Few people, even those not well-versed in fantasy, will argue against the idea that J. R. R. Tolkien is the master of the fantasy genre. In that he wrote his thoughts about this type of tale in his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” he has become the expert to whom writers turn when wishing to understand the genre better. In this last in the series discussing his essay, we’ve come to the crux of Tolkien’s beliefs.
First, Tolkien made a case for the place of escape in stories, and Mankind’s desire for it — escape from the ugliness and disruption of modern technology, escape from suffering and ultimately from death, escape from that which binds us, such as the inability to commune with other animals or to explore the sea or fly free.
But more than giving “imaginative satisfaction of ancient desires,” fairy-stories give the “Consolation of the Happy Ending” — as defining of fantasy as tragedy is to the true form of Drama. Tolkien coined the word Eucatastrophe to identify this happy-ending distinctive. “The eucatastrophic tale is the true form of fairy-tale, and its highest function. (emphasis mine)”
There’s more to Tolkien’s happy ending, however, than the idea that the protagonist wins. Rather, the happy ending is closer to a good catastrophe — “the sudden joyous ‘turn’ ” from impending disaster. 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 [of the gospel], giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.
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. (emphasis mine)
“A sudden, miraculous grace.” Here is Tolkien’s understanding of the happy ending, in the face of apparent defeat, after the experience of hardship and loss. The reality of the joy is so much greater because of the reality of the deadly circumstances from which the ending turns. How perfectly Lord of the Rings illustrates what Tolkien believed. After all his hardships, Frodo succumbs to the power of the One Ring, only to lose it because his kindness spared his nemesis.
In reality, C. S. Lewis’s The Last Battle is an equally good illustration: against insurmountable odds, Aslan turns the very means of defeat into a passage to greatest victory, further up and further in. J. K. Rowling creates this same kind of turn in the last of the Harry Potter books, when Voldemort defeats Harry, but in so doing destroys the final horcrux and brings about his own demise.
As I see it, the real challenge for the fantasy writer, then, is to find fresh ways to turn a story from catastrophe to joy. Tolkien elaborates on this turn from defeat to victory:
Probably every writer making a secondary world, a fantasy, every sub-creator, wishes in some measure to be a real maker, or hopes that he is drawing on reality: hopes that the peculiar quality of this secondary world (if not all the details) are derived from Reality, or are flowing into it. . . The peculiar quality of the “joy” in successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth. It is not only a “consolation” for the sorrow of this world, but a satisfaction, and an answer to that question, “Is it true?” (emphasis mine)
The first consideration is, “Is it true in this world?” Hence, in the world of Harry Potter, where witches and wizards can be either good or bad, is the story of Harry’s triumph over Voldemort true in the sense that it has an inner consistency?
But this truth connected to the eucatastrophe has broader implications: “in the ‘eucatastrophe’ we see in a brief vision that the answer may be greater — it may be a far-off gleam or echo of evangelium [the gospel] in the real world.” Not an allegorical representation but more than a symbolic nod. Rather, this echo or gleam is more nearly a type characterizing reality, just as King David in the Old Testament was a type characterizing Christ, the soon and coming King.
The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels — peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: “mythical” in their perfect, self-contained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe. 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. It has pre-eminently the “inner consistency of reality.” There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath.
It is not difficult to imagine the peculiar excitement and joy that one would feel, if any specially beautiful fairy-story were found to be “primarily” true, its narrative to be history, without thereby necessarily losing the mythical or allegorical significance that it had possessed. It is not difficult, for one is not called upon to try and conceive anything of a quality unknown. The joy would have exactly the same quality, if not the same degree, as the joy which the “turn” in a fairy-story gives: such joy has the very taste of primary truth. (Otherwise its name would not be joy.) It looks forward . . . to the Great Eucatastrophe. The Christian joy, the Gloria, is of the same kind; but it is preeminently (infinitely, if our capacity were not finite) high and joyous. 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.
But in God’s kingdom the presence of the greatest does not depress the small. Redeemed Man is still man. Story, fantasy, still go on, and should go on. The Evangelium has not abrogated legends; it has hallowed them, especially the “happy ending.” The Christian has still to work, with mind as well as body, to suffer, hope, and die; but he may now perceive that all his bents and faculties have a purpose, which can be redeemed. So great is the bounty with which he has been treated that he may now, perhaps, fairly dare to guess that in Fantasy he may actually assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation. All tales may come true; and yet, at the last, redeemed, they may be as like and as unlike the forms that we give them as Man, finally redeemed, will be like and unlike the fallen that we know. (pp 23-24 — emphases mine)
What do you think? Is Tolkien’s idea of the happy ending possible story after story, or has his end been done so often, grace will no longer be a surprise? Must the fairy story, of necessity, undergo some change in order to remain fresh and interesting, or is the onus on the writer to find ways to make grace still a surprise even when we’re expecting it?