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Both Aristotle and Tolkien are authors of short works seemingly concentrated on one form of literary art. Both works contain references which seem to extend further than that single art and offer insights into the worth and purpose of art more generally. Both men understand the relevant processes of mind of the artist in a similar way, and both distinguish the value of works of art based on their effect on the audience. But Tolkien figures the natural human artistic bent as an elvish strain in us, and in his legends the elves are passing away to make way for the new—human beings. The legendary tales are an image of the natural pagan man giving place to the new man coming to be after Christ. This implies that what Aristotle called the mimetic nature of man—the source of all artistic play and work—is being given a new shape and orientation. Further, the master of those who know, in explicating catharsis, must have been reaching for something that exceeded his grasp and he did not know it. The aim of this essay is to explore the agreements (seeming and real) and disagreements (seeming and real) between what can be built up as each author’s general literary and aesthetic ideas—so, the relation between pagan and Tolkien’s Christian poetics. This will include evaluating where each is more or less adequate to the task of a general aesthetic, ending in an exploration of the purpose of art for the “new man.” Gene Fendt is the Albertus Magnus Professor of Philosophy, University of Nebraska, Kearney.


That Aristotle’s Poetics1—long read as founding a science—has never been brought into close consideration with J. R. R. Tolkien’s essay on fairy stories is a stunning lacuna in philosophical literary scholarship. This is acutely marked in the fact that Tolkien names drama (Aristotle’s center) as a particularly inadequate point d’appui for the study of literature. Within this lacuna perhaps the most important (missing) comparative point for Christian scholars should be concerning catharsis. For if literature (or any art) has a telos outside the work, as Aristotle takes pains to explicate at the end of Politics,2 then Aristotle’s polis cannot be the most adequate setting for that work, nor can the work of any work of literature be most correctly judged within that setting if Christianity is true. It is with this in mind that Tolkien figures art as an “elvish” element in our blood—for Aristotle’s natural understanding of the matter is passing (as are the elves) even as the “new”—man (first realized in Christ)—is coming into the world.3 To speak less poetically, according to Christianity there is a supernatural end which reveals the true fulfillment of what look to be our merely natural activities; this must apply, then, to literature as well. This essay means to see how these lacunae should be filled.

One hyperbolic way of reading Aristotle’s Poetics is as sifting out all other forms of art and writing from a discussion which aims to leave us the single nut of drama—or tragedy (and then comedy, which is the lost book).4 At the other hyperbolic extreme, our reading exhibits Poetics as a complete literary or even aesthetic theory in nuce; the nut in the shell being the dramatic arts of tragedy and comedy.5 The dramatic nut synecdochically includes or grows into the entire tree of not only all literary, but all mimetic arts,6 for the means of all the arts are included in tragedy and comedy, and drama’s separable parts—character, thought and emotion—are the objects of other arts. Another Aristotelian metaphor would have tragedy and comedy as two halves of a bull’s eye; literature would be the next circle; and what we call the fine arts in general would be the outer circle of the whole science of aesthetics, which could itself, perhaps, be divided into comic and tragic hemispheres. Aristotle admits there are both comic and tragic versions of the more narrative epic (1448b25-49a7, 1459b8), and suggests this also of painting (1448a5-9).7 That Aristotle’s text can be read in both directions—analytic separation from and synecdochic synthesis of—all the literary and mimetic arts is probably a good indication that he is doing both things: distinguishing tragic (and comic) drama from all other artistic and literary forms and relating them, making the central light of drama radiate outward to light up related aspects in other literary and fine arts. These two distinct ways of reading take us into different worlds: In one direction, it takes us to a world in which Aristotle’s Poetics has a more desert ontology—Poetics becomes On Tragedy or On Music-drama: one dry tree. In the other direction it takes us into a world in which Poetics opens an entire kosmos:8 Poetics is the original Aesthetics.

J. R. R. Tolkien’s more recent essay “On Fairy-Stories” seems to be playing a similar double game.9 A first reading leads one along a narrowing path which sorts fairy stories from all other forms of literature, as well as of art: the singular distinctiveness of fairy stories considered in themselves is the object to which it tends. This is the manner of most Tolkienists.10 A second reading tempts us to see Faërie as the synecdochic nut for not only the “tree of story”11—or all literature—but for all kinds of artistic making, for which the Greek word is poiêsis—so, an entire poetics or aesthetics is its tendence. If I follow his hints correctly, Tolkien seems to be offering a hyperbolic duality of reading paths through his essay, parallel to Aristotle’s double path, but veering in an opposed direction at the small end. One may follow it to its wide and inclusive vision of a general aesthetic, or down the narrowing and exclusive end determining fairy story particularly. What each book comes to following the narrowing way is a quite different tree—either fairy story or tragedy. However, the kosmoi into which each blooms considering the more expansive way seems quite similar—each provides a brief but complete poetics or aesthetics. This latter way of reading both authors is the way we will follow. To switch back to an earlier metaphor, I aim to set out more exactly what the Faërie nut shows us about the tree of literature and (the forest, perhaps) of art, and in what ways Tolkien’s view of these agrees or disagrees with what I take to be Aristotle’s view of how the nut of drama spreads into the tree of art.12

One important difference between Aristotle and Tolkien should be noted before we begin, as it has to do with the status of art for both, and so will resonate through this comparative study. Tolkien’s preferred term for art is “Sub-Creation;” the term presumes within it the Christian doctrine of Creation; “Secondary Belief” is “the arena of a sub-creation’s engagement.”13 “Sub-Creation” implies not only that the elements of the artist’s work are taken from Creation and a history which includes salvation history, but that his working itself is an analogy to the work of the Creator, as the human being itself is imago dei. Thus the work of art is always already sacramental—or dis-sacramental; it is both thing and sign, and one thing it is and is a sign of is a way of relating to what is beyond Creation, God himself.14 Thus there is a supernatural tremor, so to speak, in both the art work and the working artist (and so we should expect the same in the audience as well—as we shall see). Aristotle’s preferred term for art, mimesis, carries along only part of this; for while mimesis is a sort of repetition using a different means, or in another key, or mode, or matter (as is Tolkien’s sub-creation), it is an entirely natural process in a world that is eternal. Anthropos is by nature the most mimetic of animals (1448b5) and while he shares something with the divine, namely nous, the divine is not metaphysically transcendent or creative according to Aristotle; our divine element is, however, “the best thing in us,” and that which we ought most to engage (NE 1178a1-8). The world is still an object of beauty for the natural investigator,15 and although Aristotle cannot be understood as a reductive materialist in the modern sense, his theology is clearly an entirely natural one;
there is no supernature fulfilling nature. Words are, most particularly, Tolkien’s mode for sub-creation, since it is through the Word that God creates, and then—in and through the Word become flesh—redeems.16 Our wording is, or is meant to be, a mimesis of and participation in these divine actions; though much more frequently we are wording destruction and the continuation of Dis’ catastrophe. We are unmaking rather than making (poiêtikê).17 Tolkien makes less effort to be a philosopher of all art outside of literature, in comparison with Aristotle, who seems more arguably to be attempting a complete aesthetic in Poetics. Perhaps means other than words must be less successful as sub-creation for Tolkien.18 Words are given to the human being, and not other beasts, for we are not only to hear the music of the spheres and move to it,19 but to participate by making—or unmaking. So, for Tolkien, to have words is to bear a cosmic responsibility; this is not true of a technê—what poetry is according to an Aristotelian investigator. I wonder, is scholarship merely a technê?

