Chris has responded to my posted comments on Tolkien and Fairies by sending a fascinating summary on the topic and its wider implications drawn from Verlyn Flieger’s book.
LOGOS AND LANGUAGE IN TOLKIEN’S WORLD
Chapter 1 A Man of Antitheses
The first chapter concerns itself with the reasons why Tolkien is a man of antitheses as well as discussing his views on the significance of words.
Flieger claims that Tolkien’s works are built on contrasts – hope and despair, enlightenment and ignorance, light and dark. Humphrey Carpenter suggests that this can be traced back to Tolkien’s experiences in his early years. Firstly there was the separation from his father and then his death. Secondly and perhaps more significantly was the death of his mother when he was just twelve years old. It is suggested that Tolkien thought her death was caused by the stress his mother was under being estranged from her family in order to be a Catholic. Yet Tolkien’s Catholicism was linked to his mother but in his view it was her adherence to it that caused her death. This was seen to be the main reason for the pessimistic side of Tolkien’s character.
The author claims that a Christian acceptance of the Fall leads inevitably to the idea that imperfection is the state of things in the world and that human action cannot rise above that imperfection. Tolkien wrote that he did not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’. It is this idea that makes the alternation between light and dark the essence of Tolkien’s works. Flieger claims that light and dark are interdependent as light cannot be known without darkness, similarly hope needs the contrast of despair and freewill opposes, yet is defined, by the concept of fate.
The author then discusses Tolkien and the importance of words. She states that Tolkien had the view that an author cannot be understood if the reader does not understand the meaning of the words as they were known at the time of writing. She describes Tolkien’s essay on Chaucer’s Reeves Tale to prove this point. In this essay Tolkien shows that it was not the case that many words were misspelt but that these words were dialect ones. With this knowledge Tolkien shows how they are used to add a satirical effect which changes the previous understanding of the tale, as now it shows how the country folk get their own back on the town folk. Verlyn Flieger then goes on to describe how Tolkien employs the use of dialect to equal effect in the Lord of the Rings with each group of people having their own style of speech.
Flieger then goes on to show how words were not simply a window on the past for Tolkien but the key to that lost relationship between humanity and God of which a sense of the Fall is the only memory. She quotes Tolkien’s letter 231 where he writes “I have long ceased to invent … I wait till I seem to know what really happened.” It is as though how the story unfolds is created by what the words suggest. Although not stated by the author, is this the case with the famous inspiration for the Hobbit when he wrote a few words on an examination paper?
Chapter 2 Dyscatastrophe
In this chapter Verlyn Flieger demonstrates how Tolkien’s use of light and dark can be seen in his critical essays but in a different mode, for his essays use these words to mediate and explain where his fiction embodies them and makes them real.
The chapter then analyses Tolkien’s two ground breaking essays The Monsters and the Critics and On fairy-stories. These appear to be in contrast to each other as Beowulf ends in defeat (dark) whereas a fairy story has the joy of a happy ending (light). Yet the fairy story does not deny dyscatastrophe, (i.e. sorrow and failure) as the possibility of this is needed for the joy of deliverance. Flieger claims the difference between the two essays is that in The Monsters and the Critics dark outweighs light whereas in On Fairy-stories light is victorious over dark (sorrow).
Flieger then discusses the allegorical ending of Tolkien’s The Monsters and the Critics. Tolkien describes the scene of someone inheriting an accumulation of old stones which were part of an older hall. Some of these had been used in the building of a new house but the rest were left where they lay. The man then used these stones to build a tower. However other people thought this silly and could see no purpose in it so they pushed it over. Tolkien then adds But from the top of that tower the man had been able to look out upon the sea. Flieger compares this to Frodo’s dream experiences in Crickhollow in which he sees a tall white tower, standing alone on a high ridge. A great desire came over him to climb the tower and see the sea. Flieger suggests for Tolkien this was a real attribute of the human psyche: the desire to seek something without knowing what it is. In regard to Beowulf people who want to push over the tower will be unable to see the structure and purpose of the poem and so have no opportunity to be carried beyond themselves.
