“If the purpose of science fiction is to ask questions about where humanity is going, what is the potential speculative purpose of fantasy?” is a hyper-specific question asked by perhaps no one but me, and yet I am preoccupied by it endlessly. Tolkien had some answers to this, ones that were good enough to codify an entire genre. Among them was what he terms as eucatastrophe, that is: the joy a reader feels when the hero snatches victory from the jaws of defeat. In other words, it’s fine to write a story that exists for the sake of evoking powerful emotions in the intended audience.
This pulp view of Fantasy—exhilaration without subtext—has been the popular perception of the genre for decades, however Tolkien also believed that “fairy stories” were capable of imparting deeper meaning beyond mere escapism through, let’s call it empathetic verisimilitude. Careful world-building makes a fairy story real, and when the reader can suspend their belief to experience that new, fantastical perspective, they can learn to appreciate things about the real world in a new, fantastical way. Tolkien built his world on the foundations of his personal interests and knowledge base: the Germanic languages, Finnish mythology, Medieval poetry, the moral architecture of his thoroughly studied Catholic faith… this is the historical lens (well, kaleidoscope) through which Middle-earth was first dreamt of. The possibilities of Fantasy are almost endless when every writer is bringing their own unique set of peculiar, obsessive building blocks to the table.