28 March 2020

On Tolkien’s “Fairy Stories”

One of the greatest Catholic writers ever! The only man I know who could write such profoundly Catholic works that still appeal to everyone!

From The Imaginative Conservative

By Nayeli Riano

There are places where enchantment still exists for the visitor who allows himself into that world. It is an exclusively singular journey that the individual must choose, for enchantment is a state of mind, a willing disposition, that no other man can force on another. The question of what creates “enchantment” is a fascinating and complicated one: We attribute it to our imagination or to whimsical superstitions about the world, and it is true that enchantment cannot take place without basing itself on the reality of our surroundings and seeing beyond them and within them, but enchantment cannot be considered to be imagination or superstition, mere fancies or fictions. One of the best thinkers on this topic, J.R.R. Tolkien, remarked that enchantment is so close to our human essence that it is difficult, even impossible, to pinpoint an exact moment when we “created” this emotion. Enchantment has been with us, and in us, from the first.
Ireland most intuitively comes to mind as such a place, a lost world, where remnants of enchantment are still visible, even palpable. Consider the Irish Fairy Tree, a hidden tree covered in colorful ribbons where wanderers write their wishes and wrap them around its branches. These trees are believed to be the homes of fairies, and it is considered bad luck to cut them down or disturb them. They are often exceptional, standing alone amidst the wild Irish landscape that inspired many a writer; few places are as blessed in myth, folklore, literature, music, and faith as the Emerald Isle. I travelled to Ireland five years ago and was disillusioned (to say the least) by the lack of enchantment and reverence left in the minds of its citizens, but my faith in the reality of the country’s (true) magic was restored—as it will be for any visitor—by walking alone through its green and gray ruins.
The topic of this essay is not Ireland, however, as it would take much more time and space to discuss such a wild and forgotten land. Its scenery, replete with enchantment, opens the theme for this piece, which is a reflection and analysis of Tolkien’s splendid essay “On Fairy Stories.” But first, a poem:
Where dips the rocky highland
Of Sleuth Wood in the lake,
There lies a leafy island
Where flapping herons wake
The drowsy water rats;
There we’ve hid our faery vats,
Full of berrys
And of reddest stolen cherries.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.
Where the wave of moonlight glosses
The dim gray sands with light,
Far off by furthest Rosses
We foot it all the night,
Weaving olden dances
Mingling hands and mingling glances
Till the moon has taken flight;
To and fro we leap
And chase the frothy bubbles,
While the world is full of troubles
And anxious in its sleep.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.
Where the wandering water gushes
From the hills above Glen-Car,
In pools among the rushes
That scarce could bathe a star,
We seek for slumbering trout
And whispering in their ears
Give them unquiet dreams;
Leaning softly out
From ferns that drop their tears
Over the young streams.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.
Away with us he’s going,
The solemn-eyed:
He’ll hear no more the lowing
Of the calves on the warm hillside
Or the kettle on the hob
Sing peace into his breast,
Or see the brown mice bob
Round and round the oatmeal chest.
For he comes, the human child,
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than he can understand.
“The Stolen Child” (1889) by W.B. Yeats always echoes when I re-read Tolkien’s “On Fairy Stories.” Yeats wrote the poem long before Tolkien delivered the essay as part of the Andrew Lang lectures at the University of St Andrews. Tolkien wrote, “Faerie is a perilous land”—do we sense peril in Yeats’ poem?
We should, but not because the land that he describes is inherently dangerous. What Tolkien called Faerie is such a foreign realm that it is perilous for us. What kind of world is this, where fairies weave “olden dances” (17), mingle their hands and glances (18); where they chase bubbles “while the world is full of troubles” (22) and play tricks on “slumbering trout” (32)? It is a world of enchantment that coexists with our own. Yeats’ “faery” world exists within his native Ireland: Sleuth Wood and Glen-Car. The poem, moreover, is called the “stolen” child, but in reality, the protagonist to whom the fairies speak is never coerced; he leaves willingly, although beckoned by the tempting fairies. He is told to come away with them, “for the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand” (12, 27, 41). This refrain conveys a harsh world from which the protagonist needs to escape. Perhaps the fairies are trying to protect the child from the reality of this world.
In the fourth stanza, the fairies are no longer speaking to the child; they turn to us. What was previously a whimsical poem about a fairy island in the middle of a forest turns into an unsettling departure: The child is now “solemn eyed” (43)—is he entranced? As the fairies say that he will no longer hear (44), sing (47), see (48) this world as he leaves with them, we realize that his departure is not entirely his own decision, for the fairies fully know what they are taking him from, but he does not. Herein lies the peril.
The “child” in Yeats’ poem abides by one of Tolkien’s rules for understanding Faerie: not asking too many questions. Tolkien wrote that while one is in the realm of fairy-story, it is dangerous “to ask too many questions, lest the gates should be shut and the keys be lost.” Fairy-stories, after all, are more natural than us, he wrote. Tolkien rejected the description of fairy-stories as supernatural, imaginary, or dream-like, arguing that, if anything, it is us humans who are supernatural and diminutive compared to fairies (imagine someone making this argument in a university lecture today!). Truly, “On Fairy Stories” is beautiful enough that one must enjoy it on his own. Enchantment has been hidden away from the world, but it can still be found with the right mentors, and the Inklings are a great place to start. There are some elements of the essay that merit further praise.
