26 September 2016

These Are Not The Elves You're Looking For. (I)

Cover Image © John Howe


Last year several friends asked me to join them in writing an article for a festschrift to honor the scholarly achievements of Verlyn Flieger. What emerged from our collaboration builds upon Professor Flieger's work, further exploring dreams and enchantment and how they expand the perception of time and the world in The Lord of the Rings. Like every other study, this one suggested new lines of inquiry. For one of us that meant investigating more deeply the relationship between forests and Faërie; for another a continuing effort to understand how On Fairy-stories relates to the legendarium as it unfolded.[1]  As for me, I turned to the study of the Elves themselves, who, as Tolkien said, 'have their being' in Faërie (OFS para. 10).[2]  Through scrutiny of 'their being' I hope to grope my way to a better understanding of Faërie itself.  The question is where to begin.

For we all know that Tolkien came to scorn the cowslip fairies of his Victorian youth. Nevertheless, they left their mark on him, a mark clearly visible not only in early poems like Goblin Feet (1915),[3]  but also in his more mature works.  It is, for example, quite prominent in Errantry (1933) and in the 'tra-la-la-lally' Elves of The Hobbit (1937).[4]  We may even catch the vanishing echo of their song in the laughter of Gildor's troop in the woods of the Shire (FR 1.iii.78-85).  But by the time Tolkien was writing the first chapters of his 'new Hobbit' and preparing his essay On Fairy-stories,[5] he had also seen that the 'business [of rationalization and literary fashion that led to the debasement of the fairies] began ... long before the nineteenth century, and long ago achieved tiresomeness, certainly the tiresomeness of trying to be funny and failing' (OFS para. 8-9).[6]  Much of the blame for this he laid at the feet of Shakespeare in A Midsummer Night's Dream and of Michael Drayton (especially) in Nymphidia.

The matter is of course by no means pat, with a clear division between works in which we find fairies in the Victorian mold and works in which we do not.  For even in an early poem like You and Me and the Cottage of Lost Play (1915), which is contemporary with Goblin Feet, there abides a more sober sense of loss and a longing which we find even more strongly in Kortirion among the Trees (1915).[7]  And if in The Book of Lost Tales Tinúviel can be a bit silly and hide under flowers like a proper Victorian fairy, Turgon and Fëanor are made of more dangerous and tragic stuff.[8]  But it is also clear from the narrative perspective of The Book of Lost Tales that a breach we cannot mend has opened between us and fairies, and between what the fairies were and what they have become. The fairies who tell Eriol the tales have diminished and gone into the West, but whether they have remained who they were before is not as certain.

This breach has two inseparable aspects, the one literary, the other mythological. The English literary tradition turned away from what Tolkien called the 'true tradition' of  Faërie that we find still alive in The Faërie Queene of Edmund Spenser, in which fairies were powerful and perilous and fair.[9] A contemporary of Shakespeare like Drayton, Spenser shares in a mythology of Faërie descended from named poets like Gower, Chaucer, and Thomas the Rhymer, as well as from the unnamed poets of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and of Sir Orfeo. Much farther back, though unremembered in Spenser's day, was Beowulf, which for centuries lay lost in the streams of time, like the One Ring beneath the waters of Anduin, forgotten yet waiting only for the right hand to wield it.[10] 

But it's a long road from the ylfe of Beowulf to the elves of Spenser.  The Beowulf poet traces the lineage of his elves to Cain himself (111-114),
Þanon untydras ealle onwocon,
eotenas 7 ylfe 7 orcneas,
swylce gi|[ga](ntas), þa wið Gode wunnon
lange þrag(e).(He) him ðæs lean forgeald!
From whom all monstrous creatures descend,
the ettens and elves and hellish undead,
the giants, too, who fought against God
for a long season; for that he repaid them.
By contrast Redcrosse, the first of Spenser's 'Faerie Knights' (FQ 1 proem 14), is called 'a valiant Elfe' (FQ 1.i.xvii.1 = Book 1, Canto 1, Stanza xvii, Line 1, for example) and described as very much a Christian:
And on his brest a bloudie Crosse he bore,
The deare remembrance of his dying Lord,
For whose sweete sake that glorious badge he wore,
And dead as living ever him ador'd.

