Well, having completed my Honours project in 2015, and having taken some much needed time off, I feel like I can finally start writing here again.
I’ve been thinking about the subject of Tolkien and hope again, and I think that Tolkien’s essay ‘On Faery Stories’ has managed to do far more harm than good in Tolkien studies.
Only a minority of Tolkien scholars would agree with such a position. Such luminaries as Dimitra Fimi and Verlyn Flieger attach great scholarly, not to mention literary and imaginative importance to the essay, which they seem to consider a monument to fantasy scholarship in the vein of Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria.
I am therefore tempting a great deal of admonition when I disagree. This post is not concerned with the essay, primarily, but it is worth discussing briefly. Many have taken it as an explanation of ‘faery-story’, but it seems to be much more than that. Indeed, it is nothing less than a defense of the fantastic in the imagination, broadly construed. Some of Tolkien’s observations, especially those concerned with the role of language in the development of imaginative ‘world-building’ are truly indispensable. The idea of the ‘green-sun’, much discussed, is a great image, metaphor and symbol all in one, and handily communicates the power of language for invention.
However, the essay tends toward incoherence and rambles around some nebulous central message without ever quite stating it. Is it that language is a versatile tool and that we should be unafraid to use in the service of thinking up imaginative worlds? Or is it that ‘faery-stories’ should provide consolation and ‘escape’ from the ‘primary world’? Or that somehow fairy stories contain the Christian message of cosmic hope, even when we don’t think of it in those terms? Or is it that the Christian myth implausibly actually took place, and therefore demonstrated the power of ‘eucatastrophe’ in history? But why should language be restricted to the service of uplifting fairy tales wherein ‘eucatastrophe’ is always operative at the end of the story? As China Mieville has pointed out, this would undermine Tolkien’s argument that a ‘eucatastrophe’ is unexpected and occurs through the grace of god.
The fundamental problem with the essay, for all of its interest, is therefore its fatal mish-mash of Tolkien’s scholarship and his personal beliefs. Where he makes arguments about language, the essay shines, and where he seeks to implicate his own religious convictions in the efficacy of fairy stories or fantasy, the essay falls flat. Why should fairy stories end happily? Because the Christian story ends happily? Why should fantasy provide ‘consolation’? What if Christianity is wrong, and there is no final ‘consolation’. The arguments Tolkien makes about escape and ‘recovery’ are better and more interesting, precisely insofar as they diverge from his obsession with the Christian ‘fairy-story’.
Unfortunately, the apparent popularity of the essay among Tolkien scholars has meant that many of these ill thought ideas have in turn shaped the scholarly reception of Tolkien’s fiction. Tolkien has become his most important critic. But as literary scholars have long sought to show, authors are often concerned with manipulating the reception of their works, even when these works have entered the public domain and are no longer accessible to the author’s editorial interventions (unless they decide to publish another edition, which Tolkien of course did). Why should one of Tolkien’s essay, implicated as it is so thoroughly with his religious beliefs, hold such sway over Tolkien scholarship in the 21st Century? It is time to move beyond ‘On-Faery Stories’.
There is much more to say about Tolkien’s treatment of fantasy in the essay, especially with regard to how we talk about the creation of fantasy realms, and his (curiously unquestioned) nomenclature of ‘sub-creation’ (I can’t resist a jab at Corey Olsen, whose every utterance on Tolkien betrays an unthinking fannishness: he uses Tolkien’s terms uncritically all the time, much to my chagrin). However, the single most frustrating concept from the essay must be Tolkien’s coinage ‘eucatastrophe’, mentioned above. At best, it describes a moment of unexpected plot twist, wherein some sense of hope is restored by a ‘joyous turn’. At its worst, it is an undeserved reversal of bad fortune, provided by ‘God’s grace’. Either way, it is implicated in Tolkien’s religion and therefor should be open to philosophical critique, as an idea. At this point it might be objected that Tolkien’s work reflects his Christian ethos as this essay does, and that both are therefore a fit for one another. But it is not at all clear that Tolkien’s fiction is quite so theologically literal as parts of his essay are. There is simply no good a priori reason why Tolkien’s own conceptual edifice should be used to understand and interpret his fiction, especially since it has been enjoyed by so many non Christian. Any interpretive framework or theory should seek to go beyond Tolkien’s Christian belief. Only a kind of fiat by consensus of Christian scholars has produced this reliance on an essentially Christian interpretive reading with ‘eucatastrophe’ a the center.
This is not to say that it is totally unimportant, nor that sudden turns to joy do not occur, especially in The Lord of the Rings. I am arguing, however, that to interpret the whole of Tolkien’s oeuvre though the lens of ‘eucatastrophe’ is to overextend the concept, indeed to be led by it, and not by the text itself. For example, to interpret the War of Wrath episode in The Silmarillion as a kind of ‘eucatastrophe’ is to ignore the tragedy in the chapter. This is a point Drout makes in his “Tolkien and the West” lecture series. Victory against Morgoth is gained, but at tremendous and irrevocable loss. There is no ‘joy’ or ‘grace’ here. The mortal world is laid bare in The Silmarillion: it is a place of loss and memory, perhaps some hope, but certainly not some Christian surety in the grace of God. It might be objected that God is implied, that hope is under the surface, that all will be well in the end. Perhaps Tolkien believed this, but Christian readers must bring this conclusion to the text. God is a character in the work, but unlike the Old Testament The Silmarillion is less about God’s interventionist aspirations as it is about how human memory (or Elvish) makes sense of a broken world where God becomes less and less apparent as history continues and the past recedes relentlessly. The concept of ‘eucatastrophe’ completely fails to capture this nuance, and forces all the narrative through a ‘joy machine’. Like theodicy in the ‘primary world’ the concept reduces all the suffering of Tolkien’s characters to a jot in the history of God’s ‘mysterious ways.’ But the suffering of the characters in The Silmarillion is the narrative center of the whole book. The narrative force of that suffering and the central importance of loss makes any philosophical or theological justification of it meaningless. If Tolkien’s work contains a Christian message, his narrative undermines it.
The Lord of the Rings is less centrally concerned about suffering, per se, but it is certainly concerned with loss and memory. However, given the already absurd length of this post, I’ll save that discussion for another day.
Tolkien scholars need to engage with ‘On Faery Stories’ more critically and with greater rigor. They should not be afraid to point out where Tolkien’s own beliefs are implicated with his scholarship, and why that might cause interpretive problems. Most of all, they should get over ‘eucatastrophe’ and they should stop fetishising Tolkien’s own interpretive apparatus. Think up your own theories.