Co-worker with Christian Mystery
It should perhaps be noted at the onset that one of the ‘Fathers of Fantasy,’ J.R.R. Tolkien, felt that such an exercise as we must now indulge was, indeed, futile.
“The definition of a fairy-story—what it is, or what it should be—does not, then, depend on any definition or historical account of elf or fairy, but upon the nature of Faërie: the Perilous Realm itself, and the air that blows in that country. I will not attempt to define that, nor to describe it directly. It cannot be done. 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.”1
I am not sure if Tolkien truly means that Fantasy is not discernable (he grants perceptible); if his “cannot” really means ‘should not’—indeed, he himself admits to being fascinated and desirous to “unravel the intricately knotted and ramified history of the branches on the Tree of Tales”. For Tolkien, the Enchantment of fairy-story rests on belief, which is ever in tension with disbelief. Thus an investigation might well break the enchantment compromising belief, and the “moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed.” He seems to imply that even if the enchanting mystery of Fantasy could be safely explored by a person, he ought not, out of concern that his revelations may harm those for whom the air of Fantasy is needed in all its potency to endure their daily lives. This being respectfully understood, and acknowledging Tolkien’s apparent and fair reservations, if he had been able to read this post I would hope he would not consider me impertinent for quoting one of his renowned champions of Middle-earth in consideration of the topic we must pursue, not for the sake of investigation, but for the sake of the edification of faith. Thus, after the words of Gandalf the Grey: “Let us risk a little more light.”
For Gene Veith:
“Fantasy draws upon the inward imagination rather than external reality for its subject matter. ... The pure, radical fictionality of fantasy—its separateness from what we already experience—is part of its value.”2
He continues later on:
“The very atmosphere of fantasy is charged with beauty and mystery, the sense that anything can happen, that there is more to life than we see on the surface.”3
Fantasy works concurrently with the always-reality of Mystery found in Christianity.
Whether we walk into an ancient, magisterial cathedral of the medieval world, or a quaint chapel tucked into the countryside, we can sense the beauty and mystery of the Faith.
Even non-Christians can sense this. I once read a New Brunswickan photographer admitting he loved to sit in a local, country chapel because he could sense the “crackle” of the transcendent and the “enigmatic” peace— even though, he was quick to point out, he was not a believer himself. And what of all the community organizations in Britain, no matter how small, zealous to preserve their local, centuries-old town churches, many long after services are rarely or no longer made available, bearing out that the town has apparently “moved on”? How many quietly admit—in actions, if not words— that some enchantment pulls on them, compels them to preserve that aching frame of old stones proclaiming Christ crucified when money might “best” be spent on other services?
When Christians gather for the Divine Service, we know there is more going on than we can see; the Proper Preface and Words of Institution confess this just before we receive the Body and Blood of Christ. So it should not be much surprise at all for Christian theology to be discovered dwelling on a fantastical landscape such as Logres, Middle-earth, or Narnia; or experienced through the adventures of Perelevaux, Aragorn, or Edmund Pevensie. This bridge is easy to cross because it must be there for the Fantasy story to function, to captivate us, to weave its spell, as Lewis implied in his essay 'The Weight of Glory'— Tolkien outright said: “The eucatastrophic tale is the true form of fairy-tale, and its highest function.” And for Tolkien, Christianity has the “greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe” in the Incarnation (the “eucatastrophe of Man’s history”) and the Resurrection (the “eucatastrophe of the Incarnation”). That the former would be a natural derivative of the latter is heavily implied by Middle-earth’s sub-creator.
All this considered, I believe a fair and succinct definition of Fantasy is: a story that takes place in a perilous, Secondary World, which looks and functions much like our own (or one in our past); a story that presupposes the numinous, and fully embraces all mystery related to this; one being held together by Enchantment, or that artistic skill which creates Secondary Belief (another Tolkien term) so that a person may “live” in the Secondary World and receive its salutary fruit (for Tolkien that would be “recovery,” “consolation”, “escape”); and in which one should hope to find at least one eucatastrophic event after the fashion of the Incarnation or Resurrection.
‘On Fairy-Stories.’ In The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays. From the book’s Foreword: “[On Fairy-Stories] was originally an Andrew Lang lecture given at the University of St Andrews on 8 March 1939. It was first published in the memorial volume Essays Presented to Charles Williams (Oxford 1947), and reissued (first in 1964) together with the story Leaf by Niggle under the title Tree and Leaf.” Ibid., 3-4.
Reading Between the Lines, 129