On Tolkien, Fairy Tales, and Happy Endings

Due to Realm Makers and a book launch, I wasn’t able to write my final Silmarillion Awards post on the correct date. So I’m here now to wish The Lord of the Rings a belated Happy 63rd Birthday! (The Fellowship of the Ring was published on July 29, 1954.) I’d also like to talk about the significance of Tolkien’s work to the genre of fantasy in general and to me personally.

I didn’t actually read The Lord of the Rings until I was in my early twenties. Shocking, I know. It’s not because I didn’t want to; I just didn’t get around to it until then. (The same with Harry Potter. It took me until age twenty to really discover my love of fantasy.) Naturally, I love LOTR. Who doesn’t? But the two Tolkien works that have had the most impact on my life are actually not the main LOTR series. One of them is The Silmarillion. The other is a non-fiction essay called “On Fairy Stories.”

As one or two of you may know, I write fairy-tale fantasy. I didn’t pick that genre because of a lifelong love of fairy-tales, or even Disney. I’ve never been a big fan of the original Grimm stories–they’re far too dark for my tastes–and I’ve been very critical of Disney over the years. (Pretty much the only Disney films I actually love are Tangled and The Emperor’s New Groove.) I had two reasons for deciding to write in this genre. One, it’s popular. In fact, it’s even more popular now than it was eight years ago when I first started developing my own books. That’s because it resonates with people, which is something I’ll talk more about in a minute. The second reason is that around the same time I was brainstorming Beaumont and Beasley, I read Tolkien’s “On Fairy-Stories.”

When Tolkien uses the phrase “fairy-story,” he’s talking about all fantasy, not just the stories we call “fairy tales.” “On Fairy-Stories” is, in essence, a defense of the fantasy genre. The arguments Tolkien takes issue with are still being used today–the notion that fantasy is somehow lesser due to its lack of realism. Some even claim that fantasy is harmful to children because it gives them impossible expectations. I’ve heard many statements like that over the years, leveled at both books and films. Such criticisms often cause writers to question whether or not they should bother to write speculative fiction at all. Aside from specific genre concerns, another topic Tolkien addresses is the “happy ending” in general–also a fictional convention spurned in the modern era. How often have we heard books, films, etc. praised for being “dark” and “grounded?” They often get points automatically just for killing off the main characters at the end. (That’s not intended as a criticism of Rogue One, BTW. I haven’t even had a chance to watch that movie yet.)

Here’s what Tolkien says (emphasis mine):

“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 supremely 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. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”

Bask in the awesomeness of that last sentence for a minute. That’s the creed for every Christian who writes fantasy (or speculative fiction in general). Happy endings aren’t “unrealistic.” Yes, in a fallen world, things don’t always happen the way we would like them to. There is pain and suffering. Not every question is answered; not every loose end is neatly tied up. But while we may not always experience the smaller happy endings we desire, we believe in a final happy ending that will eclipse and erase all suffering forever. And if we, by telling stories that point to a reality beyond the physical, can give our readers even a small taste of that “universal final defeat” of darkness, then we are doing something very worthwhile indeed.

Tolkien brought fantasy out of the nursery and into the “grown-up” world. The Silmarillion is proof of this. The wonderful thing about the book is that it shows how much Middle-Earth mattered to Tolkien, and how much he expected it to matter to his readers regardless of their ages. He went to the effort of creating a rich tapestry of mythology behind his stories because he expected them to find the very audience they have enjoyed over the years–people who want high-quality, worthwhile fantasy that doesn’t insult their intelligence. Tolkien knew he was doing something important. I see “On Fairy-Stories” as his answer to anyone who might have come to him and asked why he devoted so much of his life to creating whole histories, legends, and languages for made-up lands. Tolkien’s fantasy was his form of evangelism. In a way, it may even have been his form of worship. That’s how I like to think of my own writing.

“Fantasy (in this sense) is, I think, not a lower but a higher form of Art, indeed the most nearly pure form, and so (when achieved) the most potent.”

Don’t ever apologize for writing fantasy. Write it boldly, and write it well. Make Tolkien proud.

