Welcome back to Muse Monday, where you will find essays, photos, or wise sayings to entice the muse to come by and whisper in your ear!
I propose to speak about fairy-stories, though I am aware that this is a rash adventure. Faërie is a perilous land, and in it are pitfalls for the unwary and dungeons for the overbold. And overbold I may be accounted. . . . I have been hardly more than a wandering explorer (or trespasser) in the land, full of wonder but not of information. . . .
There are, however, some questions that one who is to speak about fairy-stories must expect to answer, or attempt to answer, whatever the folk of Faërie may think of his impertinence. (“On Fairy-Stories” 3-4)
So speaks J. R. R. Tolkien, master of the ‘fairy-story.’ I am much more closely aligned with him and our world of long ago than with his contemporary and friend, C. S. Lewis. But there is undoubtedly kinship with Lewis: “. . . I am sounder on Toad Hall and the Wild Wood or the cave-dwelling Selenites or Hrothgar’s court or Vortigern’s than on London, Oxford, and Belfast” (“On Stories” 7). I, too, am far more interested and knowledgeable about the people and doings in fantasy lands than I am in Primary reality. Here, though, the first contrast between the two men, and between Lewis and I, becomes apparent.
Tolkien immersed himself in Middle-earth for decades. Many of his admirers have as well. To them, this world feels as real as their own and becomes a welcome escape from it. Tolkien spoke more than once in his letters about how he felt he was not so much creating the wondrous tale contained within Frodo’s account of the War of the Ring, as he was discovering it. He firmly believed in the idea, if done correctly, such tales could sweep us away into Faërie and contain us there. He noted a truly successful sub-creator “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” (“Fairy” 37). At the end of his essay, he writes of the possibility such works could be given Primary reality beyond any imagination he or other artists had. Niggle discovers this at the end of his journey, which reflects Tolkien’s own longing for this.
Lewis, on the other hand, speaks of the reader being outside the worlds he or she finds in books: “We do not project ourselves at all strongly into the characters. They are like shapes moving in another world. We feel indeed that the pattern of their movements has a profound relevance to our own life, but we do not imaginatively transport ourselves into theirs” (“On Myth” 40).
I include myself here when I say this is the opposite of what many readers of The Lord of the Rings feel. We heartily agree “the pattern of their movements has a profound relevance to our own life,” but we just as vigorously deny there is no imaginative journey into Middle-earth. It is precisely this journey, taken with the heart, mind, and soul, into our own world’s distant, mythic past that allows for this relevance. We do not so much “project ourselves . . . into the characters,” as the people there project themselves into us. Some admirers say this tale and those in it give them the strength to carry their own heavy burdens. Through grace, lives are saved.
I cannot transport myself to Narnia in such a way. To me, it is an artificial fantasy world, though I admit I love Reepicheep, a most Tookish mouse. But it does not have the incredible sense of reality Middle-earth does. Its fantastic beings are more authentic than Narnia’s mythological beasts. Middle-earth does not feel like a fantasy land, because it is not. We do not need to step into a wardrobe or anything else to enter it. It is our world. I have more than once looked up at the moon and thought, though so much else has changed in the intervening millennia between Frodo’s time and ours, there is this connection, this bond. He looked up at the same moon I do. This is the power of Tolkien’s sub-creation.
Another contrast between Tolkien and Lewis is how the two men approached the creatures one encounters in such stories. Tolkien speaks often of elves in his essay, sometimes as though they are separate from the imagination of man. Lewis says, “to enjoy reading about fairies–much more about giants and dragons–it is not necessary to believe in them. Belief is at best irrelevant; it may be a positive disadvantage” (“On Stories” 13). Perhaps this is why Narnia strikes me as world I can look at from the outside, but not one I can immerse myself in, as I have in Middle-earth. Lewis speaks of this lingering effect, as he notes how some readers feel after reading H. Rider Haggard: “I shall never escape this. This will never escape me. These images have struck roots far below the surface of my mind” (“On Myth” 48-49). This is what Middle-earth means to me and many others. It is partly because Tolkien himself so deeply believed in his sub-creation. His blood, sweat, and tears are imbedded in the soil of Middle-earth. A greater part though is the sense of “a sort of religious experience,’ as Lewis noted of Roger Lancelyn Green’s observation of Haggard’s effect on readers (“On Stories” 16).
A third contrast between Tolkien and Lewis is how difficult it was for Lewis “to tell in any given case whether a story is piercing to the unliterary reader’s deeper imagination or only exciting his emotions. You cannot tell even by reading the story for yourself” (“On Stories” 17). This contradicts what he remarked about earlier in his essay about the power in H. G. Well’s First Men in the Moon:
There Bedford finds himself shut out on the surface of the Moon just as the long lunar day is drawing to its close – and with the day go air and all heat. Read it from the terrible moment when the first tiny snowflake startles him into a realization of his position down to the point at which he reaches the ‘sphere’ and is saved. Then ask yourself whether what you have been feeling is simply suspense. ‘Over me, around me, closing in on me, embracing me ever nearer was the Eternal . . . the infinite and final Night of space.’ That is the idea which has kept you enthralled. . . . That airless outer darkness is important not for what it can do to Bedford but for what it does to us . . . .
. . . A man really in Bedford’s position would probably not feel very acutely that sidereal loneliness. The immediate issue of death would drive the contemplative object out of his mind . . . That is one of the functions of art: to present what the narrow and desperately practical perspectives of real life exclude. (“On Stories” 9-10)
Lewis deeply loved reading stories. Tolkien believed in the incredible power writers and other sub-creators have to enrich their world. “It is not difficult to imagine the peculiar excitement and joy the one would feel, if any specially beautiful fairy-story were found to be ‘primarily’ true, its narrative to be history . . .” (“Fairy” 72). A good tale gives “a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief” (68). After this happy ‘turn’ comes, after the eucatastrophe happens, “it can give to child or man that hears it . . . a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears. . . (69).
May such magic ever exist and increase!
Lewis, C. S. “On Stories.” Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories. Harvest/Harcourt, 1966, 3-21.
—. “On Myth.” An Experiment in Criticism. Cambridge UP, 1961, 40-49.
Tolkien, J. R. R. “On Fairy-Stories.” The Tolkien Reader. Ballantine, 1966, 3-84.
Which approach most closely matches your reading and/or writing tastes?