Sacred and the Profane, and explains how ‘When you step into sacred time, you’re actually moving sideways, into a different space that’s inside the normal world.’ This idea, that a period of time can become special, magical, and sequestered from the normal flow, pervades the book in several ways. First there is of course the band’s stay at Wylding Hall: they’ve deliberately stepped out of the contemporary world to concentrate on their own particular magic, the creation of music that is itself trying to evoke a lost time through reviving old folk songs. Sacred time within this sacred time is the single ‘magic hour’ in which they make their one and only recording, out in the gardens at sunset. Then there’s the way the band members, in the present, are looking back, for the documentary, on the ‘sacred time’ of their youth, a golden time highly charged with hippie ideals, intense emotion (‘everyone in love with the wrong person’), casual drugs and rather too much drink. And then there’s the genuinely magical time that operates in Faerie, the way it can reach out and grab a particularly talented musician, and take him out of conventional time altogether, never to be seen again.

US cover

US cover

I knew I was going to like Wylding Hall as soon as I heard the set-up: English folk-rock meets faerie-weird. It’s a short novel (another plus, for me), but although I liked it, I did find it a little unfulfilling, in large part because of the documentary-interview way in which it was told. In those haunted house narratives I mentioned at the start of this review, if you think about the human story, aside from the supernatural one, you see that The Haunting of Hill House is basically about unstable Eleonor Vance’s longing to find a home where she truly fits in, instabilities and all, and finds herself helplessly falling into the clutches of un-sane Hill House; and The Shining is about Jack Torrance’s attempt to get on top of his inner demons (by writing a book), only to find himself unleashing those demons on his own family — aided, of course, by the demonic forces of the Outlook Hotel. These haunted houses act as amplifiers of emotional instability, enactors of inner demons, drawing out the flaws of their chosen victims, those characters most susceptible to their dark charms. The core character of Wylding Hall, from this point of view, is Julian Blake, whose otherworldliness, born of high sensitivity and musical talent, is drawn into the genuine otherworldliness of the faerie realm. But we don’t get access to that story. Blake is no longer around to tell it, and even when he was, he was too closemouthed to let his bandmates in on it enough that they might understand. This means his story — which, for me, would have been the most interesting part of Wylding Hall — is absent, or to be glimpsed only from very sparse hints, leaving the result more a straightforward horror story (genius musician snatched away by the supernatural) than an investigation of why he allowed himself to be snatched.

It’s like the difference between Arthur Machen’s ‘The White People’ (which gives an insider’s view of slipping into the faerie realm) and his ‘The Great God Pan’, a purely external view of a supernatural horror. Of those two, I prefer ‘The White People’, though ‘The Great God Pan’ is the more well-known. Of course, in the days of folk ballads, it was enough that a musician be exceptionally talented to explain why the faeries should want him. But I’d have liked a little more than that.

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Wizardry and Wild Romance by Michael Moorcock

I’d like all the writers I like to like each other. But writers, self-centred and individualistic as cats, are often the worst at being objective about other writers. There’s too much stepping on each other’s toes, too much “You don’t want to do it like that!” and “I was going to do that, and do it better!” As a result, I’ve learned to take a cruel joy in finding out that the writers I like in fact hate each other. There’s M R James on Lovecraft (“whose style is of the most offensive. He uses the word cosmic about 24 times”), Machen on Blackwood (“Tennyson said ‘the cedars sigh for Lebanon’, and that is exquisite poetry; but Blackwood believes the cedars really do sigh for Lebanon and that… is damned nonsense”). Both Tolkien and C S Lewis met and liked E R Eddison, but hated his outlook (Tolkien: “I thought that, corrupted by an evil and indeed silly ‘philosophy’, he was coming to admire, more and more, arrogance and cruelty”); while Fritz Leiber wrote of Tolkien, “He’s not interested in women and he’s not really interested in the villains unless they’re just miserable sneaks, bullies and resentful cowards…”

Wizardry & Wild Romance cover

Wizardry and Wild Romance, Gollancz (1987), cover by Les Edwards

Michael Moorcock’s Wizardry and Wild Romance is subtitled “A Study of Epic Fantasy”, but it’s no academic exercise in objectivity. I’ve read it many times, but reading it used to depress me, and it’s taken a good few years (and re-reads) to understand why. It is, of course, that Moorcock is a practitioner of the form he’s examining, and his “study” is more a cry than a critique. One of the reasons I’ve so often come back to reading it is that I wanted it to be like Lovecraft’s “Supernatural Horror in Literature”: a critical history of a genre by one of its major practitioners. But Lovecraft’s essay is, really, a critical history only by way of being a writer’s manifesto, a definition of what Lovecraft himself was trying to do. Because Moorcock shies away from explicit definitions (though he does offer one: “I am referring specifically to that body of prose fiction distinguished from myth, legend and folktale by its definite authorship and not genuinely purporting to be a true account of historical or religious events”), it leaves a sort of gap, the black hole of a definition which can only be inferred from the penumbra of praise and damnation that makes up the bulk of Wizardry and Wild Romance. And one of the problems is that Moorcock is so much better at damnation:

“…a new school is emerging of would-be Romantics, desperately striving to discover fresh sensibilities in the way repressed products of the middle-classes tried to loosen up with drugs and sentimental egalitarianism in the sixties. These people learned the school rules too well, however, and the main impression given by their fabulations is of red elbows and other miscellaneous bits of anatomy poking out through holes they have, with much effort and personal discomfort, rubbed in the straitjacket.”

