Creativity as Deifying: On Fairy Stories, Part II

David Russell Mosley


4 April 2014
On the Edge of Elfland Beeston, Nottinghamshire

Dear Friends and Family,
Here is the lengthier part 2 of yesterday’s thesis extract. This section is, in essence, a commentary on J. R. R. Tolkien’s essay ‘On Fairy-Stories’. Let me know what you think.

On Fairy Stories

‘Fantasy remains a human right: we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.’1 One could easily replace fantasy with poetry, make with create or poetise, made with created or a poem, and Maker with Creator or Poet. What Tolkien says about Fantasy and fairy-tales is equally true of poetry. As Tolkien writes, ‘Fairy- stories were plainly not primarily concerned with possibility, but with desirability. If they awakened desire, satisfying it while often whetting it unbearably, they succeeded.’2 In On Fairy Stories, Tolkien is laying out what he thinks fairy-tales are and what they are meant to do. Tolkien, as noted above, tells us that the purpose is to elicit desire. This desire is simultaneously a desire for what is past, namely a nostalgia for Eden. Equally, however, the desire is for what is to come, namely the new Heavens and new Earth, or deification, though Tolkien is not so explicit.

Nevertheless, Tolkien’s own work here bears out that fairy-tales are for more than the awakening of this desire, we might even call it a natural desire for the supernatural, but that it also serves as a kind of corrective lens. In chapter 2 I argued that the Fall incurs and includes an obfuscation of our sight, that humans can no longer see correctly. This is something Faerie can help us overcome. He writes:

Recovery (which includes return and renewal of health) is a re- gaining––regaining of a clear view. I do not say “seeing things as they are” and involve myself with the philosophers, though I might venture to say “see- ing things as we are (or were) meant to see them”––as things apart from our- selves. We need, in any case, to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness of familiarity––from possessiveness.3

In Faerie we can see things for what they really are or could be or at least for how we are meant to see them. In any event, the fairy-tale helps us see more clearly. However, Tolkien also makes it clear that fairy-tales are not the only way to do this. ‘Of course, fairy-stories are not the only means of recovering, or, prophylactic against loss. Humility is enough.’4 Nevertheless, fairy-tales mixed with humility will help serve as a corrective lens so that the world may be glimpsed in a the light we were meant to see it. This passage from Tolkien is particularly provocative on this point:

Faërie includes many things besides elves and fays, and besides dwarfs, witches, trolls, giants, or dragons: it holds the seas, the sun, the moon, the sky; and the earth, and all things that are in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, mortal men, when we are enchanted.5

Tolkien begins by showing us the things we expect to see in Faerie, or Elfland as Chesterton called it in Orthodoxy: fantastical beasts, mythological creatures, wicked and benign. Then, however, Tolkien shifts to things we see in the mortal world, the first four perhaps have a commonplace in our modern imaginings of Faerie (see Disney’s preference for his heroines to be accompanied by birds and other woodland creatures). Then, Tolkien makes a very deliberate shift that helps knit this chapter together, bread and wine, which is meant to incite images of the Eucharist. Indeed, even the inclusion of water, which may at first had us thinking of Bombur’s en- chanted sleep after falling in the river of Mirkwood, but after seeing bread and wine listed, baptism ought now to be in our minds, perhaps even the stone can evoke images of medieval fonts. Even humanity, when enchanted is encompassed by Faerie.

What Tolkien does here is show forth the notions of a sacramental universe as I described above. All things are or can be more than what they are because all things exist in Faerie. All that is needed is eyes to see them. This is one of the roles fantasy plays, that poetry plays. For Chesterton, this rendering strange is an essential aspect of fantasy. He writes, ‘The only words that ever satisfy me as describing Nature are the terms used in fairy books ‘charm’, ‘spell’, ‘enchantment’. They express the arbitrariness of the fact and its mystery. A tree grows fruit because it is a magic tree. Water runs downhill because it is bewitched. The sun shines because it is bewitched.’6 Perhaps one of the first things fantasy can do for us (particularly when written from a Christian perspective) is to show us that the God of Christianity and the Creation of Christianity are not the ones of deism. Rather God is, as I have argued throughout, Poet, Creator, intimately connected with his Creation/Poem.

