J.R.R. Tolkien once observed that Christmas is the ideal fairy tale. By this, he didn’t mean that it was less true than reality, but rather that it was more true. While most of us argue that fairy tales are merely fiction, Tolkien argued all fairy tales contain a glimpse of a greater reality, which this world has often lost sight. Christmas is, therefore, a vision of something truer than this world.
Based on a lecture given in honor of Andrew Lang, the fairy-tale collector, J.R.R. Tolkien’s essay, “On Fairy-Stories,” was initially published in a collection of works presented in 1945 to Charles Williams, an Inkling and popular speaker at Oxford University during World War II. The essay sought to correct the lingering view of fairy tales that had developed during the Victorian Age, which considered all such fanciful tales as nothing more than children’s stories. While modern fairy tales are most often adapted for children, they originated as stories for adults and children alike. Victorians believed that such falsehoods and silliness were appropriate for children rather than adults. G.K. Chesterton argued that in fact fairy tales and myths appealed more to children because they contained something that was truer than materialism, and children are much more sensitive to such eternal realities.
Tolkien, likewise, believed that all fantasy worlds are better at revealing eternal truths, and that reading fairy stories has certain benefits. Among these, he listed recovery, escape, and consolation. Recovery is to see things as they truly are and gain healing from harms. You see that there is something outside of reality, something supernatural, and seeing this truth helps to restore us to hope and happiness. While some criticize escapism, he used the term escape to mean temporary letting go of a harsh reality to enter the eternal realm where healing can take place. Consolation is the feeling of hope received when we realize that, like all fairy tales, ours will also have a happy ending. He used the term “eucatastrophe” to describe that moment when things seem most lost and begin to turn around. It is joy beyond the greatest joy imaginable. In the past, I’ve written widely about the ability of fairy tales to help the children of veterans overcome separation anxiety by providing them with recovery through supernaturalism, escape from difficult circumstances, and a happy ending that provides eucatastrophe. It is something very powerful.
Above all fairy tales, however, Tolkien considered the gospel story as the best and greatest tale at giving us this glimpse of a higher reality – “a far-off gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world” – that provides recovery, escape, and consolation. “The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories…. But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation.” Through it, we see supernatural powers bringing us recovery, we escape this world of sin, and we receive the consolation of Hope. “The Birth of Christ,” he argued, “is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the Incarnation. The story begins and ends in joy.”
It was in this sense that Tolkien considered Christmas the perfect fairy tale. It is the embodiment of all that is truest in us. One may say it is the Incarnation and Advent of Truth, when that greater reality invaded the material world. It is the fairy tale come true. To reject the Gospel story and Christmas, he argued, “leads either to sadness or to wrath.” To embrace it is to receive all that is most joyous – “Glory to God in the highest, on earth peace, goodwill toward men.” This Christmas, let us all see beyond this dreary world and catch a glimpse of that greater reality.
© 2020 J.D. Manders
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