Tuesday, October 11, 2011

I Noticed a Striking Similarity...

...between a passage from an essay by J.R.R. Tolkien and a famous passage from Chesterton's Orthodoxy. Both concern what we might call the counter-factuality of fairy tales.

The Tolkien passage comes from his essay On Fairy-Stories (adapted from a lecture he delivered in 1938):

The human mind, endowed with the powers of generalization and abstraction, sees not only green-grass, discriminating it from other things (and finding it fair to look upon), but sees that it is green as well as being grass. But how powerful, how stimulating to the very faculty that produced it, was the invention of the adjective: no spell or incantation in Faerie is more potent. And that is not surprising: such incantations might indeed be said to be only another view of adjectives, a part of speech in a mythical grammar. The mind that thought of light, heavy, grey, yellow, still, swift, also conceived of magic that would make heavy things light and able to fly, turn grey lead into yellow gold, and the still rock into swift water. If it could do the one, it could do the other; it inevitably did both.

The corresponding extract from Orthodoxy, published in 1908:

First, I found the whole modern world talking scientific fatalism; saying that everything is as it must always have been, being unfolded without fault from the beginning. The leaf on the tree is green because it could never have been anything else. Now, the fairy-tale philosopher is glad that the leaf is green precisely because it might have been scarlet. He feels as if it had turned green an instant before he looked at it. He is pleased that snow is white on the strictly reasonable ground that it might have been black. Every colour has in it a bold quality as of choice; the red of garden roses is not only decisive but dramatic, like suddenly spilt blood. He feels that something has been done. But the great determinists of the nineteenth century were strongly against this native feeling that something had happened an instant before. In fact, according to them, nothing ever really had happened since the beginning of the world. Nothing ever had happened since existence had happened; and even about the date of that they were not very sure.

It is notable that many "hard-headed" people, often anti-religious, positively loathe fantasy. The atheist comedian Ricky Gervais is one notable example, often referring to his detestation of Lord of the Rings. I fancy that this is because fantasy knocks a hole through the wall of materialism; if our minds can conceive of things being other than they are, physical determinism is shown to be a dead duck. Such anti-fantasists feel their entire cosmos tottering at the mere hint of an elf or a unicorn, and their instincts are sound. Miracles are possible because we can imagine them; the fact that we can imagine a miracle is itself a miracle.


  1. I wonder is that an overstatement? I can think of some fantasy authors who have been pretty militant atheists - either they are saying that they will show how easy it is to invent gods by inventing some themselves (Lord Dunsany), or they have a bleak pagan/fatalist view of the world as essentially alien/hostile to human aspiration (HP Lovecraft, Lord Dunsany) or they are reacting against what they see as the idealisation of religious and mediaeval society in classic fantasy, including Chesterton but going back to William Morris, who is the real wellspring of the sensibility of GKC, CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien (George RR Martin of GAME OF THRONES fame, some of the recent Marxist or quasi-Marxist dark fantasy writers - there seems to be quite an industry at present of writers reimagining LORD OF THE RINGS from the point of view of the Orcs, who are indeed IMH the weakest feature of the book).

  2. I know there is the Philip Pullmann brigade of anti-religious and anti-romantic fantasists, but personally I think their books are as silly and self-refuting as a vegeterian burger. I don't know if I can agree with you about William Morris (though I've barely read him.) It seems to me that fantastic literature is as old as stories themselves-- in fact, realism is the new arrival. The anti-Tolkien and anti-Lewis fantasists are simply parasites.

  3. Here BTW is a nice critique of how Pullman warps the DARK MATERIALS trilogy as a story to serve his own agenda (he's not just expressing atheism - he is ramming it down the reader's throat at the expense of the overall effect.)

  4. Actually I would disagree with Wright about at least one thing in that article; I thought the revelation that the Authority was a decrepit and senile fool was pretty much the only ace in the trilogy's whole deck. It certainly gave me a shock, and I don't really agree that it let down the storyline. But then, what do I know? I totally agree with Wright that the whole exercise and set-up seemed utterly pointless when it finally reached the conclusion-- none of the elements seemed to cohere into an artistic whole, or even to symbolise anything much-- and the allusions to Dante and Milton were just embarrassing and tacked-on. I want the time I spent reading that trilogy back please!