(The following is an essay I wrote for Roman Roads’ Digressio Magazine a couple of years ago, and which can be found here.)
In his famous essay “On Fairy-Stories,” J.R.R. Tolkien defines fairy stories as being not about fairies so much as they are about the land of Faërie, that is, the “perilous realm” (which may or may not be inhabited by actual fairies) into which men will sometimes wander and where they find danger, adventure, and above all enchantment. In his epilogue to his essay, however, Tolkien turns the tables somewhat to imply that, if the role of Faërie and of fairy stories is to enchant and in that sense “redeem” those who venture into them, there is another sense in which both Faërie and fairy stories are themselves in need of being saved. Thus, he explains how in the Gospel tales of Christ’s Incarnation and Resurrection, God has not only turned human history and reality into a fairy story, but just as interestingly, he has also made our fairy stories in particular and our sub-creations in general to be something entirely and eminently real. Apart from such fulfillment, Tolkien leads us to believe, our fairy stories, however beautiful and enchanting they may be in their own right, would ultimately differ little from mere “Dreams,” stories, that is, in which (like fairy stories) “strange powers of the mind may be unlocked,” but which in the end “cheat deliberately the primal desire at the heart of Faërie: the realization, independent of the conceiving mind, of imagined wonder.” In the Christian evangelium, accordingly, the realm of Faërie itself gets treated to its own enchanting eucatastrophe, a fact that better enables it to enchant us in our turn.
In this essay, I want to look at three examples of how this theme of the “Gospel inversion” of fairy stories—the way, that is, the Gospel turns the tables and subjects Faërie to its own kind of fairy story—shows up within Tolkien’s own master fairy story, The Lord of the Rings. Specifically, I will show how in what might be distinguished as the three “mini-fairy stories” within The Fellowship of the Ring—Frodo’s encounter with Gildor and his Elves in the Shire, Frodo’s experience at Rivendell, and finally Frodo’s experience at Lothlórien—in each case Tolkien begins by presenting us with a classic case of Faërie enchantment, only to then “invert” the stock formula by using hobbits (in some ways a personification of Gospel weakness and lowliness) to “enchant” their elvish enchanters.
Before seeing how these three episodes meet Tolkien’s qualifications for a true fairy story (and how they then go on to invert them), we need to first delineate what some of these distinctive elements are. In his essay Tolkien describes “the realm of fairy-story” as “wide and deep and high” and a place about which “it is dangerous for [man] to ask too many questions, lest the gates should be shut and the keys be lost.” As for the inhabitants of this land, the fairies or “elves,” he describes them as “put[ting] on a pride and beauty that we would fain wear ourselves,” and their magic as that of a “power to play on the desires of [man’s] body and his heart.” Part of our desire for Faërie and for fairies, ironically, stems from their indifference towards us: “elves are not primarily concerned with us, nor we with them. Our fates are sundered, and our paths seldom meet. Even upon the borders of Faërie we encounter them only at some chance crossing of the ways.” As Tolkien characterizes Faërie, in sum, it is a land where the fairies or elves—proud, noble, and beautiful—are entirely at home, and we are the tolerated strangers, guests and beneficiaries of their hospitality, however long it should last.
To turn, then, to The Lord of the Rings, perhaps the most complete and self-contained fairy story in the whole book is chapter three of The Fellowship of the Ring, titled “Three’s Company” (the chapter could almost be read on its own as a stand-alone fairy story). The chapter opens with Frodo needing to take a “journey” but to an as-yet unknown destination. When Gandalf tells him to head towards Rivendell, Frodo’s “heart was moved suddenly with a desire to see the house of Elrond Halfelven, and breathe the air of that deep valley where many of the Fair Folk still dwelt in peace.” Frodo’s home of Bag End, by comparison, is described as “seem[ing] sad and gloomy and dishevelled. Frodo wandered round the familiar rooms, and saw the light of the sunset fade on the walls, and shadows creep out of the corners.” Frodo, in short, is in need of enchantment, and that’s exactly what he gets when the travelers encounter Elves in the Shire forest. When the hobbits are about to be discovered by a Black Rider, an eucatastrophe occurs when the Elves arrive and scare the latter off with their singing. From their song, which is about their own, longed-for but irretrievable past, Frodo is able to identify them as “High Elves” and the “fairest folk,” few of whom still remain in Middle-earth, making their meeting here a “strange chance.” The starlight glimmers on their hair and in their eyes, and though they “bore no lights,” they seemed to radiant their own light like the moon. When the Elves at last notice the hobbits, however, they “laugh,” address Frodo by name and indicate a familiarity with his traveling habits. When Frodo asks if they might travel together, the Elves inform him that they have “no need of other company,” that besides the hobbits don’t even know where the Elves are going, and jest with him that, what is more, “hobbits are so dull.” Nevertheless, Gildor, their leader, tells Frodo that although “it is not our custom,” nevertheless “for this time we will take you on our road, and you shall lodge with us tonight, if you will.” As the hobbits travel with the Elves, Sam wandered “as if in a dream, with an expression on his face half of fear and half of astonished joy.” After arriving at their destination, the village of Woodhall, the Elves at first “seemed to take no further notice of the hobbits,” but then prove quite hospitable, delighting the hobbits with food and festivity. When Frodo refers to their surroundings as “our Shire,” Gildor instructs him that “it is not your own Shire,” for “[o]thers dwelt here before hobbits were; and others will dwell here again when hobbits are no more.” The following day, the hobbits awake to find themselves deserted by the Elves, yet fed and fortified to continue their journey to Rivendell.
