Tolkien’s and Lewis’ Thoughts on Fantasy & Fairy-stories

By Always Narnian

What is fantasy? What comes to your mind when you hear the word? Dragons, wizards, fairies? The Merriam-Webster dictionary definitions of the word are: “something that is produced by the imagination: an idea about doing something that is far removed from normal reality” and “a book, movie, etc., that tells a story about things that happen in an imaginary world”. Two examples of the latter definition would be The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis and The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, though these are only two examples of a very wide genre. However, these definitions do not fully cover the two authors’ visions for this type of fiction.

As a basis for this article, I would like to start out with a quote from a letter of Tolkien’s:

“[The Lord of the Rings] is a ‘fairy-story’, but one written – according to the belief I once expressed in an extended essay ‘On Fairy-stories’ that they are the proper audience – for adults. Because I think that fairy story has its own mode of reflecting ‘truth’, different from allegory, or (sustained) satire, or ‘realism’, and in some ways more powerful. But first of all it must succeed just as a tale, excite, please, and even on occasion move, and within its own imagined world be accorded (literary) belief. To succeed in that was my primary object.” [1]

“Proper Audience”
Tolkien and Lewis both felt that “fairy-stories” or “fantasies” were not intended merely for children. Tolkien went so far as to even think adults more suited for fairy-stories than children, as evinced by the quote in the previous paragraph and others such as:

“But fairy-stories 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.” [2]

Lewis was perhaps not as strong on the idea that fairy tales were mostly for adults, but we see his view in an essay (On Three Ways of Writing for Children): “I now enjoy the fairy tales better than I did in childhood: being now able to put more in, of course, I get more out.” [3]

“Reflecting ‘Truth’”
This leads us into the subject of Christianity, or religion, in fantasy. Though many tend to say that Narnia contains allegory, or they find allegorical meanings in The Lord of the Rings, this was not how Lewis or Tolkien viewed their writings. Lewis wrote in a letter once:

“In reality however [Aslan] is an invention giving an imaginary answer to the question, ‘What might Christ become like if there really were a world like Narnia and He chose to be incarnate and die and rise again in that world as He actually has done in ours?’ This is not an allegory at all.” [4]

Lewis’ religion was perhaps “more direct” in his stories, as seen in him clarifying that Aslan indeed represents Christ in the world of Narnia, whereas Tolkien took a different approach in The Lord of the Rings:

“Certainly it has no allegorical intentions, general, particular, or topical, moral, religious, or political… It is a monotheistic world of ‘natural theology’. The odd fact that there are no churches, temples, or religious rites and ceremonies, is simply part of the historical climate depicted… I am in any case myself a Christian; but the ‘Third Age’ was not a Christian world.” [5]

Tolkien’s depiction of truth in his stories could also be seen in light of this quote:

“Myth and fairy-story must, as all art, reflect and contain in solution elements of moral and religious truth (or error), but not explicit, not in the known form of the primary ‘real’ world.” [6]

What he was saying is that for him, in an imaginary world, things will not always be like they are in our world now. In his stories, the hobbits and elves did not go to “church” but they had a monotheistic society—their “religion” is played out in a different way. Lewis, on the other hand, used specific points in The Chronicles of Narnia to represent events or ideas from actual occurrences or truths in the Bible.

“Literary Belief”
How do Middle-earth and Narnia differ in their “literary belief”? Middle-earth is an expansive world, with a history and a mythology of its own. Lewis, in his own fantasy realm of Narnia, incorporates figures we see in Greek mythology, thus his creatures are already familiar to us. Of course, there are certain things we may recognize in Tolkien’s stories such as trolls, elves and dwarves. His myth is in many ways based on our real world, giving it a convincing tone and making it something that the reader could certainly relate to. Tolkien said in one of his letters that

“‘Middle-earth’, by the way, is not a name of a never-never land without relation to the world we live in… And though I have not attempted to relate the shape of the mountains and land-masses to what geologists may say or surmise about the nearer past, imaginatively this ‘history’ is supposed to take place in a period of the actual Old World of this planet.”[7]

Middle-earth is supposed to feel as if it is, in fact, historical. It happened in the world where we now live. Lewis’ Land of Narnia, on the other hand, is a place that people from our own world can access when they are called there by Aslan. Many of the creatures (fauns, centaurs, dryads) are also those that we see in the mythology of past cultures. Another interesting fact is that it was an English couple that were the first humans to live in Narnia as King and Queen. There is also a direct connection between Aslan and the person of Christ as seen in Aslan’s statement in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader: “But there [i.e. in our world] I have another name.” Here we see in these stories ties to the real world: Tolkien’s a seeming past history, Lewis’ interconnected with the people of our world.

