The Eros of Fantasy

The previous post, no more than an aside, drew attention to a remarkable sentence in J R R Tolkien’s essay, “On fairy-Stories.” In fact that entire piece of writing — I hardly want to call it an essay — is remarkable. To be sure, it is one of the seminal efforts to theorize literary fantasy, and in the essay Tolkien offers a number of useful distinctions and formulations, but if “On Fairy-Stories” is theoretical, it is so in a more basic, ancient sense of the term that is closer to the notion of contemplation — or, so as not to commit an injustice against the mystical tradition, what we might call discursive meditation. In any case, it is far more than an effort in literary criticism, as I hope to demonstrate. All quotations, unless otherwise noted, are from the essay.

One of the more unfortunate elements of Tolkien’s essay is its title. It is almost impossible for a native English-speaker, particularly one living in the 21st century, to take seriously any utterance involving the word “fairy.” The trouble is that “fairy” does not mean, or did not originally mean, what we take it to mean. Tolkien points out the confusion that entered English when we took Faërie from the medieval French. Fairy is not a creature but a place. Perhaps it would help if we didn’t say “fairy” but “Faërie”; that is, “fah-ay-ree.” And you have to make sure you get a nice guttural ‘r’ in there… Anyway, fairy-stories, so to call them, are therefore “stories about Fairy, that is Faërie, the realm or state in which fairies have their being.” And so fairy-stories are not necessarily concerned with fairies at all. For as Tolkien continues to explain, “Faërie contains many things besides elves and fays, and besides dwarfs, witches, trolls, giants or dragons: it holds the seas, the sun, the moon, the sky; and the earth, and all things that are in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, mortal men, when we are enchanted.” That is our earth he is talking about. But as for a definition of Faërie itself, Tolkien proceeds with caution:

Faërie cannot be caught in a net of words; for it is one of its qualities to be indescribable, though not imperceptible. It has many ingredients, but analysis will not necessarily discover the secret of the whole… Faërie itself may perhaps most nearly be translated by Magic — but it is magic of a peculiar mood and power, at the furthest pole from the vulgar devices of the laborious, scientific magician.

We are accustomed to seeing fantasy fiction — essentially what Tolkien means by the term fairy-story — defined by its use of magic. I have always resisted this definition of fantasy, perhaps because I have sensed that, to reverse Tolkien’s formulation, if fantasy is defined by magic then that magic is a place, a world, a realm, a dimension, which in one strand of the European tradition is called Faërie; it is not some mechanism or technical system. So when I come upon a statement such as the following, which is to be found among the submission guidelines of a prominent publisher of fantasy, I am perturbed: “Any magical system must be both rigorously coherent and integral to the plot.” This ‘magic’ is no more than technology by another name, or Tolkien’s lower, vulgar form of magic. He goes on to further define this lower magic, the only kind that is usually meant by the term anymore, as one that “produces or pretends to produce an alteration in the primary world… it is not an art but a technique [we would now say technology]; its desire is power in this world, domination of things and wills.”

Even a higher form of magic will not suffice for Tolkien as the defining feature of fairy-stories. It is a matter of recognizing deeper purpose. Note the appearance in the last sentence quoted of the idea of desire. We are beginning to approach the heart of the matter. Of magic — the higher, more mystical or at least mysterious kind — in the literary genre that treats of Faërie, Tolkien makes this important reservation:

The magic of Faërie is not an end in itself, its virtue is in its operation: among these are the satisfactions of certain primordial human desires. One of these desires is to survey the depth of space and time. Another is to hold communion with other living things. A story may thus deal with the satisfaction of these desires, with or without the operation of either machine or magic, and in proportion as it succeeds it will approach the quality and have the flavor of fairy-story.

