Painters seldom paint with primary colors. Generally those building blocks become the components of a more complex color and various shades of it. In many ways, writing can be equated with the use of primary colors. J. R. R. Tolkien used that metaphor, anyway, when he explained his thoughts about fantasy—or fairy stories, as he called them.
I’ve wondered what J. R. R. Tolkien would think about today’s darker fantasies. Would the author of “On Fairy-Stories” be a fan of stories about vampires or dystopian worlds filled with violence? These are interesting questions.
For whatever reason, when Christmas roles around each December, my thoughts turn to fantasy. I love nothing better than snuggling under a warm blanket on a cold wintry day, and reading a favorite fantasy. It’s how I role. And what better way to think about fantasy than to look again at what the master of fantasy had to say on the subject.
Tolkien believed that fairy stories were a means to three particular desirable conditions: recovery, escape, and consolation.
Many speculative writers are familiar with his thoughts on escape. I myself have written a number of posts on the subject here at Spec Faith (see for example “What to Make of Dragons, Part 7 – Escapism”). We probably know less about his thoughts on recovery and consolation, however. In exploring what he wrote about the former, I find ideas that suggest how he might react to today’s fantasy.
First, what exactly did Tolkien mean by “recovery”?
Recovery (which includes return and renewal of health) is a re-gaining — regaining of a clear view . . . We need, in any case, to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity—from possessiveness. Of all faces those of our familiares are the ones both most difficult to play fantastic tricks with, and most difficult really to see with fresh attention, perceiving their likeness and unlikeness: that they are faces, and yet unique faces. This triteness is really the penalty of “appropriation”: the things that are trite, or (in a bad sense) familiar, are the things that we have appropriated, legally or mentally. We say we know them. They have become like the things which once attracted us by their glitter, or their color, or their shape, and we laid hands on them, and then locked them in our hoard, acquired them, and acquiring ceased to look at them.
I wonder if this familiarity might not be a serious problem for Christian writers, explaining why our fiction, even our fantasies, seem to lack a freshness. We know the rudiments of our faith, and it is these elemental principles that we realize the rest of the world needs to embrace, so we convey them over and over until they lose some of their power and potency, even for us.
God is a God of grace. Jesus died for our sins. Ho-hum, Christmas again, a celebration of the Incarnation. Familiar terms trip off our tongues with ease, but with less and less meaning. And the concepts find their way into our fiction, but with less and less force.
The need, Tolkien suggests, is recovery, but many writers despair:
Who can design a new leaf? The patterns from bud to unfolding, and the colors from spring to autumn were all discovered by men long ago. But that is not true. The seed of the tree can be replanted in almost any soil . . . Spring is, of course, not really less beautiful because we have seen or heard of other like events: like events, never from world’s beginning to world’s end the same event. Each leaf, of oak and ash and thorn, is a unique embodiment of the pattern, and for some this very year may be the embodiment, the first ever seen and recognized, though oaks have put forth leaves for countless generations of men.
We do not, or need not, despair of drawing because all lines must be either curved or straight, nor of painting because there are only three “primary” colors.
In the same way, Christian writers need not despair because there is only one way to salvation, because there is only one begotten Son of God, because by grace alone may we be reconciled to God. In other words, Truth is not limiting to the writer since it impacts people in different ways. Christians, however, seem to tell the Old, Old Story in an old, old way.
A writer who recognizes weariness of The Same, will inevitably try to break free:
there may be a danger of boredom or of anxiety to be original, and that may lead to a distaste for fine drawing, delicate pattern, and “pretty” colours, or else to mere manipulation and over-elaboration of old material, clever and heartless. But the true road of escape from such weariness is not to be found in the wilfully awkward, clumsy, or misshapen, not in making all things dark or unremittingly violent; nor in the mixing of colors on through subtlety to drabness, and the fantastical complication of shapes to the point of silliness and on towards delirium. (Emphasis mine.)
So Tolkien apparently saw no answer in exploring to the edges (or beyond) of Truth and Beauty. Rather, the great need is Recovery.
Before we reach such states we need recovery. We should look at green again, and be startled anew (but not blinded) by blue and yellow and red.
Being “startled anew” by God’s love, for example, a Christian writer is freed to make old truth shine like a new beacon:
Creative fantasy, because it is mainly trying to do something else (make something new), may open your hoard and let all the locked things fly away like cage-birds. The gems all turn into flowers or flames, and you will be warned that all you had (or knew) was dangerous and potent, not really effectively chained, free and wild; no more yours than they were you.
So what do you think? Would Tolkien believe that gems turned into flowers, or flames in the darker contemporary fantasies? In dystopian fiction or urban fantasy? Or would he think these things “dark or unremittingly violent” or “mixing of colours on through subtlety to drabness, and the fantastical complication of shapes to the point of silliness and on towards delirium”? would he see vampire and werewolf stories as appropriate use of the primary colors an author has in his pallet?
My guess? He’d see a few gems but a lot of drabness and maybe even some delirium in the stories of today.
Much of this article is a reprint of a post from December 2011.