Tolkien and Faerie

Yet another in the defunct course lecturette series–this is the final lecture from DU class Hobbits and Heroes. At this point in the class, they had read the entire series as well as various and sundry inspirations, fairy tale collections, and essays by Tolkien and others. Hey, it was a graduate level lit course. 🙂 Please to enjoy.   ~Jenn


Faerie-Speak and Fantasy Closure


…for fairy-stories are not in normal English usage stories about fairies or elves, but stories about Fairy, that is Faërie, the realm or state in which fairies have their being.[1] 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.[2]


There are several scholars who claim Tolkien’s Middle-earth is an actual account of life during a certain time of Earth’s pre-history.  The very end of Return of the King in fact, has everything to do with the Elves leaving for their own Undying Lands, the Dwarves descending and disappearing underground, and Hobbits, well, becoming even more self-contained and quiet a community.  Remember Tolkien’s fatherly-narrator voice in The Hobbit?–describing a hobbit’s silence by gently admonishing the reader that they disappear when “big folk like you and me come blundering along,” intimating that they still exist in this world (perhaps that’s where humans have gotten their misconception of elves and fairies being tiny—we’re getting them mixed up with hobbits).  Some essayists even reference the Nazgûls’ winged steeds, remarking how close the description of such sounds like the pterodactyl.  They also notice the prevalence across cultures of legends of an older, taller, more powerful race as precursors to contemporary man, and remind us that the Age of Men began at the end of Tolkien’s epic.


A winged Nazgul. See the Black Rider riding it?

Such a reading of the work, though fun and interesting from an anthropology-dabbler or ancient astronomer’s point of view, is in my mind a mistake.  The very nature of Fantasy should be about enchantment, about losing oneself in the Perilous Realm[3] and bringing back new understanding of the real world through the potent lessons magic gives.  That, after all, is the center of Campbell’s “magic formula” of story, and of The Hero’s Journey—the journey of every human through life in this world.  To attempt to rationalize and historicize LOTR is much like taking certain parts of the Bible literally—it is not in every instance appropriate to come to a piece of literature with a literal mind.  Often, the TRUTH of a story is more important than the FACTS, and this is where poetry, mythology, and fairy tales come into play as an important educator.  Without the ability to read a work of enchantment with a mind for the many-layered symbols, one is likely to dismiss fairy-tales as kid’s stuff at best, dangerous escapism at worst.

Remember, there is a difference between a LIE and a METAPHOR.  Just because there was no such physical place as the Garden of Eden doesn’t mean the story isn’t true.  The truth of the story is the metaphor, the symbolic resonance in the heart.  Just because there are no such things as Elves does not diminish their truth, and we should not feel ashamed if, like Sam, we love them.


Fantasy is a natural human activity.  It certainly does not destroy or even insult Reason; and it does not either blunt the appetite for, nor obscure the perception of, scientific verity.  On the contrary.  The keener and the clearer is the reason, the better fantasy will it make.  If men were ever in a state in which they did not want to know or could not perceive truth (facts or evidence), then Fantasy would languish until they were cured.  If they ever get into that state (it would not seem at all impossible), Fantasy will perish, and become Morbid Delusion.[4]

Resonance and Language

It’s amazing how each name in LOTR seems absolutely appropriate.  Even though we may not know OE, Finnish (or Elvish) by heart, the names in Middle-earth add to the truth-resonance of the epic by being based on languages from our own Earth.  So we know, intuitively, that Frodo will be a hero, because his name comes from the OE frod, meaning ‘wise,’ also freoda, ‘protector, defender,’ and freodo, ‘peace, security.’   These embedded meanings in his name gives us his character by intuitive osmosis, before we even see him do anything.

Here is a list, taken from The Languages of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth by Ruth S. Noel, of some major character names from LOTR, and their “real-world” translations.  See what you think of the appropriateness of the name constructions.

Samwise: OE ‘half wise’

Ent: OE ‘giant’

Eowyn: OE ‘one who delights in horses’

Saruman: OE ‘crafty man’ from searu, ‘craft,’ ‘device,’ ‘wile.’

Beorn: OE ‘man’, also Scandinavian bjorn, ‘bear.’

Gandalf: Old Norse Ganndalf, ‘sorcerer elf’

Smeagol: OE smeah, ‘penetrating,’ ‘creeping.’

Thorin: Old Norse ‘bold one’

Gimli: Old Norse ‘lee of flame,’ ‘highest heaven’

Elvish is a completely constructed language, so Legolas is purely an Elvish name, with las meaning ‘leaf.’  Is there a resonance with the lovely sounds of Elvish that makes us think of Latin and Finnish combined, the ancient with the Norse continuance?

[Thanks, everyone, for embarking on the journey to Middle-earth with me this quarter.  I hope you were enlightened and enchanted, and I look forward to our final discussions and your final papers.]


[1] Tolkien also says, however, that “Faerie cannot be caught in a net of words; for it is one of its qualities to be indescribable, though not imperceptible.”

[2] Tolkien, “On Fairy-Story,” Tree and Leaf.

[3] Not to be mistaken for the dangerous habit of escapism, but of a healthful journey into the human psyche, or collective unconscious.

[4] “On Fairy Stories” again.  He also says, on a less depressing note, that “if men really could not distinguish between frogs and men, fairy-stories about frog-kings would not have arisen.”



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