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Posted by on Oct 20, 2016 | 0 comments

On Fairy Stories

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I want to propose a simple and likely enjoyable remedy to the angst and malaise that is all things Presidential Election 2016. My suggested medicine does not involve serious or satirical Facebook posts, lawn signs, raging editorial pieces, or warnings of impending apocalypse. Instead, I suggest reading fairy-stories.

In JRR Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy Stories,” Tolkien defines fairy-stories as “stories about Fairy, that is
Faërie
, the realm or state in which fairies have their being.”[1] Faërie is the realm of enchantment where not only dragons and trolls (and hobbits) reside, but all the things that enchant us in the created world, “the seas, the sun, the moon, the sky; and the earth and all things that are in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves.”[2] These stories capture not only the mythical qualities of some other realm, but the wonder-provoking though often ignored aspects of everyday life.

Tolkien narrates three ways that fairy-stories provide succor to readers: recovery, escape, and consolation.

Recovery. “Recovery is a regaining—regaining of a clear view.”[3] Fairy-stories clear off the residue that builds up with monotony of the familiar. Tolkien recognizes our tendency to take possession of the those people and things in our lives that drew us to them with the appeal and delight we found in them. But, once taking something we delight in or love as our own, we often fail to see them as we once did. Fairy-stories direct our attention anew to those things that once caused us to erupt in delight. Tolkien reflects on the power of recovery through fairy-stories with these now infamous words: “It was in fairy-stories that I first divined the potency of words, and the wonder of the things, such as stone, and wood, and iron; tree, and grass; house and fire; bread and wine.” Often what we “recover” through reading fairy-stories is the first real sight of the wonder of things since our infancy.[4]

Escape. Fairy-stories provide a kind of escape from the burdens of everyday life. This opportunity for escape should not be understood as a mindless escapism into a superfluous world, but rather an escape from “insignificant and transient” to “permanent and fundamental” matters.[5] Tolkien notes, “Fairy-stories may invent monsters that fly the air or dwell in the deep, but at least they not try to escape from heaven or the sea.”[6] Paradoxically, these stories present the opportunity to escape in order to return from Faërie to our own world with fresh eyes and adjusted vision.

Consolation. Fairy-stories offer glimpses of joy through the happy ending. Tolkien compares the tragedy of drama to the happy ending of fairy-stories by speaking of two different kinds of catastrophe. Eucatastrophe is a “sudden joyous turn” out of catastrophic events. These catastrophes occur in fairy-stories and offer readers glimpses of grace and joy. Frodo and Sam’s final moments on Mount Doom capture a quintessential eucatastrophe and the Incarnation as the greatest. Dyscatastrophe, captured brilliantly in the great tragedies of dramatic fiction, stand as eucatastrophe’s opposite. Tolkien recognizes that fairy-stories might contain dyscatastrophe, but they do not have the final say:

It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher and more complete kind, that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to a child or man that hears it, when the ‘turn’ comes, a catch of breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by tears…[7]

And who doesn’t need a catch of breath, quickening of the heart, and tears of joy right about now?

 


[1] JRR Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories” in The Tolkien Reader (NY: Del Rey, 1966), 38.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 77.

[4] In GK Chesterton’s essay “The Ethics of Elfland,” he observes that wonder was once a default response to the world: “when we are young children we do not need fairy tales: we only need tales. Mere life is interesting enough. A child of seven is excited being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door” (Chesterton, “Ethics of Elfland” in Orthodoxy [Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 2004], 62.

[5] Ibid., 80.

[6] Ibid., 81.

[7] Ibid., 86.

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Rachel

Studying theology, baking bread, enjoying the company of a handsome bearded man and two adorable pit puppies.

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