Tolkien, Fairy-stories, and Utopia part 2

Last time I began to use Paul Ricoeur’s discussion of the relationship between ideology and utopia to think about what Tolkien says about fantasy in “On Fairy-stories” and how it heightens an important part of what all literature does.

Like ideology, utopia has both a necessary and good aspect and a negative, pathological one. Ricoeur identifies the pathology of utopia as escapism. This happens, he says, whenever writing becomes a substitute for acting. Of course escapism is also the complaint most often laid at the door of fantasy literature. Tolkien confronts this criticism head-on by holding that “Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories.” “Why,” he asks, “should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?” (Neil Gaiman draws on this passage in a recent talk on the future of reading.) Distorting, violent ideology is the prison we most need to escape. Fantasy is the purest form of how fiction, and writing in general, help us out.

The making of a Secondary World in fantasy is the furthest extension of what I would say (modifying Ricoeur a bit) is the basic characteristic of literary writing. All writing has to cross the distance that separates reader from writer, which may be considerable. The kind of writing we call creative communicates not just sentences but a world that a reader may enter. A good test-case here is non-fiction: we call it creative when it uses the tools of genre and style to project a world, even though this world is understood to be part of what Tolkien calls the Primary World. Fiction, poetry, and drama all use various techniques to invite readers to enter a new world—new because it is someone else’s, and often also because it is different from the Primary World (at least as we know it now).

Entering the world of the work can do things to a person. Ricoeur, being a philosopher, emphasizes the new self-understanding that is possible in front of the work. If the work is utopian—and even “realistic” works usually have their utopian moments—this understanding can include critique of ideology. But Tolkien goes further. “Fairy-stories,” he writes, “were plainly not concerned with possibility, but with desirability.” Here again, fantasy is an extreme, but awakening desire is a big part of what all literature does. When Tolkien writes about the goal of Recovery, “regaining of a clear view,” he ties it to freedom from “possessiveness.” All good literary reading, I would say, inspires contemplative, receptive desire, rather than acquisitive, competitive desire. Such a conversion of desire is fundamental to every other good we look for in literature.

Tolkien's painting of Rivendell
Tolkien’s painting of Rivendell

Among Tolkien’s imagined places, Rivendell, I think, has a special function as a particular kind of utopia, one that represents literature itself. As the haven established by Elrond, greatest of lore-masters, its constant activities seem to be song, poetry, storytelling, and the giving and receiving of counsel. It is a place of peaceful contemplation, both as retreat and as source of healing vision. It is “the Last Homely House East of the Sea,” which sounds rather nostalgic, and it is an elven stronghold, which sounds closed. But Rivendell is not just cozy and backward-looking. Valinor, the First Homely House, west of the sea, is the place of the elves’ longing. Rivendell connects Middle Earth to an unimaginable destiny of ultimate harmony, the music of Iluvatar.

Rivendell serves in Tolkien’s story as a seed-bed of reconciliation. Here is formed the fellowship of the Ring, the great symbol of union between the peoples of Middle Earth at the end of the Third Age. Elrond is half-elven, son of the union of elves and men, the greatest sign of hope in Tolkien’s legendarium. Meanwhile, as the films capture well, it is a place of art, conversation, and play that cultivate peace: the elves letting the dwarves be dwarves and everyone cherishing the hobbits.

Rivendell points to Consolation, the third—with Recovery and Escape—of Tolkien’s uses of fairy-stories: the joy of the happy ending, for which he coined the term eucatastrophe (adding the Greek prefix eu- meaning good—one of the possible senses of u- in utopia—to invert catastrophe, which he then calls dyscatastrophe—as in dystopia). Ending in eucatastrophe, indeed, sets fairy-stories apart and makes them participate specially in the Resurrection. But this too pertains to the function of utopia because it enables us to understand, as James Alison puts it, “original sin through Easter eyes.”

Tolkien’s “On Fairy-stories,” especially in the light of his fiction, suggests how literary sub-creation can be a powerful means of re-creation. In Genesis 2, God makes Adam from the dust. Jesus writing in the dust in John 8, then, could link sub-creation through writing to what originally happened when the breath of the divine Word met the dust of earth.

Bibliographic note: Ricoeur deals most concisely with the ideas discussed here in two essays, “The Hermeneutical Function of Distanciation” and “Ideology and Utopia,” both contained in From Text to Action: Essays in Hermeneutics, II. He treats utopia primarily as an element of what he calls the “social imagination,” though he also suggests near the end of his Lectures on Ideology and Utopia that it has a particular relevance to literature, which, to my knowledge, he never developed.


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