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…”