Tolkien and Fairy-Story

Fascinated by the process of fact and legend interlacing to become mythology, J.R.R. Tolkien created “a mythology and a pseudohistory that had an interface with the actual history of England’; this interweaving of history, legend, and literature is how ‘the stories become mythology’” (Drout 241). Indeed, Tolkien’s legendarium with its complex pseudohistory seemingly began when “a real taste for fairy-stories was wakened by philology on the threshold of manhood, and quickened to full life by war” (“On Fairy-Stories” 135). Tolkien’s secondary world of Middle-earth features the past seamlessly interlacing with the present and vice versa, yielding a complex environment and setting. Threading in bits of fairy-story, then, seems fitting rather than extraneous; these bits offer, what Tolkien calls “Fantasy, Recovery, Escape, Consolation, all things of which children have, as a rule” (“On Fairy-Stories” 138). History changes with time, being written by victors while being presented as factual, but fairy-stories possess a seemingly indefinite life span. Stories, fairy or otherwise, welcome alteration because no expectation of truthfulness governs them.

History brings validity, truth, and familiarity by presenting real world events to the reader as concrete guideposts through the fantastical or supernatural (in the strict denotational sense). Tolkien’s “historial,” will be defined as in a particular mode of writing that draws on historical data while maintaining literary undertones. A feeling of nostalgia or déjà vu pervades this mode, for rooting events in historical “fact” allows readers to easily enter into familiar, reality-based but fictitious realms like Edoras or Minas Tirith. Traveling into a secondary world largely composed of fairy elements (i.e. Lothlórien or Cirith Ungol) however requires a certain number of guideposts grounded in reality or distant memory history. Beowulf exemplifies the ideal balance, to Tolkien, between the two, providing a decent amount of concrete fact or historical layering before entering the world of Faërie.

Tolkien’s work on the epic poem, Beowulf, spanned several decades, from his days as a student to his teaching at Oxford. Possibly riffing off Tolkien’s first Middle-earth hero star-mariner, Eärendil, journalist Joan Acocella claims that Beowulf was “Tolkien’s lodestar,” and “everything he did led up to or away from it.” Moving from Beowulf to the Rohirrim, the Anglo-Saxon analogs in The Lord of the Rings presents little difficulty. Tolkien roots Rohirrim pseudohistory in the Anglo-Saxon heroic warrior ethos. King Théoden’s comitatus (bound by duty, love, and mead) meets in Meduseld which parallels King Hrothgar’s Heorot (The Two Towers 501). Tolkien speaks of Beowulf as he would like his readers to speak of The Lord of the Rings, and the poem would have been on his mind. He writes that the Beowulf poet “preserved” a “balance” between fairy overload and epic tone. Tolkien celebrates the idea of “lost-tales” with his translation of Beowulf and his reworked, abbreviated version of the same poem, Sellic Spell. Tolkien does what he thinks has occurred in mythology by providing the basal fairy-story or “lost tale” to accompany the epic (Garth, “An introduction to Beowulf” 6). A lack of raw, unadulterated history in Sellic Spell changes the seriousness of the text, rendering it a somewhat fanciful, hence his call for a balance between the “historial” and “fairy-story”:

“for Beowulf…The larger symbolism is near the surface but it does not break through, nor become allegory. Something more significant than a standard hero, a man faced with a foe more evil than any human enemy of house or realm, is before us, and yet incarnate in time, walking in heroic history, and treading the named lands of the North” (Tolkien, “The Monsters and the Critics” 114).

The last excerpted sentence aims to describe Beowulf, the epic hero, and yet it could also describe one of the major heroes of The Lord of the Rings, Aragorn. Both Beowulf and Aragorn possess fairy-story elements. Beowulf can be construed into the honey eating, “uncouth fairy-tale champion,” Beewulf of Sellic Spell (Beowulf 205-207); Aragorn, as the mortal lover of Arwen, the Elven princess of Rivendell.

Aragorn teeters between the “historial” and “fairy” realms. As a man, he appears as an epic hero from the pages of history, but his specific characterization as a Númenórean makes him more fairy-story material (Foster 22). As such, he leads a liminal and heightened existence with a longer than “normal” lifespan. He also falls just below the Wood Elves in terms of classification and proximity to the Valar (Foster 514). Aragorn further connects to the elves because he loves and weds Arwen, a match analogous to the crucial story of Beren and Lúthien (“Appendix A” 1032-1038).

Elves occupy a curious position in the fairy-story aspect of The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien wrote his epic as an outlet for his invented Elvish languages. Rather unlike the Beowulf poet, Tolkien began with a fairy-story rather than remnants of the past by writing The Silmarillion as the basis for his pseudohistory writ large. The idea of “lost tales,” lost fairy-stories being the foundation of history comes to fruition with this work. Tolkien saw the “inevitability” of including Men (i.e. Aragorn, Boromir, and Faramir) in his history, but he notes their periphery placement: Men entered the tale “not merely transfigured or partially represented as Elves, Dwarfs, Hobbits, etc. But they remain peripheral – late comers, and however growingly important, not principals” (Tolkien, “Letter 131” 147). Basing his own secondary world on fairy-story beings, however, provide “lost tales” by which the background history can be trusted and transmuted.

