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Tolkien and the Golden Age of Fantasy

March 7th, 2019 | 12 min read

By Thomas Sieberhagen

By Thomas Sieberhagen

For this is quite the final goal of art: to recover this world by giving it to be seen as it is.

–John-Paul Sartre, What Is Literature?

Blessed are the legend-makers with their rhyme

of things not found within recorded time.

-J. R. R. Tolkien, Mythopoeia

Dragons. Magic. Characters eating stew. Throw in a young, country boy as the chosen one from an ancient prophecy and you have an Epic Fantasy novel. Rather, this is the image conjured in most people’s mind when I tell them I love reading Epic Fantasy.

But Epic Fantasy can be something much more transcendent and true, as first revealed by J. R. R. Tolkien, the father of modern fantasy. Fantasy culture is still obsessed with him in many ways, evidenced by the recent release of the teaser trailer for FOX Searchlight’s upcoming film, Tolkien, and the anticipation for Amazon’s The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) prequel series set to begin filming this year. In other ways, however, fantasy culture has moved on from Tolkien. Consider the scope of the modern genre: movies, video games, tabletop games, LARPing, comics, books, music, even podcasts. George R. R. Martin himself heralds the last twenty years as the golden age of fantasy.

Where is the current appetite for fantasy coming from? Tolkien may have some answers for us. Tolkien’s brief apologetic in defense of the fantasy genre “On Fairy-Stories” contains some of the best theological arguments for storytelling, art, and imagination (Tolkien casually accomplishing this as a byproduct of addressing his main topic). Replace ‘Fantasy’ with ‘Art’ in the following quote, and you have the classic imago dei defense of Christian art:

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.

Even the footnotes contain gems. Consider this reflection on Tolkien’s childhood impulse towards the fantastical:

I did not want to be quibbled into Science and cheated out of Faërie by people who seemed to assume that by some kind of original sin I should prefer fairy-tales, but according to some kind of new religion I ought to be induced to like science. Nature is no doubt a life-study, or a study for eternity (for those so gifted); but there is a part of man which is not ‘Nature’, and which therefore is not obliged to study it, and is, in fact, wholly unsatisfied by it.

Given the modern popularity of Fantasy, Tolkien is not the only one “wholly unsatisfied” with capital-s Science. Humans existing as nothing but cosmic stardust might be beautiful to Neil deGrasse Tyson, but Neil Gaiman’s fantasy novel Stardust contains more beauty in its opening chapter.

“On Fairy-Stories” is an interpretive key to fantasy itself, especially the role of fantasy in an age that has censored that “part of man which is not ‘Nature.’” To begin, Tolkien explains his dislike of the term ‘suspension of disbelief,’ thinking that if the reader must willfully suspend their disbelief in order to enjoy a story, then the storyteller has already failed. He prefers thinking in terms of “Primary Belief” and “Secondary Belief.” Primary Belief is belief in the truth of the Primary World, that is, the real world. It takes little effort to believe the sky is blue, because the Primary World is constantly revealing that fact to us.

Secondary Belief is also belief in truth, but the truth of a Secondary World, that is, a created world—a faë world where the sky is perpetually bathed in twilight. Here Tolkien introduces the idea of sub-creation and humans as sub-creators. According to Tolkien, truly immersive secondary worlds where the truth of the world feels obvious and right within the context of the world are only created by serious sub-creators, who are following in the footsteps of the divine Creator. God is Creator ex nihilo, humans are sub-creators.

Of course, Tolkien went on to demonstrate the beauty and potential of sub-creation through Middle Earth. The painstakingly constructed maps, the detailed and varied cultures and races, and the near-to-functional languages of Middle Earth all work in concert to reinforce the truth of the sub-created world. When Bilbo slips on the ring of power and disappears at his own birthday party, no reader is jolted out of the narrative thinking, “How contrived!” Instead, it feels as natural as the Shire itself. This is due to Middle Earth being a proper Secondary World, where it is not necessary to ‘suspend’ disbelief – the narrative welcomes you in as a friend and you find yourself believing the truth of Rivendell, Moria, and Isengard without hesitation.

Humorously, Tolkien disliked Lewis’ Narnia because of poor sub-creation. To Tolkien, Narnia seemed too hastily constructed, containing random figures such as Father Christmas. Lewis was a gardener, but Tolkien was an architect. These two distinct writing styles are still much discussed today, and modern fantasy authors love to identify which style they prefer.

Gardeners nurture their stories little by little, following their characters wherever it feels natural for them to go. Architects meticulously outline their plots, making sure every twist and turn is perfect, before they start writing in earnest. The reality is much less black and white, however. Very few successful fantasy authors are one hundred percent gardener or vice versa, although most do tend to lean one way or the other. Personally, I think Lewis wrote in a healthy combination of both styles, although it does seem that his early work in Narnia involved more gardening than architecture.

Tolkien seemed to save his keenest insight until the end of his essay, where he explains the concept of the much beloved Eucatastrophe, “the good (eu) catastrophe,” which Tolkien describes as:

… the true form of fairy-tale, and its highest function. The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous ‘turn’ … is not ‘escapist’, nor ‘fugitive’. In its fairy-tale – or otherworld – setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur.