This alone perhaps shows the purpose of including a long discourse on the purpose of fantasy/poetry in a chapter on redemption in an essay on deification. There is, however, more. Following on what Milbank has said above, the writing of poetry and fantasy, and particularly the act of world-creating, at least according to Tolkien, is a gift and therefore graced and also an aspect of our deification. Alison Milbank provides a perhaps even more crucial link between the writing of fiction (specifically fantasy, but all fiction ultimately) and deification. She writes, ‘And it is in the ability to create––fiction is linked to the Latin verb facere, to make––that the artist comes closest to God. For us to recognize the world as God’s creation, we have to see it as a work of art; for us to recognize the creative power of the artist, we similarly have both to experience his or her fiction as a world but also be aware of its constructed nature.’7 First note that our word fiction is related to facare which provides the latter portion of the word deification. This is the same as noting that the latter half of the Greek theopoiesis, namely poiesis, is the source of our word for poetry. Even more so, however, Milbank, alongside Tolkien, notes that this act of creativity, this act of artistic creation renders the artist as an imitator of God. What is more it reminds us that just as we need to immerse ourselves in an artists creation without forgetting its constructed nature, so too should we not forget the created nature of the cosmos around us because it has a Creator.

George MacDonald writes in an essay on imagination, ‘man may, if he pleases, invent a little world of his own, with its own laws; for there is that in him which delights in calling up new forms–which is the closest, perhaps, he can come to creation.’8 Again, connecting this to Milbank’s notions of our own creativity as a participation in the divine creativity––and indeed noting our creativity as an aspect of humanity being made in the image and likeness of God––, allows us to see this closeness to acts of creation (that is creation ex nihilo) already implies the deificatory and deifying significance of fantasy writing, of world creation. However, as MacDonald, Chesterton, Tolkien, and the Milbanks all make clear, this is a participatory creation. However real it is, however much it can be termed an addition to the Poem, it is still participatory and a gift. MacDonald writes:

In the moral world it is different [from the physical]: there a man may clothe in new forms, and for this employ his imagination freely, but he must invent nothing. He may not, for any purpose, turn its laws upside down. He must not meddle with the relations of live souls. The laws of the spirit of man must hold, alike in this world and in any world he may invent.9

MacDonald while noting that human creators can rework our physical world, as he does when he has a bedroom transmute into a forest glad right on the edge of Faerie, believes that the moral world cannot be changed. We can imagine a world in which humans are kept in cages and apes perform studies on them, but we are not to imagine a world where morality can become amorality, where falsity is given the place of prominence of truth, or evil the place of goodness, or ugliness/disorder the place of beauty.

What MacDonald writes of as almost a kind of suggestion, Chesterton sees as the only true laws of our universe. For Chesterton there are immutable facts even in world-creation:

But as I put my head over the hedge of the elves and began to take notice of the natural world, I observed an extraordinary thing. I observed that learned men in spectacles were talking of the actual things that happened––dawn and death and so on––as if they were rational and inevitable. They talked as if the fact that trees bear fruit were just as necessary as the fact that two and one make three. But it is not. There is an enormous difference by the test of fairyland; which is the test of imagination. You cannot imagine two and one not making three. But you can easily imagine trees not growing fruit; you can imagine them growing golden candlesticks or tigers hanging on by their tales.10

Chesterton is here criticising the sciences which seek to suggest that the things they have observed and can predict with an amount of certainty are laws. The only laws, according to Chesterton, are those things we cannot imagine differently without unmaking them or redefining them. Two and one cannot not make three unless we change the meanings of two, one, and/or three. Similarly good cannot be evil without changing what the word good means. Alison Milbank writes that this view of the world is sourced in Chesterton’s consumption of fairy-tales, ‘Fairy-tales, however, are not natural but cultural productions and it is by means of these fictions that Chesterton comes to view the world itself as magical: utterly real and enchanted at one and the same time.’11 Thus, for Chesterton, the world is real, but it is also enchanted and this affects the way fantasy is written. While Chesterton, in the passage above, is not specifically writing about writing, that is, he is not directly speaking of the act and art of human creativity, it is implicit in what he writes. When we create worlds, whether in poetry, fantasy, science-fiction, etc., we may unhinge the ‘laws’ of nature:

break them open and make them stand on their heads. What we cannot do, however, is break the laws of mathematics or goodness/morality. It is not that the author is not allowed to do these things, but that they are not possible, or at least not possible consistently.

Milbank gives this its most theological voice when he writes:

Of course, in human beings other than Christ there is no absolute coincidence of the human will with the divine creative will; but nevertheless one can logically speak of a ‘participating’ in this creative will, where human action brings about something that is generally now, as in the case of a new sort of legal convention or a new sort of artistic idiom. But because the creative human being is ‘inspired’, and because she does not fully grasp or command the new thing she has brought about, there is no absolute creation here: the new thing invented is also ‘discovered’, given to the creator herself as a mysterious new potency.12

