17 Sep

From myth to sacramentality

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 09/17/21

Craig Berthal on Tolkien’s understanding of what fairy tales are

“In [his 1939 essay] ‘On Fairy-Stories,’ Tolkien takes the ideas he set forth in [his 1931 poem] ‘Mythopoeia,’ and shows how they are realized in one literary genre, the fairy tale. Tolkien wrote few academic essays, yet, when he did write them, they had enormous influence. His essay on Beowulf, ‘The Monsters and the Critics,’ set the criticism of that poem on a new course, in which its artistic merit was considered rather than just its value as a source of historical data. His essay, ‘On Fairy-Stories,’ sets forth Tolkien’s understanding of where fairy tales come from and what they are for. He wants to take the field in a new direction, rejecting contemporary ideas that fairy tales derive from actual persons or events. Rather, he says, they come out of the ‘story soup,’ the narrative inheritance of mankind, whose ingredients have many points of origin.

“Romantic ideas about perception, the imagination, and truth all lie at the foundation of Tolkien’s theory. Like Coleridge and Hopkins, Tolkien believed that the individual mind had a significant part in the ‘creation’ of the world. The simple viewing of any object depends on the point [of view] of the observer, the purpose of the observation, and the memories the observer brings. At nineteen, Hopkins wrote a poem on the problem, imagining many people observing a rainbow in a waterfall from different positions, none of them seeing the same rainbow. Everyone created a slightly different rainbow, making them, in Tolkien's terminology, all sub-creators per force, because perception itself is sub-creative, ‘a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM. [Coleridge’s famous declaration in Biographia Literaria].

“Tolkien asserts that reading fairy stories is a way to ‘recover’ the world. To see centaurs and dragons is to see afresh shepherds, sheep, dogs and horses; to see dragons is to see wolves again. Especially for modern man, whose world has long been ‘disenchanted,’ entering Faërie opens the senses to new possibilities, to ‘arresting strangeness.’ ‘Recovery’ entails regaining a clear vision of the world as something different and wondrous. A person open to the possibilities of Faërie is likely to be open to the possibilities of sacramentality — and hence, fairy stories can help us recover the world as sacrament.”

— from Craig Bernthal, Tolkien’s Sacramental Vision: Discerning the Holy in Middle Earth (Second Spring, 2014]