Center and Teloi: Making Art and its Purposes

The Making of Fantasy v. Drama; Their Heuristic Value for Aesthetics

One sign that Tolkien’s essay is precisely going about a disagreement with Aristotle, and with Aristotle’s arrangement of the arts around drama, exhibits itself in Tolkien’s spellbinding image of “the green sun” (140). In making this image, he echoes much Aristotelian language, beginning with his use of the word “fantasy.” The word’s origin is Greek; in Aristotle it is used specifically to refer to the power of the imagination, either presentative or re-presentative; it is a power specifically opposed to aesthesis (sensation), though its presentations are derived from that other power.20 The spell-making begins when we discover that from the green grass “we can take the green” (122). This distillation of adjective from noun is the beginning of the enchanter’s art, which is, in fact, not merely fantasy (a power of mind as well as a type of literature) or the literary (a use of mere words to make works), but “a natural human activity” (144) that underlies the work of both artists—from poets and painters to tapestrists and potters—and philosophers. All artists are putting together through the power of imagination things they have previously isolated from experience through the alembic of thought—and perhaps dye-making. These small syntheses are insufficient for art, however; the artist must have gone so far as to

make a Secondary World inside which the green sun will be credible….[This] will probably require labor and thought, and will certainly demand a special skill, a kind of elvish craft…. [W]hen…in any degree accomplished then we have a rare achievement of Art: indeed narrative art in its primary and most potent mode (140).21

In these syntheses Tolkien is, fairly clearly, requiring what Aristotle required of the dramatic craft, though it might sound like more, since he requires a “world” which has “the inner consistency of reality” (139), rather than just a plot which is complete—having beginning, middle and end (1450b23-33), in which the events are joined by probability or necessity (1451a30-39, 1452a1-10, 1459a18-21), and if some impossibility should be part of it, that should either be outside the drama, or a likely impossibility—always preferable to an unconvincing possibility (1460a27-28). Tolkien’s seeming divergence from, or enlargement of, Aristotle here is even less likely if we read Aristotle in Greek, where he says that “since they act, some part of the whole must be the opseôs kosmos—the visible order, or visible cosmos” (1449b32)—which the drama produces. So then, according to Aristotle, the dramatic work produces a kosmos, and the good poet “sees everything with the vividness of an eyewitness” (1455a24-25).22

The process of mind Tolkien began with here is quite noticeably Aristotelian: distinguishing qualities from substances in imagination (or phantasia, to speak Greek) and then recombining the qualities in extraordinary ways while still ensuring clarity.23 He is, however, absolutely re-centering literary art on what he has called fairy story and fantasy. But further, if Tolkien’s “elvish craft” is Art itself,24 and if to accomplish the credible secondary world which is any Art’s achievement it is plausible to use all artistic means, then Tolkien is re-centering the entirety of aesthetic discussion on the particular nut he wishes to discuss—fantasy and fairy story. Focusing on fairy story or fantasy is, according to Tolkien, no mere arbitrary favoritism on his part, for it is a more effective synecdoche for literature than drama is. This is because drama necessarily (and problematically) includes visibility; fantasy is better precisely because a more linguistic and narrative presentation is most effective for it.

In human art Fantasy is a thing best left to words, to true literature. In painting, for instance, the visible presentation of the fantastic image is technically too easy….It is a misfortune that Drama, an art fundamentally distinct from Literature, should be so commonly considered together with it, or as a branch of it…[to say nothing of being the center of it!]. Drama is naturally hostile to Fantasy….Fantastic forms are not to be counterfeited….Drama has… already attempted….the visible and audible presentation of imaginary men in a story [it is an opseos kosmos]….To introduce…a further fantasy…is a world too much. To make such a thing may not be impossible. I have never seen it done with success (140-141, italics Tolkien, bracketed additions mine).

The problem with setting drama at the center of literary art, then, is precisely all those other means drama has—rhythm, melody, shape, color, its dance, scene painting and costuming: precisely its visibility and audibility—which are not literary; to be precise: not verbal. Though these other elements may make drama a better and more exactingly suggestive central synecdoche for aesthetics precisely because the other arts use each of those dramatic means separately, they just as precisely destroy the depth and richness of specifically linguistic arts, of which Tolkien holds fantasy is the center. This is because dramatic presentation

imposes one visible form. Literature works from mind to mind and is thus more progenitive. It is at once more universal and more poignantly particular. If it speaks of bread or wine or stone or tree, it appeals to the whole of these things, to their ideas; yet each hearer will give them a peculiar personal embodiment in his imagination (159, note E).

A picture is not worth a thousand words; in fact, its specificity is its limitation—a picture works from thing to eye and so it is infinitely less full and less personal than what works from mind to mind.25

It is not merely, as Aristotle himself said, that certain improbabilities are less likely to work when “the agents are visibly before one” (1460a14), or that impossibilities or absurdities can be hidden better in a more narrative presentation (1460a30-36); this is indeed true. More importantly for Tolkien, the very way that language works, casting its spells through words that are at once cognitively universal and yet particularly enmattered in each person’s imagination and association, breaks it distinctly from every art which uses something other than language or in addition to language. It is this fact which makes reading Shakespeare, for example, so much different from seeing a performance. Each performance reduces some of the potency of the language to particular act, to use the language of medieval (and Aristotelian) metaphysics. Sometimes this can be thrilling, as when something suddenly appears in performance which you had not seen in your own mind’s eye, or heard in your own ear, or imagined in your own heart; but the material vision is always a reduction of the richness of the poem (even though the language is still there), and even though these particular reductions, too, have their beauty, and certainly do engender their own kind of wonder.

