Posts Tagged ‘Fairy-Stories’

Is Role-Play Gaming a Religious Exercise? Thoughts on Tolkien, Campbell and Role-Playing Games (pt. v)

April 4, 2013

Recovery is another element that is well illustrated by The Time Machine.[1]  It is the moment when you see the overly-familiar Primary World in a new light, as if it were new and alien.  Tolkien uses the image of seeing familiar England as if it were some distant future seen only with a time machine.  In that future, the class divisions that were so common in Victorian England that one scarcely noticed them became a strange story of two separate races of humanoid:  one condemned to a joyless life cut off from both Nature and Culture, both enslaved to the technology it serves and enslaving through it; and the other living a life of beauty and joy, supported by the subterranean race but itself helpless and useless except as food.[2]  Dwelling on that image, one can begin to reflect on the nature of class relations, what rich and poor owe to one another, and what constitutes a “Producer” versus a “Moocher.”

Recovery opens the door to Escape.[3]  Fantasy, whether it be RPG or soap opera, is often condemned as “escapist;” but Tolkien asks,

 

 

“Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home?  Of if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?…  Why should we not escape from or condemn… the Morlockian horror of factories?”[4]

 

 

Escape is envisioning a world that is better than the Primary World one finds oneself in.  Having Recovered the ability to see the world afresh, one can decline to, as we so presciently say, blindly accept it.  One can reject, one can condemn, one can imagine a Secondary World where things are better, one can Escape for a time.  But Escape is not merely a modern need; humans have always longed to escape from the limits of physicality, from everything from illness to gravity to the separation between the Human and Natural worlds.  The Fairy-Story allows this, at least for awhile, by inviting us into a Secondary World where we are free.  One denied Escape is truly a Morlock, condemned for all eternity to live in the moral and physical darkness.

There is little specifically religious about either Recovery or Escape.  Escape, however, leads to consideration of “the Great Escape:  the Escape from Death,” and with it, Consolation.[5]  This was ultimately where Campbell sees the monomyth aiming as well.  However, for Tolkien, the highest Consolation is not merely another aspect of Escape.  He writes:

 

 

Far more important is the Consolation of the Happy Ending.  Almost I would venture to assert that all complete fairy-stories must have it.  At least I would say that Tragedy is the true form of Drama, its highest function; but the opposite is true of Fairy-story.  Since we do not appear to possess a word that expresses this opposite—-I will call it Eucatastrophe.  The eucatastrophic tale is the true form of fairy-tale, and its highest function.[6]

 

 

 

The eucatastrophe is the sudden, joyous turn, the unexpected rescue, the happy ending when no happy ending seemed possible.[7]  It is an escape from the tragedy and pain that is all too common in life.  It admits that these are the usual way of the world; the sudden happy ending is always presented as unexpected, unique, and not to be counted on.  But “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 this world, poignant as grief.”[8]  The fairy-story is, in effect, a kind of Gospel, “good news.”  It is a Subcreation; it is true, but only in the Secondary World of the storymaker, and capable of commanding only Secondary Belief.  By contrast, what God does is Creation, true in the Primary World.  Tolkien writes:

 

 

But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation.  The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history.  The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation.  This story begins and ends in joy.[9]

 

 

The fairy-story expresses the hope and wish of human nature; the Gospel fulfills it.  The fairy-story is the desire for the Gospel, sometimes even older than the knowledge of the Gospel itself.  As Augustine said, “our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.”  The fairy-tale expresses that restlessness.


[1] “Fairy-Stories,” pp. 75-78

[2] I wonder how many of the Occupy Wall Street protesters with their signs saying ”Eat the Rich” knew they were echoing 19th century science fiction.

