St. John’s Seminary, Boston, MA
In my last post, I discussed fantasy and recovery by way of Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy-Stories.” Here, I will wrap up this brief exploration of his essay, even though “wrapping up” is an inadequate way of saying that it’s merely the beginning of more discussion.
“You shouldn’t read all that fantasy stuff…you’re just trying to escape from real life.”
I have heard this criticism lobbed a number of times at readers of the fantasy genre. Now, I will certainly *not* claim that fantasy is never used to dodge reality and responsibilities. It can be – and has been – used to that end. But Tolkien makes the important distinction between “The Escape of the Prisoner” and “The Flight of the Deserter.” “Why,” Tolkien asks, “should a man be scorned, if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home?” And if “real life” has become the four walls of a dim and clammy prison, there is no shame in reading stories as one might read a map – to help him navigate uncertain and unfriendly lands.
To take Tolkien’s ideas a little further, the prisoner is more focused on running towards, while the deserter is more fixated on running away. If there is to be any running in the Christian life, it should always be towards holiness: “Let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith” (Heb 12:1-2).
Tolkien notes that we cannot ignore what he calls “the Great Escape.” It is the thing that most of us worry about or fear above all else: death. The escape from death is as common a storybook feature as true love’s kiss or the quest to defeat that pesky neighborhood dragon. To pick a contemporary example which might help illustrate this point: the arch-villain of the Harry Potter series is named “Voldemort.” If we look at the name more closely, we can read vol / de / mort, which is French for “flight from death” or even “stealing” from death. His very name points to his obsession with cheating death. He believes himself the most powerful wizard in the world, but he is in fact weakest where it matters most. He is so determined not to die that he fails miserably when it comes to living.
But just as Tolkien is talking about these solemn matters, he brings to the forefront the governing principle and purpose behind his bothering to put any ink to paper to begin with, bringing the entire essay “On Fairy-Stories” to a sublime point. And here, the reader steps onto holy ground. For this is the culmination of every good story we have ever read, which has made our hearts race and our imaginations run wild with sacred marvels and miracles. This is where real life truly becomes *real*. It is no mere escapism. It is the “Consolation of the Happy Ending.” And we’ve heard it so many times, we might forget that it means anything at all: “and they lived happily ever after.” These six words have far more significance than, say, a king and queen living in a kind of sleepy harmony, surrounded by puppies, butterflies and perpetual rainbows traced across the sky.
Tolkien suggests that the highest form of drama is Tragedy, and that the opposite would be true of the fairy story. But what is the opposite of Tragedy? It’s not quite comedy. Tolkien, being a philologist after all, coined his own term, which he thought suitably captured the essence of a well-ordered fantasy: Eucatastrophe. It comes down to those two little letters of the Greek prefix “eu” transforming disaster into a good catastrophe. It does not, Tolkien insists,
“deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure…it [does deny] universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”
Tolkien is an honest writer, and is unafraid to include suffering and death in his own works. To avoid the familiar grim-ness of life would be to diminish the pure delight which comes with beholding how the radiance of goodness disperses the shadows. No one will believe a world where it is always day; we are a people closely acquainted with the night, which is why our songs and poetry can speak so well – and so often – about the dawn.
And Tolkien is drawn to one dawn in particular: that of Easter morning. For the Resurrection is the greatest and most complete eucatastrophe of all time: the God who dies and rises from the dead. Not just for His own sake (God is not “showing off”), but for the sake of every single person who has ever and will ever live. Even when taken at face value, without considering the far-reaching effects of such an event, this mysterious and splendid overturning of death and sin has all the makings of a fantastic story.
For remember that Tolkien firmly believed that a good fairy story could give the reader a glimpse into an underlying reality or truth…for example, a hideous hag unexpectedly changing into a golden-haired princess, which gently reminds us that externals do not tell us everything there is to know about a person. Now imagine discovering a beautiful and moving story that wasn’t simply borrowing elements from the primary world in order to create a compelling secondary world. Imagine your reaction upon learning that such a narrative wasn’t just pointing or nudging towards to the truth – what if it actually was true? All of it, mind you…not just bits and pieces, here and there. The Gospel reaches into the very depths of the world, answering all the innermost questions, fulfilling every aching desire. Not even the best of stories and most convincing of secondary worlds could accomplish such things and convert so many stubborn hearts. And this is what the Gloria is, according to Tolkien: the Christian joy at the turn of history, when all seemed darkest and hope itself appeared to have been buried deep in the ground. But no tomb could hold Love captive, nor would the Enemy enjoy the last word – indeed, I highly doubt he knows how to properly enjoy anything at all.
If, as we have just noted, the greatest story of all time has already been written, then what (you might be wondering) is the point of writing any more stories at all? Won’t they all seem ostensibly trivial before the majesty of divine revelation? Won’t the characters all seem minor and petty and the scenery washed out and dull? While there is no doubt that Christ is the final revelation of God, that doesn’t mean we should stop giving it any thought. Indeed, we can serve as instruments assisting in the continuous unveiling of this revelation to the world, as there are still so many people who have heard scarcely more than a whisper of the true name of Christ. And there is no need to worry about originality, either (“ah, well, he says it better than I ever could, so I won’t bother trying…”). There is plenty of room for everyone in this Story. Lewis wrote his Chronicles of Narnia, but someone could always pen the Chronicles of Main Street. From parallel worlds with talking animals to grocery stores with long lines of silent customers, it all fits into the Story which tells how Love sprung up from the grave, unlocked the gates of heaven, and has never since stopped inviting and drawing us in.