Therapy Through Faёrie

Therapeutic Properties of Fantasy Literature by the Inklings and by U. K. Le Guin

by Anna Cholewa-Purgal (Author)
Monographs 381 Pages


This book argues that the fantasy fiction rooted in J. R. R. Tolkien’s concept of Faёrie, as represented by the fantasy works of the Inklings and of U. K. Le Guin, has certain psychotherapeutic properties. Faёrie’s generic ‘ethos’ seems to draw on ‘moral imagination’ and on logos (meaning and word), which informs its secondary worlds and encourages a search for an unconditional sense of life, against the postmodern neo-nihilistic aporia. The book postulates an applicability of logotherapy (‘therapy through meaning’, developed after WW2 by Victor Frankl,) to the workings of Faёrie, whose bibliotherapeutic potential rests on its generic marks, identified by Tolkien as Fantasy, Recovery, Escape (breaking free from incarcerating meaninglessness), Consolation, and (cathartic) Eucatastrophe.

Table Of Content

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Foreword
  • Chapter One: The Inklings, Ursula Kroeber Le Guin, and Faërie
  • The Inklings
  • Ursula K. Le Guin and the Inklings
  • Faërie
  • Chapter Two: Difficult relationships: Inklingsiana and the mainstream of modernism
  • The Inklings and modernism
  • The Inklings and their place in the literary history of the past century
  • Chapter Three: From neo-nihilism to logotherapy
  • Postmodernity and its nihilistic aporia
  • Swimming against the tide of nihilistic postmodernity – the foundational and logocentric thought of logotherapy
  • Derrida’s critique of logocentrism
  • Logocentric therapy through narrative
  • Chapter Four: (Logo)therapy through narrative
  • Narrative therapy
  • Bibliotherapy as a form of narrative therapy
  • Sub-creative art therapy through Fantasy. Roman Ingarden’s theory of a literary work of art
  • A psychology of art by Lev Vygotsky
  • Chapter Five: Art therapy through Faërie according to the Inklings and to U. K. Le Guin – an artistic intermezzo
  • Ekphrasis in fantasy literature
  • Ekphrasis and interartistic mediation according to the Inklings and to U. K. Le Guin
  • Ekphrasis in Tolkien’s ‘Leaf by Niggle’
  • Sfumato and chiaroscuro techniques in the fantasy works of Tolkien, Lewis, and Le Guin
  • Chapter Six: Mythopathy, logotherapy and (non)sensopaedia or the psychotherapeutic properties of high fantasy ethos, as reflected in the works of the Inklings and of U. K. Le Guin
  • The theory of ethos
  • The ethos of Faërie
  • The ‘inherent morality’ of Faërie
  • The ‘moral imagination’ of Faërie
  • Myth, logos and Faërie - mythopathy, logotherapy and (non)sensopaedia, in high fantasy literature
  • Chapter Seven: Therapy through catharsis – eucatastrophic consolation of Faërie
  • ‘Being washed in wonderment’ – Tragedy, Faërie, and an ethos of catharsis
  • Some interpretations of catharsis and its implications for advances in therapeutic and literary studies
  • Therapy through catharsis in the fantasy works of the Inklings and of Le Guin
  • Coda
  • Selected bibliography

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It has long been my desire to address the issue of an assumed therapeutic potential of fantasy literature, particularly that embedded in the fantasy works and thought of the Inklings and of the American writer Ursula Kroeber Le Guin, with regard to the notion of high fantasy, which I link here with J. R. R. Tolkien’s concept of Faërie. I use the term ‘high fantasy’, which had been introduced by Alexander Lloyd in 19711 and subsequently elaborated by Kenneth J. Zahorski, Robert H. Boyer and some other critics2, identifying it after John Clute as ‘fantasies set in otherworlds, specifically secondary worlds, and which deal with matters affecting the destiny of those worlds’.3 To this prerequisite of essential otherworldliness of secondary realms I wish to add, however, another crucial mark that helps distinguish high fantasy from its ‘lower’ type(s), and which is to me a ‘high style’, or a typically Inklingesque quality that results from the writers’ medieval and Renaissance fascinations, from their particular preoccupation with myth, language and meaning, as well as from a distinctive ‘moral imagination’ of their otherworlds, an aspect which Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski recognize as ‘moral realism’ in which the fantastic stories are grounded,4 that is an ‘instinct for sacred things’ recovered from the ‘moralistic sentimentality’ which had ‘deadened it’, and with which it must not be confused.5← 9 | 10 →

