By James V. Schall, S. J.
In The Tolkien Reader is found his famous essay “On Fairy-Stories.” At the end of the essay, we find some explanatory “Notes” listed according to letters—A, B, C, and so on. The Note listed as “H” is the one that interests me here. Note “H” has to do with the beginnings and ends of tales and stories as we find them in our literature. The very fact that Tolkien thought it might be helpful, or even necessary, to call our attention to something we already mostly know is itself perceptive. Often, we really see for the first time things or persons that we observe about us all the time. Our world is filled with “seeings” but also with “seeings-again.” Some “seeings,” such is their wonder, we do not want to cease seeing, however pressingly we must attend to other things.
But to grasp what Tolkien is driving at in “Note H,” it is well first to recall the memorable lines at the end of the essay “On Fairy-Stories” itself. Few better lines have ever been written. “But 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’.” It is the “happy ending” that is both the most hoped for and, in the light of so many of our actual human choices, the most dubious story ending of all.
Tolkien’s last words of the essay are as follows: “All tales may come true; and yet, at the last, redeemed, they may be as like and as unlike the form that we give them as Man, finally redeemed, will be like and unlike the fallen [man] that we know.” We know the tales that take place amidst our fallenness. We sometimes blame God for creating a world in which we can fail and fall, as if to say that, in the end, we should prefer not to be free. Man “fully redeemed” will be like and unlike ourselves. If redeemed man were necessarily to turn out to be exactly as he was before, there would be no purpose in creating him. If he were absolutely different, he would not be the same person who once lived in this world.
In “Note D,” Tolkien had remarked: “Nature is no doubt a life-study; or a study for eternity (for those so gifted); but there is a part of man which is not ‘Nature,’ and which is not therefore obliged to study it, and, in fact, is wholly unsatisfied by it.” Here we have the distinction between, as some call it, reason/science and intuition. Both are natural to us, but the things that have no matter connected to them cannot be known by the methods of science. We see some things directly. Among these latter things are those that do not depend on matter. This is why, briefly, we cannot really know another person unless he chooses to reveal himself to us. In this sense, we cannot have “happy endings” unless the other, including God himself, chooses to reveal to us the interior life of the reality we encounter.
“Note H” begins with these words: “The verbal ending—usually held to be as typical of the end of fairy-stories as ‘once upon a time’ is of the beginning—‘and they lived happily ever after’ is an artificial device.” What is the point here? What is “artificial” about “living happily ever after”? Is that not the whole purpose of romance, indeed of our lives? This “living happily ever after,” Tolkien tells us, “deceives” no one. Everyone knows that the end of romance is the beginning of life together and all the problems that arise for those who are indeed happy.
A “happy ending” is rather the beginning of a story within a story. It is but a “fragment” of the “seamless Web of Story.” A “happy ending,” in other words, ends nothing but begins everything that we might desire. Stories and lives that have “happy endings” have a “greater sense and grasp of the endlessness of the World of Story than most modern ‘realistic’ stories, already hemmed within the confines of their own small time.” We have, in other words, the sense that the narration of the lives that we live and encounter are indeed “endless.” They are not simply confined to our own time, even though we are given four score years and ten in this world.
All things, Tolkien thinks, should have names. The very purpose of man in the universe is to name things, because each “this” thing is not that thing. “Namelessness is not a virtue … and should not [be] imitated; for vagueness … is a debasement, a corruption due to forgetfulness and lack of skill.” Things are luminous with their own light that we are to recognize and name. For things that are not ourselves also show us what we are not and therefore, at the same time, they show us what we are—beings who are to know what is not themselves in the very knowing of themselves.
Timelessness is something else. “Once upon a time” and “they lived happily ever after” drop our lives into the flow of time that is already going on and will go on with us in it, our story. “The beginning is not poverty-stricken but significant. It produces at a stroke the sense of a great uncharted world of time.” We look back, with memory, on what did happen. We live the story of what we are and where we were, with whom we met, with whom we spent time.
We are also aware of those with whom we did not have time enough or occasion to catch more than a glimpse of another story in the endlessness of the eternity in which we already dwell, even in the time in which we live, in the “once upon a time” of our time, in the “living on happily ever after” of the end of our own days. The one final thing that the story of our own lives leaves us with is its need of judgment. How indeed have we chosen to live once we appeared in the “time” of our time, in the “endlessness of the World Story” in which we happily find ourselves, unless we persist in thinking that we are indeed ourselves the “nothing” from whence all that is has appeared.