(FQ 1.i.ii.1-4)
And though not an elf by blood, but a child stolen in infancy, Redcrosse was raised to believe he was of fairy race (FQ 1.i.lx.1-lxvi.9). Learning that he is a human changes nothing for him or his role. He still stands allegorically for Holiness, and still slays the dragon that laid Eden waste. The sort of divide we see between humans and elves in Beowulf does not exist in The Faerie Queene. They are not part of that monstrous race of Cain.  It's as if we begin with the Beowulf poet, who straddled the worlds of Northern and Christian myth, and confronted a question like that posed by Alcuin: 'What does Ingeld have to do with Christ?'; and then end with Spenser, who lived in a day when Reason and the Reformation were displacing Medieval views of the world and enchantment,[11] and reducing fairies to 'a rustic folk of dell and cave' (FR 2.vii.365).  Yet Spenser's reply to Alcuin's question would seem to be 'everything.'

So, just as Tolkien's own presentation of fairies and elves over time admits of no pat distinctions, neither does the tradition on which he draws. As James Wade has recently argued in his Fairies in Medieval Romance, the fairies -- or perhaps we might say the 'being' of the fairies -- vary from work to work depending on the subcreative goals of the author. There was no canonical portrayal of fairies to which the writers of Romance had to adhere, no 'straightforward chronological process' in which the fairies evolved.[12]  Even Morgan le Fay, who between the 12th and 16th centuries tended to grow increasingly human, never shakes the dust of Faërie off herself once and for all: she remains forever 'le Fay'; she must take Arthur to Avalon even when healing no longer awaits him there; and in some 16th century Romances like Huon de Bordeaux and Mervine son of Ogier, she fully reverts to her otherworldly state.[13] Indeed, as Tolkien already knew, this indeterminacy is part of the essence of Faërie (OFS, para 12):
The definition of a fairy-story—what it is, or what it should be—does not, then, depend on any definition or historical account of elf or fairy, but upon 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. It has many ingredients, but analysis will not necessarily discover the secret of the whole.
As a philologist and a writer of fairy stories, Tolkien was in a rare position that few before him could have justly claimed, both to survey the entirety of the English literary tradition of the Otherworld, from Beowulf to Peter Pan, and in consequence to seek out the lost road to a truer and more perilous Faërie, where the Green Knight might take the head you came with quicker than Robin Goodfellow could give you another. Mending the literary aspect of the breach -- or at least stitching it up in the hope that it might heal -- would also repair the mythological, and reconnect England and its literary tradition to a lost mythology. That Tolkien said he had once hoped to do precisely this scarcely needs repeating,[14] and we should not forget that directly before he began The Lord of the Rings and On Fairy-stories Tolkien had been working on The Lost Road and the Beowulfian King Sheave with their explicit connection of England, Men, and Elves. So a desire to mend that breach in the literary and mythological tradition is very much in evidence precisely as he begins to compose his great work and to articulate his notion of fairy stories.[15] 

Now Tom Shippey has called Sir Orfeo ' "the master-text" for Tolkien's portrayal of the elves.'[16]  Consider for just a moment how appropriate this is if true. The 'master-text' of Tolkien's own mythic figures draws on another tale with the deepest of roots, a remote and ancient myth that Tolkien found compelling (Letters, no. 153).[17] Not only that but Sir Orfeo is a text that transforms important aspects of what it finds in Orpheus and Eurydice. Orfeo succeeds where Orpheus fails, and Faërie stands in for Hades. Otherworld replaces Underworld. To mend the literary-mythological breach, Tolkien draws on both Sir Orfeo and Orpheus and Eurydice to construct the Tale of Beren and Lúthien, which is so fundamental to his own legendarium and which has transformations of his own. Here a female elf sings to win back her dead mortal love. Since the Halls of Mandos are in the Undying Lands, moreover, we find the Underworld and Otherworld also combined. Most importantly Lúthien's success comes with a price. In reclaiming Beren from death she willingly sacrifices her own immortality, a choice whose effects will ripple through the entire history of Middle-earth. Thus, Tolkien uses myth to repair and refashion myth.  On this showing, Sir Orfeo would seem a very good place to start.

The first thing we see is that the 'being' of the fairies is different with respect to the world than the 'being' of men is. The world which they inhabit is larger. It spans the border between what we mortals see as the waking and dreaming worlds.  They come to Heroudis as she sleeps beneath the ympe-tree, first the two fairy knights, then the fairy king himself who abducts her, shows her his realm, and returns her, promising that he will take her away for good the next day and woe betide any attempt at resistance.  The following day, despite all Orfeo's preparations to fight for his wife, she vanishes without a trace from the midst of the troops surrounding her (57-194).[18]

Now no one, not the two maids of Heroudis who watched while she slept, nor Orfeo her husband ever questions her experience or suggests that 'it was just a dream.' Not even the narrator calls it a dream (sweven). Everyone (including the reader) simply accepts that the world contains both seen and unseen, both ordinary mortals and fairies, of whom Heroudis can say 'I saw not ever anywhere / a folk so peerless and so fair' (147-48).  And though Orfeo marshals his troops to defend his wife, it is all for nothing:
And yet from the midst of that array
the queen was sudden snatched away;
by magic was she from them caught,
and none knew whither she was brought.