[3] “Fairy-Stories,” pp. 79-85

[4] “Fairy-Stories,” pp. 79, 82

[5] “Fairy-Stories,” p. 85

[6] “Fairy-Stories,” p. 85

[7] “Fairy-Stories,” pp.  85-90

[8] “Fairy-Stories,” p.  86

[9] “Fairy-Stories,” pp.  88-89

Is Role-Play Gaming a Religious Exercise? Thoughts on Tolkien, Campbell and Role-Playing Games (pt. iv)

March 28, 2013

In many ways, Tolkien’s theories of myth and fantasy move in the opposite direction from Campbell’s.  Tolkien specifically rejects theories that see the significance of the tale in what it borrows from or shares with similar stories.[1]  Rather, Tolkien says we should focus our attention on what is unique to the particular story as presented by the particular storymaker.  While the author or poet or storyteller may use themes and symbols that are common property, Tolkien urges us to look at how the storymaker changes them.  Is the Orphic myth of Dionysus the same as the story of the Crucifixion of Christ, because both tell the story of a god who dies and is resurrected?  Should we focus more attention on the common elements, or on the differences, such as the fact that Christ is said to deliberately offer himself in place of humanity, or that the events take place in history rather than prehistory?  Tolkien would say that in any story, we should look at the intent of the storymaker and the message that is invented through his or her creative activity.  Both may be stories of divine heroes who conquer death, but while one explains human sin as a natural result of human origins (part Titan and part god) the other sees it as unnatural, the result of human rebellion, which is now to be undone by God.

Campbell and Tolkien disagree on the origin of “fairy stories” or “myths,” and likewise disagree on the essential elements.  Campbell’s list was more structural, Tolkien’s reads more like a list of ingredients:

 

 

First of all:  if written with art, the prime value of fairy-stories will simply be that value which, as literature, they share with other literary forms.  But fairy-stories offer also, in a peculiar degree or mode, these things:  Fantasy, Recovery, Escape, Consolation, all things which children have, as a rule, less need than older people.[2]

 

 

These are the distinguishing characteristics of the fairy-story, according to Tolkien.  For the most part, they are not necessarily present in any particular order, except that Consolation refers to the “happy ending.”  There are two general reasons for this.  First, it reflects Tolkien’s emphasis on the uniqueness of each story; while Campbell is arguing that all myths are basically the same story with different fonts, Tolkien wants to emphasize the variations introduced by the author and thus is more inclined to an examination that enlarges the space for authorial originality.  Second, Tolkien is attempting to distinguish the fairy-story as a specific genre, different from similar tales such as the dream story or beast fable.[3]  For this reason, he wants to present the distinctive characteristics of the fairy-story.  But while his emphasis is often on the unique and distinguishing, he also has much to say about what all such stories have in common; and like Campbell, he traces this to human nature itself, and particularly to the spiritual in human nature.

Of Tolkien’s four qualities of the true fairy-story, Fantasy is the most fundamental and the one he discusses most extensively.[4] Tolkien affirms that “Fantasy is a natural human activity,” an expression of human creativity and imagination.[5]  As such, it is fully consistent and even dependent on human reason and logic.[6]  It may be distorted into destructive and self-destructive idolatries and Morbid Delusion, but it cannot and must not be suppressed.  But Tolkien does not see the capacity for Fantasy merely as an expression of a human psychological or intellectual need; he sees it as expressing a theological truth:  “Fantasy,” he writes, “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.”  Human creative activity is the expression of the Imageo Dei.  Humans are given the capacity for “sub-creation.”   The finest Fantasist can create a whole Secondary World, where fantastic images such as a green sun have “the inner consistency of reality” and command Secondary Belief.  Only God can create the Primary World, of course, and only the Primary World can deserve Primary Belief; but a Secondary World can invite or even “command” (in Tolkien’s words) a temporary belief, a feeling that such things are possible and perhaps a wish that they were true.  It can even suggest possibilities that could be true.  One of Tolkien’s repeated images is H.G. Wells’ story of the Morlocks, those descendents of 19th Century factory workers who evolved into technologically superior troglodytes, farming the surface-dwelling, beautiful but idiot descendents of the aristocracy.  This is hardly a happy “fairy-story;”  The Time Machine is a cautionary tale rather than a true fairy-story in Tolkien’s sense.  But it is an admirable expression of Fantasy, despite an appalling lack of elves or magic.  It takes the elements of this world, reworks them as a potter takes and reworks the clay, and creates an internally consistent Secondary World.