I developed the idea of attempting to view the fantasy works of the Inklings and of Le Guin, whom I consider classicists of the genre, from a point of view of (biblio)therapy while studying music therapy, whose immense non-verbal therapeutic power, although unique, also draws on the strength of the premises otherwise shared with literature, such as artistic imagination, free vicarious visualization and identification, a numinous potential and a cathartic effect. Since despite considerable scholarship on art therapy, music therapy and bibliotherapy, not much seems to have been written about therapeutic properties of fantasy fiction, I have attempted to undertake the challenge and argue for a therapeutic dimension of the genre, ill-qualified and inept though I am.

Bearing in mind the Inklings’ considerable reluctance towards psychologizing interpretations of literature, and their mistrust of psychotherapy, and psychoanalysis in particular, I am aware of the fact that when viewing their fiction in therapeutic terms I may be suggesting an unlicensed interpretation, taking the liberty of transgressing the boundaries of fairyland which the Inklings had guarded so carefully, and enforcing not only a sophomoric but also an illegitimate reading of some of their major works. In one of his articles published in 1960 in the Cambridge Broadsheet, C. S. Lewis castigates that trend in literary criticism which approaches a literary text ‘as a substitute for religion or philosophy or psychotherapy’, exposing it as a vice of immature undergraduate scholarship.6 In another essay, however, Lewis points to the unique quality of ‘great literature’, that is to ‘an enlargement of our being’ – an extension of man’s being that is possible upon entering the literary realities invented by other people, which he compares to breaking free from a suffocating prison of one’s own individual world.7 The vicarious experience of immersing oneself in the realities of literary works, especially fantasy fiction, is to Lewis a prerequisite for self-development: ‘the man who is contented to be only himself, and therefore less a self, is in prison.’8 Thus, far from approaching literature in terms of an ersatz religious, philosophical or psychotherapeutic cure, Lewis seems to emphasize its liberating, healing, and personality-broadening potential, which might perhaps be understood in therapeutic terms:

A contemporary example of ‘great literature’ is to Lewis Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring, which, interestingly enough, Lewis praises in his 1954 review in apparently psychological terms, emphasizing the epic being remarkably ‘disinfected from the taint of an author’s merely individual psychology’, and remaining strikingly ‘relevant to the actual human situation yet so free from allegory.’10 This is one of the central tenets of my thesis, namely the fact that high fantasy of the Inklings and of Le Guin contains therapeutic properties by virtue of its universal relevance to ‘the actual human situation’, including, and, in fact, addressing directly a psychological and spiritual crisis, identified by Victor Frankl in its most severe form as an ‘existential vacuum’, ‘mass neurosis’, and ‘learned meaninglessness’, or ‘a private and personal form of nihilism’,11 which finds its expression and treatment in secondary worlds, where it is approached from a fresh perspective, ‘disinfected from the taint of an author’s merely individual psychology’, and from the mood of negation, trivialization and resigned acceptance.12

Lewis’s emphasis laid on the transcendental dimension of literary experience, owing to which the reader’s self is not inhibited but enriched and fortified with a multitude of other people’s perceptions, plights and needs, as rendered by writers, can perhaps be linked with Victor Frankl’s constitutive concept of ‘the self-transcendence of human existence’, whose motivation is the ‘will to meaning’:

The true meaning of life is to be discovered in the world rather than within man or his own psyche, as though it were a closed system. (…) ‘The self-transcendence of human existence’ (…) denotes the fact that being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself -- be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself -- by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love -- the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself. What is called self-actualization is not an attainable aim at all, for the simple reason that the ← 11 | 12 → more one would strive for it, the more he would miss it. In other words, self-actualization is possible only as a side-effect of self-transcendence.13

Employing the language of psychology and philosophy rather than that of literary criticism, Frankl seems to corroborate the same tenet, arguing that self-transcendence paradoxically strengthens and solidifies man’s own individuality, and empowers rather than stems from self-actualization.