(191-94)
Even considering so little of Sir Orfeo as this, we can already see points of contact with Tolkien. The fairies' peerless beauty, a given, is merely the easiest to spot. For Ilúvatar made the Elves to be 'the fairest of all earthly creatures' (Silm. 41). That the Elves perceive and dwell in a larger world is clear in the ability of Gildor and Glorfindel to sense and recognize others concealed and at a distance (FR 1.iii.80; xii.209); in the power of Galadriel and Elrond to communicate directly and silently with the minds of others (FR 2.vii.356-58; RK 6.vi.985); and in the truth that Gandalf tells Frodo, that 'those who have dwelt in the Blessed Realm live in both worlds at once, and against both the Seen and the Unseen they have great power' (FR 2.i.222-23). We may also detect something of that larger world in Frodo's ability to see both the Black Riders themselves and the Elf lord 'as he is on the other side' only after the sorcery of the Morgul-blade has begun to alienate him from his own (FR 1.xii.222). Orfeo, too, cannot see the fairies until he has lost his own world and become a wildman in the forest, playing his harp and singing for the beasts who disregard him once his song is over (195-280).

But, as the studies of both Wade and Tolkien caution, we should not expect a direct and simple correspondence between the fairies of Sir Orfeo and the Elves of  Middle-earth. Tolkien borrows, chooses, and transforms what he finds. In Tolkien, for example, it is the Elves who have the power to stir up visions through song (Silm. 140-41, 170-71; FR 2.ii.233; RK A 1058); in Sir Orfeo, however, it is to a mortal man, Orfeo himself, that this power belongs:
no man hath in this world been born
who would not, hearing him, have sworn
that as before him Orfeo played
to joy of Paradise he had strayed
and sound of harpers heavenly,
such joy there was and melody. 
(41-46)
Moreover, the arbitrary and cruel exercise of the Fairy King's power in abducting Heroudis has no true parallel in Tolkien, only the very limited similarity found in Eöl's capture of Aredhel (Silm. 132-33), both of whom are Elves. The Elves of Tolkien are Good People, after all (Hobbit 60, 179). Yet, while they do not arbitrarily carry mortals off against their will, and while they may know some of them from afar -- Gildor recognizes Frodo, and two of the Elves at Rivendell seem to know Bilbo (Hobbit 59) -- they themselves remain mysterious, elusive, and inscrutable, just like the Fairy King in Sir Orfeo.

This has been only the briefest beginning on this project of mine, to examine closely the primary sources which Tolkien drew on to sub-create his Elves. The point is not source-hunting per se, but the far more important goal of seeing how Tolkien uses those sources to compose the 'heroic legends and high romance' that he so desired (Letters no. 163), and to create Elves of his own whose keen eyes never lose sight of the ‘starlight on the western seas’ (FR 1.iii.79), just as the feet of the hobbits never lose touch with the soil of the Shire.[19] That he appears to do so as eclectically as his models did should surprise no one.


I presented a version of this post on 25 September 2016 at the 3rd Mythgard Midatlantic Speculative Fiction Symposium in College Park, MD.  A more complete analysis of the entirety of Sir Orfeo and the relationship of its fairies to Tolkien's Elves is in the works.


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[1] See Simon John Cook, How to Do Things with Words: Tolkien’s Theory of Fantasy in Practice, Journal of Tolkien Research: Vol. 3: Iss. 1, Article 6. Now available for download from: http://scholar.valpo.edu/journaloftolkienresearch/vol3/iss1/6


[2] Nor of course does it just contain Elves: 'Faërie contains many things besides elves and fays, and besides dwarfs, witches, trolls, giants, or dragons: it holds the seas, the sun, the moon, the sky; and the earth, and all things that are in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, mortal men, when we are enchanted'(OFS para. 10).


[3] Compare the impact which attending a performance of Peter Pan in April 1910 had on him: 'Indescribable but shall never forget it as long as I live. Wish E[dith] had been with me.' Carpenter, Tolkien: A Biography (1977) 47-48, quoting from Tolkien's (unpublished) diary.

[4] Though published in 1937 of course, The Hobbit had been completed by the beginning of 1933, and so therefore dates to about the same period as Errantry.  On the chronology of composition, see Rateliff, History (2011) xiii-xxii.

