Literature You Should Know: Tolkien’s Tree and Leaf

I was already planning to write on J. R. R. Tolkien’s collection Tree and Leaf this week before I read Sean 394422da6bda916b75635832890205fdMalone’s review of Snowpiercer, but Sean’s discussion of internal logic only confirmed my choice.  If there’s one book every writer of science fiction and fantasy absolutely must read, it’s Tree and Leaf.  Several different editions have been released over the years, but all contain two vitally important works: On Fairy-Stories and Leaf by Niggle.

“On Fairy-Stories” began as a keynote address Tolkien delivered in 1937, around the same time he published The Hobbit and began writing The Lord of the Rings.  The first part of the essay addresses what fairy-stories are, though Tolkien gives no more precise definition than that they are stories about Faërie; misconceptions of the Fair Folk; the muddle critics make when discussing the origins of fairy tales; and the modern mistake of thinking that fairy tales are only for children.  Tolkien moves beyond mere criticism, however, when he turns to the topics of how fairy tales are written and why they are worthwhile.  He never cites Sidney’s Defense of Poesy, but his view of literary creativity is in a similar vein.

unnamedTolkien defines human creativity as sub-creation.  Only God can create something from nothing, and Tolkien calls the world God created the Primary World.  Yet humans, made in God’s image, have the right to use our sub-creative powers, defined as Art, to form Secondary Worlds from the material we find in the Primary World.  Here Tolkien quotes from his poem “Mythopoeia,” which appears in full in recent editions of Tree and Leaf.  Written for C. S. Lewis shortly after the famous conversation on Addison’s Walk in 1931, “Mythopoeia” attacks Lewis’ assertion at the time that myths are “lies breathed through silver.”  Tolkien counters not only that myth is a vehicle for truth but also that myth-making is a human right—“we make still by the law in which we’re made.”  And “Leaf by Niggle,” Tolkien’s only deliberate allegory, celebrates the idea that God may someday grant us the great gift of seeing our Secondary Worlds given primary reality.

Yet Tolkien argues in “On Fairy-Stories” that the purpose of Art isn’t just the author’s own enjoyment.  A well-made Secondary World is one into which author and audience alike can enter.  The Secondary World therefore needs to have “the inner consistency of reality” that allows the audience to believe that what the author says is true within that world.  If disbelief has to be suspended, the art has failed.  Tolkien notes,

Anyone inheriting the fantastic device of human language can say the green sun. Many can then imagine or picture it.  But that is not enough…. To make a Secondary World inside which the green sun will be credible, commanding Secondary Belief, will probably require labour and thought, and will certainly demand a special skill, a kind of elvish craft.  Few attempt such difficult tasks.   But when they are attempted and in any degree accomplished then we have a rare achievement of Art:  indeed narrative art, story-making in its primary and most potent mode.

Tolkien3_01Fantasy is the most difficult genre, in Tolkien’s view, because it’s characterized by “arresting strangeness” and is vastly different from the Primary World.  Yet that’s also what makes fantasy worthwhile and is a consolation in itself.  It carries with it Recovery, not just renewed perspective but renewed mental and spiritual health from “regaining a clear view… ‘seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them.’”  Fantasy also allows Escape, not from reality as a whole, but from the elements that stifle our spiritual health and growth, and thus can offer the consolation of satisfied desire.  Best of all is the Consolation of the Happy Ending, the good turn Tolkien calls eucatastrophe:

In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace:  never to be counted on to recur.  It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure:  the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.

Such elements, Tolkien argues, should not be scorned because they take us away from “real life”—for who is more hostile to escape than a jailer?

Elisabeth G. Wolfe

Elisabeth G. Wolfe, from Llano, Texas, is an alumna of the 2012 Taliesin Nexus Filmmakers Workshop. She is also a freelance translator and editor, indie historical fiction novelist, and adjunct professor of English at the Baptist College of Florida.