As the above summary is meant to illustrate, the chapter “Three is Company” represents a rather precise illustration of many of the features of the ideal fairy story that Tolkien discusses in his essay and which I highlighted earlier. But now comes the Gospel twist, which is that while the chapter gives us an excellent, even stock example of “men” stumbling into and being enchanted within the realm of Faërie, Tolkien also turns the tables to some extent to have the high and mighty Elves also receive a form of “enchantment” by the simple and lowly hobbits. Although the first example of Elvish laughter is at the hobbits’ expense, the second time the Elves laugh is now at their own expense, when Frodo addresses them formally but politely in their own language: “‘Be careful, friends!’ cried Gildor laughing. ‘Speak no secrets! Here is a scholar in the Ancient Tongue. Bilbo was a good master. Hail, Elf-friend!’ he said, bowing to Frodo. ‘Come now with your friends and join our company!’” Later, Frodo makes Gildor laugh once more when Frodo playfully and proverbially “defamiliarizes” for Gildor the Elves’ own habit of giving overly-qualified counsel: “‘And it is also said,’ answered Frodo: ‘Go not to the Elves for counsel, for they will say both no and yes.’ ‘Is it indeed?’ laughed Gildor.” And toward the end of their conversation, when Gildor repeats the commonplace that “Elves have their own labours and their own sorrows, and they are little concerned with the ways of hobbits, or of any other creatures. Our paths cross theirs seldom, by chance of purpose,” he indicates that his puzzling encounter with Frodo has nevertheless altered his perspective at least as much if not more than he has altered Frodo’s: “In this meeting there may be more than chance; but the purpose is not clear to me, and I fear to say too much.” As Gildor dimly senses but does not yet fully realize, it is the small and seemingly helpless and hapless Frodo and his fellow hobbits that, in their quest to destroy the Ring, will turn out to be the eucatastrophic deliverance of the very realm of Faërie itself. In his last words to Frodo, finally, Gildor gives expression to the reverse enchantment that has taken place when he returns Frodo’s earlier benediction: “I name you Elf-friend; and may the stars shine upon the end of your road! Seldom have we had such delight in strangers, and it is fair to hear words of the Ancient Speech from the lips of other wanderers in the world.” They’ve gone from being “dull hobbits” who don’t know where the Elves are even heading to those who actually “delight” the Elves and treat them to a fresh “recovery” of the beauty of their own tongue.
Space forbids us from making a comparable study of The Fellowship of the Ring’s two other fairy-stories-in-miniature, yet a brief word needs to be said about them here. At Rivendell, in the chapter “Many Meetings,” Frodo is once more treated to a fairy story enchantment by the Elves, yet in the following chapter, “The Council of Elrond,” it is the hobbit, Tolkien’s personification of the Pauline principle of God using seemingly “foolish” and “weak” things to confound the “strength of “wisdom” of men, who emerges as the key to unlocking all. Here it is Elrond who expresses the principle of Gospel inversion when, in a reversal of Thucydides’s famous dictum of pagan wisdom that “the strong do what they can while the weak suffer what they must,” he declares instead in much more Christian fashion that the quest of the Ring “may be attempted by the weak with as much hope as the strong. Yet such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere.” And in Lothlórien, finally, while the Fellowship receives rest and enchantment in the halls of the fairy-queen herself, the Lady Galadriel, these roles also find themselves reversed when it is Galadriel who becomes the beneficiary of the “courtesy” of the hobbit Frodo (and later, even by the dwarf Gimli).
In conclusion, what each of these cases represents, as has been suggested, is a display of Tolkien’s own mastery of the fairy tale genre as he analyses it in his essay, namely as stories of a sublime land of not merely physical but also emotional and even aesthetic peril, a place where man is a guest and may find his own love for the natural world rekindled by a people at once mysterious, proud, noble, and beautiful. At the same time, and has also been said, in each of these episodes we witness another dimension to Tolkien, a uniquely Christian dimension, in which he makes his own fairy stories undergo their own kind of eucatastrophe, by giving the high and noble Elves themselves an opportunity for enchantment, only now by the mundane and familiar hobbits. In doing so, I submit, Tolkien captures something of his own, peculiar and paradoxical view, expressed in the epilogue to his essay, that in the Gospel fairy stories themselves are re-enchanted through the simultaneous nobility and humility of that consummate Elf-hobbit, the God-man Jesus Christ.