Flieger then shows how this enables us to understand how Tolkien reads Beowulf as the view from the tower leads outwards not upwards so the illimitable vision carries no promise of hope or salvation. Tolkien’s view is that Beowulf’s final defeat is inevitable and that the poet has taken care that there is no suspense or uncertainty about the outcome. The fact that his opponents are monsters makes the poem more significant as no mere struggle with another man would carry this weight of meaning.
Yet Flieger says that Tolkien adds a further modern perspective as his reading of the monsters is psychological rather than allegorical. Grendel and the dragon are both monsters but not the same kind of monster. Grendel has a human shape and so Tolkien suggests that the monsters are within us as well as outside us. Beowulf is victorious over Grendel but the inner darkness is always there to be battled.
Flieger finishes by saying that the pull to darkness fits with Tolkien’s view of the Fall and its consequences and that no battle would ever be won.
Chapter 3 Eucatastrophe
In this chapter Flieger discusses Tolkien’s attraction to Beowulf and fairy stories. She shows how this attraction to two such opposing outlooks displays the tension in his own psychology.
Flieger states that it is through the “near-asides” in his On Fairy stories essay that it is possible to see windows into Tolkien’s own imaginative principles and affords a look at his creative process. Flieger says that Tolkien tried to answer three questions; What are fairy stories? What is their origin? What is the use of them?
Tolkien begins by correcting misapprehensions, mainly the main characteristics of fairies is not size but power of enchantment as people wander into the world of enchantment. By “Faërie” Tolkien means fay-er-ie the place of enchantment. To find the origin of fairy stories you need to ask what is the origin of language and of the mind.
Tolkien sees the question “What is the use of fairy stories?” as the most important and the answer is Fantasy, Recovery, Escape and Consolation. Flieger then discusses Coleridge’s theories on this subject and how Tolkien differed in his view of Fantasy. For Tolkien successful Fantasy is the conscious subcreation of a Secondary World by Man. The other three items – Recovery, Escape and Consolation – describe the effects of successful Fantasy.
Recovery is getting back to what was originally there. By experiencing the fantastic one can recover a fresh view of the Un-fantastic. It should enable us to regain, to recollect what what we have already known but have forgotten to see.
Escape and Consolation are interconnected, for through Escape we experience Consolation. Flieger claims that for Tolkien Escape is a longing for a simpler world and quotes the following from Tolkien’s essay: “On this desire, as ancient as the Fall, it largely founded the talking of beasts and creatures in fairy-tales and especially the magical understanding of their proper speech”. Flieger claims the mention of the Fall is key in this part of the discussion as Tolkien sees it as humankind’s longing for its own past, the childhood before the Fall. The magical speech of beasts in fairy-tales is evidence of our sense of separation and our longing for reunion but he also says “we have a sense that it was severance; a strange fate and a guilt lies on us.” Flieger says this statement is more theological than literary as it refers to original sin.
Consolation is when fairy stories provide the happy ending and for this Tolkien provides a new term eucatastrophe. This is made up of the Greek “Katastrophe” and “eu” which means well or good so the word now means “the good overturning”. However the joy of eucatastrophe is dependent on fear of the opposite, dyscatastrophe. Flieger says that Tolkien saw this last escape, such as the kiss which wakes the sleeping princess as “the oldest and deepest desire, the Great Escape, the Escape from Death”.
Tolkien says that The Lord of the Rings is “mainly concerned with Death and Immortality”. Elves have immortality which Tolkien sees as a bondage to the world without hope of renewal and eternal life which transcends death and leads to God. Flieger says Tolkien sees that the escape from death is through death to eternal life. In this way she says that he connects the fairy story directly to the Gospels. The birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. For Tolkien the story of Christ is the greatest fairy story of them all because for him it is not fiction but fact. It bridges the gap between the Primary and Secondary Worlds.
Flieger says that Beowulf and the fairy story essays are the keys to Tolkien’s mythology as both contain the opposites – dark and light. Doubt is fundamental to both essays as, if Christ felt forsaken on the cross, doubt is therefore permissible. So Faith needs doubt as light needs dark.