“…for there is no true end to any fairy-tale…”

Comments (24)

  1. Deborah O'Carroll August 3, 2017 at 10:13 am

    OKAY, SO THIS IS ONE OF MY FAVORITE POSTS. JUST. YES. THANK YOU. I’ve been rereading The Silmarillion and now I need to go re-read On Fairy Stories… Tolkien really hit the nail on the head in that one. 😀 I love love everything you said, and so agree! It’s like that DWJ quote (which I think was one of the reasons we met on Twitter) about “why should something be truer just because it’s unhappy”. (Rogue One was fun but that ending made it NOT OKAY. -_- UGH.) People think “dark” and “sad” is “realistic” but I think happy endings are important to fiction, especially fantasy fiction, and I’m going to fight for that. I’m SO glad when I run into people like you and Tolkien who agree! ^_^ It’s a losing struggle in this day and age that glorifies darkness and tragedy, but it’s worth it. 🙂 AWESOME POST, THANK YOU.

    • Kyle August 4, 2017 at 1:09 pm

      You’re very welcome! Thank *you* for your kind compliments! I was partly inspired to write this because of a talk I went to at Realm Makers where the speakers were talking about how Christians should write “issue” fiction. Nothing against them; I’m sure their books are great and probably do a lot of good. But as I listened, I was thinking “That’s not me.” They didn’t actually bash escapist fiction, but I do think young writers are often made to feel like their work isn’t really worth anything if it doesn’t tackle some big, dark, controversial behemoth of philosophy. There’s a place for that, but not everyone likes to read it, and not everyone has to write it. And sometimes (in the case of 13 Reasons Why, for example) such fiction glorifies and promotes the darkness instead of warning people away from it.

      • Deborah O'Carroll August 4, 2017 at 4:16 pm

        Excellent point!! And a lot of younger authors, especially, aren’t ready to tackle those behemoth philosophy big deep dark things in a story yet, either. (I say this as one. XD) I love that your fiction has happiness and fun, even while being suspenseful. 🙂

        • Kyle August 4, 2017 at 9:55 pm

          Thank you!! 😊 I try to include enough suspense and high stakes to make it feel worth reading, so that people don’t think they’re just reading a fairy-tale spoof. Not that there’s anything wrong with books in that category, but there are already a lot of good ones out there and I wanted to contribute something different to the market. But I don’t ever want to let it get too dark. (That does not, however, mean that any of the characters are remotely safe. 😈)

      • Daley Downing August 5, 2017 at 8:18 am

        I don’t agree one bit with the “issue” fiction idea — not for either conservative or religious viewpoints, or for liberal/more radical views. I definitely think that we can find much less “in your face” ways of including important topics/discussions as part of the story.

        • Kyle August 5, 2017 at 12:25 pm

          Absolutely! And I think we need to spend less time in fiction representing everything that’s broken in this world and try to envision a better one. As Christians, that’s what we’re supposed to be working towards and telling other people about anyway.

          • Daley Downing August 5, 2017 at 3:30 pm

            Yeah, if we’re not going to eventually find/create something better, then what’s the point?!

          • Kyle August 5, 2017 at 3:32 pm

            Exactly. And I really don’t want to read fiction/watch movies/whatever where the author’s main point is, “Everything is horrible, so just live your life and hope you get something out of it before you die.” No thank you, sir or madam, I can do without your nihilism.

          • Daley Downing August 5, 2017 at 3:38 pm

            It’s why I gave up on hoping to like The Hunger Games, The Maze Runner, or Divergent.

            If you haven’t yet, you should definitely see Moana. It completely breaks the mold for recent Disney films, and I truly hope they commission more like it!

          • Kyle August 5, 2017 at 3:41 pm

            Oh yes, forgot about that one…I did see it and loved it!! Very impressive. Cool and groundbreaking without being overly preachy. I’m looking forward to their next fairy tale film, “Gigantic,” as well–one of the guys who did Tangled is working on it.

          • Daley Downing August 5, 2017 at 3:46 pm

            Yeah, Moana was such a breath of fresh air! We’re not big on Disney in my family — my kids are definitely Dreamworks fans!

          • Kyle August 5, 2017 at 3:46 pm

            I love Dreamworks as well. Their output is so often better than Disney’s.

