Faerie fare

May 28, 2007

Tree and Leaf
J.R.R. Tolkien (HarperCollins, 2001)
160 pp. First reading.

This little book collects together some of Tolkien’s shorter works in a variety of genres: an essay, a short fable, a poem, and a verse drama.

The essay is his famous On Fairy Stories, in which he attempts to rescue the fairy tale from the dustbin into which modern literary criticism has consigned it, and defend it as a legitimate and important branch of literature. It’s a very interesting piece for a number of reasons. The world of Faerie which he loves is not the same as the fairy-world most familiar to us. When the nineteenth-century shut fairy tales up in the nursery, the vigour and stature of the genre gradually decayed, but Tolkien insists that Faerie — the true, sturdy tradition of fairy stories — is not only, or even especially, for children. Instead he defends fairy tales, or fantasy, as particularly ambitious forms of imaginative literature in which a Secondary World is created. This Secondary World has value not because it throws light on our own (though, like all works of men, it will do that), but for its own sake. In fairy stories the human capacity for imaginative creation stands forth most purely.

Fairy tales and fantasy are frequently dismissed in our own time as “escapist” fiction. Tolkien is aware of this label, but he affirms it rather than denies it.

Evidently we are faced by a misuse of words, and also by a confusion of thought. Why should a man be scorned, if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it. In using Escape in this way the critics have chosen the wrong word, and, what is more, they are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter.

He also defends the venerable tradition of happy endings in fairy tales, even coining a new word to describe the kind of plot twist for which the fairy story is especially well-suited: eucatastrophe. Eucatastrophe is a sudden and unexpected turn for the good. Whether one thinks stories with such an element ‘escapist’ or not will reveal much about one’s underlying view of the world. Does the world itself, after all, have a happy ending?

The short story in this collection is Leaf by Niggle, a wonderful fable about a painter who labours for years over a single painting of a tree, only to discover (in a fine instance of eucatastrophe) that his creation has more reality than he had known. I have read that Tolkien disliked allegory, but this story begs to be read allegorically. Perhaps he didn’t dislike it all that much.

In one of their many discussions about the nature of mythology, C.S. Lewis had described myths to Tolkien as “lies breathed through silver”. The comment provoked Tolkien to write the short poem Mythopoeia, dedicated to Lewis, and included here. It is written as an address by Phylomythus (Myth-Lover) to Misomythus (Myth-Hater), and defends the value of mythology and story against the tyranny of brute facts and the immediately tangible.

Blessed are the timid hearts that evil hate,
That quail in its shadow, and yet shut the gate;
That seek no parley, and in guarded room,
Though small and bare, upon a clumsy loom
Weave tissues gilded by the far-off day
Hoped and believed in under Shadow’s sway.

Blessed are the men of Noah’s race that build
Their little arks, though frail and poorly filled,
And steer through winds contrary toward a wraith,
A rumour of a harbour guessed by faith.

The final element of the book is a short historical drama called The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth. It is set on the night following the Battle of Maldon, which took place in 991. It is night, and two soldiers are searching the battlefield for the body of their fallen commander Beorhtnoth. Though based on a short passage from an Anglo-Saxon poem on the same subject, it is apparently a re-creation, not just a translation. It is a fine example of alliterative verse with an heroic temper. In some ways I think it the best thing in the book.

All in all, then, I found this a delightful collection. On paper it might look like an odd concatenation of texts, but in fact (which, I admit, is also on paper) they work together very well. I can see myself returning to all four of the pieces in the future.

[From Mythopoeia]
I would that I might with the minstrels sing
And stir the unseen with a throbbing string.
I would be with the mariners of the deep
That cut their slender planks on mountains steep
And voyage upon a vague and wandering quest,
For some have passed beyond the fabled West.
I would with the beleaguered fools be told,
That keep an inner fastness where their gold,
Impure and scanty, yet they loyally bring
To mint in image blurred of distant king,
Or in fantastic banners weave the sheen
Heraldic emblems of a lord unseen.

I will not walk with your progressive apes,
Erect and sapient. Before them gapes
The dark abyss to which their progress tends —
If by God’s mercy progress never ends,
And does not ceaselessly revolve the same
Unfruitful course with changing of a name.
I will not tread your dusty path and flat,
Denoting this and that by this and that,
Your world immutable wherein no part
The little maker has with maker’s art.
I bow not yet before the Iron Crown,
Nor cast my own small golden sceptre down.

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