About this matter, Tolkien’s understanding of fantasy/fairy story as the center of literary art is certainly more adequate to the truth of both fantasy (as a literary type) and literature than an Aristotelian reading that puts drama at the center of literature as well as all the other mimetic arts.26 On the other hand, Tolkien’s hint that all the mimetic arts, as elvish crafts, center around fantasy’s creation does not work heuristically as well as Aristotle’s centering of the arts on drama. Aristotle calls drama a mimesis of action rather than a construction of a secondary world, and since action requires the kinds of character who will do such and such things, and these characters must have both the passions and thoughts such characters are likely to have (1449b38-1450a5), we can more easily understand how smaller art forms—a lyric poem, a piece of music, a painting (even an abstract painting), or a dance—might embody determinate aspects of those elements requisite for dramatic action. Thus a lyric or piece of music might mimetically reproduce a single passion, a painting present a thought, or a dance mime some characterologically particular movements of a passion or sort of character. All these are elements relatable to action, even—in many cases (like music)—without a person, much less a whole secondary world. Of course, Aristotle would agree with Tolkien that “to the elvish craft, Enchantment,” all the arts aspire,27 and in this enchantment “shared enrichment, partners in making and delight,” is the thing sought (143); but Aristotle’s Poetics, and its center—drama, seems to seed explicitly a more finely grained account of the particular objects of mimesis each of the other arts best embodies, as well as sorting their determinate means, than Tolkien’s essay.

The Structure and Ends of Drama v. Fantasy

1. Structure, Form, or Plot

We should now look more specifically at the aim or telos of art’s enchantment, the particular form of enrichment and delight each critic claims for his chosen art, and in nuce, or synecdochically, for all the elvish crafts. Tolkien seems to openly agree with Aristotle’s remark that plot is the soul of tragedy (1450a38), and that it is through the emplotment of its pitiable and fearful events that tragedy achieves its end—katharsis.28 He also appears to suffer from a traditional popular mistake about Aristotle. Both can be drawn from the following:

Tragedy is the true form of drama, its highest function; but the opposite is true of Fairy-story. Since we do not appear to possess a word that expresses this opposite—I will call it Eucatastrophe. The eucatastrophic tale is the true form of fairy tale, and its highest function (153).

It is this eucatastrophic plot that produces the greatest “escape” and “consolation”—which, along with “fantasy” and “recovery,” constitute the valuable ends fairy-stories accomplish, as do “other literary forms” (138), and, if I am right in reading out from Tolkien’s center, all elvish, or mimetic, arts.

The agreement with Aristotle is that the plot (usually catastrophic) is the soul of the tragic drama. But Tolkien’s mistaken, or at least questionable, presumptions are several.29 First, it is pretty clear that Aristotle originally had a second book in his Poetics: on comedy. In any case, he clearly treats both comedy and tragedy as distinct halves of the same seed: drama. He gives each a parallel history of development; each is originated by one of two universally distinct sorts of human character whom he credits with beginning them—the serious and the meaner sort. Each comes to be through evolution from shorter poem (invective/panegyric) to epic, to their fully developed and dramatic forms (1148b24-1149b8). The catastrophic and eucatastrophic, then, do not belong divergent literary modes of presentation, like that between drama and fairy narrative, but rather cut across this distinction, as well as many others. In this way of seeing the matter Aristotle seems correct: there can be tragic songs, epics, narratives and dramas, (as well as painting, ballet, music) and there can also be ‘comic’ or eucatastrophic versions of each. Tolkien seems to want to rule out what most might call comic drama as being a very good version of drama; this seems mistaken about the facts, even the facts available to Aristotle (who lived without Shakespeare, if that can be imagined).

Secondly (and contrary to Tolkien’s—and many another’s—presumption), Aristotle does little to distinguish tragedy from comedy by the form of the plot, as Tolkien’s catastrophe v. eucatastrophe implies. Rather, Aristotle’s first way of distinguishing them is according to the weight of the action—the serious action (and so serious characters) belong to tragedy whereas comedy has actions that are ludicrous or light, and so has the meaner or lower characters (1448b24-28, 1449a31-33). It is true that when he does talk directly about plot he says that critics “are wrong who blame Euripides for giving many of his plays an unhappy ending” for “when properly worked out, these are seen to be most tragic” (1453a24-28). Yet Aristotle seems to contradict himself a chapter (= a page and a half) later when he says that the best or most powerful (kratiston) tragic plot is that like the Iphigenia, in which the sister is about to unknowingly slay her only brother (1454a5-8) but there is discovery, recognition and salvation (1455b3-16): a clear eucatastrophe, pulled from the jaws of catastrophe. Aristotle also criticizes the double form of plot—good results for the good, bad for the bad—as “not producing the pleasure proper to tragedy,” but rather one belonging to comedy, “where the bitterest enemies walk off good friends at the end, with no slaying of anyone by anyone” (1453a31-38). Thus it is the result in the audience—producing the proper pleasure—that seems to determine the distinction between comic and tragic for Aristotle, not the particular construction of the plot’s peripety to a disastrous or a joyful event.30

Here we might be tempted to throw Aristotle under the bus, and that for two reasons. First, he seems literally to rule out there being comedies with serious action carried out by serious characters, and in all modes (lyric, narrative, epic, dramatic). This seems mistaken about some facts too: As You Like It, Shakespeare’s sonnets, Dante’s Comedy, some famous short stories by O. Henry, to say nothing of Tolkien’s own works. Perhaps Aristotle means his first (characterological) division quite exactly, for he says that such differences in character and action between the serious and the less adequate cut across all human life. But it is also possible, and in fact probable, that he is merely thinking of the actual comedies at his disposal, and making an empirical claim about what he has seen:31 the characters in Aristophanic comedy are less serious and the actions are so as well (frequently the actions are impossible: dung beetle to heaven, for example). It is certainly not necessary to stick Aristotle with this characterological distinction as the crucial and definitive one between comedy and tragedy, especially considering that Odyssey is his example of the kind of plot producing the wrong pleasure for tragedy, but one more appropriate to comedy—and Odysseus is a most serious character.

Secondly, we might also want to disagree with Aristotle’s evaluation of the Iphigenia as a tragedy. Here we would agree partially with Tolkien that such eucatastrophe is precisely opposed to the spirit of tragedy. But before we make plot form determinative of type in this way, we should investigate whether or not comedy and tragedy might not be aimed at distinct pleasures, as Aristotle suggests, and that the best or most useful plot form for each type is judged by how well the function of the art form is achieved pros ta theatra (in relation to the theatre, 1449a8). It would then not be the form of the play kath auto (in itself, 1449a8)—its plot either rising to eucatastrophe and joyful endings, or falling to catastrophe and pitiable ends—that distinguishes type, but rather the achievement of the particular end in the audience. What, then, are the ends (in the audience) of fairy story, drama, literary art, or other forms of mimetic enchantment? And what is the end (in the audience) of tragedy?

2. The Ends of Drama and Fairy Story: Catharsis; or, Fantasy, Recovery, Escape, Consolation

That each work of art has an end outside itself Aristotle and Tolkien agree, and here, I think, becoming clear on the manner of their agreement is quite beautiful. As Aristotle distinguishes between tragedy in itself (kath auto) and in relation to the audience (pros ta theatra, 1449a7-8), and rather clearly judges the relative excellence of different plots based on the latter—their effect in the audience, so too for Tolkien: all the magic of mood and power in that Sub-Creation he calls Faërie “does not have its end in itself but in its operations.”32 And its operations are on us. Let us consider the matter by looking through Tolkien’s idea of art’s final cause with regard to the audience; in other words, art’s value for us:

[If] written with art, the prime value of fairy stories will simply be that value which, as literature, they share with other literary forms. But fairy-stories offer also, in a particular degree or mode, these things: Fantasy, Recovery, Escape, Consolation (138).

