Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Tolkien on Faërie

J.R.R. TOLKIEN'S FAMOUS ESSAY, On Fairy Stories, is online. It is also available in print in the book Tree and Leaf,which includes the story Leaf by Niggle.

His essay is not about “supernatural beings of diminutive size, in popular belief supposed to possess magical powers and to have great influence for good or evil over the affairs of man,” stories which Tolkien detested, nor is it about the modern vulgar usurpation of the word, but rather it is ultimately about myth and what Tolkien calls Sub-Creation. This essay explores the formal, efficient, and final causes of these kinds of stories, and how it ties in with the Christian imagination.

I highly recommend reading the essay. It is both a strong defense for a kind of literature, and also an attack against short-sighted modern folklorist scholarship. The essay is particularly recommended to fans of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, especially those who feel themselves strangely moved by the story, but know not why.

Tolkien points out that we cannot create: the world we live in already has a Creator, and so we can only sub-create: by Art we may either echo or pervert Creation.

As Tolkien wrote to his then-atheist friend C.S. Lewis:
Although now long estranged,
Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
Dis-graced he may be, yet is not de-throned,
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned:
Man, Sub-creator, the refracted Light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.
Though all the crannies of the world we filled
with Elves and Goblins, though we dared to build
Gods and their houses out of dark and light,
and sowed the seed of dragons—'twas our right
(used or misused). That right has not decayed:
we make still by the law in which we're made.

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