Tolkien & the Reality of Fantasy (part 1)

In the wildly popular 1999 film The Matrix, Morpheus famous asks Neo, “What is real?” This familiar and provocative phrase is perhaps the quintessential philosophical query.  Attempts to answer are rooted deep in Classical Platonic idealism and branch out into science, metaphysics, language, literature–indeed, across the entire canopy of human experience.  J.R.R. Tolkien had much to say, both academically and creatively, about the nature of reality and its relationship with mythopoetic fantasy.  Artfully employing his philological skills, Tolkien crafts careful explanations and expressive images of what is “really” happening when Storytellers weave their Tales on the loom of life.

Modern understandings of “Fantasy” often imply some element of separation between reality and the imagination.  From this perspective, “fantastical” stories present “layers” of reality for the reader to explore and engage (sometimes on a variety of levels).  The reader seems free, to an extent, to “imagine” reality as seems fit.  Authors may, in a sense, “impose” more directly correlated meanings on their “realities” using allegory, but still both the crafting and interpreting of such symbolic representations resides to a large extent with the writer and the reader.

Tolkien, at the beginning of the “Fantasy” section of his famous essay “On Fairy Stories,” treats the role of the Imagination (and its relationship with “reality”) a bit differently.  First, he questions the “modern” distinction between the human mind’s capacity for image-making and the imagination’s power to “give to ideal creations the inner consistency of reality.” The difference between the two, Tolkien asserts, is “a difference of degree,” not “a difference in kind.”  “Imagination,” he thinks, describes both the human capacity to form fantastical images as well as its power to express particular “realities” within them.  This “achievement of the expression” of reality Tolkien calls “Art.”  And the key to true Art is its resonance with, not its mere presentation of, true “reality.”

For human “creators” to achieve true Art, they must see things “true-ly”—particularly themselves.  We are all, Tolkien believed, “creatures”; the power of creation belongs to God alone.  Since we are, however, created in His Image, at our best we may become a “sub-creators.” Such “artful” works as we may produce—in their depictions of “unreality” in relation to the Primary World—might ultimately inspire Secondary Belief that “imagines” even more powerfully the “realities” of the Primary World readers (and writers) inhabit.  “Fantasy (in this sense),” Tolkien writes, “is not a lower but a higher form of Art, indeed the most nearly pure form, and so (when achieved) the most potent.”

Tolkien refers to (and includes a selection from) his poem, “Mythopoeia,” in this essay.  Reading the two together is particularly helpful.  The poem artistically expresses the idea of Myth, while the essay treats the concept more indirectly through its considerations of Fantasy, Story, Imagination, and Art.  The poem stanzas quoted in the essay articulate the same “point” as essay itself, but they do so poetically (imaginatively, artfully) rather than prosaically (using philology and rhetoric).  Which passage is more imaginatively powerful?  Certainly (in my view) the poem.  Which communicates “reality” more truly?  Neither (again, in my view), because they each (in their own way) point toward the same reality (just in different ways).

Tolkien’s views on fantasy and reality are premised on an important presupposition:  that there is a Reality “there” that is not of our own making, and that all of us as creatures are bound by its truths, principles, conditions, and consequences (whether we believe in them, or this Reality, or not!).  Next time we’ll look to C.S. Lewis “myth retold“–Till We Have Faces–for insights helpful in understanding Tolkien’s themes, particularly regarding the nature of Myth.

About Rick D. Williams

Teaching and writing have been my life's work for over two decades as a journalist and educator. My degrees in History were earned at Illinois State University, and I've done additional graduate work at Lincoln Christian Seminary and Urbana Theological Seminary. Over the years I’ve led conference workshops and authored articles and book chapters on topics ranging from religious education and international student ministry to state and local history.
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