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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Tuesday, October 11, 2011


Fantasy, of course, starts out with an advantage: arresting strangeness. But that advantage has been turned against it, and has contributed to its disrepute. Many people dislike being “arrested.” They dislike any meddling with the Primary World, or such small glimpses of it as are familiar to them. They, therefore, stupidly and even maliciously confound Fantasy with Dreaming, in which there is no Art; and with mental disorders, in which there is not even control: with delusion and hallucination.

And in this corner we have the "Godzilla" whose 1939 essay "On Fairy Stories" has repeatedly been invoked to battle "Primary World" champions like Joseph Conrad/"Isoghidrah."  "Metagodzilla" is of course J.R.R. Tolkien, who may start rolling in his grave if his ghost ever hears that I've just compared him with a giant radioactive lizard.  It's meant to be a compliment, of course, not least in that the big lizard almost always wins the fight.

OTOH, this isn't a "winner take all" fight: more like an inevitable conflict between world-views.  Tolkien proclaims that:

Fantasy is a natural human activity. It certainly does not destroy or even insult Reason; and it does not either blunt the appetite for, nor obscure the perception of, scientific verity. On the contrary. The keener and the clearer is the reason, the better fantasy will it make. If men were ever in a state in which they did not want to know or could not perceive truth (facts or evidence), then Fantasy would languish until they were cured. If they ever get into that state (it would not seem at all impossible), Fantasy will perish, and become Morbid Delusion.

Compared to Conrad's sneer at the mental "elasticity" of those who believe in the supernatural-- which as noted in Part 1, doesn't even differentiate between literal belief and fictional credence-- this statement shows a far broader conception of the nature of literature as a whole, not merely those particular departments of it that one may term "ghost stories," "fairy stories," or even my "metaphenomenal fiction."  One can question some of Tolkien's conclusions here, but there's no question that he's looking at literature from a much more pluralistic stance than Conrad.  For me this statement wins Tolkien the fight "on points" as it were.

Of course it must be noted that both authors were writing about those aforementioned departments only, so neither is making a blanket condemnation or defense of all metaphenomenal fictions.  Indeed, at one point in the essay Tolkien, not content with taking swipes at the Conrad-like modernists who condemn fantasy as "unreal," also takes a jab at science fiction:

The maddest castle that ever came out of a giant's bag in a wild Gaelic story is not only much less ugly than a robot-factory, it is also (to use a very modern phrase) “in a very real sense” a great deal more real. Why should we not escape from or condemn the “grim Assyrian” absurdity of top-hats, or the Morlockian horror of factories? They are condemned even by the writers of that most escapist form of all literature, stories of Science fiction.

To be sure, there have been a lot of SF-writers and SF-critics who defend science fiction over fantasy as supposedly being more "realistic," by which they really mean "more tied to the naturalistic world of cause and effect."  But the dichotomy doesn't really hold.  While there are assorted science fiction stories that are scrupulous about translating real-world science into fiction, many of the best-known SF-concepts are not any more supportable than a Gaelic giant's-bag.  I appreciate that the late Isaac Asimov could write rings around me in terms of real-world scientific knowledge.  But he didn't draw on such knowledge to posit his "Three Laws of Robotics."  These "laws" are no more than concepts designed to make his robot-narratives function as he the author chooses, and those narratives depict not naturalitic "reality" but a far-flung fantasy-corpus tenuously bound together with strands of real-world scientific data. 
Of course, were Conrad actually battling Tolkien, if only in debate, Conrad might well stick to his guns that fantasy does indeed insult reason.  And since Conrad states that he considers that fantasies of life-after-death are nothing more than "a desecration of our tenderest memories," one would expect that he would have little interest in the Christian underpinnings of Tolkien's arguments, particularly his view of "consolation:"

And lastly there is the oldest and deepest desire, the Great Escape: the Escape from Death. Fairy-stories provide many examples and modes of this—which might be called the genuine escapist, or (I would say) fugitive spirit. But so do other stories (notably those of scientific inspiration), and so do other studies. Fairy-stories are made by men not by fairies. The Human-stories of the elves are doubtless full of the Escape from Deathlessness. But our stories cannot be expected always to rise above our common level. They often do. Few lessons are taught more clearly in them than the burden of that kind of immortality, or rather endless serial living, to which the “fugitive” would fly. For the fairy-story is specially apt to teach such things, of old and still today. Death is the theme that most inspired George MacDonald.

Yet in his next few paragraphs, Tolkien emphasizes that this consolation is more than just "the imaginative satisfaction of ancient desires."  Its principal purpose is the Eucatastrophe, or "happy ending." 

The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale) : this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially “escapist,” nor “fugitive.” In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.

I omit here the parallels Tolkien draws to his own Christian belief, which I as a pluralist see as part of a more widespread cultural pattern, best summed up by Theodor Gaster in his book THESPIS.  I in turn summarized his concepts of *plerosis* and *kenosis* with respect to their applicability in literary terms in AN OPEN QUEST PART 2.

But even though I find Tolkien's literary view to be immensely more well-reasoned than Conrad's, I must add that it is not insignificant that Conrad believes that he sees "marvels and mysteries" in the "visible and tangible world."

Does one necessarily *need* "arresting strangeness" to convey a sense of the marvelous?  It would seem not, but at the same time there must logically be a coherent asesthetic governing these very different approaches to enchantment-- which I'll discuss in the last part of this essay-series.    

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