Far from attributing to high fantasy fiction a clinical effect that may replace psychotherapy, or a religious significance that can stand in for a system of faith, I intend to argue that the peculiar qualities of the genre, which rest on its essential imaginative otherworldliness, and on the central position of an immanent Logos that informs high fantasy worlds of the Inklings and of Le Guin, incapacitate some therapeutic properties of high fantasy, which I link with Victor Frankl’s logotherapy or ‘therapy through meaning’.14 A similar aspect of the teleological nature of fantasy genre is what Brian Attebury seems to have identified when observing that ‘fantasy does impose many restrictions on the powers of the imagination, but in return it offers the possibility of generating not merely a meaning but an awareness of and a pattern for meaningfulness. This we call wonder.’15

Wonder, enchantment, meaningfulness, and the other unique qualities of Faërie indicated by Tolkien in his seminal essay ‘On Fairy-Stories’, which include: Fantasy, Recovery, Escape (breaking free from the prison of suffocating reality), Consolation and Eucatastrophe, amount to the interdisciplinary nature of this book, which ← 12 | 13 → argues for a therapeutic ethos of high fantasy genre, as reflected in the works and thought of the Inklings and of Le Guin, the latter of whom might, from this perspective, be viewed as the Inklings’ literary heiress of the next generation.

Seeking to establish the grounds for the assumed therapeutic properties of high fantasy, ill-qualified though I am, I have ventured into the fields of literary studies, psychotherapy, art therapy and philosophy, along the paths of man’s universal search for self-identity and meaning, and largely against the mainstream of postmodern thought, identified by some thinkers as predominantly groundless and nihilistic.16 This book has also grown out of an attempt to consider the issue of the continuing and increasing popularity of the very broadly understood fantastic mode in contemporary literature with all its multifarious instances, ranging from modern fairy-stories and speculative fiction to magic realism. Hoping to join those arguing for a revalorization of the position of the Inklings in the canon of literature(s) in English, and to emphasize their role in reviving Faërie in contemporary literature, I view their fantasy oeuvre, miscellaneous yet founded upon a common Christian foundation, in the light of logotherapy, and I focus on a logotherapeutic potential of the works of the Inklings and of Le Guin, the latter’s fantasy fiction being a non-Christian, Taoist affirmation of an unconditional meaning of human life, based on an ethos of moral imagination, mythopoeia (myth-making), preoccupation with language and meaning (Logos), synergy of arts, and cathartic consolation.

The application of Victor Frankl’s philosophy and psychotherapeutic thought to the generic qualities of the Inklings’ and Le Guin’s fantasy fiction may allow, as I would like to demonstrate, for approaching high fantasy genre from another perspective, and for gaining a fuller view of the writers’ legacy. Reading fantasy fiction and non-fiction by the Inklings and by Le Guin from the standpoint of Frankl’s logotherapy might offer a new insight into their works and into the genre as such. The reader of this book may be disappointed, though, to find here little literary analysis of high fantasy works and much reference to the non-fiction of the Inklings and of Le Guin, as well as to various theories that have been employed in order to argue for a therapeutic potential of Faërie. My only excuse is that this book sets out to present some therapeutic properties of high fantasy ← 13 | 14 → as a genre, which calls for a theoretical background, but, subsequently, also for another volume that would provide detailed analysis of the corresponding elements found in the writers’ fantasy oeuvre.