“On Fairy-Stories” is concerned, above all, with desire, with certain primordial human desires, as the author says. But which desires exactly? The two that Tolkien enumerates above hardly exhaust the matter. As the essay proceeds the sense of what I would call the Eros of Fantasy expands. It may be possible to name other specific desires, but I come to think there is a single great desire in back of it all (or, if you must, One Desire to Rule Them All). The great fantasist’s instinct for this one desire, he avows, goes back further than youth and early manhood — further than his introduction to philology and war. Thinking of the fairy-stories he read as a boy, Tolkien claims that he knew then that they “were plainly not primarily concerned with possibility but with desirability. If they awakened desire, satisfying it while often whetting it unbearably, they succeeded.” Again there is the question of the specific desire, but in this instance we have a clearer answer than this or that primordial urge or intimation. Instead Tolkien makes mention of the settings of the stories he loved, some of them, for example the sagas, ostensibly set in this world. It is that setting — if that is not too deadened and weak a word for it — that seems to be important, for it is “such lands,” he says, that “were preeminently desirable.”

But this is still only to say that Faërie itself is desirable, and that we would therefore seek it out in writing fairy-stories (or fantasy, as we would now say). What does it mean to say that the lands of Faërie are preeminently desirable? I can’t get away from this notion of place. The most basic question to ask about a place would seem to be, Where is it? But the answer, in the case of Faërie, is complex. Before I come to Tolkien’s answer to that question, consider that a way of answering what it means to desire this land of Faërie is to desire a kind of magic, or we could say a kind of making. There are two neologisms that have entered the language, at least among small circles of adepts, from Tolkien’s essay. One of them is subcreation. One of Toalkien’s crucial points in the essay is that fairy-stories, or literary fantasy frequently includes, in the form of the magic or enchantment that one encounters in fantasy, fictional instances of subcreation. “The primal desire at the heart of Faërie,” declares the fantasist, is “the realization, independent of the conceiving mind, of imagined wonder.” That is to say that the enchantments, as Tolkien calls them (as opposed to mechanistic magic), often ascribed to those who dwell or venture in Faërie are supreme images of our creative drive; furthermore, fantasy fiction itself is, to a limited degree, this kind of creativity — but Tolkien, being metaphysically precise and moreover a Catholic Christian, calls it subcreation. For our author — or explorer — of Middle Earth, subcreation is celebration and an act of beauty, and it is what some might prefer to call humanistic and affirmative:

At the heart of many man-made stories of the elves lies, open or concealed, pure or alloyed, the desire for a living, realized sub-creative art. That desire is only cheated by counterfeits, whether the innocent but clumsy devices of the human dramatist or the malevolent frauds of the magician. Uncorrupted it does not seek delusion, nor bewitchment nor domination; it seeks shared enrichment, partners in making and delight, not slaves.

In the next post I will suggest that what fantasy presents, in a humanistic language, is an aesthetically perfect world. Another writer than J R R Tolkien would have ended his lecture or essay with the above statement. But that is not where “On Fairy-Stories” ends. Where we go from here is perilous territory indeed. A great many of the admirers of Tolkien’s Middle Earth literature do not share — as, for the record, I do share — Tolkien’s religious and metaphysical commitments. That is to be expected and nothing to be condemned. But “On Fairy-Stories” is very much a personal essay in that its highest theory comes to us from its author’s deepest convictions about the nature of reality.

For Tolkien, the prototype of all fantasy was the story of the Gospel. That is to say, the Incarnation of the Word of God, his Passion, Resurrection, Ascension, and the redemption of man and all of creation. That “all of creation” is important. Tolkien believes that God is the God of elves as well as of men. He also asserts that the creatures of Faërie are more natural or nearer to nature than human beings — this is something he understands not only from his faith but from his philological researches. There is a passage, to which I will return in the next post, that evinces the fantasist’s understanding of fantasy as a genuinely cosmic vision: “It was in fairy-stories that I first divined the potency of the words, and the wonder of the things, such as stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine.” For now, simply consider the extraordinary conclusion to the essay, in which the fantasist, speaking of the Christian revelation, describes the ultimate fantasy:

Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels and of men — and of elves. Legend and history have met and fused… in fantasy man 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.

