Tolkien and Happy Endings

Tree and Leaf by J.R.R. TolkienWhen I finished my last reading of The Lord of the Rings, I expressed some disappointment at how briefly and tidily Tolkien resolved such an epic tale. Thanks to Nick I learned of Tolkien’s essay, On Fairy-Stories, which describes his philosophy on happy endings, among other things. [The essay is published in Tree and Leaf as well as The Tolkien Reader.]

The essay starts with an attempt to define the “fairy-story,” a term which he prefers to “fairy tale” because the OED definition of the latter term did not suit his purpose, and he does not dare to quibble with the OED. Though he admits that it is part of the nature of fairy stories to be indefinable, he defines them as stories from the land of Faërie, where men are men, and magic is real. Faeries themselves are optional, but humans are not. He distinguishes fairy-stories from “beast fables,” which involve only animals, and dream stories, which do not attempt to create a real “Secondary World.” Stories with only magical beings he describes as rare and uninteresting, and science fiction is only briefly mentioned, and not too positively since he connects it with the ugly “robot-factories” of industrialism.

Readers of Harry Potter would be heartened by his assertion that fairy-stories, if they are good, are perfectly legitimate reading for adults. He questions the connection of fairy-stories with children, and attributes their popularity as children’s literature to the “false sentiment” of adults and the docility young readers. He believes that taste in literature is entirely personal, and details his own specific tastes as an infant reader—Alice and Treasure Island, no; anything with dragons, YES! He agrees that fairy-stories, like all literature, should be adapted for children, but that does not mean it should be ignored or denigrated by adults in their full-strength form.

Though Tolkien presents fairy-stories as sharing the qualities of all serious literature, he also identifies four aspects unique (at least in combination) to fairy-stories: Fantasy, Recovery, Escape, and Consolation. Fantasy is the use of Imagination in creating a Secondary World (or “sub-creation”). Tolkien has great respect for this “natural human activity,” which for him proceeds directly from God.

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.

Recovery is the ability of a fairy-story to help us see what is familiar with renewed wonder. He explains it thus:

We do not, or need not, despair of drawing because all lines must be either curved or straight, nor of painting because there are only three “primary” colours. We may indeed be older now, in so far as we are heirs in enjoyment or in practice of many generations of ancestors in the arts. In this inheritance of wealth there may be a danger of boredom or of anxiety to be original, and that may lead to a distaste for fine drawing, delicate pattern, and “pretty” colours, or else to mere manipulation and over-elaboration of old material, clever and heartless. But the true road of escape from such weariness is not to be found in the wilfully awkward, clumsy, or misshapen, not in making all things dark or unremittingly violent; nor in the mixing of colours on through subtlety to drabness, and the fantastical complication of shapes to the point of silliness and on towards delirium. Before we reach such states we need recovery. We should look at green again, and be startled anew (but not blinded) by blue and yellow and red. We should meet the centaur and the dragon, and then perhaps suddenly behold, like the ancient shepherds, sheep, and dogs, and horses—and wolves. This recovery fairy-stories help us to make. In that sense only a taste for them may make us, or keep us, childish.

Tolkien is careful to distinguish between the Escape of the prisoner and the flight of the deserter. It is the prisoner that he sees as the benefactor of fairy-stories, the prison being the “increasing barbarity” of modern life. The fairy-story can have Primary (real) World power by making the reader imagine what the world could be. Revolt, rather than apathy, is the more proper consequence of fairy-story escapism.

Finally Tolkien addresses the topic of Consolation. He writes that “eucatastrophe,” i.e. a Happy Ending, is as necessary to the fairy-story as Tragedy is to Drama.

The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn”(for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially “escapist,” nor “fugitive.” 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.

Tolkien is unable to show, to my satisfaction, why this must be so, but the mention of evangelium gives a hint of where he is coming from. Sure enough, in the Epilogue, which seems to have been written some time after the rest of the essay, and perhaps after some criticism on exactly this point, he reveals that his desire for a happy ending flows directly from his Christian faith.