The reader unfamiliar with Tolkien’s essay might mistakenly think that all this talk about fairies and fairies-stories is a literal defense for the existence of these little, winged creatures and their tales. Tolkien is the first to question why at all we consider them little, or winged for that matter? Surely it is because the mythological fairy was once described as such and preserved for posterity through folklore that made its way to modern culture. That explanation may be reasonable enough, but how does this explain why we all accepted this imaginary creature? How come we no longer create fanciful beings that outlast our collective memory more than one generation?
But Tolkien was not defending fairies, but Faerie, “the realm or state in which fairies have their being.” He elaborated, “Faerie contains many things besides elves and fays, and besides dwarfs, witches, trolls, giants, or dragons,” it is a story form that contains all aspects of our lives, imaginary or lived, “when we are enchanted,” seeing the world through different eyes, anew. Indeed, enchantment is a magical state for which we can hardly find apt synonyms without missing the mark. Magic itself is closest, perhaps, to conveying what Faerie is, but Tolkien warned, “it is a magic of a peculiar mood and power, at the furthest pole from the vulgar devices of the laborious, scientific, magician.” Unlike this “magical” magic that we witness in Dr. Faustus that conjures strength and power for its own sake, the “enchanting” magic gives us no power; instead, we give up our power to be instructed in “its operations”—this is the “virtue” of Faerie magic.
Within Faerie, this state of enchantment, lies a “primal desire” that all of us humans seek. These operations within fairy-stories satisfy such desires, among which are “to survey the depths of space and time” and “to hold communion with other living things.” While one can say that achieving these sentiments are generally the intention of all literature, we can admit that some genres of literature arrive closer at satisfying these sentiments. Without the enchantment of the fairy-story we cannot truly survey all the depths of space and time, for few other genres (none that I can think of beyond certain metaphysical poetry) serve as allegory that truly prepare us to consider space displaced and time a-temporal; even fewer are those that encourage communion with other living things without succumbing to hyper-subjective forms of anthropomorphism. In other words, there exists no better form of literature to prepare our minds for the Great Myth, the myth that became True: Christianity.
You see, to understand the significance of something as great as our faith and its relationship to the human mind, heart, or soul (whichever we like best) requires a non-negotiable tracing of our origins. We cannot understand from where something comes or how it affects us without exploring how it came to be. The fairy-story goes back to these origins, long before Christianity came to be; but the two have always been connected. Tolkien wrote, “the history of fairy-stories is probably more complex than the physical history of the human race, and as complex as the history of human language,” for the fairy-story contains three things that have been vital for our collective imagination: “independent invention, inheritance, and diffusion,” all of which have contributed to “the intricate web of Story.” Fairy-stories prepare us for the wonder in the Christian Story by teaching us to accept the gift of Story.
The beauty of Story is how it allows man to partake in the wonder of Christianity by becoming a “sub-creator.” To be a sub-creator, we must take inspiration from the world we have been given, this requires holistic study of the world we’ve been given. Tolkien called fantasy a human right that allows us to “make in our measure and in our derivative mode” since “we are made, and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.” The level of understanding that fairy-stories require in order to be fully appreciated, then, bring to question the common notion that these are infantile stories meant for children. Tolkien noted that fairy-stories offer, “in a peculiar degree or mode,” Fantasy, Recovery, Escape, and Consolation—elements for which children have less need than older people.
The joy in reading Tolkien’s “On Fairy Stories” comes from his sudden but natural transition from myth and story to The Myth and Story. Fairy-stories have an ability to baptize our imaginations and bring us closer to Christianity in a way that pedagogic religious education cannot achieve. Tolkien uses the example of the eucatastrophe, the “consolation of the Happy Ending” to demonstrate how fairy-stories have plots similar to Christ’s story that convey his own eucatastrophe: His birth and Resurrection. Tolkien phrased it in the following way:
I would venture to say that approaching the Christian Story from this direction, it has long been my feeling (a joyous feeling) that God redeemed the corrupt making creatures, men, in a way fitting to this aspect, as to others, of their strange nature. The Gospels contain a fairy story . . . mythical in their perfect, self-contained significance . . . But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation. The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy.
The compelling elements of fairy-stories reveal the compelling nature of Christ. These compelling elements come from what Tolkien called “the Art of it” that involves “Primary Art, that is, of Creation,” which is undeniable. Our imagination is an essential part of ourselves that connects us with the enchanting elements of our world that reveal this creation. These elements are often hidden in Nature, as fairy-stories remind us. Perhaps there was a time when we could more easily find them, when a Fairy Tree was not too far away, hidden or forgotten as they are today. If the search is harder, however, it does not mean we must stop looking for these traces of enchantment. Tolkien closes “On Fairy Stories” with a firm conclusion connecting the art of fairy-stories to the Art of His Story: “To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath.” Another line echoes upon reading this conclusion. There is innate and captivating truth about the appeal of Faerie—about enchantment—that we so desperately need: For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

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