There and Back Again: How Reading Tolkien Can Restore the World to Us

This essay is an edited version of a talk Andrew Shamy delivered in Auckland on 14 October 2020.


In 1997, the British public voted The Lord of the Rings Best Book of the 20th Century. Many critics and commentators did not receive the news well. Journalist Susan Jeffreys of the Sunday Times in London, for example, wrote, “A depressing thought that the votes for the world’s best 20th century book should have come from those burrowing an escape into a non-existent world.” The writer Howard Jacobson reacted with similar dismay: “Tolkien—that’s for children, isn’t it? Or the adult slow…. It’s another black day for British culture.”

For children. An escape from reality. Not for serious adults. These are typical critiques of the works of J. R. R. Tolkien and of fantasy literature in general. Tolkien himself knew them well. He was a world-renowned philologist, an Oxford professor—what business did he have with hobbits, elves, dwarves, wizards, dragons, and talking trees? Wasn’t it all, well, a little embarrassing? At worst, wasn’t it a waste of his life and gifts?

Tolkien did not leave his critics unanswered. In 1939, he gave a lecture at the University of St Andrews called “On Fairy-Stories,” where he offered a strong defence of fantasy literature. Fantasy stories, he argued, have three important values or functions: Recovery, Escape, and Consolation. Over eighty years have passed since Tolkien’s lecture, but it is my aim here to show that his words remain relevant, perhaps even urgent.  Modern persons are still in need of Recovery, Escape, and Consolation.

Tolkien began his lecture by asking, what is a fantasy story?

What is a fantasy story?

In his 1967 novella, Smith of Wootton Major, Tolkien tells the story of a man, Smith, who travels in the land of Faërie and encounters many strange and marvellous things. He walks a desolate shore beside the Sea of Windless Storm and sees a great white ship filled with Elven mariners, tall and terrible, returning “from battles on the Dark Marches of which men know nothing.” He becomes lost in a grey fog, and, when it recedes, he sees far off the King’s Tree “springing up, tower upon tower, into the sky,” bright as the noonday sun and bearing uncounted “leaves and flowers and fruits.” He climbs into the Outer Mountains and comes across a lake at the bottom of a deep dale. The lake is perfectly calm and in it he sees strange flames and fiery creatures moving to and fro, and he is filled with wonder.

There are many scenes like this in Tolkien, full of wonder and enchantment. Think of the descriptions of Fangorn Forest, Rivendell, and Lothlorien in The Lord of the Rings; or of the dragon Smaug resting on its hoard of treasure in the dwarfish cave under the Lonely Mountain in The Hobbit; or the descriptions of Ungoliat and the Two Trees of Valinor in The Silmarillion.

Our imaginative response to these passages is shaped by a quality that is hard to put into words but that sits at the root of fantasy for Tolkien. In “On Fairy-Stories,” he argues fairy stories are not primarily about fairies but about Faërie, “the realm or state in which fairies have their being” and “the air that blows in that country.” Faërie, Tolkien admits, is hard to describe, but he wants us to think of it not so much as a place (though it can be) but an atmosphere, an “air that blows.” This atmosphere, which is the heart of fantasy, is characterised by an “arresting strangeness,” “embodied wonder,” and “enchantment,” both beautiful and perilous. This quality of fantasy is the source of its particular value—the unique gifts it can offer readers. The first gift Tolkien describes in his lecture is Recovery.

Recovery: The First Gift of Fantasy

There’s a scene early on in The Hobbit that illustrates well what Tolkien means by Recovery. Bilbo Baggins is a very comfortable, bourgeois hobbit, who never has any adventures or does anything unexpected. That is, until the wizard Gandalf and 13 dwarves turn up on his doorstep one evening and more or less bustle him off on an adventure. The night before they leave, after the fire has burnt low and the room grown dark, one by one the dwarves raise their deep voices and sing a song. The song tells the tale of their quest, of how the dwarves of old made wondrous treasures and lived in hollow halls under the Lonely Mountain. How one day a dragon came, and “the mountain smoked beneath the moon,” so the dwarves were forced to flee, and the treasure was lost. So now, they sing:

Far over the misty mountains grim
To dungeons deep and caverns dim
We must away, ere break of day,
To win our harps and gold from him!

