Saturday, March 15, 2014


This passage from the Tolkien essay will be familiar to many readers of fantasies:

The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords. In that realm a man may, perhaps, count himself fortunate to have wandered, but its very richness and strangeness tie the tongue of a traveller who would report them. And while he is there it is dangerous for him to ask too many questions, lest the gates should be shut and the keys be lost.

The passage contains one of Tolkien's key concepts in the essay, the idea that fairy-stories promote the feeling of "enchantment" which may also be a "peril."  As I note in my previous essay, Tolkien was not interested in comparativism, so he did not wonder about whether other species of fantastic fiction offered similar "enchantments."  His sphere of comparison, to the extent that he makes one explicit, would seem to be that of naturalistic literary works. In 1936 many academics regarded naturalistic modernism as the *sine qua non* of good literature, and anything else was "escapist"-- a term with which Tolkien would take issue later in the essay.

A few paragraphs later Tolkien makes this assertion, which has not been reprinted quite so often.

Supernatural is a dangerous and difficult word in any of its senses, looser or stricter. But to fairies it can hardly be applied, unless super is taken merely as a superlative prefix. For it is man who is, in contrast to fairies, supernatural (and often of diminutive stature); whereas they are natural, far more natural than he.
This is an interesting way of approaching the question of "what is natural."  For proponents of literary naturalism, man was the measure of all things, and man was inherently a creature bounded by natural law.  But Tolkien was a Christian, and for him man has a unique contact with God.  No other creature can relate to God as man does; no other creature can attempt the so-called *imitatio dei*-- which ability, as we will see later, extends also to Tolkien's magisterial concept of "subcreation."

The inhabitants of "faerie," then, occupy a middle ground between "Heaven" and "Hell," a sphere which might be deemed the realm of Pure Nature, not yet redeemed but capable of redemption through Man-- who is for that reason truly "supernatural."  The comment upon man being more "diminutive" is a barb at those who assume that "fairies" must be cute little sprites, and doesn't make quite as much logical sense as the "supernatural" line, since most archaic representations of "the fay" show them as being of human proportions.

More to come.

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