The genre of fantasy has made many strides into the popular culture since the time Tolkien penned his essay, “On Fairy-stories.” Game of Thrones, Harry Potter, and the movie adaptations of Tolkien’s work itself have become cultural touchstones; the tabletop gaming renaissance and comic book movie universe juggernauts only aid in making the appreciation of fantasy stories in adulthood no longer a quiet and hidden affair, but a visible and featured phenomenon. After all, for many a year, fantasy was a genre deemed suited for children, a world which provides wonder in childhood and escape during teenage years but that one “grew out of” into more mature forms of media and writing.
This, as a whole, in a welcomed change of perspective, as it has made the joys of experiencing fantasy appropriately accessible to men and women of all ages, and has reopen the paths to kernels of knowledge or discovery hidden in the crafted worlds of the sub-creator to those long passed their youth. Yet, as with much, not all is wholesome and worthy of emulation, for as fantasy has grown popular, it has also lost some of that which makes it fantasy. It has conformed and incorporated new aspects to broaden its appeal or smooth its sharp edges. The counter-reaction by those concerned with the “watering down” of fantasy has been starkly wrapped in social discourse and identity politics. What’s missing is that wondrous place that fantasy began: with fairy-stories, with the tales suited for children.
As Tolkien notes in his essay, the association of fairy-stories with children is not explicit to their content but instead to their context, that is to say, stories vaguely remembered but not considered important for adult affairs: nursery stories for nanny and others of less-educated backgrounds to entertain the minds of little ones. Yet, as many in Middle-earth will note, it is dangerous to disregard the old wives tales and little legends, as what the old women remember and ancient men noted may be truth lost to the complexity and passing of the times. Even though children are not a different class and species and therefore have no greater need for fairy-stories than any other group, there is still a sense that they are suited for children: perhaps because they have a moral situated only somewhat subtly near the surface of the story, or perhaps because they end happily ever after, or perhaps because children’s imaginations are better than their parents.
All are arguments made about fairy-stories, but nevertheless Tolkien rejects each in turn. Only the simplest stories have simple morals: the fairy-stories of epic size and scale may hide little details and nuances that require multiple listenings to discover. And most fairy-stories are both happy and sad: the heroes win, and good things come again, but things are lost, and not everything is the same again. And the things that fairy-stories offers a child – “Fantasy, Recovery, Escape, Consolation” – are “all things of which children have, as a rule, less need than older people.”
Fairy-stories, in truth, are suited for children because they are suited for all of us. I suspect, however, the reason we maintain this notion about fairy-stories even as fantasy abounds is for the same concern that hinders faith in our times: we who are old are unease at what such things might mean for us, while children can embrace them more willingly. Fairy-stories and faith challenge in strange and uncomfortable ways, suggesting that progress might not be all the good that we think, that the loss and fading of magical things might be a necessity of the world, that the story we are in is larger and more important than we who live in, because there is something greater just around the next page. We cannot pretend to be children, but we must learn from the little ones on this matter, as Christ suggested: to possess the humility set aside the fantasy idols we craft in our image, and return to the fairy-stories that point us to that greater end.