Sense and Nonsense: On the Reality of Fantasy

By chance, just before leaving my brother’s in Santa Cruz in January, I happened to notice an article in the San Jose Mercury-News commemorating the one-hundredth anniversary of the birth of J.R.R. Tolkien. The article noted that a number of elaborate editions of Tolkien’s works are being published this year. It also identified several societies devoted to the study of Tolkien, among which are “The Mythopoeic Society,” the “Elvish Linguistic Fellowship,” and the “American Tolkien Society.” Keeble College in Oxford holds a large academic symposium on Tolkien in August.

The founder of the Mythopoeic Society, Glen Good-Knight, is cited as remarking that “Tolkien is considered the grandfather of the modern fantasy phenomena. Go into the science-fiction section [of a book store] and half are fantasy.” Tolkien, no doubt, is full of elves, Hobbits, dwarves, and all sorts of awesome races of beings. Yet, I could not help but think that to assign Tolkien to the category of mere “fantasy” somehow missed the essence of what he was about. I have always found in reading Tolkien a certain doom or dread strangely combined with a certain joy and exhilaration precisely because he was talking about something very real, about the way this, yes, fantastic world really is.

Several years ago now, I was in a used book store in San Francisco down near the end of Ellis Street, I think. For reasons I forget, I had wanted to obtain a copy of Tolkien’s Silmarillion. After I had looked all over this vast chaotic place by myself, a friend who was with me called down from a ladder over against the west wall to come over. I was triumphantly handed a hardback edition of The Silmarillion. I was frankly astonished.

This particular edition, amusingly, was published by the Bookcase Shop in Taipei in 1977. It cost $2 used and was (and still is) in good condition. “This is an authorized Taiwan Edition reprinted by permission of the publisher (George Allen and Unwin) for sale in Taiwan only. It is not to be exported.” Well, we were definitely not on Taiwan. But, as I told my friend who found the book later, “I have never read anything quite so beautiful as the first page of The Silmarillion, the chapter entitled, ‘Ainulindale: The Music of the Aimur.’” I like to read it or have it read aloud.

In the book, a previous owner, perhaps the one who pirated it out of Taipei, had inserted a review of The Silmarillion from the September 11, 1977, Chicago Tribune. The review was by Roger Sale, a professor at the University of Washington who wrote a book called Tolkien and Frodo Baggins. Sale did not think many people would like this book in comparison to The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which sold as many as 50 million copies. He added, “Tolkien was one of those moderns who, in his twentieth-century darkness, was driven to invent an earlier time when the world was fresh, the sky clear, the grass green and the past was important.” Again, I thought, this observation surely misses the point Tolkien was driving at. Tolkien was not escaping from the twentieth century, just as his “fantasy” was not apart from reality. Tolkien, I suspect, thought that what was going on in the twentieth century was just what was going on in his stories.

The end of The Hobbit, perhaps Tolkien’s most famous book, reads like this:

“Then the prophecies of the old songs have turned out to be true, after a fashion!” said Bilbo.

“Of course!” said Gandalf. “And why should not they prove true? Surely you don’t disbelieve the prophecies, because you had a hand in bringing them about yourself? You don’t really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit? You are a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!”

“Thank goodness,” said Bilbo laughing, and handed him the tobacco-jar.

If we look at the “teaching,” at the truth of what is being said in this passage, we might be somewhat cautious to intimate that this book is merely “fantasy,” merely an escape from the twentieth century. Nor is it a fiction dreamed up by a rather dotty Oxford don that would later give hope for the ’60s, as the article in the San Jose paper seemed to imply. What Tolkien was about and what the ’60s were about seem almost to be total opposites, however much the illusions of the ’60s would not have surprised a Tolkien.

The teaching of Gandalf is that we are part of an order, a providence. Simply because we are involved in adventure and escape does not mean that we are the sole actors in our lives. The world is very wide, and what benefits us does not merely benefit us alone, just as what hurts us does not merely hurt us. Bilbo’s response to this teaching—”Thank goodness”—is a very contented, Christian one. It implies that the whole burden of the world is not on us, even if we are ourselves involved in the agonies and drama of the world with its struggles of good and evil.

