Enchanting the Elves: Tolkien’s Gospel Inversion of Faërie

(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.

 

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“For trees are ‘trees’, and growing is ‘to grow'”

An exposition of “Mythopoeia,” part 2

for trees are ‘trees’, and growing is ‘to grow.’ Here we have an example of what labeling consists of. There’s no real mystery, just an identification of something someone already knew. There’s been no process of defamiliarization, of “making strange,” followed by “Recovery.” In epistemological terms, you might call this a mere “correspondence” theory of truth. Things are already a certain way, and our statements come along and merely affirm that instead of entering into dialogue with things and changing them as a result.

you walk the earth and tread with solemn pace /one of the many minor globes of Space. Here we see a scientific diminishment of earth, in contrast with the mythopoeic representation Tolkien will give later when he refers to the earth as “mother.” Earth, in other words, is what myth tells us what it is, whereas here, in the scientific conception, earth is merely one globe amongst many, and not a particularly remarkable one at that.

“You look at trees and label them just so”

An exposition of “Mythopoeia,” part 1

In an elective I taught recently on Anselm and Tolkien, the class spent a couple of sessions expositing together the meaning of Tolkien’s poem “Mythopoeia.” This series is the fruit of that exercise.

You look at trees and label them just so. Later in the poem Tolkien uses the word name, setting up a contrast between labeling and naming. Labeling is what the modern scientist does; naming is what Adam and subcreators do. So what is the differenence? Labeling is comparatively passive, a mere reflection of what is already there, slaping a label on it without contributing anything to it. There is no “value added.” In modal theistic terms, we might say that labelling is “possibilistic”: it takes for granted the existing reality and seeks merely to represent it as it is; the possibility of what it may be labeled is predetermined. Naming, by conrast, is “actualistic”: what its name is cannot be determined apart from the act of naming itself.

Recovery at Crickhollow

In his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” Tolkien identifies the second of the four primary functions of the fairy story genre as that of “Recovery.” He writes:

we need recovery. We should look at green again, and be startled anew (but not blinded) by blue and yellow and red. We should meet the centaur and the dragon, and then perhaps suddenly behold, like the ancient shepherds, sheep, and dogs, and horses— and wolves. This recovery fairy-stories help us to make. In that sense only a taste for them may make us, or keep us, childish.

Recovery (which includes return and renewal of health) is a re-gaining—regaining of a clear view. I do not say “seeing things as they are” and involve myself with the philosophers, though I might venture to say “seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them”—as things apart from ourselves. We need, in any case, to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity—from possessiveness. Of all faces those of our familiares are the ones both most difficult to play fantastic tricks with, and most difficult really to see with fresh attention, perceiving their likeness and unlikeness: that they are faces, and yet unique faces. This triteness is really the penalty of “appropriation”: the things that are trite, or (in a bad sense) familiar, are the things that we have appropriated, legally or mentally. We say we know them. They have become like the things which once attracted us by their glitter, or their colour, or their shape, and we laid hands on them, and then locked them in our hoard, acquired them, and acquiring ceased to look at them.

Immediately following this, Tolkien gives the example of Chestertonian Fantasy in particular, or “Mooreeffoc.” Mooreeffoc itself, he says, is a “fantastic word,” for it is one that

could be seen written up in every town in this land. It is Coffee-room, viewed from the inside through a glass door, as it was seen by Dickens on a dark London day; and it was used by Chesterton to denote the queerness of things that have become trite, when they are seen suddenly from a new angle.

One of the ways, accordingly that this act of Recovery is principally achieved is through what Tolkien identifies as the first function of fairy stories, namely “Fantasy,” or “that quality of strangeness and wonder” by which the reader is able to be surprised and even startled by old things cast in new and unfamiliar lights.

To come now to Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring, in the scene of his arrival at his home in Crickhollow for the first time, Frodo is treated to his own moment of “Recovery” when he is allowed to see his possessions in an entirely new environment.

‘Well, what do you think of it?’ asked Merry coming up the passage. ‘We have done our best in a short time to make it look like home. After all Fatty and I only got here with the last cart-load yesterday.’

Frodo looked round. It did look like home. Many of his own favourite things – or Bilbo’s things (they reminded him sharply of him in their new selling) – were arranged as nearly as possible as they had been at Bag End. It was a pleasant, comfortable, welcoming place; and he found himself wishing that he was really coming here to settle down in quiet retirement. It seemed unfair to have put his friends to all this trouble; and he wondered again how he was going to break the news to them that he must leave them so soon, indeed at once. Yet that would have to be done that very night, before they all went to bed.

‘It’s delightful!’ he said with an effort. ‘I hardly feel that I have moved at all.’

