People sometimes despise fantasy – not the award-winning kind of metaphorical magical realism, but the kind of fantasy that has swords, sorcery and dragons. It is generally accepted that children can enjoy invented worlds, magical beasts and dark lords. But, when we become adults, it seems we should turn to “real” literature – mature, respectable, and written in ornate prose. It’s as if the books we read are a status symbol, and those who read serious books, about serious things, must be serious people. But that misses what fantasy is, and the totemic father of the genre, JRR Tolkien, has a lot to say on the subject.
The snobbery of those who despise fantasy has a long pedigree – so much so that in 1947, JRR Tolkien felt the need to defend the genre in his book “On Fairy-Stories”. For Tolkien, fantasy and fairy tales are not just fairy stories. These are stories that take place in a country of fairies. They exist in their own created land, where any number of wonderful things can happen, but they are always treated with the utmost seriousness by the reader. Walk in fairyland is not to enter a world of mere imagination; instead, we perform an act of “sub-creation”, in which we form a world in our larger “reality”.
This imaginary world we create will always go beyond the words given to describe it. The realm of fantasy “cannot be caught in a net of words; because it is indescribable. Words alone can never conjure up a land of fully realized magic. For this we need the ability to sub-create. When we sub-world, we “create a secondary world that the spirit can enter into.” This world has its own internal logic, laws and systems. We see, feel and live in this world in ways far beyond words on a page alone. We color in the background details and add sights, smells and wonders that go beyond the narrow confines of the book’s words. That’s why film adaptations can sometimes feel so hollow.
If you have read the Lord of the Rings, you can understand where Tolkien is coming from. Middle-earth is built with such depth and detail that while sub-creation means time and effort, you feel as if you were in this world. It’s hard to describe. It is not simply a matter of inventing mental images but subcreate an entire, living world alongside the characters. It means watching the drama, but inside.
The shine of Beowulf
Subcreation is a fascinating philosophical examination of what the mind does when we read about other worlds, but it doesn’t bring us closer to the value found in the process. For this we must turn to Tolkien’s essay on Beowulf.
Beowulf it is not a great siege, nor a story of court intrigues. It’s a poem about just one man. That, for Tolkien, is the whole point. The story of Beowulf is a man’s struggle against the great tide of misfortune. Beowulf is the smallest and briefest of the flickering candles in a great expanse of darkness. And that’s what it means to be a hero.
Beowulf is a great poem because it speaks of the dualism in all of human life – of youth and age, success and failure, fame and fate. Everyone will enjoy the warm, happy days of summer as much as the cold, desperate nights of winter. In a day, a year or a life, everything oscillates between light and darkness. We will eat, drink and rejoice, but tomorrow we will die.
The shine in Beowulf, and in fantasy generally, is found in the monsters or villains they provide – in orcs, dragons, monsters, or cruel emperors. Because these enemies are imaginary, they serve as empty vessels into which we each pour our own enemies. As Tolkien writes, Beowulf “glimpses the cosmic and moves with the thought of all men concerning the fate of life and human endeavours; it stands in the middle but above… the dates and boundaries of historical periods, important as they are.
There’s something about high fantasy that emboldens the spirit and fires up the fight. It is found not only in the words and the plot, but in its timelessness. It tells us that there is something universal about the human condition that should be celebrated. This is something as true of Anglo-Saxons in their snowy mead halls as it is of office drones changing their login passwords.
He says no matter what monsters we face, we will overcome and live. We will not be defeated.
Why Tolkien loved fantasy
Books of all kinds are escapes. Fictional stories and invented characters define a novel. Yet no genre is as escapist as science fiction or fantasy. In this lies their value. When we imagine a school of wizards, dragon riders, or humble villagers becoming heroes, we leave the world behind. We enter a world that has just enough connection to this world to make sense, yet is alien enough to be exciting, dynamic, and extremely readable.
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As Tolkien said, “I have asserted that escapism is one of the chief functions of fairy tales, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is clear that I do not accept the tone of contempt or of pity with which “escape” is now so often used. Why should a man be despised if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if he can’t do that, he thinks and talks about things other than jailers and prison walls? »
The ability we have to read books, imagine worlds and pretend is one of the greatest balms we have. Fantasy takes us on an incredible journey, but it gives us all the heroes and villains we need to make sense of the world.
Jonny Thomson runs a popular Instagram account called Mini Philosophy (@philosophyminis). His first book is Mini Philosophy: A Little Book of Big Ideas