What makes a story a fairy-story?
According to Tolkien a fairy-story isn't a story that contains fairies or elves or other sorts of fanciful creatures, the insertion of a fantastical element into our world. Rather, a fairy-story is a story about a world, the realm of Faërie. Middle-Earth and Narnia are examples here.
[F]or fairy-stories are not in normal English usage stories about fairies or elves, but stories about Fairy, that is Faërie, the realm or state in which fairies have their being. Faërie contains many things besides elves and fays, and besides dwarfs, witches, trolls, giants, or dragons: it holds the seas, the sun, the moon, the sky; and the earth, and all things that are in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, mortal men, when we are enchanted.That last is key, Faërie is an enchanted world.
And this is why for Tolkien the magic of Faërie is a non-negotiable. The minute the magic of Faërie is questioned within the story the spell is broken and we're no longer in the world of enchantment. As Tolkien writes:
[In a fairy-story the] one thing that must not be made fun of [is] the magic itself. That must in the story be taken seriously, neither laughed at nor explained away.What this requires of the storyteller is that the land of Faërie is always presented as being real and true. The land of Faërie is never presented as a dream-state, vision or delusion. Faërie is presented as a real world.
Tolkien then goes on to consider the origins of the fairy-story. How is the world of Faërie created?
One of the tools Tolkien describes is how enchantment is created by our use of adjectives.
The human mind, endowed with the powers of generalization and abstraction, sees not only green-grass, discriminating it from other things (and finding it fair to look upon), but sees that it is green as well as being grass. But how powerful, how stimulating to the very faculty that produced it, was the invention of the adjective: no spell or incantation in Faërie is more potent. And that is not surprising: such incantations might indeed be said to be only another view of adjectives, a part of speech in a mythical grammar. The mind that thought of light, heavy, grey, yellow, still, swift, also conceived of magic that would make heavy things light and able to fly, turn grey lead into yellow gold, and the still rock into a swift water. If it could do the one, it could do the other; it inevitably did both. When we can take green from grass, blue from heaven, and red from blood, we have already an enchanter's power—upon one plane; and the desire to wield that power in the world external to our minds awakes. It does not follow that we shall use that power well upon any plane. We may put a deadly green upon a man's face and produce a horror; we may make the rare and terrible blue moon to shine; or we may cause woods to spring with silver leaves and rams to wear fleeces of gold, and put hot fire into the belly of the cold worm. But in such “fantasy,” as it is called, new form is made; Faërie begins; Man becomes a sub-creator.Enchantment begins, then, with the incantation of adjectives. No spell of Faërie is more potent. And yet, those adjectives can't just be thrown around willy-nilly. Otherwise the world being described becomes confused, incoherent and nonsensical. What is needed, as Tolkien says in the last line of the quote above, is "sub-creation," the careful weaving of those adjectives to create an intelligible world.
For Tolkien the art of the fairy-story is the labor of sub-creation. Sub-creation involves the creation of a Secondary World where Secondary Belief becomes possible. If the world being described in the fairy-story has coherence and integrity things become believable in that world. This artistic creation Tolkien calls "enchantment": "Enchantment produces a Secondary World into which both designer and spectator can enter, to the satisfaction of their senses while they are inside."
That is the enchantment of Faërie, the description of a world--or the re-description of our world--where certain things become believable and certain experiences become enjoyed.
Tolkien goes on to contrast enchantment with magic. "Magic produces," says Tolkien, "or pretends to produce, an alternation in the Primary World...its desire is power in this world, domination of things and wills." In contrast to magic, the elvish art--the art of enchantment--is the creation of a world which you are invited to enter and enjoy. Tolkien making the contrast:
To the elvish craft, Enchantment, Fantasy aspires, and when it is successful of all forms of human art most nearly approaches. At the heart of many man-made stories of the elves lies, open or concealed, pure or alloyed, the desire for a living, realized sub-creative art, which (however much it may outwardly resemble it) is inwardly wholly different from the greed for self-centered power which is the mark of the mere Magician...Uncorrupted, it does not seek delusion nor bewitchment and domination; it seeks shared enrichment, partners in making and delight, not slaves.The elvish art is non-coercive. At its heart enchantment is an invitation, an invitation to enter and explore a world to discover and experience shared delights.
Faërie is a choice. Enchantment is a decision. You don't have to walk through the Wardrobe. Just as Bilbo doesn't have to leave the Shire. Faërie is an invitation to a journey, and who knows where that road will take us?
The Road goes ever on and onWhich brings us to a final point. What does it mean to enter Faërie, to accept the invitation of enchantment?
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.
Specifically, are we "pretending" when we enter Faërie? When we accept the invitation of the elves are we "making believe" and playacting? Are we adults indulging in the whims and imaginations of children? Tolkien recounts in his lecture how he corresponded with a man who said that fairy-stories were "Breathing a lie through Silver."
That question--Is Faërie real?--is one that we will circle back to in this series as it bears upon how skeptics feel about the enchantments wrought by faith, seeing them as "lies breathed through silver." For now, let's just give one part of Tolkien's answer.
For Tolkien Faërie is less about "reality" than it is about desire, and about what those desires tell us about ourselves and the world. On that point we can conclude with Tolkien's description of what drew him to the land of Faërie:
I had no special “wish to believe.” I wanted to know. Belief depended on the way in which stories were presented to me, by older people, or by the authors, or on the inherent tone and quality of the tale. But at no time can I remember that the enjoyment of a story was dependent on belief that such things could happen, or had happened, in “real life.” Fairy-stories were plainly not primarily concerned with possibility, but with desirability. If they awakened desire, satisfying it while often whetting it unbearably, they succeeded...I never imagined that the dragon was of the same order as the horse. And that was not solely because I saw horses daily, but never even the footprint of a worm. The dragon had the trade-mark Of Faërie written plain upon him. In whatever world he had his being it was an Other-world. Fantasy, the making or glimpsing of Other-worlds, was the heart of the desire of Faërie. I desired dragons with a profound desire. Of course, I in my timid body did not wish to have them in the neighborhood, intruding into my relatively safe world, in which it was, for instance, possible to read stories in peace of mind, free from fear. But the world that contained even the imagination of Fáfnir [a dragon in Norse mythology] was richer and more beautiful, at whatever cost of peril."Our hearts are restless," wrote St. Augustine, "until they rest in Thee."
And for many of us, that desire was first experienced, and is still most acutely experienced, in the land of Faërie.
That land where we desired dragons with a most profound desire.