[In his 1938 essay] "On Fairy-Stories," Tolkien defines the fairy tale's central concern as what he names "Faërie"--a secondary world or Perilous Realm, whose magic satisfies the deepest human desires. Such desires include, first, the exploration of time and space; second, communication with other beings; and third, but most important of all, "the oldest and deepest desire, the Great Escape: the Escape from Death. Fairy-stories provide many examples and modes of this which might be called the genuine escapist, or I would say fugitive spirit. . Fairy-stories are made by men not by fairies. The Human-stories of the Elves are doubtless full of the Escape from Deathlessness."
In addition to the satisfaction of these desires, the fairy-story also supplies what Tolkien identifies as the "Recovery" of clear-sightedness and "Consolation," or joy. The fairy-story's generic antithesis is "Beowulf". Because the Anglo-Saxon epic ends with the hero's death, the sorrow of his tragedy overwhelms the mood: the work imitates the dyscatastrophic tragedy discussed in "On Fairy-Stories" and has been termed an elegy by Tolkien in the "Beowulf" lecture. But if the elegiac "Beowulf" ends with the triumph of chaos and death over the mortal, then the fantastic fairy-story ends with the triumph of the mortal over death and the escape into the other world.
The agent of such triumph over death in fantasy is the supernatural guide, analogous in role to the death-allied monster of the elegy or tragedy. For Tolkien this guide is usually an Elf or fairy. The Elf (or fairy--the terms are used equivocally in modern times, according to "On Fairy-Stories") is listed as an incubus or succubus, a demon, or a malignant being, in the Oxford English Dictionary, in whose compilation Tolkien assisted (he worked on the w's). Like the "Beowulf" monsters, the Elf can threaten human spiritual well-being. In "On Fairy-Stories" the Elves and fairies represent tempters: "[P]art of the magic that they wield for the good or evil of humankind is power to play on the desires of his body and his heart."
Yet elsewhere in "On Fairy-Stories" and in Tolkien's own tales, the Elves appear as guides of goodwill toward others, a nobler and wiser species than any other. Tolkien fondly cites Spenser's use of "Elfe" to characterize the worthy and good knights of Faërie in "The Faerie Queene:" "It [the name] belonged to such knights as Sir Guyon rather than to Pigwiggen armed with a hornet's sting" ("On Fairy-Stories," p. 9). Like Sir Guyon in his bravery and virtue, the Red Cross Knight in the first book of The Faerie Queene battles with the dragon in an allegorical three-day encounter complete with a Well and Tree of Life, after which he releases the king and queen of Eden (Adam and Eve). This "Elfe" repeats the redemptive efforts of Christ as the second Adam.
The tie between the Elf-Prince and Christ is a strong one for Tolkien, who had read in the Ancrene Wisse that Jesus in His love for our soul functions as a king and noble knight in love with a lady: Christ "came to give proof of His love, and showed by knightly deeds that He was worthy of love, as knights at one time were accustomed to do. He entered the tournament, and like a brave knight had His shield pierced through and through for love of His lady. His shield, concealing His Godhead, was His dear body, which was extended upon the cross." For this reason the birth of Christ in the Gospels is the penultimate fairy-story and the greatest fantasy of all time: "The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories . and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe . The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man's history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation."
Reading about the "character" Christ in this fairy-story of the Gospels allows humankind to experience escape from the sorrow of this world and recovery and joy in the hope of another world--the Other World. All secondary worlds, all realms of Faërie in such fairy-stories ultimately are modeled upon Heaven. Entering paradise remains the deepest human fantasy because it constitutes the most important escape from death and from the stranglehold of this world on life.
The difference between God's "fairy-story" of the Gospels and fallen-human fairy-stories is that in the Gospels the primary world converges with the secondary world and creation becomes sub-creation: "Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men--and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused." For once, the happy ending has actually occurred in the normally tragic primary world; death has indeed died, in John Donne's words.
But fallen humankind stains its own creation with the sin that darkens its glimpse of reality, so that its view of the happy ending may be limited and even false. Just as the "Beowulf" poem displays two distinct levels, the Germanic and the Christian, because its author found himself caught in transition between two different ages, so the fairy-story similarly caught between two worlds possesses both a fallen and a redeemed (or perfect) form. For Tolkien, "All tales may come true; and yet, at the last, redeemed, they may be as like and as unlike the forms that we give them as Man, finally redeemed, will be like and unlike the fallen that we know." If human fantasies that construct an imaginary secondary world could be "redeemed" or realized, they might indeed come true.
The fairy-story as a projection of hope, desires, and fantasies embodies the ideals of the human behind the sub-creator. Similarly, the fairy-story of the Gospels about the Word of God is itself the Word of God and thus represents God Himself. Christ's "fairy-story" traces the happy turn of his life as human fairy-stories trace the imagined happy turns of mortal life through adventures in perilous realms. For such reasons these tales must often become autobiographical, although only in the Bible is the "autobiography" true: "For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation."
If the stories often take the form of eucatastrophic legends not realizable in this world, then their sub-creation imitates in more humble form that of the Gospels: "The Evangelium has not abrogated legends; it has hallowed them, especially the `happy ending'." What this means is that the Christian who experiences joy and consolation after reading the fairy-story of the Gospels hopes for a similar happy ending to his life: "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." When as sub-creator the Christian projects this hope into fantasy, the subsequent fairy-stories assume a religious and also a very personal cast.
Thus, as a genre the fairy-story presents a "sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth." This reality is perceived by the heart or imagination rather than by the head; Tolkien reveals an Augustinian bias toward faith and revelation, "the eye of the heart," instead of the Aristotelian's "eye of reason." As Colin Duriez also notes, "Tolkien's natural theology is unusual in that his stress is with the imagination, rather than with reason. It is by imagination that there can be genuine insight into God and reality independently of the specific revelation of scripture. However, he emphasizes in his essay, `On Fairy Stories,' that any such insights are acts of grace from the Father of Lights. ... Whereas traditional Roman Catholic thought emphasizes the rational and cognitive in natural theology, Tolkien links it with imaginative meaning."
Tolkien finds that the fantasy offers "not only a `consolation' for the sorrow of this world" (like the consolation of Philosophy to Boethius for the sorrow produced by a world in which nothing lasts and in which all seems to be subject to Fortune's whims) but also a "satisfaction, and an answer to that question, `Is it true?'" Tolkien suggests that fantasy will be true for the reader if the secondary world it describes has been fashioned well and truly to inspire belief.