Throughout his essay, Tolkien concerns himself with the everlasting question “Is it true?” Tolkien answers in two parts, the first we have already seen: “If you have built your little world well, yes: it is true in that world … But” Tolkien continues “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.”

Tolkien knows the best fantasy always points to a deeper truth, a fairy-tale that quite fantastically took place in the primary world. Tolkien acknowledged the Gospels are filled with “many marvels – peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving.” But the chief marvel in the Gospels is the Great Eucatastrophe, the sudden, joyous turn that shocked the foundations of the world and turned history upon its head. “The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation.”

Christians know intimately the joy of discovering that this wondrous fairy-tale is primary truth, the King revealing the truth of his birth, death and resurrection to humanity as the sky reveals itself to be blue. Tolkien notes, “There is no tale ever told that men would rather find is true, and none which so many skeptical men have accepted as true on its own merits.” This is because the Gospels have the ring of primary truth about them – they are Creation, not sub-creation.

Fantasy deserves a place among the great artistic endeavors of men, next to high tragedy, poetry, and drama, because of its connection to the climax of human history. This is also the reason why Fantasy has not only endured but grown into the massive genre it is today. Our culture finds joy in Fantasy, unknowingly yearning after the Great Eucatastrophe by enjoying smaller eucatastrophes in games, books, and movies.

This all may be familiar to readers of Mere Orthodoxy, particularly Catholic and Reformed Christians well-acquainted with the witness and legacy of Tolkien and his eucatastrophe. Weaving a Lord of the Rings illustration into a sermon is a rite-of-passage in modern Christendom.

But it seems to me that a question remains unanswered: in light of both the modern popularity of fantasy and the fact that eucatastrophe is fantasy’s highest function as Tolkien argues, does the fantasy genre as it exists today still fulfill its highest function in eucatastrophe?

Curiously, the answer is yes and no and none of the above. In order to unpack the question briefly, let’s examine three of the most prominent and best-selling authors writing in the genre today: George R. R. Martin, Brandon Sanderson, and Patrick Rothfuss, all three of which routinely hit the New York Times Bestseller list. Each is doing something representative of a larger trend within the genre that we need to pay attention to.

George R. R. Martin, it could easily be argued, is the face of the modern genre. In addition to his series having the most mainstream influence of any other epic fantasy, due to HBO’s TV adaption, Martin is also one of the only fantasy authors who regularly appears on Late-Night talk shows. When Stephen Colbert is fine with booking a 70-year-old, grizzled, bearded fantasy author, it’s safe to assume that Martin has some cultural weight to throw around.

Clearly, Martin has touched something within the zeitgeist that resonates with people. One cannot deny the skill with which he has crafted The Song of Ice and Fire. His expert worldbuilding (the modern term for sub-creation) is on full display throughout the novels, with their intricate cultures, religions, and political factions. In fact, Martin’s worldbuilding is one area where I believe Tolkien would be impressed – although the story and themes would likely leave Tolkien nonplussed. It is obviously conjecture to guess at what Tolkien would think of any modern piece of fiction, however we can think in terms of whether or not Martin is fulfilling fantasy’s highest function according to Tolkien.

Martin’s Game of Thrones (GoT) is famously morally ambiguous. The bad guys sometimes do good things, and the good guys often do bad things – which is assuming that the characters in GoT can be divided into ‘good’ and ‘bad.’ Many of Martin’s characters shun those labels, which is the point. Martin took inspiration from the historical middle ages, wanting to create a fictional world that mirrored real life, which contains random and chaotic violence and death. Characters who hold to some kind of moral code are quickly trampled, and the characters who are devilishly Machiavellian make progress towards their goals. Add to all this a generous dose of unpredictable fate, no character is safe from taking a crossbow bolt through the gut at any moment.

Even though fans of the series are eagerly awaiting the final installments of the series, not many of them are anticipating a “sudden, joyous turn.” Instead, fans look forward with grim fascination to seeing who will be left alive at the end. This is not to say that GoT holds no merits. Like I previously stated, the worldbuilding is superb and the story is obviously well crafted. However, we can conclude that GoT fails to fulfill fantasy’s highest function. It reflects a secular version of the world, not the Creator’s primary world. Its popularity is partly due to the fact that modern audiences readily accept a worldview that is devoid of hope, identifying with it even as they are disturbed by it. Its unpredictability is a parlor trick that is cool because it is shocking, not because it is reflecting any deeper truth. And shocking things are boring in the end. I lived in Paris for a year, and after one visit to Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain,” I had seen it. But I must have visited Monet’s “Water Lilies” more than a dozen times throughout the year. There are plenty of folks rereading The Lord of the Rings every few years. It would be interesting to see if Game of Thrones passes Lewis and Tolkien’s infamous “rereading” test.