Milbank reminds us that humans cannot create in the same way as God. Not even divine creativity rests in us in the exact same way it does in the Godhead, despite the fact that (or perhaps precisely because) we are made in the image of God. Milbank couches our creativity in terms of gift and participation. It is our participation in divine creativity that allows us to create, yet that participation is a gift. What is more, the very things we create, insofar as they are good, are gifts from God. We receive them just as much as we create them. This is why, for MacDonald, ‘A genuine work of art must mean many things; the truer the art, the more things it will mean.’13

MacDonald takes this notion of true art having multiple meanings and applies it to the differences between creations of humans and God: ‘One difference between God’s work and man’s is, that, while God’s work cannot mean more than he meant, man’s work must mean more than he meant.’14 Here, MacDonald is not denying a multiplicity of meaning within the works of God, but that the number of meanings cannot exceed God’s intention. This is not the case with human creation. The numerous interpretations of works by human beings stand as testimony to this. Yet this multifariousness can be a good thing when applied to meaning in human works. In this way Tolkien’s work can be considered both an indictment on capitalism15 through his depictions of the Shire and yet also as providing commentary on the necessity of war but without the love of it particularly in the words of Faramir.

In the end, for Tolkien, the fairy-story serves an even larger purpose, which is the introduction into our minds of eucatastrophe and participation in the Evangelium. A fairy-tale is almost not a fairy tale, for Tolkien, if it lacks a happy ending.16 This is precisely what makes it different from tragedy. Rather than a sudden turn that causes all events to go awry (Hamlet’s mother drinking the wine meant to kill Hamlet, Laertes being stabbed by his own poisoned sword, etc.) there is a sudden turn of events that causes all to go right. Tolkien called this the eucatastrophe. For Tolkien, ‘The eucatastrophic tale is the true form of the fairy-tale, and its highest function.’17 This is so because the happy ending participates in an even greater story. ‘But in the “eucatastrophe” we see in a brief vision that the answer may be greater––it may be a far-off gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world.’18

The Gospel is, for Tolkien, the greatest fairy-tale, and is the source for all fairy-tales, even those that come before it. He writes in words similar to those I have used in the previous chapters, ‘But the story has entered History and the primary world; the desires and aspirations of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation. The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy.’19 The Poet enters the Poem, but it is more than this. The entrance of the Poet into the Poem hallows (deifies, theo-poetises) the work going on within the Poem by us. For Tolkien:

But in God’s Kingdom the presence of the greatest does not depress the small. Redeemed Man is still man. Story, fantasy, still go on, and should go on. The Evangelium has not abrogated legends; it has hallowed them, especially the “happy ending.” The Christian has still work, with mind as well as body, to suffer, to hope, and die; but he may now perceive that all his bents and faculties have a purpose, which can be redeemed. So great is the bounty with which he has been treated that he may now, perhaps, fairly dare to guess that in Fantasy he may actually assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation.20

Our creative faculties, that aspect of our being made in the image of God, are redeemed and pulled up to the level of creation. In writing fantasy and poetry we imitate and participate in God as Creator, as Poet. What’s more, we participate in God as storyteller through salvation history, particularly through the story of the Incarnation which serves as the source for our storytelling.

All of this discussion of human creativity in fantasy and poetry, however, needs now to also be connected more directly to deification. Having looked at the foundations and purposes to which poetry and fantasy are put, I want to turn now to two stories about creation to show, in part, how they relate to deification, how they relate to the whole Poem and the process of Poem becoming Theo-Poem.

Sincerely yours,
David Russell Mosley

1 J. R. R. Tolkien, ‘Tree and Leaf,’ in The Tolkien Reader (New York: The Ballantine Publishing Company, 1966), 75.

2 Ibid., 63.

3 Ibid., 77.

4 Ibid., 77.

5 Ibid., 38.

6 G. K. Chesterton, ‘Orthodoxy,’ in Everyman Chesterton (London: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011), 302.

7 Alison Milbank, Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians: The Fantasy of the Real (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 2009), 64-5.

8 George MacDonald, ‘The Fantastic Imagination,’ in The Complete Fairy Tales, ed. by U. C. Knoepflmacher (New York: Penguin Books, 1999), 5-6.

9 Ibid., 6.

10 G. K. Chesterton, ‘Orthodoxy,’ 121.

12 John Milbank, Beyond Secular Order: The Representation of Being and the Representation of the People (Chichester: Wiley Blackwell, 2013), 196.

13 George MacDonald, ‘The Fantastic Imagination,’ 7.

14 Ibid., 9.

15 See the chapter entitled ‘Fairy Economics: Gift Exchange’ in Alison Milbank, Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians: The Fantasy of the Real (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 2009), 117-141.

16 J. R. R. Tolkien, ‘Tree and Leaf,’ 85.

17 Ibid.

18 Ibid., 88.

19 Ibid., 88-9.

20 Ibid., 89.