Aristotle says that tragedy excels epic “by achieving the goal of its mimesis in a shorter scope; greater concentration is more pleasurable than dilution over a long period” (1462a 18-1462b1). This implies—as he does elsewhere—that tragic drama and tragic epic aim at exactly the same end or pleasure (other arts not being so explicitly compared). In perfect parallel, Tolkien keeps fairy story as his center, sharing its ends with other literary forms but distinguishing fairy story as particularly more successful at four of these. It seems that other arts besides the literary and, particularly, fairy story, might provide these as well, but Tolkien does not enter upon that larger aesthetic fray, though Aristotle does hint at it. For the sake of brevity I will simply assume that catharsis is Aristotle’s general end for not only epic and tragedy, but also for other literary arts.33 I accept that tragedy’s particular aim is catharsis of pity, fear and the like (1449b27-28), which it effects more concentratedly than tragic epic, thus proving its greater value vis-à-vis epic (and other art forms, like tragic lyric, or music, or dance, which though shorter may not achieve the fullness and depth of catharsis available to a form which is an imitation of a complete action in language).

Tolkien is, largely, agreeing with, and here providing, a more fine-grained version of Aristotle’s conception of catharsis—which, in the extant Poetics, is merely a word. If we accept that “Art [is] the operative link between Imagination [–the mental power of image making–] and the final result, Sub-creation” (138-139), and that a sub-creation holds together with “the inner consistency of reality,” then Tolkein is agreeing with Aristotle that art is a technê—a rationally ordered making, since it—“the operative link”—forms the imagined events and images into that consistent skein. The Sub-creation itself then accomplishes the ends—fantasy, recovery, escape, consolation, or, in a word, catharsis, in the audience.


The first of Tolkien’s four terms seems the most distant from the Aristotelian conception of catharsis, and such little explication as we have of it from Aristotle, for it seems least of all the things we will find in tragedy: “unlikeness to the Primary World…, freedom from the domination of observed ‘fact’” (139). Partially, this difference may be an effect of the unfortunate cutting off of Aristotle’s treatise, for clearly Aristophanic comedy has considerable elements unlike the Primary World: some knotted cords are named market-police and scolded and beaten for their ridiculous enforcements, or lack thereof; two characters feed shit-cakes to dung beetles, hoping to ride them to the dwelling of the gods; men have week- and month-long erections when the women go on a sex strike for peace. These bits of “arresting strangeness” (139) take us outside of our primary world in a sense, though much of the rest of that world seems to operate like ours—like ours with these bits of arresting strangeness added. Partly, too, this difference is probably due to Tolkien thinking of his own works, which are, as Northrop Frye would say,34 on the high levels of myth and romance, where characters have greater than human, even godlike powers, and the world itself is embued with a kind of magic—talking trees, for instance. This is a different kind of arresting strangeness than that available in Aristophanes—or even in those tragedies where the gods appear (again, perhaps precisely because, as Tolkien said, they do appear). His own mythopoeic works provide a greater and more continuing intensification of “arresting strangeness” than can be carried out on stage, or in what Frye calls the lower mimetic and ironic modes of any art form. So, perhaps the slightness of the connection between dramatic catharsis and the arresting strangeness of Fantasy is further evidence of Tolkien’s point that “Drama is naturally hostile to Fantasy” (140), though what Frye called the low mimetic and ironic modes (such as those endemic to our present age)—where such fantastic things can appear only as jokes or puerilities—are also hostile to Fantasy.35 Aristotle himself, however, would seem to agree with Tolkien about the import of the fantastic when he notes that epic “has more scope for the irrational (a chief cause of the awesome) because we do not see the agent,” and “awe itself is pleasurable” (1460a12-18). Insofar as the mere appearance of the arresting strangeness is part of the pleasure of art, it seems that it is so because it frees the audience from the domination of mere fact, which Aristotle himself suggests in the preceding quotes, as well as in his famous remark that poetry is more philosophical than history. Even impossibilities are “acceptable if the poetry achieves its goal” (1460b23-24), and even if his matter be historically actual events, it is through the probable connections by which he puts them together that the poet makes a poem, rather than a history (1451b5-6, 29-33). This freedom from actual necessities and probabilities, or the rehearsal of actuality as in history, seems the first element or stage of catharsis for both, then.

Tolkien puts this in a way which lessens the seeming difference between himself and what Aristotelian tragedy—and all other arts—produce when he says “to the elvish craft, Enchantment, Fantasy aspires, and when it is successful of all forms of human art most nearly approaches” (143). This Enchantment (when successful) makes you “think that you are bodily inside its Secondary World…. You are in a dream that some other mind is weaving” (142). Loss of sight of this fact, and the giving up of oneself to primary belief in it, would be delusion; “whether that is the intention of the elves (always or at any time) is another question” (142). Tolkien’s presentation of “Faërian drama” as something which might take in our body and our entire mind, which it does not do for the elvish makers themselves—’”they do not live in it” (142)—exhibits both art’s freedom from the world in which our body still remains subject to all its usual necessities, and our allowing enchainment to “a dream some other mind is weaving.” Art creates a world in which we see and feel other possibilities and necessities. “Fantasy is founded upon the hard recognition that things are so in the world as it appears under the sun; on a recognition of fact, but not slavery to it” (144). This sort of “realization of enchantment” Aristotle had pointed out in his description of how the poet works (1455a21-34): seeing things before his eyes, being actually taken by the passions which move the characters, and so on.

In real life our passions and thought processes get stuck in ruts; seldom are the ruts we run in entirely virtuous, and even if we are not outside the lines of virtue, we are seldom raised into conscious practice of virtue or challenged by difficulty or (even less) extremity. The world is, we might say, pretty mundane. The arresting strangeness of a work of art—particularly one of fantasy such as Tolkien’s, simply by that fact, lifts us out of such mundanity, purifies us of our unconscious and inattentive sinking into it: a poem is a vertical moment in the horizontal world.36 It moves our passions and thought in accord with and in response to the extremities and strangenesses the characters suffer—as well as are, in Tolkien’s fictions; in doing so we are lead to dance through the same sorts of passions as would move the virtuous in their extremity. The enchantment of the work of art engenders in us

an activity which proceeds within certain limits of time and space, in a visible order, according to rules freely accepted, and outside the sphere of necessity or material utility. [This] play-mood is one of rapture and enthusiasm…. A feeling of exaltation and tension accompanies the action, mirth and relaxation follow.37

Fantasy, its ordered play, can thus be seen as the first element of catharsis for both Aristotle and Tolkien.38 Faërie is a realm which produces in the reader “an emotional or imaginative awareness,” which includes awareness of “conscience” and “natural law,” in a world where the doctrine (as we know it—for we are in a world apart) does not exist, “but the feeling attached to the doctrine does”—and every turn of plot or description of new beauty—or deceit—calls these up in us. Likewise, Aristotle’s definition said that tragedy works “through pity and fear” (1449b26-28), that is, through emotions carrying an ethical charge, though the kosmos carrying it is not our own, but an order separate from our life. Thus in the work of art our passions are allowed a run free of their daily encumbrance or this-worldly consequence; they are awakened to attention.


