Thursday, April 3, 2014

Who Are Fairy Stories Written For? Come, Tom Bombadil, for our need is near us!

         J.R.R Tolkien believed that Fairy stories were written for both children and adults.  He suggested in his essay On Fairy Stories that children were more apt to enjoy fairy stories because they have less knowledge of the world and therefore can more easily believe in them.  Furthermore, Tolkien surmised that children are less likely to voice their disapproval and thusly, if they do not enjoy the story, they just may not say so.  Tolkien’s salient point that fairy stories are meant just as much for the enjoyment of adults as for children because they are a “natural human taste,” is coupled with the idea that the successful fairy story comes from a sub-creator who can create a secondary reality.  The “willing suspension of disbelief” in this secondary reality should not be necessary because the secondary reality is different than our own primary reality and therefore no need arises to disbelieve anything within it.  So if the target audience of Tolkien’s fairy stories was not specifically children, whom then did he write them for? 
This question seems inherently tied to another important question of what fairy stories do according to Tolkien.  We know from Tolkien’s essay that fairy stories have four main functions.  The first is that fairy stories must be different from other stories, which makes them very difficult to compose.  It is harder to create a consistent reality when one cannot reference everyday things (like airplanes, or TVs, or phones etc.).  Secondly, fairy stories must promote a kind of “recovery” for those who read them. They provide the renewal or “regaining of a clear view” of our primary reality.  The things of everyday life that might become drab and insipid can appear in another form in the fairy story.  Then when we leave the story and look at those drab and insipid things they are no longer dull.  Our familiarities are suddenly seen anew without our “appropriation.”  Thirdly, fairy stories must provide an escape for everyone: escape from the bustle, noise, and technology of our time, escape from this world and satisfaction of curiosities, escape from death through the deathlessness of elves, escape from the things we cannot flee from in our primary reality.  The secondary reality, however, provides us the way out.  Finally, fairy stories provide consolation.  Tolkien uses the word “eucatastrophe” to mean pure and true joy that comes after sorrow and this joy is as sharp as any grief.  These four components of fairy stories make them special and unique.
Knowing that fairy stories accomplish these four things, we can now look at the context in which Tolkien wrote his own, very successful, fairy stories.  When Tolkien began writing The Lost Tales and The Silmarillion he was in the trenches of World War I.  Writing was his own way of escape from chaos, his avenue for expression of feeling, and his method of recovery of all he did not have and missed during the war.  While writing The Hobbit he seemed to do so along with the advice of his youngest son, Christopher.  Despite being sickly, Tolkien nonetheless prized Christopher as his first and most important helper.  Later when Christopher went off to World War II, Tolkien sent him the manuscripts of the Lord of the Rings as he was writing it, maybe understanding that Christopher too would need a “way out” of the trenches.  Are fairy stories, however, merely a recovery, escape, and consolation for those battling through tough times or is there a use for them in our every day lives?
Now we must ask Tom Bombadil for help!  In The Fellowship of the Ring Tom Bombadil begins to tell the hobbits stories about the history of Middle Earth and beyond.  On this occasion, the hobbits begin to realize how insignificant they are and how small their own story is in the greater context of the life of Middle Earth and the rest of the world.  The stories gave them perspective.  Tom Bombadil does not simply tell Frodo and his companions stories, but they are “enchanted” before him.  According to Tolkien in On Fairy Stories, enchantment is an essential part of fairy stories.  “[Tom] had now wandered into strange regions beyond their memory and beyond their waking thought, into times when the world was wider and the seas flowed straight to the western Shore; and still on and back Tom went singing out into the ancient starlight, when only the Elf-sires were awake…The hobbits sat still before him, enchanted; and it seemed as if, under the spell of his words, the wind had gone…and all the sky was filled with the light of white stars” (Ballantine Books 1994, p. 148).  In this passage Tom is what Tolkien describes as a “sub-creator” within the created story of the Lord of the Rings, or secondary reality, Tolkien himself has already created.   This passage gives us a further insight into the purpose of fairy stories: they bring us out of a myopic view of our own story and show us how much greater the Great Story is.  So perhaps fairy stories are for those who need recovery, escape, and consolation and also for everyone, to help us all see, like the Hobbits, how small we really are in the Great Story.   Like Aragorn says in The Two Towers, “For not we but those who come after will make the legends of our time…Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear; nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves, and another among Men. It is a man's part to discern them, as much in the Golden Wood as in his own house” (Ballantine Books 1994, p. 33).  We are merely a small part of this Great Story but we can still discern this good and ill which is not one thing in Lord of the Rings and another in our own world.
     So not only are fairy stories for everyone but they are needed by everyone.  In his biography on Tolkien, Humphrey Carpenter says that, “his essay On Fairy Stories and in his story Leaf By Niggle, both…suggest that a man be given by God the gift of recording ‘a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth…always I had the sense of recording what was already “there,” somewhere: not of “inventing.”’” (p. 99-100).  Each person battles through tough times at some point, and those people do need escape, recovery, and consolation, but they are not the only ones.  We all must at some point see the greater story around beyond our own individual primary reality – we must see the true primary reality!  To Tolkien the greatest fairy story was the Gospel of Jesus Christ – the message of Christianity – and the best part was that this was the true story to Tolkien: the consolation was quite real.  And this story, according to Matthew 28:19-20, is just like Tolkien’s ideas of fairy stories: created for all people for all time.
- KK