Not everyone will be able to assent to such a statement. But at least within the context of the essay, of its author’s beliefs, we can finally say that we are able to answer the most obvious question about Faërie: Where is it? In fact, though, we had the answer at the beginning: Faërie is this very world in which I type these words. But it is this world transfigured, this world illuminated by an otherworldy light, this world when it has become a new heaven and a new earth. The world is already is that. The eternal is by definition not some future, some destination in time. The fairy-story, thus, is what reveals the eternal world in which we already live. Tolkien uses language that reminds me of Leonard Cohen’s wonderful lines, There is a crack, a crack in everything: that’s how the light gets in. His other famous neologism in this essay is eucatastrophe. He describes this literary hallmark of fantasy as “a piercing glimpse of joy, and heart’s desire, that for a moment passes outside the frame, rends indeed the very web of story, and lets a gleam come through.” What does it mean to rend the web of story if subcreation is a kind of storytelling? And what is this gleam, a gleam of what? We shall see…






“A real taste for fairy-stories was wakened by philology on the threshold of manhood, and quickened to full life by war.”

J R R Tolkien says this of his own literary development in the essay “On Fairy-Stories,” which will be the subject of the next post. That post in part, and the one following it in whole, will address the subject of escapism as it is commonly associated with fantasy fiction. Before getting to that I wanted to draw attention to this one remarkable sentence that appears as an aside in the middle of Tolkien’s essay.

I find the last six words of this sentence — quickened to full life by war — in particular to be haunting. It is all the more disquieting to encounter such a sentence delivered in an off-hand fashion. “On Fairy-Stories” was originally a lecture given in March of 1939, though I do not know if this sentence was part of that lecture or if Tolkien inserted it later: I am reading a version revised in 1964. But I would imagine such an aside would have been present in the original lecture, as it isn’t the sort of thing one adds later on.

Tolkien of course was referring to the Great War, and as he spoke few could have doubted that Europe was preparing to go to war again. I suppose a man could make such a comment casually, even vaguely, only if he were addressing a room full of people who had been through the same civilization-altering war to which he referred. I cannot imagine a literary scholar today standing up in front of a room of academics at a prestigious school (JRRT delivered the lecture at the University of St Andrews) and mentioning, in passing, a traumatic experience like the Great War, and doing so with the knowledge that many of the people he addressed, certainly the majority of his colleagues present, had first-hand experience of that same trauma.

I was nineteen years old, just about to begin my sophomore year in college, when the terrorist attacks of 9/11/01 occurred. I was most certainly getting into philology. But the war which was shortly to begin, and pick up significantly during my junior year when the US invaded Iraq, was something I was barely conscious of. I didn’t go to a prestigious school for undergrad, a place full of rich people. I was at the University of Cincinnati. But it made no difference, I was totally isolated from the conflicts, nobody talked about them except as a reason for despising the president.

As is the case with many people roughly my age, both my grandfathers fought in the Second World War. I grew up hearing their stories of the war — and their silences, when they came to that of which they could not speak. I was very interested in military history when I was a boy, and I spent a lot of time studying it in all of its phases, from antiquity to the present. In America of course military history does not extend beyond the advent of firearms, but I was always most interested in pre-modern warfare. I encountered plenty of it in fantasy, which genre, for reasons I’d like to talk about soon, does not mix well with gunpowder.

My father shared much of my interest in military history and he encouraged my reading about it when I was growing up. But after 9/11 and the wars that it entailed, he could no longer find it in him to study such things in his spare time. Neither did it anymore seem to me the sort of thing one could take a merely casual interest in. But I retained what knowledge I had gathered (along with a couple of swords that are, to this day, taking up space in my parents’ home). One summer, when I was a graduate student in Chicago, I was at a professor’s house with a bunch of my fellow classmates. We were outside on the porch. A couple of military jets flew overhead and I identified them — F-18’s — to the shock and evident disgust of my peers and the professor. To possess knowledge of such matters was taboo.

I will soon have occasion to quote from Sir Philip Sidney, who was a man of letters and a soldier that died what was considered a heroic death in the Low Countries in the 1580’s. There was quite a long period when men of letters like Sidney and philologists like Tolkien went off to war. They may have done it proudly or they may have done it as a matter of course, but the point is they went. My country has been at war, more or less, for most of the time since I came of age, but for the most part those wars have been, to me, something less substantial than a dream, something I would occasionally catch sight of flickering on a TV screen. In general, war is, for me, something I have studied, something I remember fascinating me as a boy in the occasional reenactment I would see, say at Gettysburg or perhaps a joust or two — something choreographed. My generation has not been tested in the way that Tolkien’s was tested, and I wonder sometimes if that lack — how strange to call it so — is visible in our fantasies.



