Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Consolations of Fantasy: "On Fairy Stories," Part 3

Hobbit and LOTR
J.R.R. Tolkien argued, toward the end of his essay “On Fairy Stories,” that one of the gifts fantasy brings to humankind is a glimpse of joy, a sudden “turn,” an undeserved gift. It does this through an outcome he called “eucatastrophe.” (The prefix “eu-” comes from the Greek language and means “good.”)

Tolkien thought fairy stories bring us consolation from a “catastrophe” turned good, or (put the other way) happy endings tinged with sadness. Later fantasy, following in Tolkien’s shadow, has not always kept faith with this idea. Two trends in fantasy novels, though apparent opposites, both diverge significantly from Tolkien’s vision.

First is the (rightly criticized) tendency for fantasy-novel heroes to be invincible. Facing ludicrously powerful forces of evil, they come through unscathed. This quality, whenever we see it, fails to measure up to Tolkien’s perception of “eucatastrophe” because it overemphasizes the “eu” part and forgets the other: catastrophe. Something terrible has to happen, some irreparable damage has to be done to somebody we care about, or the good outcome loses its poignancy and joy. If you want an excellent illustration of this, just think of Frodo before he leaves Middle Earth. Frodo is damaged—irreparably so. His heroic feat costs him his “humanity,” if I can call it that.

That outcome is not accidental. For Tolkien, there can’t be any consolation where genuine suffering is not recognized. (Anybody who’s ever been handed a platitude in the face of real personal tragedy knows this.) If the hero of a fantasy story is, in effect, invincible, a person who never suffers real injury or hardship, then the tale will be incapable of giving us one of the gifts that is fantasy’s birthright—at least, according to Tolkien.

Many people—readers and writers and editors among them—have been unsatisfied with such invincible heroes. As a result, we’re seeing an opposite trend, a reaction that also, however, fails to fill the role Tolkien envisioned for “fantasy.” Bluntly: I’m talking about so-called “gray characters.” These characters are “human,” at our worst and most egocentric. They lie, cheat, avenge themselves. If they do something “good,” it’s for despicable reasons. There’s no “good” versus “evil,” no heroes and villains, just the soft, spongy middle.

This, we are told, is “gritty realism.” And it might be that, but it’s also not “eucatastrophe.” It’s not what you get in the fairy stories. It gives no consolation—far from it. The accent has shifted to the “catastrophe”—except that here there isn’t “evil” in the old sense of the word, either. Catastrophe becomes the constant, the uninterrupted state of existence.

The first departure—failing to embrace the existence of real suffering, so that consolation can be provided by the unexpected “turn”—might be relatively harmless next to this second one. Because a brutal insistence on only “gray characters” and death and mayhem may—I hope not, but it probably does—amount to a denial of the possibility of “joy,” of hope, of the dream of goodness, that the fairy stories sometimes offered. Certainly Tolkien’s work offered it: those of us who love it are left with a keen yearning to visit Minas Tirith under Aragorn’s benevolent rule, or (for us democratic Americans) a long stay in the Shire, among people (hobbits, that is) who are genuine if a little provincial.

No doubt, many and greater champions of Tolkien can be found than me, but I want to join my voice to theirs. His characters are not perfect, and they aren’t unrealistic or one-sided, either. The best example here is Frodo. Think of it: he starts out good, he wants to do the right thing—so far, I think that’s like most of us. Check one. He’s a “little person” faced with forces beyond his control or understanding or capacity to overcome. Check two—so are most of us. Frodo’s asked to do something extraordinary, and he reluctantly agrees. Some of us have done the same; many of us, for instance, faced with an invalid child or parent make the “good” choice, the “right” one, the unselfish one, to care for that child or parent ourselves. People make such hard choices every day. Yes, their motives might be mixed. But they embark, wanting to do the right thing. And don’t forget, Tolkien lived during an era renowned for self-sacrifice. So, check three.

But what happens to Frodo at the end of this story? Let’s fast forward to the culmination of his quest, when he stands at the cracks of Mount Doom and, after all his work and all his suffering for “doing the right thing”—he fails. He can’t quite bring himself to do the self-sacrificial deed he intended at the beginning. He puts on the ring and he, little exhausted Frodo, defies Sauron. Check four—most of us would have failed too, in analogous circumstances. Think of the dutiful person taking care of that invalid child or parent, day after day, year after year. And losing, in the midst of all that, the thread of why she was doing it. And maybe coming to loathe the child or parent, in small and maybe larger ways. Or maybe feeling cheated in life—and even acting out to restore the balance.

