The roaring success of the English television drama Downton Abbey had little to do with the grand house, the sumptuous costumes, the superb cast and intricately intriguing storyline. Having just finished watching the final season, it occurred to me that the series’s success has everything to do with fairytales.
Did we have a magnificent castle? We did. Downton Abbey could scarcely be grander. Did we have a handsome prince? We had quite a few. Did we have an icy princess who needed to learn the humble lessons of love? Lady Mary played the part. Did we have a princess in waiting, the despised and disappointed Cinderella who wins the day in the end? Lady Edith take a bow.
We had two fairy godmothers—the acerbic but wise Dowager Countess and the ever-motherly Cousin Violet. Lord and Lady Grantham presided over their kingdom as benevolent, patient, and kind monarchs. The only thing missing was an eccentric uncle in the attic who would have played the wise and wizened wizard.
Downstairs mirrored upstairs. There Carson and Mrs. Hughes were on their thrones, running a stern but fair regime. Godmother and cook Mrs. Patmore watched over her little Cinderella Daisy, while beastly under-butler Barrow learned to overcome his dark side to become a princely protégé of Carson. Meanwhile, Anna and Mr. Bates suffered as innocent victims and scapegoats—gathering up into themselves the darker actions and motivations of the underworld, and poor Mr. Mosely was the patient and persevering tortoise who won the race.
Fairytales are evergreen because they tap into the hopes and dreams of ordinary people. They connect us with the collective unconscious and so transcend culture and contemporary contexts. Downton Abbey may be set in a recognizable and not-so-distant past, but in reality that world is as far distant from us as any enchanted castle in the world of faery. The setting is therefore one of a fantasy world, and it is this make-believe world that helps us to deal with the reality of here and now.
J.R.R. Tolkien’s famous essay on fairy stories illuminates my theory. It is true that Downton Abbey is not a fairy story in the sense that there are mythical beasts. There are no dragons lounging on hoarded gold, nor are there unicorns, woodland nymphs, orcs, dwarves, elves, wizards, magic rings, and swords with names. But there is an alluring alternative world peopled with archetypal characters whose stories we can’t resist, and when we look deeper into the meaning and method of fairy stories the comparison holds true.
Tolkien eloquently counters the accusation that fairytales are mere escapism.
I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which ‘Escape’ is now so often used: a tone for which the uses of the word outside literary criticism give no warrant at all. In what the misusers are fond of calling Real Life, Escape is evidently as a rule very practical, and may even be heroic.
In real life it is difficult to blame it, unless it fails; in criticism it would seem to be the worse the better it succeeds. Evidently we are faced by a misuse of words, and also by a confusion of thought. Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?
In this respect Downton Abbey offered superb escapism. For a time, we stepped out of the barbaric, confused, violent, crude, and selfish age in which we live into a world where the rules of virtue, honesty, modesty, and good manners were honored even if they were not always obeyed. For a time, we escaped from our utilitarian age where greed is honored, depravity extolled, perversity glorified, and cowardice rewarded. We escaped into an age where hard work, discretion, loyalty, decency, and chastity were rewarded and their failures punished.
Tolkien says this “escapism” connects with our ancient desire to escape from death into life, and then he continues,
The ‘consolation’ of fairy-tales has another aspect than the imaginative satisfaction of ancient desires. Far more important is the Consolation of the Happy Ending. Almost I would venture to assert that all complete fairy-stories must have it…. Since we do not appear to possess a word that expresses this…I will call it Eucatastrophe. The eucatastrophic tale is the true form of fairy-tale, and its highest function.
The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous ‘turn’ this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially ‘escapist,’ nor ‘fugitive.’ In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief. It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind, that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the ‘turn’ comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art, and having a peculiar quality.
The creator of Downton Abbey, Julian Fellowes, was accused by some critics of resolving everything into a happy ending too neatly. The final episode takes place on New Year’s Eve (the time of endings and new beginnings), as all the characters stand together in what admittedly is a joyful and tearful happy ending.
Tolkien concludes by saying that the happy ending prefigures or echoes the ultimate happy ending of the gospel story, and therefore, far from being escapist or unreal, the fairy stories are more deeply real and more profoundly true. The function of Downton Abbey (and every fairytale with a happy ending we enjoy) is to reflect the ultimate good news. It therefore unlocks the deeper meanings not only to history, but to our individual lives.
So Tolkien concludes,
Story, fantasy, still go on, and should go on. The Evangelium has not abrogated legends; it has hallowed them, especially the ‘happy ending.’ The Christian has still to work, with mind as well as body, to suffer, hope, and die; but he may now perceive that all his bents and faculties have a purpose, which can be redeemed. So great is the bounty with which he has been treated that he may now, perhaps, fairly dare to guess that in Fantasy he may actually assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation. All tales may come true; and yet, at the last, redeemed, they may be as like and as unlike the forms that we give them as Man, finally redeemed, will be like and unlike the fallen that we know.
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