In The Silmarillion, Tolkien successfully achieves the perfect fantasy or fairy story on all levels and, if one were to judge this text that outlines, in intricate detail, the entire history of an imaginary world by the standard set forth in his essay “On Fairy Stories” then this would be one of the most successful fairy stories ever told.
One of the components of a fairy story, according to Tolkien is to have the world created to a believable place —almost tangible, rather than allow the reader to remember constantly that what is being is read is mere fiction. Even more specifically, in “On Fairy Stories” Tolkien outlines not only what the content of a good fairy story should be, but more importantly, he talks about the criteria that define the very purpose of these tales. In fulfilling these criteria, good fairy stories serve a much larger function in how we understand and relate to our own modern world and by these elements of measure put forth in “On Fairy Stories” it is clear that Tolkien realized his own goals in the vast work of The Silmarillion.
To be clear before evaluating Tolkien’s success in creating his own definition of a true fairy story, it should be noted that in his essay that defines and defends fairy stories, Tolkien does not offer a wide clearance to many well-known works we might consider to be fairy stories. He makes it a point to separate works of true fantasy into categories, thus enabling him to isolate the meaning of a “fairy story” as opposed to works of science fiction and dream or beast tales. To Tolkien, many works such as Alice in Wonderland, for instance, or works that are clearly science fiction and that are sometimes categorized as fairy stories (or fairy tales) are not because they lack particular qualities, the most important of which revolves around the idea of credibility. To Tolkien, the world created in one of these stories should be accepted as truth or, as he puts it, it is “essential to a genuine fairy-story, as distinct from the employment of this form for less or debased purposes, that is should be presented as ‘true’” and that in his mind, there should never be cues in the fairy story that lead the reader to ever forget that what they are reading is fiction. This is one of the primary elements of a true fairy story and is certainly captured in The Silmarillion with its exhaustive, almost biblical sense of history, landscape, and scope.
In Tolkien’s view, as he expresses in his essay on the nature of fairy stories, tales of fantasy succeed when they present themselves as entirely real. This is one of the most successful ways in which he meets his own criteria in The Silmarillion because from every element of the epic work—from the details of the landscape and geography, to the unique cultures of the Elves and other groups, and even in terms of the realistic ways in which characters interact with one another are perfectly realistic. Furthermore, as he expresses in his essay “On Fairy Stories” far from being mere escapes from reality or tales aimed at children, the nature of the sub-creation of a different world is one that is recognizable to all readers, young and old alike and has enough in the way of a “consistency of reality” to be identifiable but enough difference to provide another valuable function of a good fairy story, which is escapism—a more complex matter than it sounds and an issue that will be addressed in coming paragraphs.
Along these lines of the value of realism in fairy stories, in meeting with this stated aim of a good fairy story, the extraordinary realism in terms of the land and people are so realistic because they all represent elements we recognize in our own society (although out of context in this book) and our own earth with its many regions and landscapes. One of the most persistent sensations one gets of both this sense of the recognizable and the completely believable, despite knowledge that it is fiction, is the way the creation story is told and the entire history of a world that is both our own but not at all is told in epic fashion. More specifically, part of the believability and almost authoritative tone of The Silmarillion is its similarity to other creation stories (which Tolkien suggests are the ultimate fairy stories, except they are our accepted truth) and especially the Christian Bible. For instance, at the beginning of The Silmarillion, much like in the case of other creation stories, “There was Eru, the One, who in Arda is called Iluvatar; and he made first the Ainur, the Holy Ones, that were the offspring of his thought” (16). Like in many other religions that we recognize today, the earth and all of the great tale of the following joys and struggles begins with one figure, or God. This goes on with Iluvatar saying, “I will now that ye make in harmony together a great Music. And since I kindled you with the Flame Imperishavle, ye shall show forth your powers…I will sit and hearken, and be glad that through you a great beauty has wakened into song” (18). This is akin to Adam and Even in the Garden of Eden as there is an initial sense of peace, harmony, and goodness and a creator who is pleased with what he has fashioned. Just as in the case of many other religions that we recognize and thus associated with this story, the conflict emerges as an opposite force enters and the ultimately identifiable action of dark versus light, good versus evil enters into the picture. When reading the beginning sections of The Silmarillion, this similarity to world religions and especially the Christian tradition, lends a tone of believability, and even more importantly, part of this rests on the actual narrator’s voice, which is very much like that in the Bible, with “ye” and other archaic patterns of speech.
Part of what is important about the connection to the real world in terms of the plot and many of the epic struggles in The Silmarillion is that it defines another element Tolkien sets forth in “On Fairy Stories” in terms of escapism. While it is a bit confusing, Tolkien does not really mean that a true fairy story should let readers escape from reality and be entertained on this level, although this is something that happens anyway. What he seemed to mean by this is that the escape is present in our entry into another world where we can accurately define aspects of our own life and society and with this distance provided through the lens of fiction, we can have the opportunity to step back and see our world through the context of another. To be more clear about this, his idea about escapism is not related simply to the pleasure of reading to forget one’s troubles, but rather, to understand our troubles metaphorically, as it were, through the lens of this culture and society. In relation to this idea is Tolkien’s associated criteria of a fairy story as offering “recovery” which (arguably, of course) refers to this process of looking at our own world in the context of another during the period of escapism.
In addition to the concepts of recovery and escape as being integral components of a fairy story, another element that is present in The Silmarillion that helps categorize the story as a true fairy story pertains to the nature of the conclusion. Just as in the case of this connection to religious traditions and the associated establishment of credibility and believability in this work, there is yet another criteria of a good fairy story that is set forth in “On Fairy Stories” that is fulfilled. When a fairy story such as The Silmarillion provides the what Tolkien calls a “eucatastrophe” and ends not with a perfectly happy conclusion, but one in which a sense of greater balance has been restored, it further fulfills the qualifications laid out for the embodiment of a true fairy story.