And by this enchantment, the work of literature (and, more generally, of art) begins the second function Tolkien points out: recovery. It helps us regain a clear view, “so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity—from possessiveness” (146). Fantasy (as opposed to a detective story, say) is most effective at this precisely through its arresting strangeness; when we come back to the world our body never really left, the things of it have been “made all the more luminous” by their just-removed setting and combinations. Having seen horses with halos or trees which speak from their hearts, the real tree outside the back door is more luminous, more itself, more a thing rich and strange and perhaps more individual and more closely sharing in our life than just the tree out back, loosing its leaves to the autumn wind, or opening itself to the mundane sun greening the world into Spring. This is not a delusional change of what we see or what is there, but brings back to mind and mundane feeling and experience something that is there which we have forgotten, or to which we have become inured or inattentive, and it brings us back to it with not a new, but a richer orientation of the passions.39 A lyric poem, paying close attention to a thing, does the same: “loveliest of trees the cherry now/ is hung with blooms along the bough”40—as if the cherry itself is celebrating spring—which it is, and has been, and will be doing twenty years from now. We are, as a result of, and in the work of art which makes us practice so, briefly at least, more present in the real world: A second element of purification or, to speak Greek, katharsis.


The third aspect of katharsis which Tolkien thinks fairy stories grant in a way greater than other literature is what he calls “escape.” He does not intend “the Flight of the Deserter” but the “Escape of the Prisoner” (148),41 particularly from an age “of improved means to deteriorated ends” into a world of totally different means to high ends such as fantasy or fairy tale build up, whereas more contemporary or up to date fiction uses its freedom mainly “in order to play with mechanical toys in the soon cloying game of moving at high speed” (151). Fantasy overcomes even more “ancient limitations” and offers “old ambitions and desires…a kind of satisfaction and consolation” (151). Such as, “the noiseless, gracious, economical flight of a bird” and “profounder wishes; such as the desire to converse with other living things”—and not only talking beasts (152), for “other creatures are like other realms with which Man has broken off relations, and sees now only from the outside at a distance, being at war with them, or on terms of an uneasy armistice” (152).42 “And lastly there is the oldest and deepest desire, the Great Escape; the Escape from Death”—an escape which many other human stories attempt as well—among them Euripides’ Iphigenia in Tauris: “the best sort of tragic plot” (1454a5).


Thus Tolkien has already tied escape to the fourth element of catharsis—”consolation” (153). For Tolkien—but not for Aristotle—this consolation goes further than merely “the imaginative satisfaction of ancient desires,” or even the victory of virtue and innocence, for “the sudden joyous turn” of the eucatastrophic fairy tale “denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat…, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world” (153). And here, most potently, what we said about the theological and metaphysical difference between Aristotle’s world and Tolkien’s near the start of our discussion exhibits itself. For the shadow play in which the passions have been enchanted echo, in their feelings and imaginings, something in which we can have primary belief—the transcendent Good News for our immanent being. In the making of this felt joy, the sub-Creator produces the mimesis of something heard and taught in the real world, and allows a space to renew our practice of that joy. It is unlikely that Aristotle, who uses the human wish for immortality as his example of the fact that wishing can be for the impossible, whereas deliberation cannot be (NE 1111b 22-24), would go so far as Tolkien here. For the master of those who know, the eucatastrophic turn to escape in the Iphigenia provides the best catharsis because it takes our passions—oriented around a person who is not of ordinary (1453a8), but extreme excellence (1452b33) and even innocence—very near to complete disaster through no fault of her own. It thereby raises fear and pity to its highest pitch—approaching, as the incidents do, most closely to the odious or polluting (miaron, 1452b35) act of killing one’s brother—to recover us, in the sudden end, in the joy of escape. The catharsis here, for every kind of character in the audience (the excessive, the deficient, and the virtuous) is that our passions of pity, fear, and the like are made to run through the movements of the virtuous, in particular those involved in the virtue of courage—imitating those movements of the soul in which, in facing the worst and most fearful and pitiable things, a character maintains itself and finds a way through them to joy.43 Tolkien could go far in agreement with what Aristotle said: this is the best possible catharses, produced by the “ most powerful of all” plot forms (kratiston, 1454a4).

At least Tolkien would agree with Aristotle that something like the Iphigenia is the best of all plots outside of the Gospel. –If indeed it is outside the Gospel, not inside it, but inside also an ancient theatre without a window to the greater joy enfolding it. Aristotle picks this wish—escape from death—as his example of the impossible because he recognizes there is something natural in it: we share something with the divine and unlike other beings with soul, we know it; “one might even regard it as each man’s true self” (NE 1178a2). The desire to live in accord with it is the best and highest element in us; by nature then, we desire this escape. But for Aristotle the world and its species are eternal, and so is the human active intellect,44 so I suppose for him the elves (as their life is described in Tolkien’s fictions) would be the image of the best happy life he could imagine. I wonder if he (having never heard the Gospel) would feel the sadness imbuing their lives as individual eternities in a world where otherwise only species continue. I am not merely fantasizing about an agreement Tolkien might have with Aristotle here. What they clearly do agree on is this: that for art to do good for the audience it must help them be passionally and emotionally set straight (purified, clarified, catharsized); “its virtue is in its operations” (116). Fantasy, recovery, escape and consolation are Tolkien’s terms for the inner working of this operation. For Aristotle, catharsis must mean approaching nearer (or becoming more capable of nearer approach) to the passions and emotional movements of the virtuous, who—recognizing death as the worst thing, and unconquerable—face it anyway, knowing that in doing so they lose the best thing (NE 1117b9-15), and that nothing either good or bad will remain for them (NE 1115a26-27). If this is really the case, and the being that we are (which does have something divine about it, NE 1177b26-1178a8) has of natural necessity an entirely natural end—only the species surviving, then any art which imitates, or represents, or hints at an escape from utter death of the individual is far from purifying, for it practices passions and emotional movements only available to the mad. It is polluting. It rouses us to hope in and practice under its spell an impossible and soul destroying joy. A general rule for both Aristotle and Tolkien might be: if fantasy or any art and the elements of its “catharsis”—its escape and consolation—do not connect to the reality of the spiritual being who is to partake of them, one might, more honestly, traffic in hallucinatory drugs.

Catharsis or Madness?