Against the backdrop of Martin is Brandon Sanderson, who wrote thirteen complete novels before one was picked up by a publisher. He started writing his first novel during his two-year mission with the Mormon church, a faith he still claims. Interestingly, after being rejected multiple times, his feedback was to try and be more like George R. R. Martin. Publishers saw the success of GoT and concluded that the public’s fantasy literature appetite had turned to the gritty, MA fare of Martin. Sanderson tried to follow their advice, and wrote the two worst novels he had ever written – grim-dark was not a natural fit for him. So Sanderson stuck to his strengths: putting a genuinely good person in a terrible situation and letting that character struggle their way out of it. Unsurprisingly, there was a market for Sanderson, who has published twenty-seven novels since 2006 (depending on how you count them) and consistently ranks in the top forty most popular authors on Amazon.

Sanderson takes worldbuilding to another level—worlds within worlds. His life’s project is a series of interconnected fantasy series all taking place within the same shared universe called the “Cosmere.” Some of his novels take place in traditional medieval-type fantasy worlds, others take place on planets that have little in common with earth at all. His true genius lies in his magic-systems, creating complex yet wildly entertaining magics for his characters to play with. His Mistborn trilogy is a prominent example of his style, containing expert sub-creation, a wonderfully complex magic system, and, at the climax of the trilogy, one of purest eucatastrophe’s in fantasy literature.

Sanderson stands as a foil to Martin—a role he acknowledges himself: “I feel that I’m an intentional and specific contrast to other writers in the genre—I consider it my duty to prove that (like many of the classic movies) you can write something that is for adults, and has depth, without delving into grittiness.” Sanderson’s fantasy is fundamentally eucatastrophic. Neither are his stories cheap or contrived. They do not rely on a deus ex machina, instead he sub-creates his worlds so that the truth in them is believable and compelling. Sanderson is a clear example of someone writing in the tradition of Tolkien today.

Is there a third option? Enter Patrick Rothfuss, writer of the bestselling novel The Name of the Wind, and named by George R. R. Martin himself as the best fantasy writer from the last decade—stunning when you think about the names he could have mentioned: Gaiman, Rowling, King, etc.

Rothfuss grew up immersed in fantasy, with Lewis and Tolkien as early influences. But when it came time for Rothfuss to write his own novel, he had something more ambitious in mind: writing a high tragedy fantasy novel.

Rothfuss, like Sanderson and Martin, excels at worldbuilding. He has stated that worldbuilding is a hobby for him, something he enjoys doing as much as writing (he even runs a charity called Worldbuilders). What sets Rothfuss apart is that he uses his secondary world to tell a tragic tale, with a tragic hero as protagonist. Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles, awaiting its third and final installment, will not have a happy ending.

Fantasy and Tragedy together are by no means an original idea, Hamlet’s ghost and Macbeth’s witches would have something to say on the matter first. Rothfuss’ genius is that he dives deeper, writing a story that is a meta-commentary on stories themselves. Rothfuss searches for deeper truths throughout his novel, exploring questions like: What is the place of stories within culture? How do stories shape us and what we believe? What is the role of the storyteller? Alongside Tolkien in “On Fairy-Stories,” Rothfuss’ protagonist asks:

“Is it true? The story,” I made an inarticulate gesture. “The part you told today?”

“All stories are true,” Skarpi said. “But this one really happened, if that’s what you mean.”

Rothfuss is breaking the mold of “eucatastrophe vs. non-eucatastrophe,” and he deserves the recognition and praise he has received for his innovation. Even though he is not fulfilling Tolkien’s idea of eucatastrophe in the way Tolkien envisioned it, Rothfuss is still a servant of deeper truth. Tragedy is as much a part of the Gospel narrative as Fairy-Tale, and the modern genre of Epic Fantasy is rich enough and varied enough to tell those stories.

Rothfuss fulfills Tolkien’s vision for fantasy in a different way, however. Tolkien envisioned a broader culture that accepts fantasy literature as a legitimate vehicle for artistic expression, every bit as valid as classic literature. And while Rothfuss is still not mentioned in the same breath as DFW and Cormac McCarthy, he is getting closer to that realm than anyone else in the genre. Rothfuss is the golden boy of the golden age of fantasy, sailing into waters unknown and charting a course for other authors to follow in his wake.

As a fan of Epic Fantasy, I am thoroughly enjoying living in its golden age, and every new book, TV show, and movie with a dragon in it goes on my list. But sometimes I forget: there is a dragon in the bible. “A great fiery red dragon” (Rev. 12:3), a fire-breathing beast from the depths of the sea whose “snorting throws out flashes of light” (Job 41:18).

The fantasy lover in me adores this. The Holy Spirit, in his infinite and perfect wisdom, chose a dragon to communicate the evil and influence of Satan throughout history and in the last days. God wrote a dragon into his inspired word. There does not exist a more perfect mascot for the fantasy genre than a dragon, and there he is in Revelation 12, chasing a woman and fighting the Archangel Michael.

Reading fantasy literature helps me to take the dragon in Revelation seriously, because a dragon is never something to be trifled with. Reading fantasy dampens my modern impulse to demythologize an already unsatisfying world. Reading fantasy reminds me of the Great Eucatastrophe, as Tolkien eloquently puts it:

The Christian joy, the Gloria is pre-eminently (infinitely, if our capacity were not finite) high and joyous. Because this story is supreme; and it is true. Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men – and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused.