These are notes I made in July/August of 2006 on Tolkien's essay, On Fairy-Stories, in which he tries to come up with a definition of what is a fairy story and what isn't. It reveals much of his inner thought concerning The Lord of the Rings. Quotes introduced by some of my comments are taken from The Tolkien Reader.
In the introduction to the reprint, Tolkien reveals that this essay is related to The Lord of the Rings. As for the story Leaf by Niggle, it is a parable of a painter whose painting is left unfinished, at which time the painter must leave to go on a journey. The painter then enters a land where he sees that his painting has come to life, and is complete. The painter Niggle is in fact Tolkien himself, and the painting is his imperfect vision of reality expressed in his writing.
"These two things, On Fairy-stories and Leaf by Niggle, are here reprinted and issued together. They are no longer easy to obtain, but they may still be found interesting, especially by those to whom The Lord of the Rings has given pleasure. Though one is an "essay" and the other a "story", they are related: by the symbols of Tree and Leaf, and by both touching in different ways on what is called in the essay "sub-creation". Also they were written in the same period (1938-39), when The Lord of the Rings was beginning to unroll itself…" (p. 31)
Tolkien describes a fairy-story almost as if it were a vision, in which the mind may not question what it is receiving. Once critical questioning comes to mind, the vision abruptly ends. Is Tolkien here describing some of his own private personal experiences?
"The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords. In that realm a man may, perhaps, count himself fortunate to have wandered, but its very richness and strangeness tie the tongue of a traveler who would report them. And while he is there it is dangerous for him to ask too many questions, lest the gates should be shut and the keys should be lost." (p. 33)
Here Tolkien states that Fairyland is a realm that exists between Heaven and Hell. Why should he say this? And he even writes a poem in the middle of his essay:
"The road to fairyland is not the road to Heaven; nor even to Hell, I believe, though some have held that it may lead thither indirectly by the Devil's tithe.
O see ye not yon narrow road
So thick beset wi' thorn and briers?
That is the path of Righteousness,
Though after it but few inquires.
So thick beset wi' thorn and briers?
That is the path of Righteousness,
Though after it but few inquires.
And see ye not yon braid, braid road
That lies across the lily leven?
That is the path of Wickedness,
Though some call it the Road to Heaven.
And see ye not yon bonny road
That winds about yon fernie brae?
That is the road to fair Elfland,
Where thou and I this night maun gae." (p.34-35)
Tolkien discusses how fairy-stories are related to visions of the Truth:
"…if elves are true, and really exist independently of our tales about them, then this also is certainly true: elves are not primarily concerned with us, nor we with them. Our fates are sundered, and our paths seldom meet. Even upon the borders of Faerie we encounter them only at some chance crossing of the ways. [Footnote: This is true also, even if they are only creations of Man's mind, "true" only as reflecting in a particular way one of Man's visions of Truth.]" (p. 38)
Interestingly, Tolkien comments that H.G. Well's The Time-Machine is more of a fairy-story than Gulliver's travels, as fairy stories are about the world of Faerie, not just creatures of small size. But why The Time-Machine? Tolkien was interested in time travel. He elaborates further:
"This enchantment of distance, especially of distant time, is weakened only by the preposterous and incredible Time Machine itself. But we see in this example one of the main reasons why the borders of fairy-story are inevitably dubious. The magic of Faerie is not an end in itself, its virtue is in its operations: among these are the satisfaction of certain primordial human desires. One of these desires is to survey the depths of space and time. Another is (as will be seen) to hold communion with other living things. A story may thus deal with the satisfaction of these desires, with or without the operation of either machine or magic, and in proportion as it succeeds it will approach the quality and have the flavour of fairy-story." (p. 41)
Here Tolkien acknowledges that dreams are a means by which one can enter into the world of Faerie, but states that any fairy-story must not mention any explicit reference to the dream itself as the source of the story. He speaks of certain dreams as if from experience. The source of The Lord of the Rings perhaps?
"Next, after travellers' tales, I would also exclude, or rule out of order, any story that uses the machinery of Dream, the dreaming of actual human sleep, to explain the apparent occurrence of its marvels. At the least, even if the reported dream was in other respects in itself a fairy-story, I would condemn the whole as gravely defective: like a good picture in a disfiguring frame. It is true that Dream is not unconnected with Faerie. In dreams strange powers of the mind may be unlocked. In some of them a man may for a space wield the power of Faerie, that power which, even as it conceives the story, causes it to take living form and colour before the eyes. A real dream may indeed sometimes be a fairy-story of almost elvish ease and skill – while it is being dreamed. But if a waking writer tells you that his tale is only a thing imagined in his sleep, he cheats deliberately the primal desire at the heart of Faerie: the realization, independent of the conceiving mind, of imagined wonder. …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." The meaning of "true" in this connexion I will consider in a moment. But since the fairy-story deals with "marvels," it cannot tolerate any frame or machinery suggesting that the whole story in which they occur is a figment or illusion. The tale itself may, of course, be so good that one can ignore the frame. Or it may be successful and amusing as a dream-story. So are Lewis Carroll's
Again Tolkien discusses the relationship he sees between fairy-stories and time travel:
"For one thing [fairy-stories] are now old, and antiquity has an appeal in itself. …Such stories have now a mythical or total (unanalysable) effect, an effect quite independent of the findings of Comparative Folklore, and one which it can not spoil or explain; they open a door on Other Time, and if we pass through, though only for a moment, we stand outside our own time, outside Time itself, maybe." (p. 56)
Tolkien here talks about his definition of "Imagination," which he seeks to separate from his definition of "Art," or the ability to create a story with an inner consistency of reality.