The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels—peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: “mythical” in their perfect, self-contained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe. But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfilment of Creation. The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. The story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the “inner consistency of reality.” There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men [and women, ahem] have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath.

Though I find neat and tidy happy endings hard to swallow, I am as intolerant of dyscatastrophe as Tolkein was, and for the same reason. But for me, Easter Sunday and Good Friday need each other; I cannot believe a story that does not contain both. I think part of my problem with The Lord of the Rings is explained here:

Chesterton once remarked that the children in whose company he saw Maeterlinck’s Blue Bird were dissatisfied ” because it did not end with a Day of Judgement, and it was not revealed to the hero and the heroine that the Dog had been faithful and the Cat faithless.” “For children,”  he says, “are innocent and love justice; while most of us are wicked and naturally prefer mercy.”

It seems to me that in the way he finished LOTR, Tolkien reverted to the childhood desire for justice—all who were good lived, all who were bad were killed or were driven out—which is in conflict with the Gospels, as regards the world of humans (which is what we are concerned with, by Tolkien’s own definition of the fairy-story). He did not let the weeds grow up among the wheat, and so he lost me. I am being too harsh, though, because Tolkien does not go so far as to say that fairy-stories must in every way conform to the general contours of the story of Creation, and he does allow for their variance from the “Great Eucatastrophe”:

All tales may come true; and yet, at the last, redeemed, they may be as like and as unlike the forms that we give them, as Man, finally redeemed, will be like and unlike the fallen that we know.

The essay is appropriately followed by Leaf by Niggle, an allegory about an obsessed, undisciplined painter who grudgingly helps a lame neighbour who himself is blind to the transcendent beauties of nature and art. It is a charming presentation of Divine Judgement, and has a more satisfying happy ending than The Lord of the Rings because in the end, mercy triumphs over judgement. If stories do participate in the Redemption, I doubt this one will need much time in Purgatory.


16 comments on “Tolkien and Happy Endings

  1. wil says:

    Very interesting.
    I don't have a problem with the ending of LOTR, because it doesn't strike me as a neat and tidy, “they lived happily ever after” sort of ending. Yes, they've defeated evil for the time being, but the Elves are basically defeated (banished/diminished) as well. And the Age of Man is beginning, and we can all see how that's worked out…

  2. Sylvia says:

    Well, Sauron isn't just defeated for the time being, he is permanently weakened by the destruction of the Ring. And for Tolkien, fairy-stories primarily concerned humans, so the fate of the Elves is secondary, and doesn't receive as much emphasis in the book as it does in the movies. It is true that the “Age of Man” is supposed to be difficult, but it starts off in such a heroic and romantic way that it's hard to believe anything could go wrong! Perhaps it is to Tolkien's credit that despite his desire for a happy ending, complicating elements are at least hinted at.

  3. Imani says:

    I think that my readings of the First Age stories and some in the Appendices — the idea of the Middle-earth inhabitants enduring “The Long Defeat” — perhaps colour my opinion of LOTR somewhat. When I think of the ending I think of Hobbiton desecrated (rescued, yes, but no longer innocent) of Rohan diminished, of the hobbits separated, Frodo unbelievably damaged, and Arwen wandering the earth long after Aragorn's death (while their children still live). Aragorn and his merry band of Gondorians chasing out the remnants of Sauron's forces, and Merry and Pippin making neighbourly visits don't really stand out.

  4. Sylvia says:

    Ah, well I've only read the main text twice (and The Hobbit) and I'm not through the appendices yet. I do wish he had put more of that material in the story. Perhaps he limited himself by insisting that the book itself have a happy ending, but he couldn't completely deny his imagination, and so we have the long appendices.