As fantasy should for Tolkien, the “eucatastrophe” comes as the result of an unexpected turn. Gollum bites off the finger; Frodo’s original resolve is brought about despite his failure at the end. That part doesn’t have to be “realistic,” because this is “fantasy”—it draws on the fairy tale tradition, where such a turn is part of the magic of the story itself. How does Cinderella win the day without that lost slipper? Or the magic that got her to the ball? If you want nitty-gritty (and who doesn’t, sometimes?), fantasy might not be the best place to seek or find it.

But the catastrophe isn’t over yet. Frodo is damaged; he can no longer continue in Middle Earth. He’s saved his world from oppressive malice, but he’s lost the world for himself. He exits the novel a wounded figure. The battle against evil takes a real toll.

No, Tolkien’s characters and realms aren’t perfect; they have their faults and weaknesses. But when it really matters, they normally do the right things, or at least they want to. I think that’s more like most of us, or at least more of us than some folks like to admit. But even if you think all humans are so hopelessly corrupt that no one would have done what the “fellowship” did, the role of fantasy is not to show us the world as we normally live it, but rather to offer us a vision of the world that’s touched by “faerie,” by a magic that’s not about grasping but dreaming. Part of that dream is for people, realms, choices, that are good, at least in part. Or at least they struggle toward being good. And in the outcome, as cliché as some people may find it, without the “happy ending” that Tolkien said was “essential”—a happy ending tinged with sad, real loss—fantasy might just turn out not worth the hard work it demands.

[Note: This is the third of three posts on Tolkien’s essay, “On Fairy Stories.” The other two are here and here.]

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Longing for the Medieval

"Bedrock Fortress," by t.j. blackwell

One of the delights of fantasy novels is their ability to take us to places we’d like to go. If that’s true—I think it usually is—then it’s interesting that so many fantasy novels take place in a kind of medieval world.

If you think about it, most of us were taught in school (or somewhere) that the Middle Ages were a superstitious, unenlightened age, where people died young from plagues and constant warfare, and they had to sleep on dirt or stone floors and live indoors without good windows. Those were the “dark ages.” No science; no medicine. Nobody could read, either, so people didn’t get to think for themselves.

If you’re American, you also were probably taught to associate that time with the terrible idea of “kings,” both high kings and petty ones. I remember in particular learning about the feudal system, with peons and lords and constant battles, and walled cities and the whole thing. Nobody envied those peons. Nobody thought highly of those lords, either.

So, if I’m remembering correctly, if all of us really were taught to think of the Middle Ages as backward and superstitious, why do we all want to go there?

Before I hazard a guess, I want to point out one thing that rarely gets included in the fantasy medieval past: the Church. If you dip into a book like A Day in a Medieval City, by Chiara Frugoni, you’ll discover that the Church was everywhere in the Middle Ages. It was in the middle of most cities (which weren’t all that large), and there were monasteries, abbeys, and such things all around the countryside. (Twain’s Connecticut Yankee makes good dramatic use of this fact.) Churches and steeples and friars and monks appear all over medieval tapestries—as do hell, and the manifold torments of its occupants. To use a Twain-esque expression, you couldn’t swing a … er, rope … without hitting a monk or a friar or some other cleric, in the medieval past.

My point is that the fantasy novel doesn’t give exactly a realistic picture of medieval life. I don’t mean that it should. For one thing, this strange silence about religion, which you’ll find in Tolkien already, might be due to the fairy tale and folktale influence on the genre. After all, European folktales were passed down—if not invented—in a society permeated by the Church and its representatives. And yet, rare is the monk or nun or friar in one of these tales, and far more seldom still is the tale really “religious,” especially “Christian,” in any explicit way. (This topic is for another day.) Moral, yes; religious, not especially.

So one possible caricature is: Fantasy novels happen in a vaguely medieval society where, as in fairy tales, the Church is not a real player—religion isn’t the point. To answer our question—“Why?”—you might say that fantasy novels, out of respect for tradition, take place in the same half-articulate social set-up that the folktales assume.

But I think it goes beyond that. I think for many fantasy fans, we experience a longing for a pre-technocratic society. We want to “go there,” where you have to start a fire with a flint (whatever that is) and, if you’re going to reach a remote kingdom, you have to walk through a barren countryside where there aren’t any good roads or automobiles or railroad tracks. Maybe a forest. This might be happening in some land that we can’t find on a map—in fact, all the better. We just want to go there, to Middle Earth (maybe especially there), and live where elves are not far off and dwarves might be inside a mountain. Or dragons might still plague people who live in houses with roofs of thatch. Something about that pre-plastic, pre-automobile, pre-highway, pre-Walmart, existence entices us.

