So without further ado...
|Sons of Rohan--copyright Jenny Dolfen|
The World of Faërie
"If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales.
If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales."
J.R.R. Tolkien was a great believer in fairy-tales. When he spoke solemnly about them, often enough the critics laughed in his face. Ordinary readers laughed too, and have continued to laugh on after his death; but they laugh because they do not understand what he meant.
It was a common problem for Tolkien, being misunderstood. Because of his work with old languages and old literature, he knew what it was to breathe the air of a different age than his own, and this had a strong effect on his writing. “One writes...” he once said when discussing The Lord of the Rings, “not out of the leaves of trees still to be observed, nor by means of botany and soil-science...but...out of the leaf-mould of the mind: out of all that has been seen or thought or read, that has long ago been forgotten, descending into the deeps.” His personal "leaf-mould" was rich with things brave and terrible, bright and lovely, dark and wondrous—the compost of a lifetime spent studying the world's greatest words and stories. To a society dominated by science, progress, and the extermination of the supernatural, it proved a heady draught, inducing nausea in some and giddy joy in others. The critics at large either abhor or adore his books. When asked about the extreme reaction of young America toward The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien said, "Art moves them and they don't know what they've been moved by and they get quite drunk on it." The thing on which his readers became "drunk" was, to Tolkien, simply art: art like all the other beautiful pieces of art that he knew and loved, of which most people knew nothing. He had merely presented to a new generation one leaf from the great Tree of Tales.
Tolkien was equipped to work this cultural and artistic miracle because he had been drinking in otherworldly air from stories since childhood, while people around him were starved for it. In talking about fairy-tales (or fantasy, or mythology, or philology), he was trying to explain why his writing had the power it did—it was not his own skill or imagination, he was convinced, but the power of that otherworldly air. Yet academia scoffed at his ideas (though the evidence lay stark before them in a whole generation of American college students run mad). Apparently when an Oxford professor speaks on a scholarly subject he has the ear of the high and mighty, but when he speaks of fairies, the world stops listening.
Tolkien believed that fairy tales are not just for children. The banishing of “fairy” to the nursery, he contended, has been bad for both adults and children, for when the sole aim of anything is the amusement of children, it is robbed of greatness. He believed that children are benefited by hearing deeper, more earnest, and more mature things than the watered-down stories that most adults deem appropriate for a child's age and understanding. "Children are meant to grow up," he wrote, "and not to become Peter Pans...it is one of the lessons of fairy-stories...that on callow, lumpish, and selfish youth peril, sorrow, and the shadow of death can bestow dignity, and even sometimes wisdom." He went on to say, "If fairy-story as a kind is worth reading at all it is worthy to be written for and read by adults. They will, of course, put more in and get more out than children can. Then, as a branch of a genuine art, children may hope to get fairy-stories fit for them to read and yet within their measure….”
But what is a "fairy-story fit for them to read"? Tolkien implies that the things we think of as fairy-stories are only silly, childish remnants of "a genuine art". If the essence of a fairy-tale is not to be found in the princess stories served up by Walt Disney, then where are we to look for it?
We should go back to philology, where Tolkien seems to think he found it—where he at the very least found the portal to a land from which he brought back tales so marvelous that they have captured the hearts of millions.
To begin with, fairy is a stolen word. Until recently it did not belong to the pixies—the folk, brownies, and flittermice. The little rascals have stolen it by degrees, through misinterpretations, mistranslations, and some help from old French words like fée (pronounced "fay"). If you go back far enough, "fairy" was not a creature; it was a place.
The realm of Fairy (sometimes spelled Faery or Faërie) was the setting for accounts of marvel and the miraculous. It could be a place of beauty, enchantment, or strong joy; it was a land where enemies, though supernaturally mighty, were always vanquished in the end. In the old days, if a man was said to have an air of Faërie about him, he had an air of something high and elusive, almost as though he were born into the wrong age of the wrong earth. "Faery" is the name Tolkien originally gave to the Elvenhome of his stories—a distant place of power and inimitable beauty—but the word hardly carries those connotations for the modern reader. He was finally able to use the name in the last story he ever wrote, Smith of Wooton Major, which contains a fierce reproach against any who would make light of the name, or the realm, of Faery.
A fairy-story, Tolkien claims, does not depend on "fairies" in any form, but on "the nature of Faërie: the Perilous Realm itself, and the air that blows in that country. I will not attempt to define that, nor to describe it directly. It cannot be done. Faërie cannot be caught in a net of words; for it is one of its qualities to be indescribable, though not imperceptible.”
The land of Faërie gained a reputation for trickery, related to a second meaning of the word: "enchantment". Myth and folklore have produced a plethora of stories about hapless men or maids who are enticed into the "fairy-mound" to be feasted in beauty and glory inexpressible, but are inevitably thrust back out into the cold, hard world of humanity. Often the victim is unable to enjoy life ever after, talking incessantly of the fairy-world until their dying day, and forever longing to get back to it. Faërie is the memory of another world.
That is what Tolkien means by fairy-tale: a tale that evokes the remnant idea of another world, another tongue, another place whose very air is painfully sweet—sweet because it is a realm infinitely more desirable than ours, but painful because it is forever barred from us, lingering just out of reach in the dim past, or in the reaches of unreality. There is an uncrossable line which separates earth from sky, mortal from immortal, solid feet-on-the-ground common sense from those far-off, thin, piercing wishes for someplace else. We cannot put a finger on it, maybe, yet the longing is undeniable. Just so would we feel if we had once had perfect happiness in our grasp, and then lost it, and had afterward forgotten quite what it was we had lost.
In our world of cold, hard facts, men deny the spiritual, claiming that mankind is nothing more than the product of random chemical processes in the vast, uninhabited reaches of space. If so, storytelling means nothing; relationships between human beings mean nothing; life and death mean nothing. If there is no spiritual reality, no other world, Faërie is a delusion, and we who seek after it are no better off than any other unfortunate mortal "lured into the mound."
But there is another world. There was an Eden in the past, and there is a Jerusalem in the future; and Faërie is no illusion, but the call of our hearts for our home beyond the world. We remember what was, and we long for what shall be, and we cry for release from the broken state in which we live. As C.S. Lewis said, "If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world."
Tolkien believed in fairy-tales. And so do I.
J.R.R. Tolkien, by Humphrey CarpenterThe Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, compiled by Humphrey Carpenter
On Fairy-Stories, by J.R.R. Tolkien
The Road to Middle-earth, by Tom Shippey
Smith of Wooton Major, by J.R.R. Tolkien
Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis
About the Author:
Elisabeth H. (a.k.a. the Philologist) is a born-again, homesick Christian who happens also to be a music teacher and an avid student of history. Research and poetry are her cup of tea, and she has a special place in her heart for old languages, bittersweet endings, and John of Bedford. She does her writing from a humble homestead surrounded by beloved family, somewhat less-beloved chickens, and more than ten thousand books.