Tolkien recognizes that it is precisely madness that threatens his argument, and precisely at that point where the escape and consolation he claims for the fairy story’s catharsis reaches what other narratives do not. He says that “it is man who is, in contrast to fairies, supernatural…; whereas they are natural, far more natural than he…. The road to fairyland is not the road to Heaven; nor even to Hell, I believe, though some have held that it may lead thither indirectly by the Devil’s tithe” (110). If man is the supernatural being, his most terrible problem—death—can only be happily resolved inside the truth of the Gospel. If the Gospel is untrue, Tolkien is mad to think that this being can be helped (purified, catharsized) by a work of art that goes so far as his eucatastrophic denial of final permanent defeat. Any elvish work which provides “a far off gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world” (155) is too strong a drug for us.45 Of one taken in by such elvish work we must say: “You are deluded—whether or not that is the intention of the elves (always or at any time) is another question” (142). On the other hand, if that evangelium is true, then “to reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath” (156), for the supernatural being is built for this Joy. In this case “the Evangelium has not abrogated legends…” much less, condemned them; “it has hallowed them, especially the ‘happy ending’” (156). Thus, the moral worth and human significance of Tolkein’s poetics stands or falls with the truth of the Gospel,46 which is perhaps what gives one who reads the criticism of his work (whether pro or contra) the feeling that he is hearing a confession. As Christianity was an offence to the wisdom of the Greeks, we should not be shocked to discover that the openly Christian aesthetic Tolkien limns here is an offence to Greek philosophia; perhaps that helps explain why this obvious project has not been undertaken before.

If we suppose there are not elves (or fairies), then the natural being who practices the “especially elvish craft…Enchantment, [which] produces a Secondary World into which both designer and spectator can enter, to the satisfaction of their senses while inside” (143), can only be that most mimetically creative of animals in nature—anthropos. What Tolkien must be figuring by the elves (and fairies), then, is the natural animal, man, not the supernatural being of the same name:47 “The Primary World, Reality, of elves and men is the same” (142). This natural being, “the most mimetic of animals, learning first by mimesis… and also delighting in the mimetic” (1448b5-10), creates enchantments for himself knowing they are not the primary world, yet by inciting secondary belief and the passions concomitant with those beliefs—like pity, fear and love—gives those passions practice at running through their movements: in one way and another. And so the natural being practices extremities of passional movements he is unlikely to face in life, and the one who makes the charm is leading the rest into a dance which may be purifying (cathartic), or polluting (miaron, to Aristotle).48 In other words, if “Faërie begins [where] Man becomes a sub-creator” (122), then man is, according to an Aristotle who has read Tolkien, originally and naturally elvish; though Tolkien tells an alternate history: “[the elves] are descended from ourselves, … [perhaps] through Cain from Adam” (116). To demythologize Tolkien’s symbolism, elves just are human beings as pure anthropoi of (Aristotelian) nature, which means, after the preaching of the Gospel, precisely when the supernatural being takes himself outside the family of promise. According to the Gospel we are not merely that purely natural Aristotelian being. For the elves, art is their highest accomplishment; for the supernatural being who is man, there is invitation to a greater: “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” (156). And so the purpose of any work of art must be in accord with either Tolkien’s idea of the human or Aristotle’s. In both cases “exposure to these patterns [of mythos and ethos, to speak Greek] … can have a purifying effect on the receptive reader.”49 Or they can work otherwise. If Aristotle is correct about anthropos, Tolkien’s ideal art works are polluting: a charm into madness. If Tolkien—or rather, the Gospel—is correct about God’s call to each man, an Iphigenia perhaps does not go far enough; taken as a limit for the human it would exemplify a case in which the purely human virtues, like courage, which it charms the audience into mimetically practicing, will turn out to be glittering vices, and instigate in the end “sadness or wrath.” But perhaps something higher echoes there as well, in their salvation by doing a work for the goddess—if we can hear. Of course, it could be that Tolkien is not figuring anything by anything here, but thinks there really are elves, who really do have an art of enchantment (distinct from magic, a technique used by desire for power in this world, 143), into which humans have sometimes tumbled to their great grief; but then, I suppose, we would think him mad. And perhaps that would be true.

One final remark. Despite my reading of the elves thus far as a sort of figure of Aristotelian natural man, Tolkien’s idea that for the elves art is the highest accomplishment is not true of Aristotelian anthropos. It is too romantic an idea, for as a made thing, a thing produced by technê, a work of art always has an end outside itself, no matter its internal beauties (which are also produced through technê). For Aristotle, that external end is the life of the human community, and it may not be merely an accident of history that the only extant discussion of katharsis is in the Politics. Art is to be an aid to the good living together of the human beings in the city50—even those who are slaves. Tolkien, if asked this question directly, would again agree with Aristotle’s point: “Why yes, art is for the glorification, and the increase of love, and the reorganization and free running of the passions necessary for our city, a city Augustine spoke of also, and one to which many before and since have pledged allegiance.”51 And this city is the one real city for all human beings.52

Cite this article
Gene Fendt, “Aristotle and Tolkien: An Essay in Comparative Poetics”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 49:1 , 63-82