And another thing: we seem to sometimes perceive the “good”—whatever that is—more clearly there, where the technology doesn’t get in the way. Free of its cords and electric pulses, its clutter, we perceive the “evil” there more sharply, too. And that, again, is a legacy of faerie, I expect. For there, in that world of brilliant color and deep shadow, uncluttered as it is by smokestacks and water towers, we sooner expect to encounter the magic that we crave, from some “other world,” hanging around the bend. Yes, even though we know that magic to be full of peril, unpredictable, and ever unwilling to bend its rules to the self-absorbed. Yes, because somewhere we seem to cling to that old-fashioned idea ...

Friday, February 3, 2012

"Fantasy" - according to Tolkien

On Fairy Stories
I find I’m not finished with my musings on Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy Stories.” There’s a lot there worth pondering, especially in a blog like this that would not exist, strictly speaking, were it not for that essay and its author.

In the essay, Tolkien claims that fairy stories offer special gifts to humankind. What they do for us, they do better than anything else. He calls these gifts fantasy, recovery, escape, and consolation.

“Fantasy”—it doesn’t mean for him what you might think.

First, it’s obvious when reading Tolkien’s essay that he’s using the term in a new way. He describes “fantasy” as an almost elfish craft of creating stories that involve the “faerie” realm—or at least magical, non-realistic elements from “faerie.” But—and this is equally important—such stories also maintain an internal consistency or “reality” (or “truth”) within them.

Tolkien is not trying to invent a new “genre” here: he’s trying to revitalize an age-old practice or aspect of human culture—“a right of humanity” I think was his phrase. That “human right” is to create and prize such stories, for adults. In his time, fairy tales had been relegated to children and studied (but not openly enjoyed) by adults. I suspect things haven’t changed that much, except that more adults today would probably admit they enjoy fairy tales. But fairy tales are still, as then, enjoyed by … not everyone.

(Incidentally, very few subscription-based magazines openly seek out original “fairy stories” for publication. Most of those are children’s magazines.)

Fast forward sixty plus years. I think it’s fair to say that, currently, more fantasy novels are being published and read than fairy tales—although (as I’ve discovered) some fairy tale collections score prominently in the rankings, and people who like fairy tales really like them. Ironically, Tolkien acted as midwife to the creation of this genre we call “fantasy.” Well, he had plenty of help from the publishing industry, which saw an opportunity for profits, subsequently realized. The results are staggering. One website dedicated to such things lists almost twenty subgenres under the “fantasy” label, and condescends to include Tolkien in its lists, though not without severe criticism of his Middle Earth novels.

I offer no quibble to the bewildering array of fiction marketed under the label “fantasy,” though my personal preference is for fantasy with links to folktale and myth. (I also like sci-fi, which I experience as a different genre; its roots go back well before Tolkien’s work.) In my own tastes, I’ve obviously been influenced by Tolkien’s. For him, “fantasy” that is not somehow drawing on folktale or myth, set in some form of “faerie,” is a sort of contradiction in terms. But then, as I said, he was talking about a faculty, a human capacity for storytelling that washes and revitalizes the world: not a genre of fiction. And, in fact, Tolkien viewed “fantasy” as high literary art, superior in many respects to what is usually classed as “literary fiction.” His quibble with literary critics runs through various parts of the essay, and is probably familiar to every serious Tolkien fan.

I think it’s fair to say that not all “fantasy” (even on NPR's 100 Best list) is “high literary art,” even when it sells well. The production of books that entertain lots of people and consequently make huge amounts of money … is what it is. But commercial success and high literary art have no intrinsic correlation: a novel can be one or both or neither. Tolkien’s LOTR is obviously both: a pioneering work of stunning imaginative power, realized potential, and rich complexity, with a lingering effect on the reader—and it’s sold many, many copies.

But Tolkien’s epic is “fantasy” because it takes place in “faerie”—of a particular sort, if I can put it that way. And yet, LOTR is a new creation that gathers many leaves from the “tree of tales” and weaves of them a compelling story that makes the reader see the “real world” in a new way. By Tolkien’s terms, then, his own work is “fantasy,” while much that followed in his train is … not so much.

So, if you’ve ever wondered why you like Tolkien, and fairy tales, and some fantasy, but you’re lukewarm about much that sells under the label “fantasy”—well, maybe what you want is “fantasy” of a different kind. Look for “faerie”—tales that tap into the wonder, magic, and mythic landscape of the human imagination.

NOTE: This is the second of three posts on Tolkien's essay. Check out the first and the third.


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