In his famous essay “On Fairy Stories,” Tolkien himself explained some of this deeper meaning that should cause us to hesitate to think that somehow such fantasy is not dealing with reality, our reality. “It is often reported of fairies (truly or lyingly, I do not know) that they are workers of illusions, that they are cheaters of men by ‘fantasy’; but that is quite another matter,” Tolkien wrote. “Such trickeries happen, at any rate, inside tales in which the fairies are not themselves illusions; behind the fantasy real wills and powers exist, independent of the minds and purposes of men.”

This is heady stuff, no doubt—real wills and powers exist independent of the minds and purposes of men, yet, as Gandalf said to Bilbo, not excluding them either. Tolkien remarks in the same essay that we must accept the inside of the fairy story as true in its plot and order. If we break the spell of its story, we lose what it is saying.

When we come, however, to the conclusion of this remarkable essay—which was originally a Lecture given at St. Andrew’s in Scotland in 1937 and later enlarged and included in Essays in Honor of Charles Williams—we see that Tolkien is about something of far more serious purpose than we might think if we allow ourselves to think of “fantasy” in a superficial manner. If there are stories and tales in the world of Tolkien’s characters, there are tales and stories in our world, too. If Tolkien “creates” a world, he reminds us that the accounts of Creation and Redemption as they appear in our tradition contain a striking truth about them. “The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories.” Moreover, it is a story that has “entered history.”

The difficulty of this story that we find in Scripture, when seen from the point of view of its plausibility as fantasy, is that it is too true, too much like what we would want if we could have it.

There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many skeptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath.

This latter remark about rejection explains why central to all of Tolkien’s characters of whatever nature is the will, the power to choose, to accept or to reject. Without this, there is no drama, no fairy-story, no human or angelic life. If the world is full of sadness and wrath, as it no doubt is, it is because it is full of will. This is why fairy-stories, like life itself, include both doom and glory.

Tolkien ends the essay “On Fairy-Stories” with these lines whose power is almost overwhelming:

But in God’s kingdom the presence of the greatest does not depress the small. Redeemed Man is still man. Story, fantasy, still go on, and should go on. The Evangelium has not abrogated the legends; it has hallowed them, especially the “happy ending.” The Christian has still to work, with mind as well as body, to suffer, hope, and die; but he may now perceive that all his bents and faculties have a purpose, which can be redeemed.

Tolkien’s world contains diversity even of virtue. He sees that the real temptation against which fairy-stories are written is the despair that in the end there is no happy ending. But it is also written with the clear, if paradoxical, knowledge that if in the end there is indeed no happiness, it is because of our wills. Fairy tales, as Tolkien said, “enrich” creation. The unsuspecting reader who thinks he is only reading “fantasy” in reading Tolkien will suddenly find himself pondering the state of his own soul because he recognizes his own soul in each fairy-tale.

In the “real” world, then, like the “fantasy” world, is there some “imagination” in which the tales of Genesis and John may be “true”? The “fallen,” real world we know, is this all there is? And do we, like Bilbo Baggins, remain in it, in the stories? “All tales may come true; and yet, at the last, redeemed, they may be as like and as unlike the forms that we give them as Man, finally redeemed, will be like and unlike the fallen that we know.” There is something uncanny here, when the greatest fantasy writer of our time hints that the truth of fantasy is justified because “the prophecies of the old songs have turned out to be true.” On the first page of The Silmarillion, we read:

Then Iluvatar said to them [the Ainur, His first created beings]: “Of the theme that I have declared to you, I will now that ye make in harmony together a Great music. And since I have kindled you with the Flame Imperishable, ye shall show forth your powers in adorning this theme, each with his own thoughts and devices, if he will. But I will sit and harken, and be glad that through you great beauty has been wakened into song.”

All the great Tolkien themes are already here—the dignity of creation, of finite beings, awe, will, hence potential doom or glory, providence, beauty, desire, order, grace, joy.

There is no tale ever told that men would rather find to be true. To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath. Surely you don’t disbelieve the prophecies because you had a hand in bringing them about yourself?


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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