To be continued…..


[1] J. R. R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” in Tree and Leaf; reprinted in The Tolkien Reader, by J. R. R. Tolkien, (New York:  The Random House Publishing Group, 1966) pp.  45-8

[2] “Fairy-Stories,” p. 67

[3] “Fairy-Stories,” pp. 34-44

[4] “Fairy-Stories,” pp. 68-75

[5] “Fairy-Stories,” p. 74

[6] “Fairy-Stories,” p. 75

Understanding and Using Fairy-Stories (pt. i)

December 20, 2012

Understanding and Using Fairy-Stories:  J. R. R. Tolkien versus Joseph Campbell on the Origins and Function of Fantasy

“But this story is supreme; and it is true.  Art has been verified.  God is the Lord, of angels, and of men—–and of elves.  Legend and History have met and fused.”

J. R. R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories”

My generation knew J. R. R. Tolkien as the great writer of that delightful fairy tale, The Hobbit, and that grand epic cycle The Lord of the Rings.  Future generations will probably know him as the writer of the book on which those great movies were made.  Real aficionados will know he also wrote something called The Silmarillion, and an even more fanatical core will have actually read it.  But I think it is a much smaller number that remember that Professor Tolkien was a serious and accomplished scholar, known for his teaching and learning.  He did not merely write fantasy; for him it was both an object of serious study and a holy exercise.  Since the late 1970’s, American film has been largely dominated by producers and writers who are devotees of the theories of Joseph Campbell; and at this point, I think Campbell’s outlook on mythology probably dominates our culture in ways even I do not realize and most cannot begin to suspect.  But with three blockbuster films based on the writings of Tolkien, and three more on the way (one due for release three days from the time of this writing), perhaps it is time to look more closely not just at the mythology Tolkien wrote, but at the reasons he gave for writing it.

As I said, Campbell’s view of mythology is more prevalent today, so I wish to summarize it first as a contrast.  Campbell has been a powerful influence on George Lucas, Stephen Spielberg and the Wachowskis, among others, and thus has had an impact on more than a dozen of the biggest films in the sci-fi/fantasy genre.  Joseph Campbell’s scholarship was primarily in the area of comparative mythology:  looking at the myths of cultures from many times and places, looking at differences and seeking similarities, parallels and points of contact between them.  Campbell commented that when he was a student in the 1950’s, everyone “knew” that mythology was dying and would soon give way to the rational understanding of the world.[1]  However, as time went on it became clear that mythology was not in fact dying.  The only answer, Campbell believed, was that modern humans need myth:  but why?  Turning to the psychological theories of Carl Jung, Campbell theorized that the religious myths of the world are all retellings of the same basic human stories, using the same universal symbols or archetypes.  For example, one prevalent archetype is the “Finding the Father” myth.  The hero (who may, at the start of the story, not be heroic at all) discovers that his father has been wounded, bound or something of that sort, and needs to be rescued and restored.  The hero must undergo many trials and overcome many obstacles, but in the end he finds and heals his father.  The father is thus restored to his former glory; and in the process, the son too becomes a hero, as great or perhaps greater than the father.  Anyone who has seen the original Star Wars trilogy cannot fail to see this myth reflected in that story arc.  In other versions, finding the father can lead to disaster, as for Oedipus and Phaeton; but either way, the search for the father is an archetype.  To search for one’s father is to search for one’s source, which is to search for oneself.  To find the father is to find one’s true self, and to fulfill one’s true nature (Lucas included that element in The Empire Strikes Back, where the hero has a vision of killing his enemy, only to find he has killed himself; later he comes to know that his hated enemy is also his father whom he must redeem, not destroy).  In Jung’s psychology, which Campbell appropriates, mythology represents the “collective unconscious” of the human race.  We all have a shared store of dream images and symbols, whether this is because all humans face many of the same life-events (such as the journey from childhood to adulthood) or whether (as Jung seemed to believe) we actually share consciousness on some level.  Jung called these symbols “archetypes” to convey the fact that they are universal patterns we all follow.  Campbell felt his own surveying of world cultures demonstrated the truth of Jung’s theory, and that all the different religions were simply cultural variations of the same basic archetypes.  The similarities between the stories of the Buddha and the Christ, for example, were not merely coincidence or even direct influence; they were signs that both stories were simply retellings of a more primordial story, the Hero myth, and that the true reality of each religion lay in that ancient myth.

