Getting a graduate degree in the humanities mostly means reading. A lot of reading. One of the purposes of a doctoral degree is to get some kind of mastery of a particular field, which means reading a great deal, and reading a great deal that may or may not be helpful, but is nonetheless part of the literature and so must be read, even if just to be intelligently disagreed with.
There are also books that you keep coming back to. Some turn of phrase or useful perspective or ever-plumbable depth calls you back again and again. In my MDiv and MA work, there were one or two books or articles that I referenced or cited many, many times: History of the World Christian Movement by Dale Ivrin and Scott Sunquist, was one; Discourse and the Surplus of Meaning by Paul Ricoeur was another. One of the reasons I decided finally to give in and go back to study for a doctorate is that the books to which I have kept returning, even after finishing my MA, seem to be trending toward a coherent interest and set of questions that just wouldn’t stop being asked.
For the header image of this site (at least for now), I stacked up some of these books, since they seem like a good summary of what this is all about. I can recommend all of them heartily. I had initially thought to write about all eight of them in one post but things got long, and I’ve split them up into one post apiece. For each, I have included my thoughts on how this book has impacted my thought and how it has pointed me down this road. If you’ve read any of them, I would love your thoughts, and if any of them seem interesting, I encourage you to pick them up and give them a read.
Tree and Leaf, by J. R. R. Tolkien
The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous ‘turn’… this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially ‘escapist’ or ‘fugitive’… it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat.
Tree and Leaf is not Tolkien’s best-known book, but it should be better known than it is. Published in t 1964, it is a peculiar piece of publishing: it contains an essay and a story, both complementary works on the theme of the fairy-story.
“On Fairy-Stories” is a seminal study of both traditional fairy tales and later Victorian fairy-stories. It not only offered some of the first critical and theoretical treatment of the fairy-story as a legitimate form of literature, but it also laid the groundwork for much subsequent study of not only fairy-stories , but also the study of fantastic literature more generally. The essay covers a broad survey of the sorts and dynamics of fairy-stories as opposed to other kinds of narrative, but the most compelling insights the he offers on the subject of fairy-stories are the notion of “eucatastrophe” and his rebuttal to accusations of escapism.
On the one hand, “eucatastrophe” is a word of his own coinage that points in approving terms to that aspect of fairy tales sometimes derided by critics, namely, the happy ending. For Tolkien, the collapse of the danger, trauma, and suffering of the tale into the re-making of the world in the form of graced and miraculous salvation is critical to the work of the fairy-story. Like the Gospel, the fairy-story offers a window out of the compromised and sometimes unrelenting violence of the world as it is, to a sense of what could be, and it serves as a reminder or a signpost towards hop.
On the other hand, Tolkien’s rebuttal to the perennial critique of fairy-stories and fantastic literature more broadly is that it is “mere escapism.” To which critique, he offers the observation that a condemnation of escape is generally the sort of sentiment expressed by those running the jails. To be sure, seeking escape at all points, refusing to engage with the world as it is, does not well serve the individual or the common good. However, never to seek a broader view, never to look out the window is to miss the beauty and the hope for which we are working. Even better, for those who are truly imprisoned in a life from which they cannot find escape, the fairy-story can offer a healthful dream in which to escape, at least for a time, the constraints of an intolerable life.
Why 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 things and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has become less real because the prisoner cannot see it.
The view to which Tolkien believes fairy stories can point us is the view “as we are (or were) meant to see them – as things apart from ourselves.” The fairy story has the special magic ops making the familiar strange so that it can be returned to with fresh eyes. This power of estrangement and recovery makes the fantastic an invaluable tool in reading the world.
Tolkien originally worked on the material of “On Fairy-Stories” for the 1939 lecture at the University of St. Andrews in honor of Andrew Lang, compiler of the variously colored “Fairy Books” of the Victorian age. As such, it retains much of the oral and even conversational style one would expect from a well-delivered lecture rather than the dry, dense prose of an academic essay.
“Leaf by Niggle,” the story that accompanies “On Fairy-Stories” is a fairy-story of Tolkien’s own devising. It is a beautiful tale in which Tolkien shows rather than telling some of what he means when he talks about fairy-stories. It is a contemplation of Tolkien’s own creative process and his own fascination with what he called “sub-creation,” the work of the fantasy writer reaching beyond himself to fashion something new and recognizable. Or, out another way, the work of cutting a new window through which to see what is and what might yet be.