Posted by: Lizzie Ross | May 25, 2010

Eucatastrophe and fantasy

Tree and Leaf, J. R. R. Tolkien (1964), Houghton Mifflin, 112 pp.

Setting aside LOTR and Middle Earth, Tolkien has still contributed much to fantasy literature, including this tiny book. The first edition has only the essay “On Fairy-Stories” and the story “Leaf by Niggle”; the 2001 edition added his poems “Mythopoeia” and “The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth”. For this post, I’ll focus just on the contents of the first edition.

The story is brief, lovely, allegorical, powerful. Niggle, an artist who paints only trees, keeps putting off a journey he must make. He’s resentfully helpful–the sort who grumbles while he does someone a favor. His masterpiece takes up most of his time, a painting of a tree that expands and begins to take on unexpected dimensions; it also distracts him from preparations for his journey. Parish, his neighbor, is lame, demanding, ungrateful, and practical-minded, meaning that he doesn’t appreciate Niggle’s artistic efforts; he’s another distraction from Niggle’s work.

Then something happens: Niggle has to make his journey, even though he has nothing packed and his masterpiece is not yet finished. At his destination, he is put to work, doing the most basic of repetitive jobs: “digging, carpentry, and painting bare boards all one plain colour.” Eventually, he begins to appreciate this work:

… he began to have a feeling of — well satisfaction: bread rather than jam. He could take up a task the moment one bell rang, and lay it aside promptly the moment the next one went, all tidy and ready to be continued at the right time. He got through quite a lot in a day now; he finished small things off neatly.

This story has much to say about art, about the purposes of life, about giving and forgiving, and about how acquaintance deepens into friendship.

In the accompanying essay, Tolkien explores the role that “fairy-stories” play in the lives of children and adults. He briefly defines the term, touches on origins, then ends with a lengthy discussion of the “values and functions of fairy-stories now“. The essay is long, academic, and thorough, but also inspiring and enlightening, an important critical text on fantasy writing.

Of course the author of LOTR would defend an adult’s enjoyment of fairy tales, and not just because they’re fun to read. He argues that much of what these stories have to offer is beyond what most children are capable of appreciating.

Tolkien’s main argument centers around the ideas of Recovery, Escape, and Consolation (Gregory Maguire quoting Roger Scruton: “The consolation of imaginary things is not imaginary consolation.”).

Fairy tales help us recover our appreciation of the everyday; they help us see the real world from a fresh viewpoint.

They provide us an escape from the ugly and disgusting facts of the “real world” (but so also does practically any kind of fiction); Tolkien expands this point to include escaping from the limitations of our lives.

Finally, fairy tales console us with their happy endings. This is what Tolkien means by “eucatastrophe”–the “sudden joyous ‘turn'”.

The essay isn’t for everyone; reading it isn’t exactly like watching sausage being made, but for any writer wishing to create a fantastical world, it’s an important look at what must go into that process of creation.

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