Some pictures need a border

It was an irresistible development of modern illustration (so largely photographic) that borders should be abandoned and the “picture” end only with the paper. This method may be suitable for photographs; but it is altogether inappropriate for the pictures that illustrate or are inspired by fairy-stories. An enchanted forest requires a margin, even an elaborate border. To print it conterminous with the page, like a “shot” of the Rockies in Picture Post, as if it were indeed a “snap” of fairyland or a “sketch by our artist on the spot,” is a folly and an abuse.

-J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy Stories, (Note H)

This is not something I had never noticed or considered, but I think he’s right. Proper fairy-stories need to be compartmentalized to some degree to work their magic. It may seem at the surface that this is “throwing the camera a wink” again, but I think it’s of a different sort. The fairy-story doesn’t need to throw the wink because the border is already there. It finds freedom within the margin’s constraints.

The Bible is a curious case. It must be treated as both a true myth and as raw true history (of the photographic sort) to observe it’s full glory. It’s multi-faceted.

Animal rights can be dehumanizing

As far as our western, European, world is concerned, this “sense of separation” has in fact been attacked and weakened in modern times not by fantasy but by scientific theory. Not by stories of centaurs or werewolves or enchanted bears, but by the hypotheses (or dogmatic guesses) of scientific writers who classed Man not only as “an animal”—that correct classification is ancient—but as “only an animal.” There has been a consequent distortion of sentiment. The natural love of men not wholly corrupt for beasts, and the human desire to “get inside the skin” of living things, has run riot. We now get men who love animals more than men; who pity sheep so much that they curse shepherds as wolves; who weep over a slain war-horse and vilify dead soldiers. It is now, not in the days when fairy-stories were begotten, that we get “an absence of the sense of separation.”

-J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy-Stories, (Note G)

For the record, I’m all for the careful and proper stewardship of our environment and resources. Cruelty to animals is still cruelty and it is evil. But Man is not just an animal. From any standpoint – philosophical, biological, political – man MUST be seen as a separate sort of creation or all sorts of existential trouble will brew. Man is made in the image of God. Jesus became a man, not just a clever homosapien.

I went to church with a girl in college who now works for PETA. Sorry. I’m afraid she is very confused. It is a difficult atmosphere to recite the Creed in and have it mean anything worth living for.

All our bents and faculties have a redeemed purpose

In the conclusion of his essay on sub-creation, Tolkien brings in the gospel front and center. But it’s not a “Jesus died so we can escape this hell hole and go to heaven when we die” sort of good news. It’s really good news for now. Not rain-check redemption. The angle he takes is the same as N.T. Wright. I dig this stuff. It gives me hope.

…in God’s kingdom the presence of the greatest does not depress the small. Redeemed Man is still man. Story, fantasy, still go on, and should go on. The Evangelium has not abrogated legends; it has hallowed them, especially the “happy ending.” The Christian has still to work, with mind as well as body, to suffer, hope, and die; but he may now perceive that all his bents and faculties have a purpose, which can be redeemed.

-J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy-Stories, (Epilogue)

Something from the past to delight in

Speaking again on the appeal of fairy-stories:

This, however, is the modern and special (or accidental) “escapist” aspect of fairy-stories, which they share with romances, and other stories out of or about the past. Many stories out of the past have only become “escapist” in their appeal through surviving from a time when men were as a rule delighted with the work of their hands into our time, when many men feel disgust with man-made things.

-J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy-Stories, (Recovery, Escape, Consolation)

Tolkien explains the key to Chesterton

In discussing fantasy, Tolkien feels it necessary to mention a particular exception: “Chestertonian Fantasy” which gets it’s fuel from looking at mundane things in a new and clever way. To the canny author, there is no end of material here… but it doesn’t really count.

Of course, fairy-stories are not the only means of recovery, or prophylactic against loss. Humility is enough. And there is (especially for the humble) Mooreeffoc, or Chestertonian Fantasy. Mooreeffoc is a fantastic word, but it could be seen written up in every town in this land. It is Coffee-room, viewed from the inside through a glass door, as it was seen by Dickens on a dark London day; and it was used by Chesterton to denote the queerness of things that have become trite, when they are seen suddenly from a new angle. That kind of “fantasy” most people would allow to be wholesome enough; and it can never lack for material. But it has, I think, only a limited power; for the reason that recovery of freshness of vision is its only virtue. The word Mooreeffoc may cause you suddenly to realize that England is an utterly alien land, lost either in some remote past age glimpsed by history, or in some strange dim future to be reached only by a time-machine; to see the amazing oddity and interest of its inhabitants and their customs and feeding-habits; but it cannot do more than that: act as a time-telescope focused on one spot. Creative fantasy, because it is mainly trying to do something else (make something new), may open your hoard and let all the locked things fly away like cage-birds. The gems all turn into flowers or flames, and you will be warned that all you had (or knew) was dangerous and potent, not really effectively chained, free and wild; no more yours than they were you.

-J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy-Stories, (Recovery, Escape, Consolation)

This is a bit of a muddy passage. I had to read it twice. What he’s talking about here though I find thrilling: turning the dry, boring, mundane life we live day in day out into something fascinating. Kathleen Norris explores this idea in her memoir Dakota and, well, all her other books too. It’s the only way to stay sane in a small town perhaps. I think it must be tied to contentment as well, something I could certainly put to good use.

This was Chesterton’s modus operandi and a large reason as to why his writing on almost any topic is stimulating.