"The human mind is capable of forming mental images of things not actually present. The faculty of conceiving the images is (or was) naturally called Imagination. But in recent times, in technical not normal language, Imagination has often been held to be something higher than the mere image-making, ascribed to the operations of Fancy (a reduced and depreciatory form of the older word Fantasy); an attempt is thus made to restrict, I should say misapply, Imagination to "the power of giving to ideal creations the inner consistence of reality."" (p. 68)
After Tolkien associates "fantasy" with images of things "not actually present", he then discusses how it can be "maliciously" confused with dreaming and mental disorders. Is he again describing something from personal experience?
"Fantasy, of course, starts out with an advantage: arresting strangeness. But that advantage has been turned against it, and has constributed to its disrepute. Many people dislike being "arrested." They dislike any meddling with the Primary World, or such small glimpses of it as are familiar with them. They, therefore, stupidly and even maliciously confound Fantasy with Dreaming, in which there is no Art [Footnote: This is not true of all dreams. In some Fantasy seems to take a part. But this is exceptional. Fantasy is a rational, not irrational, activity.]; and with mental disorders, in which there is not even control: with delusion and hallucination." (p. 69)
Again another comparison between fairy stories and dreams:
"If you are present at a Faerian drama you yourself are, or think that you are, bodily inside its Secondary World. The experience may be very similar to Dreaming and has (it would seem) sometimes (by men) been confounded with it. But in Faerian drama you are in a dream that some other mind is weaving, and the knowledge of that alarming fact may slip from your grasp. To experience directly a Secondary World: the potion is too strong, and you give to it Primary Belief, however marvelous the events. You are deluded – whether that is the intention of the elves (always or at any time) is another question." (pp. 72-73)
Here Tolkien explains the primary and highest purpose of a fairy story:
"…At least I would say that Tragedy is the true form of Drama, its highest function; but the opposite is true of Fairy-story. Since we do not appear to possess a word that expresses this opposite – I will call it Eucatastrophe. The eucatastrophic tale is the true form of fairy-tale, and its highest function. The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous "turn" (for there is no true end to any fairy tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce very well, is not essentially "escapist," nor "fugitive." In its fairy-tale – or otherworld – setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur." (p. 85-86).
In the above quote, Tolkien seems to be talking about a happy ending to a story. Actually he is talking about something much more than that. He almost ended his essay on this point, but then he felt a need to expand on it further in the epilogue. The "joy" he was speaking about is the sudden surprise that the fairy story is realized to be true, that it is describing something of reality:
"This "joy" which I have selected as the mark of the true fairy-story (or romance), or as the seal upon it, merits more consideration.
Probably every writer making a secondary world, a fantasy, every sub-creator, wishes in some measure to be a real maker, or hopes that he is drawing on reality: hopes that the peculiar quality of this secondary world (if not all the details) are derived from Reality, or are flowing into it. …The peculiar quality of the "joy" in successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth. It is not only a "consolation" for the sorrow of this world, but a satisfaction, and an answer to that question "Is it true?" The answer to this question that I gave at first was (quite rightly): "If you have built your little world well, yes: it is true in that world." That is enough for the artist (or the artist part of the artist). But in the "eucatastrophe" we see in a brief vision that the answer may be greater – it may be a far-off gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world. The use of this word gives a hint to my epilogue. It is a serious and dangerous matter. It is presumptuous of me to touch upon such a theme; but if by grace what I say has in any respect any validity, it is, of course, only one facet of a truth incalculably rich: finite only because the capacity of Man for whom this was done is finite." (pp. 87-88)
So what is Tolkien talking about? Nothing other than the fact that a fairy story (i.e., The Lord of the Rings) is realized to have been a prophecy, and a prophecy relating to Christianity:
"I would venture to say that approaching the Christian Story from this direction, it has long been my feeling (a joyous feeling) that God redeemed the corrupt making-creatures, men, in a way fitting to this aspect, as to others, of their strange nature. The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels – peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: "mythical" in their perfect, self-contained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe. But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation. The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man's history. The Ressurection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the "inner consistency of reality." There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many skeptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it leads to either sadness or to wrath.
It is not difficult to imagine the peculiar excitement and joy one would feel, if any specially beautiful fairy-story were found to be "primarily" true, its narrative to be history, without thereby losing the mythical or allegorical significance that it had possessed. …It looks forward (or backward: the direction in this regard is unimportant) to the Great Eucatastrophe. The Christian joy, the Gloria, is of the same kind; but it is preeminently (infinitely, if our capacity were not finite) high and joyous. But this story is supreme; and it is true. Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men – and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused." (pp. 88-89).