This essay was presented as an essay at the 2011 CiRCE Conference.
There have been over 100 million copies of The Lord of the Rings sold. The Harry Potter series has sold 450 million copies, making it the bestselling book series in history. The last four books of that series consecutively set records as the fastest selling books in history. Today we are going to try to understand the long-standing popularity of works of fantasy, to try to get at why authors write these books and why people love to read them. And not just read them, but reread them and make them into movies and dress like characters in the books, and long to live in the fictive worlds that are created in works of great fantasy.
To understand what’s going on here, I’ve turned to no greater guides than the Inklings, who had a lot to say about this subject. To answer the question, why do writers write fantasy—which is really a subset of the question why do artists create—we’re going to look at what Dorothy Sayers, honorary inkling, had to say.
In her collection of essays The Mind of the Maker, Sayers explores what it means to be made in the image of God. She says that when the author of Genesis writes that God made male and female in his image, the only thing that he has thus far said about God is a single assertion—“God created.” She then concludes that the characteristic that God and man share is apparently the desire and ability to make things. So for Sayers, to be made in the image of God means we create.
But, of course, we all know that man cannot create in the absolute sense in which we understand the word when we apply it to God. We cannot make something out of nothing. We can only rearrange and build up what already exists into new forms. Says Sayers, “Though we cannot create matter, we continually, by rearrangement, create new and unique entities.” But there is one way in which man can come close to creating ex nihilo. It is when man creates as an artist that he is able to create something out of nothing. In fact, while the amount of matter in the universe is finite, and its possible rearrangements are also limited, “no such limitation of numbers applies to the creation of works of art.” While “the components of the material world are fixed,” says Sayers,” those of the world of imagination increase by a continuous and irreversible process, without any destruction or rearrangement of what went before.”
When a carpenter creates, there is a sense in which he destroys the original in order to create something new. When he makes a table, he has to first destroy the tree. The author, on the other hand, does not destroy Hamlet in order to create Falstaff. This is the closest we experience creation out of nothing. Sayers is echoing the teachings of the church fathers who taught that in creating something orderly and beautiful that did not previously exist, the artist is paralleling what God did in the act of creation.
Tolkien explores a similar idea in his essay “On Fairy Stories” – a work that Gene Veith calls one of the greatest critical discussions about fantasy ever produced. In this work, Tolkien talks about writers as subcreators. As his friend CS Lewis explains, Tolkien never wrote to make “a comment upon life” but made so far as possible, a subordinate world of his own. Middle Earth is another world completely separate from ours with its own natural laws and its own unique inhabitants, an imaginative entity unto itself. It is a subcreated world. And Tolkien believed that subcreating was one of man’s proper functions. He says, “Fantasy remains a human right, we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made in the image and likeness of a Maker.”
For Tolkien, the subcreated world is a tribute to the work of God. Lewis explained that for Tolkien “the appeal of the fairy story lies in the fact that man there most fully exercises his function as a ‘subcreator’.”
So, authors write stories because they are made in the image of God; and for Tolkien, and others, authors who want to most fully express this act of subcreating write works of fantasy, or as Tolkien calls them Fairy Stories. What exactly is a fairy story? Tolkien attempts to offer a definition in his essay, but the task is difficult. He says that a fairy story, despite what dictionary definitions claim, has nothing to do with the inclusion of fairies in the story. And so he dismisses any definition that is based on the presence of fairies or some such creature. He complains that many use the term fairy carelessly.
As a philologist Tolkien never uses words carelessly. So instead he uses the word Faerie. Spelled F. A.E.R.I.E. Faerie, for Tolkien, is a setting, the Perilous Realm. It cannot be caught in a net of words because one of its characteristics is that it is indefinable. However, we can know what a fairy story is not: 1 It is not a traveller’s tale like Gulliver’s Travel. Such tales report many marvels but they are marvels to be seen in this mortal world. 2. It is not a dream story like Alice in Wonderland. In a true fairy story, within the context of the story, the fairy land must be presented as true! 3. Nor is it a beast fable where talking animals are really just humans in disguise. Tolkien says that Beatrix Potter is on the border of fairy land. A fairy story then is one which touches on or uses faerie, whatever its main purpose may be: satire, adventure, morality, fantasy.
Having offered somewhat of a definition, Tolkien then discusses common objections to fairy stories. The most common criticism is that fairy stories are only fit for children. But, says Tolkien, this is an accident of our domestic history. Fairy tales have been passed down to children, not because children particularly like them but because adults have ceased to like them.