If [a writer] indeed achieves a quality that can fairly be described by the dictionary definition: “inner consistency of reality,” it is difficult to conceive how this can be, if the work does not in some way partake of reality. 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?”
– J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories”
What most impresses me about this brief passage is that here, Tolkien appeals to reality in justifying joy in fairy stories. Usually, when people start talking about reality and fiction, it’s to justify the “grit”. The difference is revealing as to what Tolkien thought of fairy tales – and of reality.
In his essay “On Fairy Stories”, Tolkien’s last point was his most important point. To present his views most clearly, I find I have to present them in almost the reverse order of how he did – a strange but tenable position.
Tolkien believed in what he called the eucatastrophe – the “good catastrophe”, the opposite of Tragedy. He called the Gospel the Great Eucatastrophe, and wrote: “The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. The story begins and ends in joy.”
And because Tolkien regarded the Gospel as the only true fairy tale, he naturally believed that the “eucatastrophic tale is the true form of fairy-tale”. He wrote with eloquence of the “imaginative satisfaction of ancient desires” found in fairy tales, and then added, “Far more important is the Consolation of the Happy Ending. Almost I would venture to assert that all complete fairy-stories must have it.”
This belief in the utter rightness – almost the necessity – of happy endings to fairy tales is almost surprising. Professor Tolkien would, I think, find himself crosswise with most sophisticated opinion. Fairy tales were once very dark, and they are now growing darker again. Even Christian writers and readers are trafficking more in darkness, not always without a sense of superiority. Happiness is too simple for sophisticated taste.
I wonder about the discrepancy between one viewpoint that holds joy the true greatness of Fantasy and another viewpoint that does not find it necessary at all. What causes such a difference?
One large reason, I think, is that many people don’t believe in the Great Eucatastrophe. Tolkien said that the joy of the happy ending denied “universal final defeat”, but some spiritual worldviews – and all merely materialist ones – confirm it. Tolkien thought eucatastrophe, happy endings, were true to reality; others regard unhappy endings as truer.
There are also people who believe the Gospels but do not, for whatever reason, connect them to fairy tales (or fiction generally) in the way that Tolkien did; they do not believe that the Great Eucatastrophe has “hallowed” happy endings.
I don’t hold Tolkien’s view of fairy tales to be absolutely correct, though I like it better than any other I’ve heard. It seeks an echo of the Gospel in fairy tales, and reminds us – it is something all too easy to forget – that the ultimate reality is not defeat but joy.