  1. KK,
    Thanks for your thoughts. You lead us on a path, from the idea that Tolkien wrote fairy stories for children, as might be expected, to the idea that such stories are for an audience of adults also, who need ‘recovery, escape, and consolation,’ and finally “for everyone [and] are needed by everyone.” In this, I think you nicely move step by step from the common notion of fairy stories (being only for children, which Tolkien combated) to the universal audience and need for such flights. You wrote:
    “So perhaps fairy stories are for those who need recovery, escape, and consolation and also for everyone, to help us all see, like the Hobbits, how small we really are in the Great Story.”
    (Likewise: “Each person battles through tough times at some point, and those people do need escape, recovery, and consolation, but they are not the only ones. We all must at some point see the greater story around beyond our own individual primary reality – we must see the true primary reality!”)

    But I am curious. How do you think these three benefits of Faërie (recovery, escape, and consolation) relate to the Hobbits’ humble realization of themselves in the ‘Great Story.’ By your phrasing, one might seem that escape, recovery, and consolation are distinct from that realization. Is that so? Or are they related to each other? Do you not also think that recovery, escape, and consolation might be part of how one finds oneself within the Greater Story? If so, how would that work?

    Finally, I find Carpenter’s quote highly interesting: “Always I had the sense of recording what was already “there,” somewhere: not of “inventing.” How does this ‘recording what was there’ aspect fit with Tolkien’s description of the inventional imagination? How can the fantasy story-teller at once and the same time be an imaginative inventor as well as a ‘recorder of what is already there’?

    ~Radegundus/Robert the Green

  2. Hi KK,
    Thanks for reviewing the different ways that Tolkien explains fairy stories are necessary. I think it is interesting how Tolkien wrote (and sent the stories to Christopher) in times of war and in great trials, and how, as you wrote, Tolkien found the stories a consolation or an escape in times of great strife.

    One thing however that has been confusing me a little bit is Tolkien’s idea of eucatastrophe. Sometimes when I reach the end of a fairy story, I am frustrated by how nicely all the loose ends are tied up and how, even if you have a good cry when Frodo isn’t ever really healed, there still is that happiness and general feeling that everything ended up all right. As Tolkien supports, the stories give an escape andh hope. However, I have sometimes found that unsatisfying because life doesn’t get tied up nicely and clearly. Do you think that ending the stories in a clean way can still provide us a satisfying hope for real life? As I read Radegundus/Robert the Green’s comment, one thing that occurred to me, is that possibly reading how the Hobbit’s fit in to the “great story” can be the consolation in our lives. Although we may find our lives messy, we can read fairy stories and know that things do work out (even if the character’s living in the story themselves don’t fully realize that). How do you think that fairy stories can help to address the messiness and non-eucatastrophe feelings of our lives?

    1. Hope, you bring up a good point. It's hard to feel that happily-ever-after fairy stories connect to "real life." I'm not sure if Tolkien thinks there is a difference between myths and fairy stories, but for the sake of argument, let's assume that, just as myths are thought to be based on history long past, so are some fairy stories. Through the words of his characters, Tolkien says that myths are a smoothed-over version of ancient history. We really do tend to see history as a series of discrete events with clear beginnings and ends--a war starts on a certain day, one side wins on a certain day and lives happily ever after, the other side loses and is completely ruined. That is how history is often taught. This is not really so different from the simplicity of happily-ever-after fairy stories. We experience our own lives as far more complex, but we often don't see history that way, so a happily-ever-after ending is really not so disconnected from the primary reality.

      Anna M

  3. Hi KK,
    This is a very interesting post about the purpose of fairy-stories. I’m curious as to why you feel Tolkien is claiming that everyone needs fairy-stories. I would say that he is making a case for the merits of fairy-stories, and also makes a strong case for the merits of a sub-creator who can help readers achieve “literary belief,” (“On Fairy-Stories, p.60). In fact, I think what you bring up about Tom Bombadil highlights this—Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin are enchanted by Bombadil. However, he also admits that fairy-stories are not everyone’s cup of tea: “But in fact only some children, and some adults, have any special taste for them [fairy-stories]…” (p.58). Moreover, are fairy-stories the only gateways into seeing the true primary reality?