In reading “On Fairy-Stories,” the concept of recovery, the idea that fantasy, myth, and fairy tales help us in “regaining a clear view […] ‘seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them’ – as things apart from ourselves” stood out to me very strongly. While intuitively and from my own experiences, I knew this statement to be true, I became curious as to what it is about these stories which create this effect, how is it that these secondary realities allow us to more deeply experience our own?
This question led to many lines of speculation, some more reasonable than others, the first of which relates to the discussion of adjectives and names. As Tolkien said in Mythopoeia: “trees are not ‘trees’ until so named and seen,” and it is very true that the names and descriptors we give to our world are the lens through which we experience what that world is. However, once those descriptors have been set in place, we become familiar them and expect them to stay relatively consistent, certainly, trees are all a slightly different shade of green, and cheeses all taste pretty different, but the trees are all still mostly green and the cheeses still all taste roughly cheese-like, and so everything grows to seem kind of boring. That’s where fantasy comes in. Through those words, one can give birth to realms with vast new possibilities: purple trees which grow downward, cheeses that will blow your head off, anything else you can possibly dream, and in your mind that world seems pretty cool. So how does that make the real world new and shiny again? Because if you lived in a world were trees grew down and cheese was explosive then this world would start to seem pretty interesting, and when you think about it, that cheese you’re eating is the miracle of life melted there on your chili fries, “a bacterial flirtation with enzymes. The co-mingling of friendly micro-organisms giving birth to curds and whey” (quoted from the show Wonderfalls, what I like to think of, perhaps wrongly, as a kind of modern fairy story.) Point being, when you return to this world after exploring others, you begin to realize that this world is already pretty magical.
Fairy stories also allow us to comprehend how uniquely awesome reality is, in that through imagining these places we have just created a whole… new… world. Various religious philosophies aside, in that moment, we become gods, with all our imaginings being our tiny little minions bent on jumping around to do our bidding. Think about it, you just became God. How does that feel? But actually, being a god is kind of a rough gig, what with maintaining an internally consistent reality and all, and then we understand that managing creation, whether it’s a god or just random chance doing it, is a fairly impressive feat, particularly in a reality which allows for the complexities of innumerable sub-creations, and again we realize that our world is already pretty magical.
These stories also provide us with a sense of connection, first to the sense of wonder which was present at the time of their writing. In the modern age we have ever changing technology and industry which has made humans an incredibly powerful force in the world. We can explain natural phenomena, better protect ourselves from nature’s dangers, and even try to outdo the feats of the natural world, all with our science, and this fact, while impressive, makes humanity a lot harder to impress. In this day and age, I wouldn’t think twice about hiking through a forest, and if I were to see a man on a black horse wearing robes and carrying a sword I would raise a quizzical eyebrow…and then probably call the police. And yet, in reading The Lord of the Rings, I can become wholly invested in the dangers and mysteries of Fangorn, and can fear the Nazgûl like nothing in this world. This experience, Tolkien’s “escape” connects me to the wonder which may have been felt in our own reality in those days when men were not so powerful.
With that thought, came the realization for me that these stories also serve as a point of connection to all of human existence throughout the ages. Given that every story is pulled from Tolkien’s pot of soup which includes an unbelievable number of elements: true events, numerous retellings, political motives and personal biases, historical attitudes, and so forth, every story is a conduit to everything which formed it, essentially, centuries of human experience distilled into narratives which have been told and retold, every time different and every time reflecting a new piece of our collective history.
In this reflection of human existence, fairy tales serve a purpose which is universal to all stories; they are the means by which we create a meaningful representation for all existence. This point is well illustrated in Terry Pratchett’s book The Hogfather, in which a great catastrophe nearly befalls the earth, one which would have meant that the sun would never rise again. When questioned as to what would have happened if this had happened, the main character responds simply that a ball of fire would have become gradually visible every morning. This may seem to be merely a petty semantic distinction, but what truly separates these two events is the meaning which they hold for humanity. The sun is an entity of great importance to cultures across the world, regarded as a life-giving force, its existence as the sun rather than a ball of fire carries with it all the significance with which it has been imbued over time. The same goes for any event in human existence, without the power of story, an event is meaningless and passes away unnoticed forever.
Fairy tales hold special significance in that they are removed from the restrictions of this reality, stepping outside this creation into their own, allowing the meaning of those events they illustrate to stand out more starkly, highlighting our own reality against a backdrop of one which we will never experience except in our minds. So, consider… as a free-thinking entity within this reality, we have created a means of representing the vast expanse of that reality in a meaningful fashion, and not only that, but also a subsidiary means of stepping outside of reality in order to parse together all the little bits of meaningfulness in a way which is even more meaningful upon placing it back into this reality. Lest I need to reiterate: the world…it’s pretty magical.