Saturday, March 15, 2014


My theory that Tolkien regarded human beings as a "supernatural" by virtue of their ability to imitate the deity finds some support in another of the more heavily-quoted passages of ON FAIRY STORIES.

Now, though I have only touched (wholly inadequately) on elves and fairies, I must turn back; for I have digressed from my proper theme: fairy-stories. I said the sense “stories about fairies” was too narrow. It is too narrow, even if we reject the diminutive size, for fairy-stories are not in normal English usage stories about fairies or elves, but stories about Fairy, that is Faerie, the realm or state in which fairies have their being. Faerie 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.
Now on the face of things, this sounds like a contradiction when placed alongside Tolkien's earlier claim that "it is man who is, in contrast to fairies, supernatural."  One must wonder that if mortal men are "supernatural," why does faerie contain them only when they are "enchanted?"  Why would mankind not belong to faerie at all times?

My solution to the conundrum falls in two parts.  First, I believe Tolkien made about man being "supernatural" to counter the usual belief that it was fairies and their relations who held that status.  If as I believe Tolkien identified fairies with nature, then they are coterminous with nature and so cannot be either above or beyond it, as mankind can.  Certainly I don't think it's coincidence that in this passage it parallels all the supposedly-supernatural denizens of Faerie-- elves, giants, dragons, etc.-- with various natural phenomena: heavenly bodies, living creatures, and natural foodstuffs ("wine and bread," which also happen to be significant in Catholic liturgy).

However, on a second level Tolkien was certainly aware that mortals tend to be governed by their more mundane moods, in which they don't often have much patience for tales of faerie or even narratives of Christian salvation.  Therefore, "man" can be supernatural in a way that fairies cannot be, because man is able to transcend his mundane nature whenever he  becomes "enchanted."

It's slightly after this that Tolkien descants for the first time in the essay on "magic," tying it in to the nature of Faerie:

...“fairy-story” is one which touches on or uses Faerie, whatever its own main purpose may be: satire, adventure, morality, fantasy. Faerie itself may perhaps most nearly be translated by Magic—but it is magic of a peculiar mood and power, at the furthest pole from the vulgar devices of the laborious, scientific, magician.
It follows that Tolkien's concept of magic heavily draws on the idea of one being "enchanted."  Certainly magic in  Tolkien's faerie-universe cannot be drearily functional, along the lines of the "scientific magician," by which I assume Tolkien means the "stage magician."  One sentence later Tolkien adds:

There is one proviso : if there is any satire present in the tale, one thing must not be made fun of, the magic itself. That must in that story be taken seriously, neither laughed at nor explained away.
To laugh at the magic, one assumes, would undermine one's credence-- one might even call it "faith"-- in the magic within the fairy-story.  The concept of magic as vital to the world of Faerie would seem to be tied into Tolkien's concept of man as being capable of being "supernatural" so long as he is "enchanted."

Having finished his preliminary meditations of Faerie, Tolkien next proceeds to the question of the origin of fairy stories, which I will examine in my next Tolkien essay.

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