Scholar’s Compass: The Fantastic and the Real

bread photoDavid Russell Mosley continues a three part series exploring how human creativity participates in God’s creativity. Tolkien fans will enjoy Mosley’s exploration of the idea of subcreation, articulated in Tolkien’s essay “On Faerie Stories.” Tolkien argued that human creativity is a gift from God to those made in His image, and that when a human writer imagines something, that writer is “sub creating,” crafting a fictional setting in a small and respectful imitation of God’s creative abilities. The idea that we in some way imitate and participate in God’s creative activity can apply to more than writing an epic, and Mosley explores some ways Christians can think about it. In this reflection, Mosley engages Tolkien’s idea that experiencing fairy stories restores our sense of the wonder of the world God created, letting us see through a fantastic setting how astonishing the real world around us is. 


Faërie contains many things besides elves and fays; and besides dwarves, witches, trolls, giants, or dragons: it holds the seas, the sun, the moon, the sky; and the earth, all things that are in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, mortal men, when we are enchanted. – J. R. R. Tolkien, “Tree and Leaf”


This passage from Tolkien is one I often come to; it sticks in my mind. Faërie, and fantasy for that matter, says Tolkien is the place where we see the world for what it is. The world in which we live is enchanted, and yet so often we pass it by without a thought. Tolkien in this essay says that part of the purpose of the fairy-story is to awaken and not necessarily fulfill desire. It is that, to be certain, it awakens the joy that C. S. Lewis describes in Surprised by Joy and leaves us longing for more. But what is more, Faërie provides us with a lens for seeing the world around us. In an age where we are taught that there is nothing beyond what can be empirically observed, Faërie reminds us that there is more to the things we see. Tolkien’s this-world examples of the denizens of Faërie is telling. The seas, sun, moon, and sky give us reference not only to our world but to the entire cosmos. All of reality can be seen, and perhaps only completely seen, in Faërie. Then, when he gives us the terrestrial examples, there is much that can be seen. I do not claim that what I am about to suggest stands behind these examples were the only things in Tolkien’s mind (or were there at all in an intentional way), but if it is true that as creators we receive our creations as gifts, then it is guaranteed that there will be more to our creations than we intend.

In the tree we can be reminded of the cross of Christ’s crucifixion, the means of our salvation; in the bird, the dove, namely the Holy Spirit, that descended on Christ at his baptism; in the water, baptism itself; in the stone, both the tomb of our Lord, and the stones that would cry out if the people were silent; in wine and bread, the Eucharist, the body and blood of Christ. Then there is ourselves, human beings. We too reside in Faërie, when we have the eyes and ability to see it. Again, I’m not saying these are the only things these symbols can or do mean. Nor would I suggest that any time you come across, say, water, in a fairy-story or in Tolkien, that baptism ought to be the first thing that comes into your head. Rather, what Tolkien is saying is that Faërie changes how we see even these most common aspects of human existence.

But what does this have to do with us? Of what contemplative or devotional value is this? We have to change how we look at the world around us. Physical things matter and can be of immense spiritual import. The water we drink or bathe with should remind us, even subconsciously, of our baptism. Every cup of wine and bite of bread should remind us of the Eucharist. Every tree, rock, plant, animal must lead us to our Creator. We must realise that we live at least on the edge of Elfland, and that we can venture into its midst. In fact, doing so, while dangerous––for it is a perilous realm––can lead us closer to God by reminding us that he is the source of all things and that all things participate in him. That is, the very world we live in is sacramental, leading us to God.

In one of my favourite Arthurian stories, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Gawain, knight of Arthur’s kingdom, and cousin to Arthur himself, is sent on a quest, through rather fantastical means, to find the Green Knight. The Green Knight had shown up at Arthur’s court and offered a game: someone of Arthur’s court must strike his neck with his axe and then receive the same in return from the Green Knight a year and a day later. Gawain steps forward, beheads the knight, and then watches the knight collect his head and ride off, telling him to come to the Green Chapel and receive his stroke in a year and a day. Gawain sets off and we are told of his religious devotion. Therefore, we grieve with him when he finds himself lost on Christmas Eve and prays for a place to celebrate the Christ Mass. As he prays, before his eyes materialises a castle, what can only be described by readers as Fairy Castle. In Faërie, Gawain finds Christ, receives Christ in the Eucharist. Christ is Lord of Faërie too, for in Faërie we see the world for what it is; it is not a flat, immanent world where things live and die. It is the world where God himself, who upholds all things, entered in and lived and died for our sake, to redeem and deify us. Faërie is all around us if we have the eyes to see it.


Do you ever fall into the trap of seeing the world around as flat and immanent? How might Faërie and its vision of the world (an enchanted world with God as its source) change the way you do your work?


King of the Cosmos, you created all that our eyes see. Everything in this universe bears an aspect of you: rocks, trees, bread, wine, and water. Help us have the eyes to see the world the way you see it, that we may be changed, that we may encounter Christ. We pray this in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Further Reading

J. R. R. Tolkien, ‘Tree and Leaf,’ in The Tolkien Reader (New York: The Ballantine Publishing Company, 1966), 38.

C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich: 1966).

Image courtesy of expert-referencement at Pixabay:

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David Russell Mosley

David Russell Mosley has a PhD in theology from the University of Nottingham. His research interests include patristic and medieval theology, sacramentology, liturgy, poetry, fantasy (literature), Christology, Trinitarian theology, deification, economics and theology, ecology and theology, and other areas of Christian theology. He is husband to Lauren Mosley and is the father of twin boys, Theodore Nicholas George Mosley and Edwyn Arthur Russell Mosley. In his spare time, David loves to read and write poetry and fairy tales, drink craft beer, smoke pipe tobacco, takes his notes with pen and paper, write handwritten letters, and generally likes to live at a slower pace of life. David keeps up a blog called Letters from the Edge of Elfland. He is also the author of the forthcoming books On the Edge of Elfland, a faërie romance which will be published by Wipf and Stock publishers sometime late 2016 or early 2017; and Being Deified: Poetry and Fantasy on the Path to God which will be published by Fortress Press.

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