Unfulfillable Desires: On Sandner's "Joy Beyond the Walls of the World"
ENG 375R - 01
February 7, 2006
In his article "Joy Beyond the Walls of the World: The Secondary World-Making of
J.R.R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis," David Sandner describes each author's method of
world creation and their views on fantasy literature. He declares, "Tolkien and Lewis
are similar in their desire to evoke the reader's wonder of Faërie. However, their
realizations of this 'Joy Beyond the Walls of the World' are distinctive, most noticeably
in the depth of their Secondary Realms and treatment of allegory" (Sandner, 133).
For fantasy to succeed, according to Sandner, readers must be able to feel the same
wonder the authors felt at the discovery of their fantasy worlds. But this wonder, this
sense of yearning, is only sharpened, not satisfied, throughout the story-but the
desire itself may be what matters most. "Fantasy expresses, at its best, an unfulfilled
(and perhaps unfulfillable) yearning which is itself a kind of satisfaction" (134).
Sandner supports this view with Tolkien and Lewis's own views on how fantasy
works. Lewis writes of the author's ability to fulfill readers' expectations, "I must
confess that the net very seldom does succeed in catching the bird . . . [but] I believe
the effort to be well worth making" (134). Sandner says that fantasy "is identified by
the presence of Faërie
. . . rather than by definition," and Faërie, according to Tolkien, "cannot be caught in a
net of words; for it is one of its qualities to be indescribable, though not
Sandner then describes how each author created his "Secondary Realm." For Tolkien,
the key was language. The story of The Hobbit, he says, came to him one day while
grading papers. He came upon a blank sheet of paper, and on it he wrote, "In a hole in
the ground there lived a hobbit" (133). Not until later did he discover what hobbits
were, or connect them with Middle-earth, but "it is characteristic of Tolkien that he
began Hobbit with the discovery of a sentence" (135). Tolkien himself wrote, "The
imaginary histories grew out of Tolkien's predilection for inventing languages. He
discovered . . . that a language requires a suitable habitation, and a history in which
it can develop" (135-6).
Lewis's world, on the other hand, was born of a single image: "a picture of a Faun
carrying an umbrella and parcels in a snowy wood" (133). Sandner writes, "Lewis
entered Narnia when an image fixed itself in his mind, and only afterward did he
invent a story (and a world) to go with his odd and incongruous image" (133).
Sandner points out that Tolkien's process was "more detailed and methodical."
Middle-earth already existed in Tolkien's mind, and he had only to fit hobbits into it.
Lewis, however, had to organize his story from "the fragmentary form of images," first
arranging them in order and then stringing them together. Sandner declares that
Lewis only knew the whole history of Narnia at the end of the series:
The lamppost, for example, marks the entry into Narnia for both Lucy
and Lewis, and only . . . in The Last Battle, does Lewis discover how the
lamppost itself came to be waiting beyond the wardrobe. Pulled out of
modern London, the lamppost is brought to the beginning of things for
Narnia and planted in the matter of the world itself, where it takes root.
In this moment, Lewis realizes a unity for his Secondary Realm out of his
first odd image, simultaneously connecting the journeys between the
two worlds and discovering the integrity of Narnia itself. (136)
However true it may be that Lewis did not know Narnia's history until he was near
the end, Sandner has got his facts wrong. It was not in The Last Battle but in The
Magician's Nephew that the lamppost was planted in Narnia. Other than that, his
theory seems sound.
After describing Tolkien and Lewis's world-making, Sandner mentions Tolkien's
"three gifts" of fantasy literature: Recovery, Escape, and Consolation. Recovery is the
process by which, upon seeing the fantasy world or experiencing the presence of
Faërie, the reader "[regains] a clear view" of the real world: in Tolkien's words, "seeing
things as we are (or were) meant to see them" (136). Lewis agrees with this view:
"[F]ar from dulling or emptying the actual world, [fantasy] gives it a new dimension of
depth. He does not despise real woods because he has read of enchanted woods: the
reading makes all real woods a little enchanted" (137).
The next gift, Escape, defies the critical term "escapism"-fantasy literature as a
rejection of the real world. "Humanity," Sandner claims, "when it is disenchanted, is in
a prison of its own devising, cut off from the full experience of the world as we are (or
were) meant to see it" (137). Lewis differentiates between that type of wish-fulfillment which "flatters the ego, sending 'us back to the world divinely
discontented' by all we cannot be," and what he calls "askesis," a yearning toward
Consolation, the third gift of fantasy, is what Lewis calls "surprise" and Tolkien
"eucatastrophe." The type of surprise of which Lewis writes is the "quality of
unexpectedness" which the reader finds in fantasy: "what is not only unexpected but
unexplainable" (138). Tolkien calls eucatastrophe "the sudden joyous turn . . . a
sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur . . . giving a fleeting
glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief" (138). Aslan's
resurrection in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is a consolation, as is,
according to Tolkien, that moment in The Hobbit when Bilbo exclaims "The Eagles!
The Eagles are coming!" Sandner points out that due to the allegorical nature of
Lewis's works, his moments of consolation are more overt, and Tolkien's more subtle.
Sandner then shows that, for both Tolkien and Lewis, "to be a creative artist
celebrates the Creation" (140). He says that Tolkien believes myths "reflect a
splintered fragment of the true light" of the gospel. He calls the Resurrection "the
greatest 'eucatastrophe' possible in the greatest Fairy Story" (141). Lewis also calls
the story of Christ "true myth: a myth working on us the same way as the others, but
with this tremendous difference that it really happened" (140).
Sandner then moves on to the role of moral in fantasy, especially children's literature.
He says that Lewis believes that one should not decide on a moral, then write a story
to convey it, but to let the story "embody them already." Beginning with the moral in
mind causes "conscious superiority as the adult teaches the child" (141). Tolkien
confesses this fault in speaking of his writing of The Hobbit:
It was unhappily really meant, as far as I was conscious, as a 'children's
story,' and as I had not learned sense then, and my children were not old
enough to correct me, it has some of the silliness of manner caught
unthinkingly from the kind of stuff I had served to me. . . . I deeply regret
them. So do intelligent children. (142)
Lewis, however, prefers the genre of children's literature, in part because "it curbs the
part of him that he calls 'the expository demon,' who would over explain, and also
'imposes certain very fruitful necessities about length'" (143).
In conclusion, Sandner declares that "Secondary Realms" help us see another world
which then allows us to see our primary world more clearly. Tolkien's Secondary
Realm is "larger and more tightly woven" than Narnia; and "Lewis's allegories are
more overt, whereas Tolkien's are more fully integrated with his stories." But in the
end, despite all Secondary Realms do for us, they remain "a tragic falling off . . . an
embodiment of unfulfilled and unfulfillable desire" (143).
While I believe that Sandner has explained much that is important and valuable
about the worlds of fantasy in general and those of Tolkien and Lewis in particular, I
find that I cannot agree with him about the "unfulfillable desires" inspired by fantasy-or I can, but only to a point. Fairy-stories and fantasy stories, I believe, do not utterly
fail to fill us, or we would never read them. Instead, as they fill us we are changed,
we are made more; and with this change a new emptiness, a new hunger is created.
If we are never quite filled, it is because we seek greater and better change, higher
levels of fulfillment, as we become more able for them.