When outlining some crucial properties of high fantasy, which I attempt to identify in terms of literary therapy, I have distinguished several dimensions of its therapeutic potential: the powers of narrative itself, interartistic nature of fantasy fiction, and, most importantly, the peculiar characteristics of Faërie, as distinguished by Tolkien, which are capable of acting as a ‘prophylactic against loss’ and a means of recovering an awareness of meaningful patterns through an experience of suffering and sacrifice, with its eucatastrophic, and, as I view it, cathartic effect.17

In Chapter One I briefly introduce the Inklings, suggesting that their current marginal position in the history of English literature, as allocated by some of its leading historians, should perhaps be reconsidered, were the fantastic recognized as a prevailing mode of 20th century literature, as Tom Shippey claims.18 I also establish here some other rudiments ruling my thesis: namely, the concept of high fantasy fiction or Faërie, the realm of fairy-stories and myth, after J. R. R. Tolkien’s specification; and I try to trace some literary kinship between the works of the Inklings and those of Ursula K. Le Guin, thus justifying the inclusion of her (non-Christian) fantasy fiction in the scope of this analysis. I refer to the notion of the Inklings, and focus on the intellectual exchange, interaction and literary inspirations within the group.

Chapter Two presents the Inklings in the context of the literary scene of their day, that is the heyday of modernism, and early postmodernism, and their attitude to the mainstream literature and literary criticism of the period. I argue that the specialty and an important contribution of the Inklings, a largely anti-modernist and anti-postmodernist group, is their Christian fantasy fiction and non-fiction. Moreover, I suggest that the Inklings’ collective legacy deserves academic attention and evaluation today, and perhaps makes a case for canonical reconsideration in the light of the contemporary massive revival of the fantastic mode, represented by several subsequent generations of writers of different cultures and beliefs, including Ursula K. Le Guin (born in 1929).

Postmodernity and postmodern thought with its inherent dilemmas, centred, as Ashley Woodward claims, upon the connecting thread of neonihilism, provide ← 14 | 15 → context for a reflection regarding the contemporary severe crisis of meaning and man’s search for sense, presented in Chapter Three.19 Since this book deals with therapeutic properties of literature, I refer here to the philosophical and psychological predicament of postmodern man, and to a widely felt need for some (psycho)therapy, and hence I introduce Frankl’s logotherapy, one of postwar schools of philosophy and psychotherapy, which seems to address the nihilistic reality of today’s Western culture. By showing the anti-nihilistic, logocentric and foundational premises of logotherapy, I attempt to suggest some applicability of its tenets to the generic ethos of high fantasy fiction, as discussed in Chapter Four.

Devaluation of life and meaning emerges from Chapter Three as one of the gravest interrelated deficiencies of the postmodern condition, whose meeting place is language, and narrative in particular. In Chapter Four I examine some natural psychotherapeutic properties of narrative itself, viewed as the main means of communication and sense-making, and proceed to the narrative of literature as a potential space where those inherent elements of healing and meaning may bud. I wish to argue that a very special literary genre is high fantasy (affiliated in this book with Tolkien’s Faërie), for it most naturally bridges Logos with art, and seems to correspond to logotherapy in its profoundly anti-nihilistic foundations, as endorsed by the Inklings and by Le Guin. Having referred to narrative therapy, I discuss bibliotherapy with reference to the philosophy of a literary work of art, as propounded by Roman Ingarden, and the psychology of art introduced by Lev Vygotsky, whose theories I attempt to employ arguing for a therapeutic power of literary narrative, and of high fantasy works in particular.

Chapter Five is an artistic interlude that attempts to approach Faërie as a peculiar art which corresponds to art therapy and psychotherapy, including Hanscarl Leuner’s Guided Affected Imagery method, so as to corroborate certain psychotherapeutic properties of high fantasy fiction resulting from its interartistic rather than purely literary nature, with the general presumption that art per se is therapeutic. Following another assumption that fantasy is a particularly synaesthetic genre, which naturally incorporates elements of music, visual arts and verbal language, I provide some examples of literary ekphrasis and two painting techniques: sfumato and chiaroscuro, whose literary effects might be traced in the fantasy works of the Inklings and of Le Guin, suggesting that the genre’s considerable intermediality and multimodality may also have some therapeutic potency. ← 15 | 16 →

Since this book addresses psychotherapeutic properties of the fantasy works written by the Inklings and by U. K. Le Guin, in Chapter Six I finally approach fantasy genre as endorsed by the Inklings and by Le Guin, trying to identify its key therapeutic properties resting on their literary qualities only. First, using the analogy of the ancient Greek theory of ethos that governed the theory of music, I argue that the theory of ethos may be relevant to literary studies as well, and that some genres, specifically high fantasy, have their distinct ethos, against the postmodern all-debunking tendencies towards fuzzy genrelessness and moral meaninglessness. Fantasy ethos is, I propose, another essential reservoir of psychotherapeutic properties of the genre, next to its intrinsic potential of narrative and interartistic healing. Secondly, it is Faërie’s affinity to myth and its embedment in what I recognize as ‘moral imagination’ that seems to display even more therapeutic qualities inherent to the genre.