It is not down in any map…

…true places never are.

So says Melville’s Ishmael, and often I’m inclined to agree with him. But it takes a bit of doing to understand what this statement really means — At least it does for me, because the fact is that I love maps. All maps. I grew up in a house full of atlases and from these, as a boy, I committed to a deep level of my mind as many as I could of the places that are down in maps. And of course those are true places, they exist. You can actually go to Gotland or Hokkaido. There is real knowledge to be had about the Congo and Patagonia and Paris. You can follow the river and get to the sea.

Suppose we modified Ishmael’s statement a bit and said that true maps show places that are not anywhere down in the world. That may seem quite a modification, but perhaps it’s only an inversion that ends up saying the same thing. It all depends on just what we’re talking about when we talk about maps and the world: the world as an arrangement of matter and event which the mind is perfectly adequate to perceive and mediate; and the map as no more than informational, for the world, in this construal, contains nothing that is not reducible to information of one sort or another. But a place is one of those things that is so much more than itself. If a map is a representation of a place, or perhaps the symbol of a place, then it is more than an index of something in the reductively materialist world just described.

The chart of the territory, the plan, the map — it is, to be sure, highly informational. Especially modern maps are full of information, products as they are of detailed technological and scientific knowledge of the physical world. But that is not all that maps can be. It is possible to discover another dimension, so to speak, in some maps. They can be illustrative in the deepest sense, that is to say they can shed a certain luster, or light, on things, and as such I think maps bear a relation to painting. I often wonder, when I look at landscape painting — something I spend an inordinate amount of time doing, thanks to the internet — whether painting or cartography comes closer to depicting a place. I believe Domenico Theotokopoulos — El Greco to you and me — entertained thoughts of a similar nature and perhaps came to the conclusion that his own medium was superior as revelator and communicator of local truth. Consider, for example:


This is one of the two whole views of Toledo that El Greco painted. (The city appears as a background in other paintings.) A portion of the other, far more apocalyptic view of Toledo appears as the header image of this blog. This View and Plan of Toledo, as it’s called, is interesting and beautiful in a slightly different way. There is, as with everything the displaced Cretan painted, an otherworldly light. But I want to think first about the different kinds of information, if we can call it that, contained in this image. The picture of the city is detailed and precise. It is not, of course, strictly accurate. There is, most obvious, the youth (some think him El Greco’s son) holding the plan (i.e. map) of Toledo. The map, though proudly unfurled, is quite useless (to us), we can’t make out anything in it. Surely it can tell us nothing important about Toledo that we can’t glean from the rest of the painting. Also in the foreground is an allegorical representation of the River Tagus — that’s water spilling out of the jug. Historically, the Tagus has been poetically associated with the entire Iberian Peninsula, of which it is the largest river; Toledo sits near its source. Above Toledo is an explicitly otherworldly image, the Blessed Virgin endowing Saint Ildefonsus with a special vestment. Ildefonsus — Hildefuns, as he would have been known to his Visigoth people — was a bishop of Toledo in the seventh century, almost a thousand years before the time of this painting. He was intense in his lifelong devotion to the Blessed Virgin, and for that he received, in a visitation that made Toledo famous throughout Christendom, the garment depicted here. What this last element shows so delightfully is the power of an image (or, if we are thinking of the entire painting, the portion of an image), necessarily static, to evoke story — quite an ancient story at that.

All of this — the youth holding the unclear map, the allegorical representation of the Tagus, the heavenly figures, the expansive and clear image of the real city — combines to great effect for me: the indication of an infinite, or at least undefined, world. The View and Plan of Toledo tells me more than any purely informational modern map could tell me about the city because it invokes dimensions of the city’s life (poetic, spiritual, topographical and even, in the young man, the personal and subjective), that no map can invoke or suggest. When I look at the painting of Toledo I catch a hint of a cosmos that extends beyond the image on the canvas not just spatially but temporally and, you could say, not just horizontally but vertically. But a map does not suggest or hint. Usually a modern map tells you just what it tells you and no more. If you wanted more, you would look to another map.

