Understanding and Using Fairy-Stories (pt. ii)

The differences in their approaches to myth is based largely on different theories about the origins of myth and fantasy.  To Campbell as to Jung, fantasy images emerge from the same place that dreams originate:  the collective unconscious of the human race.  There is a psychological if not a metaphysical monism implicit in Campbell’s thought.  Scholars dispute whether Jung thought that all minds are connected; certainly, some of his discussions of ESP seem to suggest as much.  In any case, for Campbell as for Jung, the origins of fantasy are essentially one, whether it be one shared well of archetypes or many individual minds that still have essentially the same structure.  And for Jung, this one source is what all religions call God; so it is true to say that God is in all of us, and essentially it is the same God in all of us.

Tolkien, by contrast, emphasizes the role of the individual storyteller.    Myths do not merely flow from either the world-soul or the common resources of the deep recesses of individual minds; they are created.  They are intentional.  They are free, conscious acts, not spontaneous or inevitable upwellings of the unconscious.  As he writes:

All three things:  independent invention, inheritance, and diffusion, have evidently played their part in producing the intricate web of Story.  It is now beyond all skill but that of the elves to unravel it.  Of these three invention is the most important and fundamental, and so (not surprisingly) the most mysterious.  To an inventor, that is to a storymaker, the other two must in the end lead back.[1]

Just as Campbell’s interest in the search for a monomyth rests in a tacit monism, Tolkien’s interest in the creative individual is rooted in his metaphysical commitments.  Campbell, like Jung, asserts a certain universality of human nature, whether that “universality” results from some sort of shared consciousness or merely a common structure that causes all humans to generate essentially the same mythic archetypes.  Tolkien asserts a Catholic understanding of human nature; while there is a universally shared “essence” of humanity, all humans are unique and free individuals.  While it is true that all are capable of generating fantasy, not all choose to.  Those that do choose, choose to do so in their own unique ways.  Tolkien refers to this as “sub-creation.”  The sub-creator presents us with an alternative reality, and invites us to rest there for awhile.  This Secondary World can be better or worse than the actual one; but when the sub-creator does his or her task well, we fully immerse ourselves in it, not forgetting that it is not the Primary World but temporarily ceasing to care.  Tolkien refers to this as Secondary Belief.  He distinguishes it from what is usually thought of as “suspension of disbelief,” because that term implies that the one suspending disbelief is working at it; true Secondary Belief is spontaneous and effortless.  It is not always limited to fantasy, either; Tolkien uses the example of a cricket match to illustrate what he means by Secondary Belief.[2]  His friend, a true sports enthusiast, can really lose himself in the game; for a time, the match is his reality; Prof. Tolkien, on the other hand, can only muster something more approaching “suspension of disbelief” as he intentionally focuses on the game rather than thinking about the “real world.”  To carry this thought further, it seems that in fact, any creative activity, even a sporting event can be an act of “sub-creation.”  However, it is also clear that for Tolkien, fantasy and fairy-stories are the most pure and complete Secondary Worlds.

As a Catholic, Tolkien was of course aware of passages such as 1Cor. 3:9 and 2 Cor.  6:1, where the faithful are said to be Christ’s “co-workers.”  More than Protestant theology, Catholicism has traditionally emphasized the need for human free will to cooperate with God (see the debate between Luther and Erasmus in “On the Bondage of the Will” versus “On the Freedom of the Will”).  His metaphysical assumptions, then, are that humans have free will, that they can cooperate or withdraw from God, and that this has a very real impact not only on themselves but also on the world.  That is not to say that Tolkien believes humans act independently of God, but rather that they act, and God empowers them to do so and allows their actions to have consequences.  Tolkien illustrates that in the fairy-story he attaches to his essay, “Leaf by Niggle,” where a would-be painter finds that while his own efforts in life never measure up to the creative impulse he feels, in the afterlife his work is given reality and becomes a place of rest and healing for many weary souls.[3]