Chapter Seven focuses on the issue of catharsis, which, as I seek to demonstrate, is another, perhaps most important, therapeutic quality of fantasy literature, rooted in Aristotle’s concept of catharsis, as mentioned in his Poetics, and implied, as it were, by Tolkien’s notion of Consolation and Eucatastrophe. In this chapter I therefore focus on the singular, perhaps most directly therapeutic, property of high fantasy fiction, as defined by Tolkien in his essay ‘On Fairy-Stories’, and reflected in the fantasy works of himself, and also, in some other ways, of Lewis, and of Le Guin. This property is a cathartic effect of Faërie, which, although not named so by Tolkien, seems to characterize the last unique quality of Faërie indicated by Tolkien, that is Consolation, whose twin concept is the Tolkienian Eucatastrophe. Consolation accomplished through a joyous (cathartic, as I argue), Eucatastrophe appears to crown the therapeutic ethos of the genre.

Conclusions gathered in Coda reiterate some of the main points made in this book, suggesting that high fantasy fiction as conceived and created by the Inklings and by U. K. Le Guin might be approached in terms of therapia pauperum, or a vicarious therapy freely available to any reader or listener, without the assistance of a therapist; the food for thought that may cathartically turn harmful emotions into a formative experience of the Aeschylean pathei mathos (learning through suffering). Although neither the Inklings nor Le Guin supported any application of clinical psychotherapy, and were critical and wary of Freud’s psychoanalysis in particular, I hope to prove that their works are capable of mediating a quasi-bibliotherapeutic effect in a non-clinical environment, with the postmodern reader entering the reality of high fantasy fiction based on a logocentric pattern of universe, which seems to make the warp and woof of the genre. The reader is encouraged to discover a meaning of a given situation ← 16 | 17 → and of life itself by a vicarious confrontation with rather than eschewal of the most difficult human experience, which lies at the core of high fantasy narrative, (and which Frankl calls the triad of:) pain, guilt and death.20 High fantasy fiction seems to offer an alternative to the postmodernist neo-nihilistic crisis of meaning and of narrative, performing a kind of logotherapeutic function informed by the moral imagination of mythopoeia (myth-making), and by mythopathy (therapy through myth).

Last but not least, I would like to express my sincere gratitude to a number of scholars without whose support and encouragement I would not have completed this book. I wish to thank Professor Andrzej Wicher, of the University of Łódź, Poland, for his invaluable guidance, scholarly expertise, patience and inspiration, without which this book, originally a doctoral dissertation, would never have been written. My sincere thanks go also to the first readers of the manuscript, Professor Bartłomiej Błaszkiewicz, of the University of Warsaw, Poland, and Professor Bogusław Bierwiaczonek, of the Jan Długosz University of Częstochowa, Poland, whose constructive criticism has improved the quality of this work. I also owe a debt of gratitude to Barbara Kobusińska, PhD, of the University of Wrocław, Institute of Psychology, and Wrocław University of Music, Music Therapy Department, for her encouragement and advice which she offered me back in 2005, when a vague idea of formulating the main thesis of this book had just occurred to me.

Moreover, I feel greatly indebted to Professor Marek Wilczyński, of the University of Gdańsk, Poland, without whose kind support and approval this book would not have been published, and to the staff of the Peter Lang Publishing House, represented in Warsaw by Mr Łukasz Gałecki, and to Ms Andrea Kolb, the Production Manager, and her team, who patiently guided me through the publication procedures.

Finally, I sincerely apologize for all the mistakes and deficiencies that the reader may come across when reading this book, which are entirely my responsibility.

