I’ve been reading The Flame Imperishable as I work out a lot of things in my world. It’s analysis of Thomas Aquinas’ impact on Tolkien, and it’s been helpful to understand why he made his choices, and how. I also dug up the essay On Fairy Stories, by Tolkien –a 27 page footnoted pdf.
We need a word for this elvish craft, but all the words that have been applied to it have been blurred and confused with other things. Magic is ready to hand, and I have used it above (p. 39), but I should not have done so: Magic should be reserved for the operations of the Magician. Art is the human process that produces by the way (it is not its only or ultimate object) Secondary Belief. Art of the same sort, if more skilled and effortless, the elves can also use, or so the reports seem to show; but the more potent and specially elvish craft I will, for lack of a less debatable word, call Enchantment.
He then gets into the ideas of Recovery, Escape & Consolation as requirements for enchantment. Elvishness. You can read the essay. But it’s the third quality I want to discuss.
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.
So here’s the heart of what I’m thinking about. I fear much of what is being published as fantasy these days is not at all concerned with these three qualities, particularly the last one. And it’s my contention that it matters a lot. The diminishment of hope and joy is a serious business.
When Fantasy loses its elvishness, the world has indeed lost sight of something important. It’s one reason I am not a particular fan of grimdark as a whole. I will grant you most of it is well-written and some of it is very worth reading, but it isn’t elvish in the above sense. I’d be happy enough that other types of stories co-exist on the Fantasy shelves if there were books of equal quality that were markedly elvish that received as much attention by publishers and the Fantasy community at large, these days.
It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind, that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the “turn” comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art, and having a peculiar quality.
But I blame George RR Martin for the current trend, and I shall never ever forgive him. Ever.
The chief thing that I hear is that Fantasy need not be only about Good vs Evil and wouldn’t it be better if we just avoided this old tired cliche and trite plot device and explored more interesting and diverse themes? Which sounds to me an awful lot like something a supervillain would say and perhaps, Mr. Cliche Snob, you have thrown your allegiance to one side of the fray by espousing that opinion. Because Good vs Evil is eternal and what indeed is there more worth writing about? It’s my contention it’s the chief thing worth writing about, really.
And while I’m grousing? This touches on the “escape” portion of Fantasy. When I open a fantasy book, I want to be transported to a place of wonder… like Disneyland if you will. Its literary equivalent. And if you’re going to drag me through Mordor there better bloody well be a really important reason for doing it. Don’t tell me that your need to be all literary and explore an antihero is good enough.
To me, it isn’t.
One of the more interesting ideas in The Flame Imperishable was the exploration of concreation and subcreation. The elves’ magic was that of art. They did not suffer as much the limits that we humans do with the getting the vision out. Vision and product matched with more ease and made their work enchanted. I might be erring in saying this but it seems to me they were interested in enhancing and variating upon the central themes of Illuvatar. In reflecting His themes, not to dominate or for the purpose of achieving power but for art’s sake. That’s what I understand. Magic in contrast is meant to dominate or express the created being’s will in opposition to these themes –to control and take up power for oneself, to usurp the creative power for the individual will’s selfish purpose. Concreation would be to create with Illuvatar (the Creator God) and to further His will. Subcreation could be a rebellion. It wasn’t always. Subcreation was an umbrella term for any creation by a created creature. But subcreation wasn’t necessarily concreation. It could be subverted. Dissonant.
And of course my whole story is focused on that idea. I literally had no clue that Tolkien even thought about it, not having read much of the Silmarillion. I was 12 when I picked it up and only liked the story of Beren and Luthien, the rest went over my head. I put it away.
Fiction was used by Christ to speak truths that got round people’s defenses. His stories conveyed truth in a way that dug into the heart. That is why He told stories. Even if you reject Him as God you must admit he spun a good tale.
All good art, elvish art, does this. Music and painting and literature. A parable was fiction. If you heard it and it had its intended effect then the heart was changed. It seems to me that He still uses it the same way. Tolkien and Lewis understood this and I believe actively sought concreation. They wanted their stories to speak transformative truths.
There are a great many reasons why writers write apart from this purpose. Artists create to merely express themselves, to play, to explore ideas, and just to get paid. But I think that whether they consciously seek to work with God or not, if they are seeking and wish to express truth then their stories will be elvish. They will at least have that aroma, regardless of genre.
But fantasy alone for me merges all three purposes of escape and restoration (of truth) and consolation (I’ll call it uplifting or healing) in a satisfying way. I agree with Tolkien that science fiction has something in it of wanting all worlds to look like airports. It doesn’t enchant me. When I see fantasy used for lesser purposes, or worse, twisted and used for corruption and the glorification of the evil or even the base, it sets off an unreasoning fury. My heart says No.
I’m afraid that the trend is growing. We are losing elvishness. It must stop.