Judge not lest ye be judged: Tolkien on fairy-stories

In the opening paragraph of his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” J.R.R. Tolkien characterizes his exercise in literary criticism of this genre as itself a kind of fairy story:

“I propose to speak about fairy-stories, though I am aware that this is a rash adventure. Faërie is a perilous land, and in it are pitfalls for the unwary and dungeons for the overbold. And overbold I may be accounted, for though I have been a lover of fairy-stories since I learned to read, and have at times thought about them, I have not studied them professionally. I have been hardly more than a wandering explorer (or trespasser) in the land, full of wonder but not of information.”

Studying fairy stories properly, in other words, is itself a kind of Faërian adventure, and like such adventures, it is one that does not come without its own set of warnings: it is possible to get such stories wrong, to ask the wrong sorts of questions, or even to ask the right sorts of questions in a wrong sort of way. As in fairy stories themselves, so in the study of fairy stories, making mistakes can be dangerous, even to the point of being deadly. In the second paragraph, he continues:

“The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords. In that realm a man may, perhaps, count himself fortunate to have wandered, but its very richness and strangeness tie the tongue of a traveller who would report them. And while he is there it is dangerous for him to ask too many questions, lest the gates should be shut and the keys be lost.”

For Tolkien, clearly, even the study of fairy stories is a serious business, as he effectively denies one the ability to approach them in a dry, objective, or disinterested light. More than a mere object of literary study, fairy stories are for Tolkien a fundamental reflection of what it means to be human, and if this is so, then they are also a fundamental reflection of all that humans do, including what they do in their capacity as literary critics, even of fairy stories. The literary evaluation of fairy stories, accordingly, is an evaluation of that genre which, to Tolkien’s mind, is ultimately about the evaluation (and enchantment!) of ourselves. For this reason, he issues his readers a caution that they take care, for when it comes to the kingdom of Faërie, like the kingdom of Heaven, “with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.”

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