Listening to the dwarves’s song has a profound impact on Bilbo. It awakens in him, we are told, a “love of beautiful things” and a desire “to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine-trees and the waterfalls, and explore the caves.” And it transforms the way he sees his familiar world. Bilbo looks out his window and, for a moment, the sight of the stars outside reminds him of dwarfish jewels in black caves, and a fire in the wood across the water brings to mind plundering dragons. These ordinary, familiar things are filled again with wonder, with beauty, with strange otherness. Through the “fantasy” of the dwarves’ song, Bilbo has experienced what Tolkien calls “Recovery.” He has regained a childlike wonder toward the ordinary world.

Fantasy offers Recovery, according to Tolkien, by breaking the hold on us of overfamiliarity and possessiveness, by which he means seeing the world around us only in terms of our plans, purposes, and projects rather than recognising things as first and foremost other than us, as having their own nature and purpose and meaning independent of our own thought. Overfamiliarity and possessiveness stop us really looking at things—stop us truly seeing them—so they lose the capacity to surprise and amaze us. Tolkien writes, “We need… to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity—from possessiveness.”

First, fantasy offers such Recovery by putting the ordinary things of our world alongside the strange and wondrous so that they “are made all the more luminous by their setting.” Tolkien speaks of his own experience: “It was in fairy-stories that I first divined the potency of words, and the wonder of things, such as stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine.” Think of Bilbo. Hearing about dragons and enchanted gems helps him see with fresh eyes the wonder of campfires and of stars, things he is so familiar with that he’s stopped really seeing them—they become more luminous by their setting.

The second way fantasy offers Recovery is by defamiliarising the world around us. By taking familiar things and making them strange—taking a tree and making it talk, a horse and giving it wings, or a lizard and making it large and able to breathe fire—fantasy helps us to see ordinary things with fresh eyes. G. K. Chesterton had this feature of fantasy in mind when he wrote of fairy-tales:

These tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green. They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water.

For Tolkien, at the heart of fantasy is an atmosphere or quality of arresting strangeness and enchantment. By making the familiar unfamiliar, by destabilising our perception, by reminding us that the world is other than us and helping us experience that otherness as wonder, fantasy has the power to make us look on our world with fresh eyes and awaken childlike wonder.

For Tolkien, such Recovery is an urgent need for modern people. In 1937, two years before his lecture at St Andrews, he wrote a poem called “The Dragon’s Visit.” In it, a dragon visits a very ordinary English town and rests in cherry trees owned by one Mister Higgins, hoping to sing an enchanted song so Mister Higgins and his neighbours might enjoy their supper.  Mister Higgins is not amused. Those are his cherry trees in his garden. So, he fetches the garden hose and eventually the fire brigade to get rid of the dragon. This does not please the dragon, so it destroys the town, eats Mister Higgins and his neighbours, and flies off back home with this final lament:

They have not got the wit to admire
a dragon’s song or colour,
nor heart to kill him brave and quick—
the world is getting duller!

It is a humorous poem, but Tolkien is making a serious point. He was a well-known critic of the modern world. We see this in The Lord of the Rings. His affection for the rural, pre-industrial Hobbits is obvious in contrast to his distaste for, say, Saruman—whom Treebeard describes as a having “a mind of metal and wheels”—or Mordor, which is described like an industrial wasteland, full of smoke and pollution and environmental destruction. Tolkien’s son Christopher observed this of his father: “He disliked the modern world … the modern world meant for him the machine.”

It can be tempting to dismiss Tolkien with his tweed jacket and pipe as out of touch, a Luddite, nostalgic. But, at the heart of Tolkien’s critique is the belief that modern life encourages in us a feeling of possessiveness toward the world. Our pervasive use and reliance on machines and technology make it easy to relate to the world around us only in terms of what it can do for us or mean for us, our hopes, and our projects rather than treating it as genuinely other, dignified with its own design, inherent purpose, meaning, and value. And this possessiveness can rob us of perceiving the world’s true beauty and wonder, its depth, and its dimensions. “The world is getting duller,” the dragon says.

Possessiveness itself is a symptom of a deeper malady. It both emerges from and encourages a particularly modern view of the world—scientific materialism—that limits reality to only what we can see and measure and does not recognise reality’s spiritual or transcendental depths.  For Tolkien, this view of the world is akin to a dark enchantment that blinds us from seeing the truth of things and, crucially, renders for many modern people the world dull and flat, lacking inherit significance or meaning. And so, alongside Recovery, Tolkien names Escape as a gift fantasy literature offers us.