Anna Cholewa-Purgał, Częstochowa, 2016

1 Lloyd Alexander,‘High Fantasy and Heroic Romance’, 1971, as quoted by Brian Stableford, The A to Z Fantasy Literature, The A to Z Guide Series, No. 46 (Plymouth, UK: The Scarecrow Press, 2009), p. 198.

2 Zahorski and Boyer exclude from high fantasy genre some immersive fantasies, such as animal fantasy, humorous fantasy, ‘myth fantasy’ (of the recycled type), fairy tales, Gothic fantasy, sword and sorcery, and science fantasy. As Stableford observes, ‘the term [high fantasy] never thrived partly because it was difficult to establish dividing lines between high fantasy and some of these other subgenres, and partly because of the difficulty of accommodating portal fantasies to the scheme.’ The A to Z Fantasy Literature, p. 198. In my understanding of high fantasy, portal fantasies, exemplified by C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, belong to the genre.

3 John Clute, ‘High fantasy’, [in:] The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, John Clute and John Grant, eds. (London: Orbit, 1997), p. 406.

4 Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski, The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings: J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015), p. 13.

5 The Zaleskis, ibid., p. 390.

6 C. S. Lewis, ‘Undergraduate Criticism,’ [in:] Broadsheet (Cambridge) 8, no. 17, March 9, 1960, quoted by Walter Hooper in C. S. Lewis, The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Walter Hooper, ed. (New York: HarperCollins, 2004), vol. 3, p. 1230.

7 Lewis, ‘An Experiment’ [in:] An Experiment in Criticism (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1961, 2004), pp. 104–129, 105.

8 Ibid, p. 105.

9 Ibid., p. 105.

10 Dust-jacket endorsement, as quoted by the Zaleskis, p. 423.

11 Victor Frankl, ‘Logotherapy in a Nutshell’ [in:] Man’s Search for Meaning (New York: Pocket Books, 1959, 1984), pp. 117–159, 152.

12 Lewis, quoted by the Zaleskis, dust-jacket endorsement, p. 423.

13 Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, pp. 152 and 177.
Self-actualization is one of the key concepts of Abraham Maslow’s psychology. Maslow, however, holds that man’s self-actualization is only possible once the basic needs, such as food and drink, are provided (Maslow, ‘Comments on Dr Frankl’s Paper’ [in:] Journal of Humanistic Psychology, VI (1966), pp. 107–112). Drawing on his concentration camp experience, Frankl disagrees with Maslow’s theory, arguing that self-actualization is only possible as a secondary effect of self-transcendence, that is opening oneself to the needs and perspective of another human being (Frankl, ‘Postscript 1984: The Case for a Tragic Optimism’ [in:] Man’s Search for Meaning, pp. 161–179).

14 The ‘will to meaning’ is Victor Frankl’s central tenet, which he identifies as man’s primary desire, as discussed in Chapter Three of this book. I use the term ‘immanent Logos’ as a meaningful pattern of universe captured in words, inherent to the works and thought of the Inklings and of Le Guin, and it is not to be confused with the ‘immanent logos’ (logos endiathetos), a term proposed by the Stoics and regarding man’s reason present in him; cf. the Greek Philosophical Terms: A Historical Lexicon, Francis E. Peters, ed. (New York: New York University Press, 1967), pp. 110 and 164.

15 Brain Attebury, ‘Fantasy as Mode, Genre, Formula’ [in:] David M. Sandner, Fantastic Literature: A Critical Reader (Westport, Connecticut: Praeger, 2004), pp. 293–309, 309.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2017 (March)
Literary studies Genre studies Psychology Bibliotherapy Logotherapy Catharsis
Frankfurt am Main, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2017. 381 pp.

Biographical notes

Anna Cholewa-Purgal (Author)

Anna Cholewa-Purgał works at Jan Długosz University of Częstochowa, Poland, and holds a PhD in literary studies from the University of Łódź. Her major research interests are fantasy literature, mythopoeia, ekphrasis and therapy in literature, as well as art and music therapy.


Title: Therapy Through Faёrie