In The Lord of the Rings traditional fairy-story creatures like Elves coupled with aberrations like Tom Bombadil fascinates and guides readers into Tolkien’s secondary world. Readers engage in a suspension of belief with these characters because enough bedrock has been laid for them to feel safe to proceed on into the Faërie—Tolkien carefully builds a realistic foundation with The Silmarillion and other poems or tales to achieve this balance (“On Fairy-Stories” 132).

Tom Bombadil enters the narrative as eucatastrophe, saving the hobbits from the labyrinthine Old Forest and Old Man Willow (The Fellowship 117). He, with his enchanting singing and subjective characterization as “before the river and the trees,” really “before” the existence of anything natural in Middle-earth (The Fellowship 129), defies description. Despite his form as the ultimate Natural Man (an unfallen Adam), Bombadil belongs in a fairy-story, but readers, however begrudgingly, follow the Bombadil enigma into his house. They question his purpose in the narrative while falling under his spell, his “arresting strangeness” (Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories” 139). Bombadil’s spell never ceases to captivate because Tolkien provides an epic analog (Väinämöinen from The Kalevala), and does not let him stray too far from reality. He interweaves Bombadil into Middle-earth pseudohistory, occasionally returning to his character (see The Fellowship 259). Tolkien presents Bombadil as true and relevant to the greater narrative which draws upon “the primal desire at the heart of Faerie: the realization, independent of the conceiving mind, or imagined wonder” (“On Fairy-Stories” 116).

History and the associated culture of a given populace fuel the narratives of “lost tales.” Elapsed time transforms forgotten epic history into fictional narratives and fairy-stories, because these “historial legends” derive from “traditions about real men, real events, real policies, in actual geographical lands” (Tolkien, Beowulf 205). Poets take history and create art, and hybrid, fantasy epics (that take into account all the supernatural beliefs, values, and heroes of a culture) rank as the highest compliment to history. And, this retrieval of a story out of history itself is one of the many epic tropes (Garth, “Epic elements” 1). Dr. Karen Edwards of Exeter University, claims that epics “shatter the mold with every creation” in attempts to “capture the controlling force of culture,” if one exists (Bragg). Adding to Edward’s claim, classicist Oliver Taplin, states that epics share in a “family resemblance, as a collection of works, that break the mold in order to face the contemporary” (Bragg). The Lord of the Rings dismantles the supposed barrier between a fairy-story and a medieval chronicle by defying a single label. With all its intertextuality and pervading belief in itself as a work, Tolkien’s legendarium stands as the prime example of a secondary world filled with its own culture, fairy beliefs, and heroes.

‘Don’t the great tales never end?’ [said Sam]

‘No, they never end as tales,’ said Frodo. ‘But the people in them come, and go when their part’s ended. Our part will end later – or sooner’” (The Two Towers 697).

Works Cited

Acocella, Joan. “Slaying Monsters.” The New Yorker. Condé Nast, 26 May 2014. Web. 07 Aug. 2016.

Bragg, Melvyn, prod. “The Epic.” In Our Time. BBC Radio 4. London, England, 6 Feb 2003. Radio.

Foster, Robert. The Complete Guide to Middle-earth: From the Hobbit to The Silmarillion. New York: Ballantine, 1979. Print.

Drout, Michael. “A Mythology for Anglo-Saxon England,” in Tolkien and the Invention of Myth: A Reader, edited by Jane Chance, 229-247. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2004.

Garth, John. “An introduction to Beowulf.” Handout. 9 July 2016.

Garth, John. “Epic elements.” Handout. 13 July 2016.

Garth, John. “Session 8: The Lord of the Rings Foreword to Chapter 2.” Handout. 20 July 2016.

Smol, Anna. “History, Anglo Saxon.” J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship and Critical Assessment. Ed. Michael D. C. Drout. New York: Routledge, 2007. 274-76. Print.

Tolkien, J. R. R. “Appendix A.” The Return of the King: Being the Third Part of The Lord of the Rings. Boston, NY: Mariner, 2012. 1032-038. Print.

Tolkien, J. R. R. Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014. Print.

Tolkien, J.R.R. “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.” Beowulf: A Verse Translation: Authoritative Text, Contexts, Criticism. Ed. Daniel Donoghue. Trans. Seamus Heaney. New York: Norton, 2002. 102-30. Print.

Tolkien, J. R. R. “Letter 131 To Milton Waldman.” The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Ed. Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981. 143-61. Print.

Tolkien, J. R. R. “On Fairy-Stories.” The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1983. 109-61. Print.

Tolkien, J. R. R. The Fellowship of the Ring: Being the First Part of The Lord of the Rings. Boston: Mariner /Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012. Print.

Tolkien, J. R. R. The Two Towers Being the Second Part of The Lord of the Rings. Boston: Mariner /Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012. Print.





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