[5]  See Cook, above n. 1.

[6] OFS para. 7:
The diminutive being, elf or fairy, is (I guess) in England largely a sophisticated product of literary fancy. It is perhaps not unnatural that in England, the land where the love of the delicate and fine has often reappeared in art, fancy should in this matter turn towards the dainty and diminutive, as in France it went to court and put on powder and diamonds. Yet I suspect that this flower-and-butterfly minuteness was also a product of “rationalization,” which transformed the glamour of Elfland into mere finesse, and invisibility into a fragility that could hide in a cowslip or shrink behind a blade of grass. It seems to become fashionable soon after the great voyages had begun to make the world seem too narrow to hold both men and elves; when the magic land of Hy Breasail in the West had become the mere Brazils, the land of red-dye-wood. In any case it was largely a literary business in which William Shakespeare and Michael Drayton played a part. Drayton's Nymphidia is one ancestor of that long line of flower-fairies and fluttering sprites with antennae that I so disliked as a child, and which my children in their turn detested. 
The Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries in England experienced a decline in the belief in magic, ghosts, and fairies. See Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth Century England, Penguin (1991) 724-34 on fairies in particular.

[7]  On Tolkien and Warwick, Lynn Forest-Hill, 'Elves on the Avon,' TLS 8.7.05, is good, though she might give too much weight to the influence of biographical details.

[8] As Rateliff, 119-21, notes, Tolkien at times 'blends two different traditions' and the sillier fairies are more often found in his poetry than his prose. On Lúthien, see The Book of Lost Tales 2.11-13;  on Turgon 2.160-62; on Fëanor 1.149-51, 162-68.

[9] But are in most cases visually and, it would seem, physically indistinguishable from humans, like Spenser's Redcrosse.

[10] On the loss and rediscovery of Old English, see John D. Niles, The Idea of Anglo-Saxon England 1066-1901: Remembering, Forgetting, Deciphering, and Renewing the Past, Wiley Blackwell (2015), especially 49-108 on the 16th and 17th centuries. A visual clue to how thoroughly Beowulf was forgotten may be gleaned from the Google Ngram I have embedded at the end of this post.

[11] See Thomas, above n. 6.

[12] The phrase, which strictly refers to the transformation of Morgan le Fay only, is from James Wade, Fairies in Medieval Romance Palgrave MacMillan (2011) 18.

[13] See the excellent discussion of these matters in Wade (2011) 1-21.

[14] In late 1951 Tolkien wrote:
 'Do not laugh! But once upon a time (my crest has long since fallen) I had a mind to make a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic, to the level of romantic fairy-story-the larger founded on the lesser in contact with the earth, the lesser drawing splendour from the vast backcloths – which I could dedicate simply to: to England; to my country'
(Letters, no. 131)

[14] For recent discussion of Tolkien’s writing of the early chapters of The Lord of the Rings and On Fairy-stories, and of the effect these had on each other, see Cook, above n. 1.

[16] Shippey, The Road to Middle-earth (2003) 62. To be fair, Shippey focuses his claim more precisely on 'the description of the hunting king in Sir Orfeo', lines 281-302.

[17] As did Lewis. See An Experiment in Criticism, chapter 5, 'Myth'; and Barfield, who wrote Orpheus: a Poetic Drama (1983), a pdf of which is available from Barfield's literary estate.

[18] The translation and line numbers of Sir Orfeo offered throughout are Tolkien's, since it is his perspective on and understanding of this poem that is at issue. Tolkien himself prepared an edition of the poem, upon which he based his translation, but it was not published until 2004. See Carl Hostetter, Sir Orfeo: A Middle English Version by J. R. R. Tolkien, Tolkien Studies 1 (2004) 85-123. http://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/text/laskaya-and-salisbury-middle-english-breton-lays-sir-orfeo offers an easily accessible version of the standard text with notes and introduction.

[19] Both the ‘being’ of the Elves and the ‘being’ of the hobbits are essential to The Lord of the Rings, as Tolkien suggests in his letter to Auden (no. 163):
Since The Hobbit was a success, a sequel was called for; and the remote Elvish Legends were turned down. A publisher's reader said they were too full of the kind of Celtic beauty that maddened Anglo-Saxons in a large dose. Very likely quite right. Anyway I myself saw the value of Hobbits, in putting earth under the feet of 'romance', and in providing subjects for 'ennoblement' and heroes more praiseworthy than the professionals: nolo heroizari is of course as good a start for a hero, as nolo episcopari for a bishop.

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