  1. Aristotle, Poetics, ed. and trans. Stephen Halliwell (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995).
  2. Aristotle, Politics, trans. Jonathon Barnes (Cambridge: University Press, 1996).
  3. Jason Willard pointed me to the most exact reference, a letter from Tolkien to Milton Wildeman of Collins Publishing: “A recurrent theme [of Lord of the Rings, Silmarillion and extending back to The Hobbit] is the idea that in Men (as they now are) there is a strand of ‘blood’ and inheritance, derived from the Elves, and that the art and poetry of men is largely dependent on it, or modified by it. … Of course in reality this only means that my ‘elves’ are only a representation or an apprehension of a part of human nature, but that is not the legendary way of talking.” See Humphrey Carter, ed., The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981), 149.
  4. Perhaps the most limiting example of this way of reading is Gregory Scott, Aristotle on Dramatic Musical Composition: The Real Role of Literature, Catharsis, Music and Dance in the Poetics (2016), He reads Poetics as essentially concerned with dramatic musical theatre—a smaller nut than the usual tragedy or drama.
  5. Stephen Halliwell introduces his Loeb translation of Poetics (Aristotle, 1995) with a discussion of the place of Poetics in literary theory. For a larger view of Poetics as containing the seed for a whole aesthetics, see, for example, his much longer book concerning Aristotle’s (and ancient) poetics: Halliwell, The Aesthetics of Mimesis: Ancient Texts and Modern Problems (Princeton: University Press, 2002); also Gene Fendt, “The Others in/of Aristotle’s Poetics,Journal of Philosophical Research 22 (1997): 245-260.
  6. Aristotle defines tragedy as a mimêsis of serious action (1449b24) and defines other arts as forms of mimêsis which differ by their means, object, and manner (1447a15-18); mimêsis and its Greek cognates seem to cover the same extensional ground as our “art” and “artist.” What Aristotle intends by this word (and so, its reasonable translation) is philosophically fraught. It is the root of our words “mime” and “imitation,” but it has also been translated as “representation,” which seems to denote a much more intellectually effecting process than a mimesis which works merely by rhythm, as Aristotle admits some do. For a wide-ranging discussion of the philosophical import of the term see Halliwell, 2002. Or, more briefly, Gene Fendt, Love Song for the Life of the Mind: An Essay on the Purpose of Comedy (Washington DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2007), 1-12. I will leave the Greek word untranslated in references to Aristotle, and use English cognates whenever possible, hoping its sense is built up through its uses.
  7. For Aristotle I have used the above-mentioned edition of Halliwell’s translation, Poetics (Aristotle 1995); I have on rare occasion changed his translation without noting it to fit my sense of the Greek. Here and hereafter noted in the text according to the standard Bekker pagination.
  8. Kosmos, in Greek, means order; it is the root of our homonym, cosmos—an ordered unity of all things. Here I refer to the ordered unity of all the arts; one question of this paper is how we should best see that order. The Aristotelian has it turning around drama; Tolkien around fairy story.
  9. I have this essay in J. R. R. Tolkien, The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays (Hammersmith, London: HarperCollins, 2006), 109-161, noted in the text henceforth according to this edition.
  10. Partly this might be just an effect of the aim of most Tolkien scholarship, which is explication of the particular themes and working of Tolkien’s own stories; this admittedly is what was in the forefront of Tolkien’s mind in writing the essay as well. All of the works referenced in this paper spend quite significant portions of their time explicating Tolkien’s own tales in great detail, including comparing his to other fantasy literature. Many books I have looked at and not referenced because that is all they do. This paper is interested in poetics more generally understood, rather than specific poetic constructs and their particular work.
  11. Tolkien uses this phrase as well as “Tree of Tales,” and “web of Story” in his essay; he links these metaphors to “the philologists’” “tangled skein of language” (Monsters, 120), so I take it he means this to refer to all literature in all languages.
  12. I have been unable to find any scholarly work explicitly comparing Tolkien’s poetics with Aristotle’s. In the J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia, the master of those who know rates no entry, nor does the term “poetics,” though there are entries for “politics” and Plato, whose mythopoeic practices in the dialogues are echoed by Tolkien in his fictions. See Michael D. C. Drout, J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia (New York: Routledge, 2007). Flieger compares Tolkien’s poetics briefly with Coleridge and some other Romantics; see Verlyn Flieger, Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien’s World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), ch. 2. Reilly offers more detailed connection of Faerie with Coleridge’s “Secondary Imagination” – see R. J. Reilly, “Tolkien and the Fairy Story,” in Tolkien and the Critics, eds. Neil D. Isaacs and Rose A. Zimbardo (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968), 128-150. About Aristotle’s Poetics there is a long history of considerable debate, which can hardly be entered within the confines of a readable comparative argument.
  13. David L. Jeffrey, “Recovery: Name in The Lord of the Rings,” in Modern Critical Interpretations: J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, ed. Harold Bloom (Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2000), 125-132. “Primary Belief” is belief about the real world of creation and history, as I have primary beliefs about Aristotle, animals and the apostles, some more, some less justified.
  14. Sandra Miesel in Myth, Symbol and Religion in the Lord of the Rings (privately published: T-K Graphics, 1973), 9, quotes Eliade: “the world is no longer an opaque mass of objects arbitrarily thrown together, it is a living Cosmos. … In the last analysis, the World reveals itself as language.” She herself puts it this way: “nature is never merely ‘natural’… it is more than a collection of physical processes” (italics Eliade). Mircea Eliade, Myth and Reality, trans. Willard R. Trask (New York: Harper Torch, 1968), 141.
  15. This will be defended in the final chapter of Damon Watson’s forthcoming Marquette University dissertation, Genus and Difference in Aristotelian Definitions.
  16. As another critic puts it “for him, language itself had an interior” (see Stratford Caldecott, Secret Fire: The Spiritual Vision of JRR Tolkien (London: Danton, Longman and Todd Ltd., 2003), 16); and so does every true thing, and both for the same reason—Creation through the Word. Thus poetry’s analogies are discoveries of truth, and etymology truths of history. See for example Caldecott, 18f. For further remarks on Tolkien’s “sacramental universe” see Caldecott, 62-70; and Bradley J. Birzer, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth: Understanding Middle Earth (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2003), 23-28, 31-33. On the breakdown of this order in fin de siècle literature, and the response and theological significance of de-familiarization in Chesterton’s hands (which she connects to Tolkien’s practice), see Allison Milbank, Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians: The Fantasy of the Real (London: T and T Clark, 2007), ch 1.
  17. Peri poiêtikês autês is the opening of Poetics (1147a): “concerning making itself” or “concerning poetry itself.”
  18. It is not easy to make any sure statement about these matters. Clearly the beginning of The Silmarillion does not make it likely that Tolkien thinks less of music than of literary art; and his descriptions and uses of other arts in his stories does not discount their power or value either.
  19. In Aristotle all things imitate the divine insofar as they are able; this starts with the movement of the heavens. Thus the divine embraces all of nature, and all things are ordered together to one end, but not in the same way (Meta 1074b3, 1075a15-20). See also Aristotle, De Anima, trans. W. S. Hett (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1975), 415a 23-415b8; and Aristotle, On Generation and Corruption 2.10.
  20. Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott, eds. A Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon, 1940). I have used the version available on See also Rosemary Jackson, Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion (New York: Routledge, 1981) – Jackson’s etymology seems purposefully perverse in missing this. See also Aristotle, De Motu Animalium, trans. Martha Nussbaum (Princeton: University Press, 1978), 701a36, where Aristotle places phantasia between sense perception and thought.
  21. This quote might stand as an outline of Tolkien’s idea of “sub-creation:” The sub-creator abstracts from all manner of experience of the created world—qualities, relations, substances—and puts them back together in a quite distinct, but still intelligible whole new world of qualities, relations, and substances.
