In his Cinderella Story essay, “On Stories”—an essay that was passed over when it was first published but now known by anyone who thinks about Fantasy literature—C.S. Lewis defends Fantasy literature by placing it on a higher shelf of literatures. He contrasts good Fantasy lit—including what he called “Romances” and what we now call adventure books, as well as Science Fiction—to dimestore paperback bestsellers that provide only an adventure, with no depth of character or no connection to a greater world. The Three Musketeers, Lewis argues, has no atmosphere. There is no difference between London and Paris, just the breathless pace of the action.
There is probably a place for such books: the direct flight from New York to Beijing comes to mind. But few of us think them good books on the deepest level, and we are often disappointed if we ever try to reread them. My Steve Berry and Dan Brown books have lots of sand in the pages, but I will never, ever read them again.
What makes Fantasy stories different? They are, after all, on the surface far more connected to adventure stories than character-driven literary fiction.
First, we read good Fantasy stories over and over again. Dan Brown goes to the charity bin, but you’ll have to pry Ursula K. LeGuin or Guy Gavriel Kay out of my cold, dead hands. Indeed, it is my grandchildren, not my son, who will get these books as an inheritance if I live past middle age. One of the foundational arguments of C.S. Lewis’ An Experiment in Criticism is that we can tell a good book by its worn and dog-eared pages.
Second, Fantasy and SciFi succeed in creating credible incredulity—amazing “secondary worlds” (Tolkien), “other worlds” (Lewis) so vast and expansive and consistent that they give us the authentic experience of living there, in that place, in that time. Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea, Tolkien’s Middle Earth, Frank Herbert’s Dune, and Gene Wolfe’s future earth each create for us the plausible implausibility of an impossible world we can inhabit. Even Terry Pratchett’s Discworld and Lewis’ Narnia, far less consistent or expansive, spirit us away into other realms. The books themselves are the Woods Between the Worlds, the threshold between Main Street and Fairyland.
Besides the speculative world-building of a supreme master, Lewis makes a clever comment about what Tolkien did with The Hobbit. It is a Fairy Tale, a there-and-back-again story with all of the things we would expect in Fairy Tales, including country cottages, forest journeys, dwarfs, elves, and a hint of magic. It is also Fairy Tale in the way that Tolkien himself best appreciated:
“It was in fairy-stories that I first divined the potency of the words, and the wonder of things, such as stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine” (Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories”).
The normalness, the home-ness of Fairy Tales are essential to the atmosphere of the story itself.
“The Hobbit escapes the danger of degenerating into mere plot and excitement by a very curious shift of tone. As the humour and homeliness of the early chapters, the sheer ‘Hobbitry’, dies away we pass insensibly into the world of epic” (“On Stories”).
As soon as Lewis says it aloud, we see the trajectory. Tolkien moves The Hobbit from Fairy Tale to Epic. Though the narrative arc is not quite so direct, in beginning the Lord of the Rings in Hobbiton, the Middle Earth legend that we read the most has the same movement, from Fairy Tale to Epic. Here is Lewis again:
“First, we must clearly understand that though The Fellowship [of the Rings] in one way continues its author’s fairy tale, The Hobbit, it is in no sense an overgrown ‘juvenile’. The truth is the other way round. The Hobbit was merely a fragment torn from the author’s huge myth and adapted for children; inevitably losing something by the adaptation. The Fellowship gives us at last the lineaments of that myth ‘in their true dimensions like themselves’ (Review of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings).
Other books like The Book of Lost Tales and The Silmarilion add other dimensions—chronicles, legend, and myth—but we witness the move from Fairy Tale to Epic clearly through Tolkien’s Fantasies.
It strikes me that J.K. Rowling has done something similar in Harry Potter. Think first about Harry’s “home” with the Dursleys on Privet Drive: it isn’t very homey, and certainly not very hobbitish. But, remember Tolkien’s vision of the Fairy Tale: “tree and grass; house and fire.” The Dursley’s middle class suburb is the exact parallel of the woodcutter’s forest cottage. And before we really get to know these miserable muggles, we have a large, tawny owl, a cat reading a map, excitable people in cloaks, shooting stars … and this:
“Nothing like this man had ever been seen on Privet Drive. He was tall, thin, and very old, judging by the silver of his hair and beard, which were both long enough to tuck into his belt. He was wearing long robes, a purple cloak that swept the ground, and high-heeled, buckled boots. His blue eyes were light, bright, and sparkling behind half-moon spectacles and his nose was very long and crooked, as though it had been broken at least twice. This man’s name was Albus Dumbledore” (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone).
As we go through the first book, it is very much in the Fairy Tale pattern. It is a there-and-back-again adventure with a small fellowship of faithful friends risking life and limb to resist the evil wizard. Rowling’s genius is being able to combine the School Story and the Orphan Tale with Faërie, but she follows this Fairy Tale pattern throughout the series.
But note what Rowling does in the entire heptalogy. As Harry and his friends age there is a “curious shift of tone,” to use Lewis’ words. There is a significant lengthening of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, but some of that is the Quidditch World Cup section, a divergence from the pattern that sets Hogwarts on a global stage. But as the books lengthen, and the children age, we move not just into darker themes and more deadly challenges. We also move into the world of Epic. Like The Hobbit, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows ends in an epic war with mythic undertones, creating a permanent turning point in the history of that world.
Even the names of Harry Potter change in sound. The early chapters of Philosopher’s Stone are filled with euphonic and classic names: Potter, Petunia, Dudley Dursley, Hermione, the Weasleys, Dumbledore, Hagrid and Hogwarts—as well as plain, sensible names like Ron and Harry. Notice how the names harden, from Draco, Crabbe, and Goyle to Peter Pettigrew, Bellatrix Lestrange, and Bogarts. Not all the names are stone-hard. Some are slippery, like Salazar Slytherin, Lucius and Narcissa Malfoy, Cornelius Fudge, Dolores Umbridge, and, of course, Severus Snape. Look at the transformation of the one character from the classic euphony to the stone-hard category: Tom Marvolo Riddle, as he falls into power, becomes Lord Voldemort.
It is cleverly done, and we find ourselves in the arena of Epic begging for the Potterish names, just as we often long for the Hobbitry in the Lord of the Rings. If you have read The Two Towers aloud to children, you know that they drift in the midst of chase and battle, but perk up as the hobbit storylines converge with the heroes. As poor Pippin protests in the great halls of men, “we have no songs fit for great halls and evil times,” so the reader feels the loss of Hobbitish and Potterish times in the move to Epic. Indeed, there are times when the imaginative reader is certain we will lose the Pippins and the Potters in the great evil that comes before the eucatastrophe.
“For it must be understood that [The Hobbit] is a children’s book only in the sense that the first of many readings can be undertaken in the nursery. “Alice” is read gravely by children and with laughter by grown-ups; “The Hobbit,” on the other hand, will be funniest to its youngest readers, and only years later, at a tenth or twentieth reading, will they begin to realize what deft scholarship and profound reflection have gone to make everything in it so ripe, so friendly, and in its own way so true. Prediction is dangerous: but “The Hobbit” may well prove a classic” (Review in Times Literary Supplement).
I think I can say, without exaggeration, that you can insert Harry Potter for either “Alice” or “The Hobbit” in this prophetic epigraph—not only to Tolkien’s work, but to the best of Fantasy in the last 100 years. Middle graders throughout the world are always anxious to read Harry Potter, but it is in the tenth or twentieth reading that I find it at its best.