Escape: The Second Gift of Fantasy

In a world that is too often experienced by modern people as flat and lacking meaning, Tolkien argues that fantasy can offer Escape into a heightened reality. This reality is what Stephen Lawhead describes in an essay reflecting on Tolkien’s work as worlds “at once more vivid and intense and real, where happiness and sorrow exist in double measure, where good and evil war in epic conflict, where joy is made more potent by the possibility of universal tragedy and defeat.”

Despite the protestations of Susan Jeffreys and her colleagues, this isn’t for Tolkien escapism. First, he rejects the negative association the term escapism brings to the concept of Escape. He asks, “Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home?” Escape is a good thing if we are wrongly imprisoned.

But more than that, fantasy offers escape not as a flight from reality but a flight to reality. As a Catholic deeply shaped by the Christian account of reality, for Tolkien, the world as handiwork of a glorious Creator really is full of wonder, beauty, delight, majesty, wild strangeness, and enchantment; it really is thick with meaning and depth beyond what lies on the surface; our real life as human beings really does have a mythical or heroic quality. To not see all this and to not experience the world with childlike wonder is, in a sense, to not see clearly, to need Recovery and Escape. And this is what fantasy offers. It opens a door to reality. Recovery for Tolkien is not forcing wonder artificially on to the world, it “is a regaining—regaining of a clear view,” it is “seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see things.”  Thomas Howard described the literary project of C. S. Lewis this way, and I think it works for Tolkien too:

One way of putting what he [Lewis] saw his literary task to be would be to say that he wanted to lead his readers to a window, as it were, looking out from the dark and stuffy room of modernity, and to burst open the shutters of that window and point us all to an enormous vista stretching away from the room in which we are shut.

Tolkien put it more humbly: “We need … to clean our windows.”

Recovery and Escape. For Tolkien, the third gift of fantasy flows from these: the gift of Consolation.

Consolation: The Third Gift of Fantasy

Literary critic Lev Grossman once called Tolkien a “virtuoso of longing.” Fantasy scholar Rosemary Jackson calls fantasy the “literature of desire.” Tolkien himself argued in his lecture that one of the primary gifts of fantasy is the offer of Consolation. He notes that some consolations offered by fantasy are simple curiosities, like “the desire to visit, free as a fish, the deep sea; or the longing for the noiseless, gracious, economical flight of a bird.” But some of the consolations of fantasy, the ones Tolkien claims touch the very roots of fantasy, speak to the most profound longings we have as modern people, such as the “desire to converse with other living things” or to “survey the depths of space and time,” both of which point to a profound desire to feel connected to a cosmos filled with life, depth, and meaning—an experience the modern world can often deny us.

Fantasy literature has the ability to allow us to glimpse, taste, and enjoy the deeper dimensions of reality—beauty, goodness, courage or hope. We experience these in heightened ways that satisfy, in part, our longing as creatures who are by nature both natural and spiritual and, therefore, who can never be fully satisfied in a world that denies spiritual realties and depths.

Recovery. Escape. Consolation. We are left with a question: does Tolkien promise too much of fantasy?

Does Tolkien Promise Too Much?

In his 2009 novel, The Magicians, literary critic turned novelist Lev Grossman tells the story of Quentin Coldwater.¹ Quentin grew up reading a series of children’s books set in a magical land called Fillory. Fillory is a clear and deliberate copy of Narnia, complete with talking animals and visiting English school children. When Quentin read the Fillory books as an eight-year-old, he felt “awe and joy and longing all at once.” His deepest desire is for Fillory to be real and to go visit there.  He has a deep longing for meaning and wonder. He describes his childhood in New York in ways similar to Tolkien’s critique of modernity:  “In Brooklyn reality had been empty and meaningless—whatever inferior stuff it was made of, meaning had refused to adhere to it.”  He longs to escape and believes if only magic or Fillory were real, “he would be picked up, cleaned off, and made to feel safe and happy and whole again here.” He would be consoled.

And one day it happens. Quentin finds out that magic is real and that Fillory exists, and he goes there. But he experiences no Recovery, no Escape, and no real Consolation. Magic turns out to be a bit of a bore, more a technology than source of wonder; his quest is revealed as meaningless and, in the end, Fillory can’t satisfy his longings.  He realises, “He was broken in a way that magic could never fix.”

Grossman writes out of a deep respect and love for fantasy and for writers like Lewis and Tolkien, but he questions fantasy’s ability to offer Recovery, Escape, and lasting Consolation.  His point seems to be this: eventually we need to close the book or exit the wardrobe. And though the world around us may seem richer, though we may see things differently now, reality doesn’t quite match the wonder of what we’ve read. We are left with a longing that cannot be consoled. Fantasy cannot satisfy the desires it awakens.