 

The Pacifist of Wootton Major

From J.R.R. Tolkien’s short story, Smith of Wootton Major:

“he soon became wise and understood that the marvels of Faery cannot be approached without danger, and that many of the Evils cannot be challenged without weapons of power too great for any mortal to wield. He remained a learner and explorer, not a warrior; and though in time he could have forged weapons that in his own world would have had power enough to become the matter of great tales and be worth a king’s ransom, he knew that in Faery they would have been of small account. So among all the things that he made it is not remembered that he ever forged a sword or a spear or an arrow-head.”

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.”

Ilúvatar the Fairy: the Ainur’s Vision as Faërian Drama

I have commented before on how the progression of the Ainulindale, moving from Music to Vision to Eä, “the World that Is,” allegorizes Tolkien’s claim in the epilogue of “On Fairy-Stories” that in the real-world, historical eucatastrophes of the Christian Gospel we see “the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation.” What I hadn’t noticed before, however, was just how fully the Ainulindale illustrates a related point Tolkien makes in his essay, namely the signficance of what he calls “Faërian Drama,” or the art that the fairies themselves exercise within the fairy-stories told by men:

Now “Faërian Drama”—those plays which according to abundant records the elves have often presented to men—can produce Fantasy with a realism and immediacy beyond the compass of any human mechanism. As a result their usual effect (upon a man) is to go beyond Secondary Belief. If you are present at a Faërian drama you yourself are, or think that you are, bodily inside its Secondary World. The experience may be very similar to Dreaming and has (it would seem) sometimes (by men) been confounded with it. But in Faërian drama you are in a dream that some other mind is weaving, and the knowledge of that alarming fact may slip from your grasp. To experience directly a Secondary World: the potion is too strong, and you give to it Primary Belief, however marvellous the events. You are deluded— whether that is the intention of the elves (always or at any time) is another question. They at any rate are not themselves deluded. This is for them a form of Art, and distinct from Wizardry or Magic, properly so called….

To the elvish craft, Enchantment, Fantasy aspires, and when it is successful of all forms of human art most nearly approaches. At the heart of many man-made stories of the elves lies, open or concealed, pure or alloyed, the desire for a living, realized sub-creative art… Of this desire the elves, in their better (but still perilous) part, are largely made; and it is from them that we may learn what is the central desire and aspiration of human Fantasy—even if the elves are, all the more in so far as they are, only a product of Fantasy itself…. In this world it [the creative desire] is for men unsatisfiable, and so imperishable. Uncorrupted, it does not seek delusion nor bewitchment and domination; it seeks shared enrichment, partners in making and delight, not slaves.

Re-reading the Ainulindale, it occurs to me that this is precisely what the Vision of the Ainur is: Iluvatar’s own “Faërian Drama.” Ilúvatar leads the Ainur into the Void and, like a elvish bard about to begin his tale, tells them to “Behold your Music!” But instead of telling them a tale, “he showed to them a vision, giving to them sight where before was only hearing…” And the Ainur are enchanted by what they see, for “as they looked and wondered this World began to unfold its history, and it seemed to them that it lived and grew.” And as Faërian Drama does for its human audience, Ilúvatar tells the Ainur that in the vision they will see and learn everything to which their own music had (unbeknownst to them at the time) aspired: “each of you shall find contained herein, amid the design that I set before you, all those things which it may seem that he himself devised or added.” When the Vision is at last taken away, the Ainur are brought out of their enchanted condition back to their state of “primary belief,” for “in that moment they perceived a new thing, Darkness, which they had not known before except in thought. But they had become enamoured of the beauty of the vision and engrossed in the unfolding of the World which came there to being, and their minds were filled with it…” The result of this disenchantment is a certain discontentedness, an awakened desire to see the objects of this divine drama made real: “Then there was unrest among the Ainur; but Ilúvatar called to them, and said: ‘I know the desire of your minds that what ye have seen should verily be, not only in your thought, but even as ye yourselves are, and yet other.”

In summary, then: (1) Faërian Drama is the art that we–within our own art of fairy-stories–represent the fairies as exercising and to which we aspire ourselves; (2) the Silmarillion is one man’s artistic representation of the fairies’ own art of self-history, at the origins of which is (3) the resplendent Music of the Ainur, the “Ainurian Drama” to which the elves’ own art doubtlessly aspired; (4) however, within this story, finally, we witness the Ainur themselves being treated to the ars divina of Ilúvatar’s Vision, in which the Ainur behold the consummate beauty of being for which their own Music had unwittingly hoped. I said in yesterday’s post that the Ainur are the “elves’ elves.” Here Ilúvatar emerges as the “elves’ elves’ Elf”–the Fairy of Faërie.