Few writers have done so much to rehabilitate that realm of imaginative literature we call fantasy as JRR Tolkien. In The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion, what continues to astonish is the vastness and coherence of the world Tolkien created.
As we await the first of Peter Jackson’s film of The Hobbit, it might be worth reflecting on the nature of the ‘world’ Tolkien spent much of his life revealing. The Hobbit first appeared in 1937. Around the same time Tolkien gave a lecture called On Fairy Stories in which he provided an insight into the workshop of his imagination in a lecture that was initially delivered as the Andrew Lang lecture at the Scottish University of St Andrews. It is now available in a small book called Tree and Leaf.
On Fairy Stories is important on a number of levels. Not only are we given a glimpse into his mind, but it contains Tolkien's explanation and defence of the nature and importance of fantasy, and is one of the earliest discussions of speculative fiction by one of its most important practitioneers.
One of the first things Tolkien does is to distinguish fairy stories from other kinds of stories often confused with or taken to be the same, such as "traveller's tales" (Gulliver's Travels ), science fiction (H Wells' The Time Machine ), beast tales (Aesop's Fables and Peter Rabbit ), and dream stories (Alice in Wonderland ). Tolkien contends that one ‘note’ of the authentic fairy story is that it is presented as wholly credible. "It is at any rate essential to a genuine fairy-story, as distinct from the employment of this form for lesser or debased purposes, that it should be presented as 'true.' ...But since the fairy-story deals with 'marvels,' it cannot tolerate any frame or machinery suggesting that the whole framework in which they occur is a figment or illusion."
Of course, his own stories achieve much of their effect through his creation of an ‘alternative’ world. Here he speaks of deep things: “What really happens is that the story-maker proves a successful ‘sub-creator’. He makes a secondary world which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates 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 art, has failed.”
And he adds, “It was in fairy-stories that I first divined the potency of the words, and the wonder of things, such as stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine."
In writing of the ‘sub-creator’, Tolkien is concerned to establish the ‘dignity’ of the realm of fairy and the high calling of the one who makes the story. As Tolkien puts it, “Fantasy remains a human right: we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.”
Having made such high claims for the maker and what is made, Tolkien argues that fantasy enables us to inhabit ‘other worlds’ and in so doing, our perception of our own world is enhanced and even illuminated because fairy stories are meaningful narratives concerned with timeless values. “Chesterton once remarked that the children in whose company he saw Maeterlinck’s Blue Bird were dissatisfied ‘because it did not end with a Day of Judgement, and it was not revealed to the hero and the heroine that the Dog had been faithful and the cat faithless’. ‘For children’, he says, ‘are innocent and love justice; while most of us are wicked and naturally prefer mercy’.”
Most importantly, Tolkien says that the best fairy stories are marked by joy: "Far more powerful and poignant is the effect [of joy] in a serious tale of Faerie. In such stories, when the sudden turn comes, we get a piercing glimpse of joy, and heart's desire, that for a moment passes outside the frame, rends indeed the very web of story, and lets a gleam come through.”
His own tales contain this strange and blessed mix of joy, poignancy, and the celebration of ordinary things, homely things, as the most important of all: “The wonder of things, such as stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine." The Lord of the Rings concludes with good and faithful Sam, who has accompanied Frodo every step of his perilous journey to destroy the ring, opening the door of his house and calling out, “Well, I’m home”. And the true fairy story is itself a homecoming.