While Campbell was a scholar of comparative religions, Tolkien was a philologist.  His primary scholarly background was the study of words and language, the origins of concepts in the language of the past, and how past words resonate into the present.  His interest was not in finding the similarity between disparate phenomena, but rather in finding one object of study, defining it, and tracing it all the way back to its roots.  When it comes to understanding their contrasting approaches to mythology, this is clearer nowhere more than in Tolkien’s treatment of Beowulf, which is still considered seminal.[2]  Tolkien complains that in his day, most scholarship treats the book as a barely interesting historical record, cluttered up with a lot of silly monsters.[3]  What is interesting is not the story itself, as a poem, but only what can be deduced from it; and generally, this means looking at what it has in common with other sources, rather than considering it in its uniqueness.  It is thus said to be a bad imitation of Virgil, essentially aping the great epics of the Greeks and Romans, recast by ignorant Anglo-Saxon Christians.  By contrast, Tolkien argues that the story of Beowulf is fine on its own merits, that it achieves exactly what it was intended to achieve, and that when it is understood on its own instead of judged for not being what the critics want it to be then it can be seen to be a true classic with truly timeless insights.  However, before one can see what the poem has to show, one must stop tearing it down to examine its building-blocks, and instead look out to see what is revealed from the vantage point at its summit.[4]     The author of the poem has something to say, something particular, which is revealed in the particular way he or she has assembled these elements; to understand the story, one must look at the final product, not simply disassemble it to better see the parts.  Tolkien continues this image in his essay on fairy stories, when he writes:

Such studies are… using the stories not as they were meant to be used, but as a quarry from which to dig evidence, or information, about matters in which they are interested…  They are inclined to say that any two stories that are built round the same folk-lore motive, or are made up of a generally similar combination of such motives, are “the same stories.”  We read that Beowulf “is only a version of Dat Erdmänneden”; that “The Black Bull of Norrway is Beauty and the Beast,” or “is the same story as Eros and Psyche”; that the Norse Mastermaid (or the Gaelic Battle of the Birds and its many congeners and variants) is “the same story as the Greek tale of Jason and Medea.”

Statements of that kind may express (in undue abbreviation) some element of truth; but they are not true in a fairy-story sense, they are not true in art or literature.  It is precisely the colouring, the atmosphere, the unclassifiable individual details of a story, and above all the general purport that informs with life the undissected bones of the plot, that really count.[5]

A Campbellite understanding of Beowulf would look to the story as an example of the great monomyth, the hero story which has been and will be retold incessantly.  It would look at how the hero comes to the place of conflict, how his liberation of Hrothgar’s mead hall compares to Jason’s liberation of King Phineas or his ripping off of Grendel’s arm compares to the myth of Luke Skywalker disarming  the wampa of Hoth.  Tolkien instead urges us to look at the particularities of the story and consider what the impact is of those details.

To be continued….


[1] I do not now recall whether this was in the preface to Hero with a Thousand Faces or Myths to Live By, but I’m fairly certain it is in one of those two places.

[2] J. R. R. Tolkien, “The Monsters and the Critics,” Proceedings of the British Academy, 1936, pp. 245-95; reprinted in Beowulf:  a verse translation, translated by Seamus Heaney, edited by Daniel Donohughue (New York & London:  W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. 2002) pp.  103-130

[3] “The Monsters and the Critics,” pp. 103-7

[4] “The Monster and the Critics,” pp. 105-06

[5] J. R. R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” in Tree and Leaf; reprinted in The Tolkien Reader, by J. R. R. Tolkien, (New York:  The Random House Publishing Group, 1966) pp.  45-6

Understanding and Using Fairy-Stories (pt. ii)

December 20, 2012

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