On the Defense of Fantasy

“On Fairy-stories”

by Sydney West


The Elf Legolas (Source)

As someone who has always been captivated by the magic of fantasy in literature, “fairy-stories,” or fairy tales as some might call them, hold a particular brand of appeal for someone of my nature. One might even go so far as to suggest, in the style of Tolkien, that I rather enjoy the act of “meddling with the Primary World, or such small glimpses of it as are familiar.” I draw attention to this second part of the passage because it underscores how the limitations of our experience and perception of the world around us render fairy-stores and other fantastical works necessary for the human condition. What we do not fully understand we attempt to explain in ways that make sense. Inevitably, this then begs the question of why fantasy is deserving of respect in literary expression, and what it is about these works that captivate readers. In Tolkien’s essay, “On Fairy-Stories,” I find an ally, as he defends fairy-stories, rebuking those that use the genre “frivolously, or only half-seriously, or merely for decoration.” In addition to The Lord of the Rings, two additional fantasy works, the Harry Potter and Game of Thrones series, hold particular significance to me as exemplars of the fundamental contribution that fairy-stories provide the human race.

In that it bears the lesser resemblance to The Lord of the Rings, we might ponder what relationship George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones would have to Tolkien’s works and his defense of fairy-stories. Indeed, both stories deviate from the confines of the Primary World and delve into Secondary Worlds built entirely through the incredible imaginative power of the mind. Both Westeros and Middle Earth fit Tolkien’s description of these other worlds:

“[The storymaker] makes a Second World which your mind can enter. Inside it, he relates what 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, the art, has failed.”

However, Martin’s novels often seem to be the antithesis of Tolkien’s position, which purports that the “eucatastrophic” endings of fairy-stories often hold the primordial truth, or understanding, that we seek in reading them. Unfortunately, Game of Thrones rarely entertains the reader with a happy ending, or, more abstractly, “a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world.” Discussions of these books typically culminate in lamentations of the latest hero’s death (Joffrey aside), triumph of the antagonist (Gregor Clegane’s defeat of Oberyn Martell), or bloody massacre (the Red Wedding). We are left in despair as carnage and deceit wreak havoc on Westeros, while Tolkien’s idea of fairy-story writers as subcreators in eucatastrophic joy calls to mind a more Christian philosophy that revels in the notion that hope, love in friendship, and fulfillment of one’s destiny will bring us closer to the self-actualization that we seek in the Resurrection. Does this mean that, in terms of fantasy, A Song of Ice and Fire has nothing to teach us about reality and the human experience? The answer, I believe, especially as a reflection of today’s world in which war and the threat of self-annihilation have become emblematic of modern times, is more nuanced. The two heroes of the novels, Tyrion Lannister and Daenerys Targaryen, undoubtedly seek fulfillment of their destiny as they toil to prevent their respective kingdoms from fracturing, but it remains to be seen whether this will result in peace and unification, or if their world will dissolve into permanent dyscatastrophe.

By contrast, in Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling presents her concept of a subcreated Second World that more closely mirrors that of Tolkien’s narrative. The story of Harry’s quest to defeat Lord Voldemort and destroy his seven Horcruxes culminates in the reiteration of that great truth that we hold dear—that love will conquer evil in the end. As we read that Harry chooses to sacrifice himself in the Forbidden Forest and, a few pages later, we witness the destruction of the Dark Lord, we are left with that “grace beyond hope,” that state of eucatastrophe in which the journey has transcended hope and reached joy in its fulfillment. Wizards and witches alike have flourished in their humanness as they vanquished the evil that threatened to destroy them with the very power that this evil could not understand—love. As Tolkien subtly suggests, the power of the fairy story is not so much in its ability to bring life to the supernatural, to the magical, to the extraordinary, though these fantastical elements make the final message that much more exposed when the story ends. Rather, it is the freedom with which this subcreation allows us to step into a new world and contemplate our human experience that gives fair-stories their purpose. All three sets of works, The Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, and Harry Potter, have at their root a journey of fulfillment, and it is here, in these fantasies that we find their value.

2015’s Reflection: “On Eucatastrophe


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