J. R. R. Tolkien: Evoking Secondary Belief

I love ‘ah-ha’! moments especially when I find an explanation for something I’ve been trying to explain for years. In this case, the reason I write the stories I write has been answered by someone who also writes fantasy novels: J. R. R. Tolkien.

While I do not write in the same style of Tolkien, our goal is the same: to tell a story that evokes Secondary Belief (a belief up until yesterday, I had not heard about).

Yesterday, I stumbled upon the video, “C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien on the power of Fiction”. As I listened, a world I knew well but hadn’t seen opened before my eyes. The vital organs of the beast rest in the first half of the video. I’m not a religious person, but Tolkien’s application of his beliefs provides an excellent example of the stories people crave: good absolutely triumphing over evil and escaping death.

Primary and Secondary Beliefs

Tolkien described Primary Belief as when someone tells you a story and you know it really happened. It’s true, and you know it to be true.

Secondary Belief is when someone tells you a story, which you know is fiction, but they tell it so well and the characters are so well developed that you believe it is true. You’re drawn into the story and you feel scared for the characters and happy when they triumph.

We live in a secular realm, a secular time, a scientific time, and the leading lights of modern literature have been telling us that life is meaningless, then you die, and yet, Tolkien says, we still crave a certain kind of story. We crave it in movies and in book, and these are stories that depict a supernatural world. That depict being able to cheat death, escape death, escape aging and time. Stories that show us a love that is eternal. A love without parting, a love that overcomes death.

We want stories about good absolutely triumphing over evil, destroying evil. We love stories about victory snatched from the jaws of defeat or sacrificial heroism that brings life out of certain death. The modern literatarians hate those. They’re myth, they’re legend, their fairy tales. Modern people say life is not like that, but Tolkien points out the fact that these are deep human longings and for some reason human beings in our day and time want the kind of stories that are well told that evoke Secondary Belief that catch you up in them, that tell you that good will triumph over evil, that there is a supernatural world, that you’re not stuck in time, that there is love without parting, that there is a way of escaping death.

Cue the Indiana Jones theme song.

This is why when we hear these songs that are played when a character is about to conquer evil, our heart beats faster, goose bumps rise and our full attention is on the hero. It’s an inner craving to see life beyond imprisonment in our materialist world. It gives us hope that we will win, that we will live, not only exist.

I write to ignite Secondary Belief within me, to triumph over evil, to bring to life the world just beyond the shadows of our imagination. The riches of the world we live in do not impress me. I care not for gold or diamonds, large houses, expensive vehicles and the latest gadgets. They are worthless compared to the world’s beauty, the mountains, the sunrise, the dew on a flower, the deep breath of air filled with the aroma of evergreens. My characters do not seek fame or fortune; they desire freedom, the bare necessities of life, friendship, family and home.

Ultimately, I strive to keep hope alive even in chaotic times. If I can make a reader feel the same as I do when they read my stories, I have done my job well.

The video is available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WoAE15gtEzg

The video mentions an essay written by Tolkien: “On Fairy Stories”. That is my next stop. At times, we must adamantly hunt down the things we need to discover; other things find us when we need them. This video found me while I’m envisioning the next book in the Castle Keepers series.

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