(Note: In this post I restrict fantasy and fairy-stories to mean 20th-century English works, having no experience with anything else, and very little even with these.)
Tolkien's essay On Fairy-Stories is essential reading for anyone interested in the subject. It is readily apparent, both from his excellent treatment of the topic and his own "fairy-stories", that Tolkien knows a thing or two about his craft. Behind the enchanted woods and secret doors and flaming black swords, there's a master at work with an eye for beauty and a nose for truth.
Fantasy, despite its dramatic proportions, can be traced to quite ordinary beginnings: the humble adjective. Tolkien observes, "When we can take green from grass, blue from heaven, and red from blood, we have already an enchanter's power." This ability to extract elements and properties and juxtapose them into fresh combinations is the lifeblood of Faerie, without which it would not exist.
In the end, all of man's creations and inventions remain the products of an imagination which must of necessity be confined to what is. There is no escaping the Periodic Table of Elements. Thus, man is - to use Tolkien's term - a "sub-creator."
Tolkien devotes considerable space to examining the common association between fairy-stories and children, which association he holds to be rather more forced than free. "Children as a class - except in a common lack of experience they are not one - neither like fairy-stories more, nor understand them better than adults do; and no more than they like many other things. They are young and growing, and normally have keen appetites, so the fairy-stories as a rule go down well enough." For some reason, Tolkien says, adults have got it fixed in their minds that fairy-stories are for children, and children for fairy-stories. He ably demonstrates that this is not in fact the case, arguing that fairy-stories ought to be taken seriously if they are to be taken at all, not passed off like second-hand clothes to be worn for dirty chores.
Some of Tolkien's comments near the middle of the essay create the impression that he was opposed to film or drama adaptations of fairy-stories on any level. He writes, "In human art Fantasy is a thing best left to words, to true literature. In painting, for instance, the visible presentation of the fantastic image is technically too easy; the hand tends to outrun the mind, even to overthrow it. Silliness or morbidity are frequent results." This is true enough. C. S. Lewis similarly deplored those "horrible lithographs of the Savior (apparently seven feet high, with the face of a consumptive girl)..."*
Sometimes imagery and drama are guaranteed to come up short, in which cases it may be better not to make the attempt. Tolkien continues: "Fantasy, even of the simplest kind, hardly ever succeeds in Drama, when that is presented as it should be, visibly and audibly acted. Fantastic forms are not to be counterfeited."
It appears that the first animated adaptation of Lord Of The Rings was attempted in 1978, five years after Tolkien's death. I still wonder, as I'm sure many others do, what Tolkien's opinion of Peter Jackson's Trilogy would have been. Perhaps, had he seen what type of results modern cinematic technology was able to produce, he would have conceded that the Trilogy was one of the "hardly ever" successful marriages of Fantasy and Drama.
We have observed that fairy-stories are merely unfamiliar combinations of familiar things, and are not, in that sense, original. There is nothing particularly unusual about a frog or a princess or a marriage; only the combination of the three. The most preposterous fairy-story cannot invent even one new color. (Or it will say, "There was a new color," which is about all that can be said.) For those of us who are tied up in knots over originality, Tolkien's commonsense is tonic:
We do not, or need not, despair of drawing because all lines must be either curved or straight, nor of painting because there are only three “primary” colours. We may indeed be older now, in so far as we are heirs in enjoyment or in practice of many generations of ancestors in the arts. In this inheritance of wealth there may be a danger of boredom or of anxiety to be original, and that may lead to a distaste for fine drawing, delicate pattern, and “pretty” colours, or else to mere manipulation and over-elaboration of old material, clever and heartless. But the true road of escape from such weariness is not to be found in the wilfully awkward, clumsy, or misshapen, not in making all things dark or unremittingly violent; nor in the mixing of colours on through subtlety to drabness, and the fantastical complication of shapes to the point of silliness and on towards delirium. Before we reach such states we need recovery. We should look at green again, and be startled anew (but not blinded) by blue and yellow and red... This recovery fairy-stories help us to make. In that sense only a taste for them may make us, or keep us, childish.
Tolkien here sounds very much like Chesterton; or is it Chesterton who sounds like Tolkien? No matter: the point is the same. Open your eyes. Take in the blue sky. Remember your Creator.
I close with Tolkien's brilliant apologetic in verse, taken from the essay.
"Dear sir," I said - 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.
Through 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."
*C. S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), 234
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