  22. Tolkien, then, can hardly be “the first to articulate the principle of the Secondary World… [or require] an inner logic for his story and … draw boundaries outside of which his fantasy may not wander,” as claimed by Sullivan III, 280. See C. W. Sullivan III, “Folklore and Fantastic Literature,” Western Folklore 60.4 (2001): 279-296.
  23. For distinguishing of substances and accidents, see, for example, Aristotle, Metaphysics, trans. Hugh Tredennick (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1933), 1042a30-36, 1045b27-35. In Poetics 22 and 25 Aristotle requires poetic diction to be impressive and out of the ordinary—he even gives suggestions for how to invent new words—without losing clarity, or producing riddles, and he allows impossibilities if the poetry achieves its goal (1460b23-24), and errors of fact so long as they are convincingly portrayed (1460b31).
  24. See footnote 3. Birzer picks up this analogy between the human artist and elves as well (see Birzer, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth).
  25. It is possible that Tolkien is invoking Lessing in his argument: “to present the uttermost to the eye is to bind the wings of Fancy.” See Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Laocoön: An Essay upon the Limits of Painting and Poetry, trans. Ellen Frothingham (New York: Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, 1961), 17; it seems the kind of image Tolkien would remember.
  26. Drama’s inadequacy as a template vis-à-vis the working of literature is one support of Scott’s (2016) view that Aristotle does not intend a poetics, much less an aesthetics, but only a musical dramatics.
  27. Certainly it enchants the author (1455a23-38), and if he is so attentive, the play will not fail on the stage (1455a26-28).
  28. Katharsis is another fraught term in Aristotle interpretation; it is used once in Poetics as the aim of the work of tragedy on the audience: “tragedy … through pity and fear accomplishes the catharsis of such emotions” (1449b23-28). It can be translated as purgation (a medical use common in classical Greek), or as purification (a religious use common in classical Greek), or as clarification. Any of these translations beg questions of great philosophical import. Some readers of Aristotle suggest the phrase is a late addition to the text, not Aristotle’s. The longest discussion of the term by Aristotle is, significantly, in Politics. In Politics 8 he promises more precision in Poetics. For longer discussion of how each translation turns our view of the work of the work of art see Fendt, Love Song, 56-86.
  29. I would excuse Tolkien from the sin of presumption here, as what he accepts as Aristotle was largely the received view (and blindness) of the majority of Aristotle scholars at his time. It is also possible that I am presumptuous: there is considerable and continuing debate about these central issues and I will be comparing Tolkien only to the view I consider most defensible from Aristotle’s work.
  30. A long argument showing that Aristotle’s emphasis on “the proper pleasure” of tragedy and “the effect on the audience” are the crucial determinants for the distinction between tragic and comic drama, against the usual determination based on the form of the plot is in Fendt, Love Song, 25-39 and 108-139.
  31. Eliot Wondercheck reminded me that both of the times Aristotle makes character the distinction between comedy and tragedy, it is embedded within his description of the historical progression of the arts. Unlike tragedy’s “complete development,” perhaps comedy had not yet “achieved its own nature” (1449a15); so Aristotle’s claim is merely empirical, and very dated—“so far (c. 345 BC) comic drama does not have serious characters.”
  32. Reilly, “Tolkien and the Fairy Story,” 138.
  33. Not every art aims at a catharsis of pity and fear, nor can catharsis be mere purgation of excess passions if art is to have an effect on the virtuous or deficient characters in the audience. About these matters there is too much debate to even summarize the main positions, but for some argument regarding catharsis as the end of all art and distinguishing types of catharsis between comic and tragic art based on the passions engendered, see Fendt, Love Song, 19-25, 31-40, 56-90, 98-107, 121-156.
  34. Northrop Frye, “First Essay. Historical Criticism: Theory of Modes,” in Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957).
  35. For further discussion along these lines see, for example, Caldecott, Secret Fire, 1-4; Simonson makes considerable use of Frye throughout; see Martin Simonson, The Lord of the Rings and the Western Narrative Tradition (Zurich: Walking Tree, 2008).
  36. Lewis makes a similar claim about myth as a particular form of literature; I am not convinced that what he says is more true of myth than other poetry: “The value of myth is that it takes all the things we know and restores to them the rich significance which has been hidden by ‘the veil of familiarity’.” See C. S. Lewis, “The Dethronement of Power,” in Tolkien and the Critics, eds. Neil D. Isaacs and Rose A. Zimbardo (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968), 12-16. A poem “about” an ordinary thing does so as well – for example, a cherry tree.
  37. Johann Huizinga, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture (London: Routledge, 1949), 120.
  38. Aristotle links play, relaxation, and catharsis in Politics 8: 5-7, though not nearly so cleanly or serially causally as Huizinga in these lines. Huizinga is actually determining the characteristics proper to play here, but his next lines say, “it can hardly be denied that these qualities are also proper to poetic creation.”
  39. Reilly, “Tolkien and the Fairy Story,” 140.
  40. In “The Ethics of Elfland,” G. K. Chesterton says that the first truth he learned from fairy stories was “that this world is a wild and startling place, which might have been quite different.” Fairy stories bring out the wild and startling nature of things, to which we grow inured, “for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.” See G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995), 64, 66).
  41. A. E. Housman, A Shropshire Lad (New York: Henry Holt, 1922), 3.
  42. He would completely disagree, then with Jackson 1981, who claims “the ‘value’ of fantasy has seemed to reside…in its free-floating and escapist qualities” (1).
  43. A point on which Rilke’s Duino Elegies also rest; see particularly the fourth and eighth. See Rainer Maria Rilke, Duino Elegies, trans. C. F. MacIntyre (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1965).
  44. For longer discussion of how this play works on the full range of Aristotelian character types—the excessive, the virtuous and the deficient, see Fendt, Love Song, 97-103.
  45. Whether this eternal active intellect is individual or not has been a matter of argument for many centuries; most well-known is Aquinas’ treatment: see Thomas Aquinas, On the Unity of the Intellect Against the Averroists (De unitate intellectus contra Averroistas), trans. Beatrice Zedler (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1968).
  46. Let us remember here that Plato regularly calls works of art pharmaka—drugs—and says that he wishes us to make sure that they have their proper license; see for example Rep. 382c, 389b, 459d, 595b. Tolkien himself notes that “Faërie is a perilous land…[it contains] beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever present peril” (109).
  47. Caldecott proposes that in his (then) unpublished legendarium Tolkien was “thinking through the Incarnation from within his own subcreation, almost as a way of testing its ‘consistency’ with reality. I believe it passes the test” (107). Birzer points out that Tolkien himself “most adamantly did not want to be the originator of a religious cult…[while] he also feared…that many readers of The Lord of the Rings had ‘delighted in the sensation of “depth” without wishing to explore the deep places’” (Birzer, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth, 18; see also 47).
  48. See note 3 above; thanks, Jason.
  49. Such pollution, the raising of dark powers in one’s own soul, seems to be at the root of Tolkien’s extreme distaste for C. S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters; see for example Birzer, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth, 90.
  50. Caldecott, Secret Fire, 5; bracketed elements my addition.
  51. Milbank makes a point of this Aristotelian teaching in discussing the difference (and connection) between poiesis and praxis (20-23, 166-168): “Not only are all the things they make beautiful and pleasing to sight, but they are useful and serve the common good” (23). Sauron exhibits the opposite in his (un)making (24).
  52. I would like to thank Marquette University’s Department of Special Collections and Archives for the use of materials in their Tolkien collection. I am also grateful to several unnamed and very careful readers of earlier versions of this paper; they have helped make it much clearer and more exacting.

Gene Fendt

University of Nebraska, Kearney

Gene Fendt is the Albertus Magnus Professor of Philosophy, University of Nebraska, Kearney.