  5. Chuck says:

    Very interesting. I'm going to have to give the idea of the tidy ending some thought the next time I read LOTR. Perhaps it's just a reflection on my personality and outlook that I see both the happy and the sad of it – a restoration of order and justice but also sadness and separation. Sam and Frodo went to the end of the world together, so to speak, but for their pains still had to be separated. Gandalf and Bilbo too went to the Grey Havens. The Fellowship was disbanded. In a sense, of course, the ending was what the whole endeavour was about but it still leaves me with a sense of loneliness.

  6. Imani says:

    I think your points on the neat LOTR ending may also be a big reason why I prefer The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales as there really isn't a “happy” story in that lot. A victory over Morgoth (the first Dark Lord) sure but what they had to go through to get there….
    I really should reread LOTR — I don't think I've done so since I was a teeny bopper.
    (Can't stand The Hobbit: too much of that “children's author” tone.)

  7. Sylvia says:

    Yes, stop reading Don Quixote and reread LOTR until I catch up…

  8. Stefanie says:

    Interesting thoughts of LOTR and the bits about Tolkein. But like some of the others, I don't find the ending to be happy either. Sure evil is defeated and none of the characters we really love die, so Ii guess that's happy. But, like Imani said, the stuff with Hobbiton and Frodo's inability to ever be normal and well again, I find very sad.
    And I'm with Imani, I can't stand The Hobbit either. Please don't tell my husband. He loves it and looks worried any time I hint I don't love it too, as though I might be losing my marbles or feeling a little under the weather.

  9. Sylvia says:

    It's true that Frodo was irreparably injured, but he goes to be healed, in the company of Gandalf, Legolas, Gimli, and Bilbo (and later Sam, apparently), in the Undying Lands. That's hardly a lonely exile! And let's face it, he never really fit in in the Shire. He was too “big” for Hobbiton, even at the beginning. He was never destined to live happily ever after there.
    As for the Shire, as the book ends it is being restored at a magical rate by the dust from Lorien. It promises to be better than before under the lordship of the worldy-wise Sam, with the help of Merry and Pippin. And why shouldn't things be better than before now that the evil influence on the world has been destroyed?
    I wonder what Tolkien would think if he knew that most of you didn't think his book had a happy ending!

  10. Christopher says:

    I could never get into the LOTR. However I think neat little endings betray real life. I prefer George RR Martin's saga, A Song of Ice and Fire as the standard of what good fantasy can be.

  11. Tolkien fan says:

    I wanna add, that LOTR ending is not happy, it's just like a phrase “to be continued”… And we can just imagine what will be in the real end. 🙂

  12. Tolkien fan says:

    And we can just imagine what will be in the real end. 🙂

  13. ROTUS says:

    Finally, I understand why Darth Vader was invited to the Ewoks' victory dance. Of course it was to conform to Tolkien's theory f the happy ending.
    I always found the ending to LOTR to be bittersweet at best. Maybe because of my disappointment, each time, that the story is ended. Yet it is not “happily ever after for any of them, rather a return as changed hobbits, to a Shire that has been changed, and not for the better, to make what they can of their lives.

  14. John says:

    LOTR is a great story that grew in the telling from a bedside story for his children to the classic tale of redemption, sacrifice, and the power of simplicity. Of course it had a happy ending, even if it was tempered with a melancholy perhaps only an Ent could truly understand.

  15. Have you read “Children of Hurin”? I thought it was pretty good, and it was totally bleak. It inspired me to re-read the LOTR, and it put the whole struggle in context.
    (I was never able to read the Simirillian and other writings of Middle-Earth's history)

  16. Sylvia says:

    ROTUS, I would argue that the hobbits were changed for the better. They were stronger, bigger (in the case of Merry and Pippin), wiser, and had more presence and authority. Certainly they lost their innocence but that seems a small price to pay for maturity. Maybe it says something about our youth-obsessed culture that their growth is viewed as a negative.
    Well put, John.
    Adam, I haven't read any other Tolkien, but I plan to. Thanks for the recommendation.

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