  2. Daley Downing August 3, 2017 at 12:42 pm

    This is SO very true!! Fairytales weren’t even meant to be magical, they were cautionary tales for that time period/culture, and it’s why they were originally so dark and unfortunate. Honestly, once I found this out, I was kind of appalled that Walt Disney thought they were good fodder for re-branding and marketing to children. It kind of destroyed my childhood, to be honest, lol. I had never read Lord of the Rings when I was young, either, but I did read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and books by Robin McKinley and Jane Yolen, fantasy that are set in a magical place that don’t necessarily follow the tropes of fairytales (according to our modern viewpoints) — (one of the reasons I love Tangled, too!). It was part of why I loved Harry Potter — it really felt like a true fairytale, according to our modern sensibilities — orphan with terrible foster family and low self-esteem turns out to be heir to a wonderful world of kind wizards and mythical creatures and adventure — yes, this is how it’s supposed to go!! It’s definitely why I write the sort of fantasy I write as well — you’re right, it’s not too much to hope for a happy ending, nor for finding great lessons that can apply to real life in fantasy novels!

    • Kyle August 4, 2017 at 1:05 pm

      Thanks! Yeah, it’s actually interesting that we owe our present-day concept of fun fantasy with happy endings to “modern” writers like Lewis and Tolkien, and even Disney to a degree. They decided to take those darker stories and turn them into something more appealing. Kind of an odd choice, when you look back on how people used to view the fairy-tale genre, but it produced some pretty awesome stories. I don’t always consider it a good thing if an author sticks closely to the original fairy-tale, though–reading that in a review usually gives me pause. I mean, let’s face it, some of the stuff in the original stories was *nasty*. But the very basic themes we find in some of those narratives, like romance, redemption, wonder, etc. are laudable and timeless. The ironic thing is, those good elements can usually be traced back to the Bible.

      • Daley Downing August 5, 2017 at 7:46 am

        Yeah, I have some *serious* qualms about Walt Disney (the way he seemed determined to whitewash everything just for the sake of “giving people a magical childhood” really bothers me, quite honestly). The thing I really appreciate about Lewis and Tolkien is how they didn’t limit themselves to Christian stories — they drew on Greek and Norse mythology, on classic archetypes from ancient Rome and Britain, and they held true to their ideals while expanding the fantasy worlds they brought others into. That’s the best way to go about it, I feel.

        • Kyle August 5, 2017 at 12:30 pm

          I agree; it definitely is. What I liked about Tangled was that it didn’t whitewash things; it presented a deep and complex villain who caused genuine pain and suffering and built a mythology around the original fairy tale that was almost reminiscent of Lewis or Tolkien. Plus, it used snarky, intelligent humor unlike the cartoonish elements of past Disney films. I wish all their movies were like Tangled. Sadly, we’re now in the Frozen era for good, it seems. 😒 I do prefer the ancient mythological archetypes to the medieval European fairy-tale ones, in the end. I’d like to explore mythology to some degree in the Afterlands; though I need to find a way to do that without copying Rick Riordan. (Which actually sounds like a fun challenge.) 😄

  3. Daley Downing August 3, 2017 at 12:51 pm

    Oh, and I was totally supportive of Tolkien’s perspective on all this, and so proud of him for saying so at a time when it was an unpopular opinion!

  4. Sara James August 4, 2017 at 8:28 pm

    This was an encouraging reminder. I have a friend who seems to think less of me for not liking stories with dark endings, for always wanting to see some kind of light or hopefulness in a story. I find myself sometimes feeling like I have to prove something to her. But then I am reminded of thoughts like Tolkien’s which explain so perfectly why I think hope and a happy ending are so needed and so appropriate.

    • Kyle August 4, 2017 at 9:57 pm

      Thanks so much! I’m really glad you found it inspiring! I read a book by John R. Erickson once (which I really should have quoted from in this post) that said you should be a better person after reading a story than you were before you started. I try to use that as a rule of thumb in both my writing and my reading. If something is just going to drag me down, whether it’s my own story idea or a book somebody else has written, I’m not interested.

  5. Rebekah/Stargazer August 6, 2017 at 5:06 pm

    All the thumps up! 🙂 Thanks, Kyle.

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