And:

“Often the prose is little more than a mindless imitation of the euphonious aspects of the verse which, lacking the substance of the original, takes on the aspect of a mute attempting desperately to sing a Mozart song by mouthing an approximation of the sounds he has heard.”

And, most famously:

The Lord of the Rings is a pernicious confirmation of the values of a morally bankrupt middle-class. The Lord of the Rings is much more deep-rooted in its infantilism than a good many of the more obviously juvenile books it influenced. It is Winnie-the-Pooh posing as an epic.”

Like many an internet commentator, he brings the Nazis into the debate early on (mentioning Rudolph Hess in the Foreword). And he has a particular downer on HP Lovecraft:

“An aggressive, neurotic personality, though not without his loyalties and virtues, Lovecraft came under the influence of Poe, Dunsany and the imaginative writers of the Munsey pulp magazines and produced some of the most powerful infantile pathological imagery and some of the most astonishingly awful prose ever to gain popularity, yet his early work, written primarily in homage to Dunsany, from where he borrowed the idea of an invented pantheon of gods, is lighter in touch and almost completely lacking in the morbid imagery of his more successful horror stories in which death, idealism, lust and terror of sexual intercourse are constantly associated in prose which becomes increasingly confused as the author’s embattled psyche received wound after wound and he regressed into an attitude of permanent defensiveness.”

Whew.

That word, “aggressive”, occurs quite often in Moorcock’s little critiques, whether it’s of Lovecraft, John Norman, Tolkien or C S Lewis. But its use does itself come across as, well, quite aggressive:

“One should perhaps feel some sympathy for the nervousness occasionally revealed beneath their thick layers of stuffy self-satisfaction, typical of the second-rate schoolmaster, but sympathy is hard to sustain in the teeth of their hidden aggression which is so often accompanied by a deep-rooted hypocrisy.”

The thing I always failed to notice in my early readings and re-readings of Moorcock’s book (which usually left me feeling how much he must hate the genre, and wondering why he bothered to write a book about it) was his evident passion for it. He swipes so eloquently against the writers he hates precisely because he feels so strongly about what they’re doing — or, to his mind, mis-doing. He does praise writers, some not unequivocally — Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E Howard — others highly — Fritz Leiber, M John Harrison, Robert Holdstock, Mervyn Peake — though never, sadly, as eloquently as his criticisms. But he also presents, if you can spot it amidst the fusillade, evidence of having not only read a great deal of it, but a good deal about it.

Rodney Matthews cover

Rodney Matthews cover

And, of course, he has written a lot of it himself. But here, Moorcock doesn’t discuss his own work, which may account for the key gap I find in Wizardry and Wild Romance (whose title I always assumed was a quote from a genuine poem, till I tried to track it down, and found that the “Wheldrake” it’s attributed to is a Swinburne pseudonym (used, appropriately, to write bad reviews of his own work) as well as, later, a Moorcock character).

Wizardry and Wild Romance was the first book about fantasy I read, and it certainly taught me a lot:

“An intrinsic part of the epic fantasy is exotic landscape…. and no matter how well drawn their characters or good their language writers will appeal to the dedicated reader of romance according to the skill by which they evoke settings…”

And:

“Melodrama and irony work very well together; the best fantasies contain both elements, which maintain tonal equilibrium…”

Moorcock may bash the “morally bankrupt” middle-classes, and he may sometimes present a rather defensive maturismo somewhat reminiscent of Jackie Wullschläger’s in Inventing Wonderland, but you have to admit he does it with style. And if you can stand back far enough not to be splashed by the acid he spits, there’s a good deal of enjoyment to be had from the sheer wit of the book, even if you disagree with the points being made:

“If the bulk of American sf could be said to be written by robots, about robots, for robots, then the bulk of English fantasy seems to be written by rabbits, about rabbits and for rabbits.”

And, perhaps the most revealing statement about Moorcock’s own tastes in fiction:

“If we must be given stories about talking animals, let them at least be sceptical, sardonic and world-weary talking animals.”

While to me, it’s to find recourse from scepticism, cynicism and world-weariness that I turn to fantasy in the first place — that, to me, is what literary magic is all about, what Tolkien called “re-enchantment” — but that, of course, is my own bias.

cover

John Picacio cover

Although it was updated in 2004 for the Monkeybrain Books edition, Wizardry and Wild Romance is, really, a product of its time, and is best read that way. It came from a writer witnessing the commercialisation of what had been, to him and the writers he admired, a deeply individualistic, often revolutionary art form — but that’s a battle that has long been lost, the commercial element of heroic fantasy being here to stay. The updates to the book, to me, feel a bit tagged on and less part of the central, anguished cry that spawned the kernel essay, “Epic Pooh”, back in — when was it? According to the Foreword, parts of Wizardry and Wild Romance were published as early as 1963, and that’s over fifty years ago!

Wizardry and Wild Romance is a book I will come back to and re-read, as I have come back to it many times in the twenty seven years since I first read it. But it’s been a process of learning how to read it: not as objective criticism, more as the expression of a passion, and of an ideal, that Moorcock never clearly states, but certainly defends — in style.

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