How might Tolkien respond?  In part, I think he would agree. He knows the consolations of fantasy only partially meet our longings. We cannot fly, explore the sea as free as fish, or talk to animals except within the pages of a book. This is even truer of the deepest consolation of fantasy, which Tolkien in his lecture calls the Consolation of the Happy Ending.  One of the deep longings of the human heart is for things to end well, to turn out alright, and for good to conquer and endure over evil. In fantasy, this longing is consoled. For Tolkien, the Consolation of the Happy Ending goes right to the heart of  fantasy.

Tolkien doesn’t mean here the “happily ever after” of our nursery stories. He means those moments in a great story where things are at their darkest, most wild, most terrible, when there is a “sudden miraculous grace,” “the sudden joyous ‘turn’ ” that seems to “deny (in the face of much evidence …) universal final defeat … giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.” Think of Gandalf appearing at dawn with Erkenbrand and a thousand Rohirrim to turn the tide of the Battle of Helms Deep when all seemed lost. Think of Eowyn and Merry striking down the Lord of the Nazgul during the Battle of the Pelennor Field,  a shieldmaiden of Rohan and a Hobbit, or the eagles appearing from between the dark clouds to lift Sam and Frodo from the Side of Mount Doom.

These moments are at the heart of fantasy for Tolkien and yet doesn’t that just go to prove Grossman’s point? Tolkien’s own words, surely, betray him: the happy ending is a taste of “Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”  But I believe for Tolkien this is not a flaw of fantasy but its final gift: to awaken a longing the world cannot satisfy.

At the heart of The Lord of the Rings is as a story about enchantment and loss.² An atmosphere of grief and sorrow pierces the whole book and, indeed, all the stories of Middle-Earth, a sense of things slipping away into the “irrecoverable past.” The speech and singing of the elves is filled with mournful longing for a more glorious past when they were stronger but which is now lost. The enchanted realms of Lothlorien and Rivendell are fading, and the domain of Tom Bombadil is shrinking. The Ents have lost their wives. Gondor is failing.  And at the heart is the story of the ring. Frodo’s task is to destroy Sauron’s One Ring of Power but, in doing so, he will destroy not just dark enchantment but good enchantment as well. The elves guard the beauty, enchantment, and wonder of Middle-Earth, but when the One Ring is destroyed, the three rings of power through which they rule will also be destroyed. The elves will diminish and go into the West.

Enchantment and Loss. I think this is Tolkien’s response to Grossman. Tolkien writes to awaken desire, to re-enchant our world, but he does this, ultimately, so that we may become more deeply aware of our disenchantment—feel it as a wound. For Tolkien, this world as it is is not our true home—we were made for another world. He once wrote in a letter, “human nature is still soaked with the sense of ‘exile.’ ” We long to return to our true home for this world to be put right.  And yet, so much of modern life, in the words of C. S. Lewis, is “directed to silencing this shy, persistent, inner voice” and convincing us that our good is to be found only here and now in this world as it is. We have fallen under an enchantment. For Tolkien, we need to be awakened from this spell. Fantasy, by stirring longings that this world cannot ultimately fulfil, can cause us not to settle in an age of materialism but make us pilgrims and send us on the road—on a quest—to find our true home.

Tolkien was not ashamed to write fantasy. He saw it as offering precious gifts: Recovery, Escape, and Consolation. Fantasy has the capacity to reveal the true depths of reality and evoke wonder, giving us glimpses of things we have lost and long to recover. And by leaving us still wanting, it does not dull or empty the world but gives it new dimensions or depths, and sends us on our way as pilgrims, seeking our true home we now know only by our longing for it.


¹My thinking on The Magicians has been shaped by Kelly Kramer’s article, “A Common Language of Desire: The Magicians, Narnia, and Contemporary Fantasy,” Mythlore: A Journal of J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and Mythopoeic Literature 35, no. 2(2017): 153–169.
²For more on the theme of enchantment and loss in Tolkien, see John Rosegrant, “Tolkien’s Dialogue Between Enchantment and Loss,” Mythlore: A Journal of J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and Mythopoeic Literature 33, no. 2 (2015): 127–138.

(Image: “Conversation with Smaug,” by J.R.R. Tolkien, courtesy of the Tolkien Estate)