This tale grew in the telling (5). So Tolkien opens the forward to the second edition of The Lord of the Rings, a reminder that stories do not emerge, like Athena from the head of Zeus, fully formed and complete, but come into being for the first time in and through the very process by which they are told. What Tolkien says here about his own story, moreover, is equally true of, and bears an analogy to, the fictional beings of his stories as well. It wasn’t just that Tolkien’s tale grew in the telling, but the very concept, for example, of what a hobbit is was something that grew and developed as Tolkien told the story about him. We sometimes think of stories or fictional beings such as hobbits as having a Platonic form, whether in the mind of God or not, that the author or sub-creator simply “discovers.” But this is not how the fictions of our minds work. In more technical terms, stories are “actualistic”: they are no mere actualization of already existing potentialities or possibilities. Rather, it is the very act of telling a story that, paradoxically, creates the conditions and possibilities for what the story is able to be.
At long last, my book The Flame Imperishable: Tolkien, St. Thomas, and the Metaphysics of Faërie is now in print, published by the good folks at Angelico Press. Paperback and hardcover versions are available at Amazon here.
If you know any high schoolers who might be interested in a four-month Tolkien seminar with me this spring, send them to the link below. Dual enrollment for college credit is also an option.
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.”
If you know a high school student who’d be interested in taking either a semester or year-long, online Tolkien course, beginning this fall, I’m offering one through the good folks at Roman Roads Media. (College credit is also available for juniors and seniors through New Saint Andrews College.) Check it out here:
Aragorn the Libertarian King: “[O]nly of your free will would I have you come, for you will find both toil and greater fear, and maybe worse.” And a little later: “for I go on a path appointed. But those who follow me do so of their free will; and if they wish now to remain and ride with the Rohirrim, they may do so. But I shall take the Paths of the Dead, alone, if needs be.” (“Passing of the Grey Company”)
Saruman, Keeper of the Common Good: “[O]ur time is at hand: the world of Men, which we must rule. But we must have power, power to order all things as we will, for that good which only the Wise can see.” (“Council of Elrond”)
Saruman to Éomer: “To every man his part. Valour in arms is yours, and you win high honour thereby. Slay whom your lord names as enemies, and be content. Meddle not in policies which you do not understand.” –“The Voice of Saruman,” Two Towers