The end of writing is to instruct; the end of poetry is to instruct by pleasing. –Samuel Johnson
A couple of days ago, I finished re-reading The Hobbit. I suppose I was inspired to do so due to the recent release of the first part of the new film adaptation―even if my ambivalence towards Peter Jackson’s treatment of the Lord of the Rings might compel me not to see his most recent œuvre, it at least served as a reminder that I should revisit the book. But before this becomes a laundry list of complaints against the films (which perhaps I could post on another day if anyone expressed interest) let me turn to the actual novel.
Unlike Jackson’s films, I enjoy Tolkien’s books more each time I read them. What is it about The Hobbit that makes it a great book? A clue comes from an attitude I had towards stories as a child. I always strongly disliked it when adults tried to moralize fiction—that is, when the story in a book didn’t actually stand for itself, but for something else. In other words, I enjoyed the reality that a work of fiction created, and any attempt to instrumentalize it by forcing some moralistic, or even allegorical, reading upon it seemed like a betrayal. This is probably why I didn’t much like studying books in school. Now The Hobbit is enjoyable in that it avoids all of this: it is a simple work of creation: an exciting adventure story: a journey through a world that becomes real in the reading.
Tolkien articulated some of my childhood instinct in an essay he once wrote “On Fairy-Stories”. He considers a successful fairy-story to be a “sub-creation”, in which the world of the story has its own self-consistent reality. Moreover, entering into the reality of the story is not the same as “suspending disbelief”. Tolkien explains:
What really happens is that the story-maker proves a successful “sub-creator.” He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is “true”: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside. The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed.In other words, the story truly is accorded some measure of reality. In this way, it helps us to understand reality in general. In the fantastic setting, real truths are grasped more readily. The virtues that Bilbo develops, the joys and struggles of comradeship, the victory of goodness in fate, and so on, are all about real things. Nor is the story a sort of trick (the sort of trick I disliked as a child and still dislike) to bring these “deeper” truths to the surface―as if truth was some rarefied element that could be separated from a useless substratum of reality. For all being, insofar as it is being, is good and is true. Rather than merely representing or symbolising truth and goodness, the sub-creation of a real story bears them within itself. Thus, Tolkien speaks of the fairy-story as being “derived from Reality, or … flowing into it”.
Of course, there are many other ways for us to learn about virtue and friendship and everything true and good―essays, sermons, parables and even rule-books have their places. Fairy-stories, and fiction more broadly, teach us in a particularly pleasant way. They instruct us by presenting us with a reality, not in all respects like our own, but in the essentials really true. For what is real is true, good and beautiful, and this cannot fail but to please us and lead us to desire it more.