Not only are all humans free; all are creative.  They may have different talents and different levels of talent, but all are essentially creative.  As Tolkien writes:

Fantasy remains a human right:  we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made:  and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.[4]

Fantasy is part of the imageo Dei, the image of God which makes humans unique among all God’s creatures.  Furthermore, “fairystories offer also, in a peculiar degree or mode, these things:  Fantasy, Recovery, Escape, Consolation, all things of which children have, as a rule, less need than older people.”[5]  As being created in the image of God, we have need of the creative power of fantasy; and as finite, mortal creatures, we need recovery, escape and consolation from the apparent trials and burdens of this Primary World to enable us to go out to face it again.  For this reason, Tolkien bristles at the idea that fairy-stories are primarily beneficial only for children; it is adults who invented them, adults who need them and only a rationalist, self-important age that thinks it has moved beyond fantasy and should leave it to the weak and immature.  Fantasy reflects both the highest calling and the deepest need of all people.  It presents what Tolkien calls the “eucatastrophe,” the unexpectedly happy ending, the sudden turn that veers from disaster.  In doing so, it calls us to the hope and faith that in the Primary World too, no matter how dark things are, they can be redeemed, the captives can be liberated, the blind healed, the poor hear good news.[6]  He writes:

            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.[7]

For Tolkien, fairy-stories are a kind of gospel.  They are an expression and affirmation of the hope of all humanity, the hope for Joy despite all the pain and despair around us.  And it is also true, Tolkien says, to see the Gospel as a sort of fairy-story.  The primary difference is the we sub-creators can only create Secondary Worlds; God creates the Primary World, and so what he creates is real.  God fulfills the deepest hopes and needs of humanity, through the Incarnation and the Resurrection, the ultimate Eucatastrophe.  What human storymaking could only aspire to and artistically create, God can make Reality.[8]

Campbell’s explanation for the similarities between the Gospel and other tales is that there is some primordial psychological wellspring from with all these tales flow, more or less on their own.  His philosophical influences are the psychological determinists Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, and the greatest psychological influence on him is Jung; for all of these, myth is the inevitable fruition of forces greater than the individual and beyond all choice.  Tolkien’s explanation is that the Gospel resembles fairy-stories because they are hopeful expressions of the human desires fulfilled by Christ, “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.”  As bearers of the imageo Dei, we naturally strive to imitate God’s primary creation in our own sub-creation.  Sometimes we do it badly, with arrogance and selfishness, and create monsters, false gods (whether wrathful pagan deities or banners or economic systems), and other tales that debilitate and destroy us; but when we work with humility, we become not rebels but co-workers with God, enriching the Primary World through our secondary contributions.


[1] “On Fairy-Stories,” pp. 47-48

[2] “Fairy-Stories,” pp. 60-61

[3] J. R. R. Tolkien, “Leaf by Niggle,” in Tree and Leaf; reprinted in The Tolkien Reader, by J. R. R. Tolkien, (New York:  The Random House Publishing Group, 1966) pp. 100-20.  Interestingly too, Niggle’s friend Parish, who never had any artistic impulse, is revealed to be equally essential for the creative task due to his down-to-earth practicality and organizational zeal, which Niggle lacks.  This suggests again that it is not just the artist who is the sub-creator; anyone can be a sub-creator in his or her own manner.

[4] “Fairy-Stories,” p. 75

[5] “Fairy-Stories,” p. 67

[6] “Fairy-Stories,” p. 85-87

[7] “Fairy-Stories,” pp. 85-86

[8] “Fairy-Stories,” pp. 87-90

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One Response to “Understanding and Using Fairy-Stories (pt. ii)”

  1. jasonmsilverman Says:

    I’ve found Tolkien’s perspective much more careful and useful than Campbell. Campbell’s ideas, while particularly useful for screenwriting (since he essentially provides a formula), is rather essentializing and androcentric.

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