At least that is how I imagine it is for most sane people. If it is otherwise for me, if certain maps evoke for me whole worlds that extend beyond the import of the map, perhaps it’s because when I was young I spent a lot of time poring over not just atlases of what we commonly call the real world, but also over the maps I found in fantasy fiction. They were almost always then (as they are now) badly drawn and badly printed, creased in just the wrong place… and I loved them all the more for it, somehow the suggestive power was augmented in inverse ratio to the quality of the map. Long before I knew or cared anything about painting (and I still know almost nothing about it), fantasy maps taught me something that the stories they were attached to also taught me: the infinity of the fictional world, which mirrors the infinity of our own. I don’t know if it is like this for many other young readers of fantasy, but for me (with some friends), I would continue the adventures of this or that hero, or else my avatar in the other world would be some person unnamed and unheard of in the story, yet part of the world. Likewise I would extend the maps, I would draw other parts of the fictional world. Sometimes they would connect with the parts given by the author of the fantasy, and sometimes it sufficed me simply to know that they were part of the same world — another continent, perhaps. It is more than a bit weird, if you think about it. But don’t images like the one below encourage such thought and play? Note all the arrows pointing beyond the edges:


The arrows do more than orient the reader of the map, and even when a fantasy map does not possess arrows, the reader supplies them in his or her mind if he or she has become convinced of the authenticity of the world. But note as well, in this image from The Hobbit, the marginal hand pointing into the map. And by that pointing hand there is writing. There is quite a bit of writing on the map, in fact, some of it decipherable and some not. Does that writing not serve a purpose similar to that of the images in El Greco’s painting (other than the city itself)? The writing here, like the painter’s images, furnishes narrative, aura, meaning. This map, like the painting, implies a world beyond its bounds and a wealth of story both beyond and within itself.

What I think is at stake here is the degree of reality, or you could say the scope, of what Tolkien called subcreation. Writers do very little imagining, if what is meant by that is some sort of weaving of fictional worlds out of whole cloth. Borrowing and discovery are much better words for describing what writers do: the subcreation exceeds its creator. The writer’s work, if it is good, is a point of entry, not a whole world unto itself. Many fantasists attest to the feeling that the world they have supposedly created is actually one they have only discovered, and that only very partially. I remember David Eddings telling somewhere how he began his Belgariad by doodling the map, unpremeditated, one day in the parking lot before he went in to work. Similarly Tolkien, it is reported, found himself writing “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit,” and had to write an entire book to find out what he meant by that sentence. Ursula LeGuin — I think it was her, but I could be wrong — says somewhere that she wrote an entire book, it may even have been an entire series, because she wanted to find out more about some aspect of the subcreation, a character or a whole culture. My memory is a little fuzzy on that last one, but the point is that a writer is a kind of explorer reporting back to the reader what he or she finds. Explorers are a sociable and professional group, though, it’s important to keep that in mind: they rely, for their own work, on that of their peers and predecessors.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what I most enjoy in fantasy and what it is in fantasy that we might seize on as a defining element. And both lines of thought have led me to the idea of maps; or, to state the matter more conceptually, to the infinity of the fantasy world. I used to tell students that King Arthur and Clarissa Dalloway were equally fictional, and that the only reason we might think of, say, The Once and Future King as fantasy and Mrs Dalloway as “literary” fiction is because even though T H White’s book is supposedly set on the island of Great Britain, we all know that it’s not the “real” Great Britain and that it never really happened, whereas for Virginia Woolf’s book to work we have to pretend to ourselves that it really happened and this means that the story is set in the “real” London. In other words, I thought that what makes a work of fantasy fiction uniquely fantasy is its geography, the world — the other world — that its author catches sight of and imparts to the reader.

But I’m not satisfied with this definition of fantasy fiction, at least not without a great deal of fine tuning. The problem would seem to be that Clarissa Dalloway’s London and King Arthur’s are, like their associated characters, equally fictional. But perhaps this is the wrong way to go about thinking of the fantasy world. The matter is susceptible to further inspection. The next step is to take a look at one of the more helpful essays on the subject of fantasy and the place where it exists, Tolkien’s “On Fairy-Stories”…