True, these stories are outpourings of these authors’ geniuses and are not events that actually took place. However, Lewis and Tolkien did speak of certain history having a “myth-like” feel, as seen in this quote by Lewis:

“Now as myth transcends thought, Incarnation transcends myth. The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens—at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences.” [8]

Lewis also made a point in a letter to a certain Miss Matthews that

“You can have a realistic story in which all the things & people are exactly like those we meet in real life, but the quality, the feel or texture or smell, of it is not. In a great romance it is just the opposite. I’ve never met Orcs or Ents or Elves-but the feel of it, the sense of a huge past, of lowering danger, of heroic tasks achieved by the most apparently unheroic people, of distance, vastness, strangeness, homeliness (all blended together) is so exactly what living feels like to me.” [9]

So is Fantasy important? Are fans really just getting excited for nothing? Fantasy can and often does have an impact on our lives. It can be used to paint pictures of the real world and what Christ has done in this world. Of course, in this world things are not perfect, even as Tolkien pointed out:

“Fantasy can, of course, be carried to excess. It can be ill done. It can be put to evil uses. It may even delude the minds out of which it came. But of what human thing in this fallen world is that not true?” [10]

Some people are gifted with telling about God’s story through means of their imagination, but we must never allow our imagination to overshadow the story of Christ. As Tolkien said, “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.” [11]

Note: If you are interested in learning more about what Lewis and Tolkien thought on the subject of Fantasy (or Fairy-stories), I would advise reading their own writings (especially their essays and letters). What I have said here is only a very small sampling and cannot fully relate what they thought on such matters in so short of an article, especially since I myself did not have a chance to read all the material that actually exists. Check out my sources below.

References:

[1] The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien: Selected and edited by Humphrey Carpenter With the assistance of Christopher Tolkien, Letter 181 To Michael Straight [drafts]
[2] Tree and Leaf: On Fairy-stories by J.R.R. Tolkien
[3] The Quotable Lewis by Wayne Martindale and Jerry Root, Editors: Quote from Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories, “On Three Ways of Writing for Children”
[4] The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume III: Narnia, Cambridge and Joy 1950-1963 Edited by Walter Hooper
[5] The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien: Selected and edited by Humphrey Carpenter With the assistance of Christopher Tolkien, Letter 165 To the Houghton Mifflin Co.
[6] From the Preface to the Second Edition of The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien and edited by Christopher Tolkien
[7] The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien: Selected and edited by Humphrey Carpenter With the assistance of Christopher Tolkien, Letter 165 To the Houghton Mifflin Co.
[8] The Quotable Lewis by Wayne Martindale and Jerry Root, Editors: Quote from God in the Dock, “Myth Became Fact”
[9] The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume III: Narnia, Cambridge and Joy 1950-1963 Edited by Walter Hooper
[10] Tree and Leaf: On Fairy-stories by J.R.R. Tolkien
[11] Tree and Leaf: On Fairy-stories by J.R.R. Tolkien

4 thoughts on “Tolkien’s and Lewis’ Thoughts on Fantasy & Fairy-stories

  1. always narnianalways narnian Post author

    Thank you! It was a lot of fun. On Fairy-stories is a really neat essay and I loved reading it—it really helped me write the article!

  2. SwanwhiteSwanwhite

    A really excellent article, Always! 🙂 You had a very choice of quotations and you summed up/analyzed/ explained them very well.

  3. always narnianalways narnian Post author

    Thank you, Swanwhite! The feedback is greatly appreciated! It was sometimes hard to know how much to include!

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