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St Andrews

St Andrews. Tolkien delivers his lecture on fairy stories, the text of which appears to have survived with first and last pages missing (and can be read in the Flieger & Anderson edition). He stays with Malcolm Knox (1900–1980), pupil of Collingwood and later Principal of St Andrews University.

In this post I put aside the later dramatic turn, the fieldwork conducted in Galadriel’s mirror, which turns fantasy from a function of fairy-story into a Humpty-Dumpty definition of art. What I want to get my hands on is what Tolkien had in mind when he delivered his talk in a room in St Andrews one early evening back in March, 1939. I’m going to approach the thesis of the lecture by way of the complaints that Tom Shippey has voiced about the essay.

In their introduction, the editors of On Fairy-stories (Flieger & Anderson) concede Shippey’s charge that the essay contains no “philological core.” All three commentators are oddly mistaken. The first pages of the lecture being missing, the first full paragraph in fact begins with just this core: the OED‘s first usage of ‘fairy’ is from the the 14th-century poet John Gower, who (says the OED) describes a young man as a fairy; but this is not so, says Tolkien, for what Gower says is that the young man is of fairy. The philological core of both lecture and essay concerns a degeneration of understanding reflected in modern linguistic usage such that ‘fairy’ has become merely a noun while philological inquiry reveals an earlier adjectival usage: ‘Fairy’ was once a title designating origin added to a proper name: Sir Boten of Fairy.

This philological claim is elaborated in the first part of both lecture and essay through discussion of how the elves of the Silmarillion became ‘fairies’ – little, delicate creatures with wings who sit in buttercups, which Tolkien associates with the circumnavigation of the world, which then appeared too small to hold both elves and men. It is surely these first pages that Shippey has in mind when he complains, in an interview with Patrick Curry (2015) that On Fairy-stories is scrappy, unfocused, and largely negative. Well, if you see that Tolkien is pointing out errors but fail to register the philological vision behind this criticism that is indeed how the essay is likely to appear.

The philological claim is easily missed by a professional philologist, like Shippey (and the OED writers), because their working method is to trace meaning and usage in time by way of literary references. In English literature, the references prior to the discovery of the New World are few, while Tolkien’s philological vision extends all the way through Numenor to a day when (to paraphrase John Locke) all the world was Fairy, and bulk of the philological evidence he has to hand has been invented by him and, as such, is not advanced for discussion in this essay.

Put another way, the philological core of the essay is easily missed because it draws on without mentioning Tolkien’s own fairy stories and because the essay is so obviously a ‘scholarly essay’ the friendly scholars who read it cannot bring themselves to accept the obvious – that Tolkien is assuming the truth of his own fairy stories.

Here we hit the root of the matter. The vision of the lecture, no less than the essay, joins the historical world studied by Tolkien the scholar with the imaginary world invented by Tolkien the artist. But because Tolkien is addressing a scholarly audience, the imaginary world of myth and legend of Tolkien’s own fairy stories appears only between the lines. Once the Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings are restored the argument appears neither scrappy and unfocused nor largely negative. What is more, for those of us familiar with these fairy stories the thesis Tolkien proclaims is at once amply illustrated in The Lord of the Rings while On Fairy-stories assumes its rightful place as the emperor of all guides to The Lord of the Rings.

Spotting the thesis of On Fairy-stories is more difficult in the essay than the lecture because the essay has the great magic trick of Galadriel’s Mirror written into it, which is liable to distract us. The original lecture consists of three parts: (i) philological thesis that runs over the whole of recorded (historical) English usage and inquires into origins; (ii) the modern association of fairy stories with children; (iii) the function of a fairy story in the modern world. Together, the three parts enact a reorientation whereby the discussion of children, which includes much autobiographical recollection, inserts the imagination of Tolkien into the picture, and so draws out what was only implicit in the first section, namely that what is really at the center of things is Tolkien’s own vision of Fairy – but that he is prepared to challenge all comers, both literary and scholarly, in defense of this vision.

And what is this vision? ‘The Fall of Numenor’ told of the great disenchantment when the world was made round and myth sundered from history. Composing a new hobbit story, Tolkien discovered that after the world was made round there was a long age in which islands of myth endured within history and it was possible for a mortal to stand even in history and look into the face of myth. Fairy-stories originate in the stories of Middle-earth in the Third Age, and even the ruins that have come down to us, as we find some of them in, say, Andrew Lang’s Blue Book, contain elements once seen in the Mirror of Galadriel.


The second edition of The Lord of the Rings (1965) carried a new author’s Foreword, which challenged anyone to say how World War II impacted on the story of the Great War of the Ring. The only way to meet this challenge is to detail the writing of the story in the shadow of the real war.

the paradox of use

Here is a first map, for the year 1939. With reference to the declaration of war and the scene then told of an elf-tower (red box on the left), I title this map Lightening follows thunder.

Lightening follows thunder

The dream of the siege of the white tower (red box on left) appears perhaps October 1939, and gives dramatic expression to a turn of the tide only now glimpsed in the imagination of this world,

‘What is the use of telling a fairy story in a time of war? The answer is found from this map and appears on a later map.

An Assyrian Riddle

More often than not the things that turn up in my research on Tolkien remain unused because, while I intuit a connection, there is no way it can be proved. The above ancient Assyrian riddle is a case in point. It is found in A.H. Sayce’s Assyria: Its Princes, Priests, and People (1893). Together with John Rhys (Professor of Celtic), Sayce was one of Max Müller’s Oxford lieutenants, and his work was most certainly known by Tolkien.

I’ve drawn a dividing line separating the two parts of the riddle. It seems to me that the first part is another way of saying ‘hole’ – as in the structure, either above ground (Beorn, you and me), underground (hobbits, goblins, elves) or on the water (men of Lake-town) in which we live, while the second part is another version of Gollum’s riddle:

Voiceless it cries,
Wingless flutters,
Toothless bites,
Mouthless mutters.

Riddles of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings

The online meme is, or was, ‘why did Gandalf not get the eagles to fly them direct to Mount Doom?’

This is a question posed by orcs who see jet planes and think of engines and magic. It is a completely genuine question, but asked from a Dark Tower. The question as found in the mirror, which is not asked by twitter users but was posed by Tolkien late in composition, as he wrote The Taming of Smeagol:

Tom could have got rid of the Ring all along {? without further}…if asked

Pencil note, HOME 8, The War of the Ring.


The Apprenticeship of J.R.R. Tolkien (Ye Machine, 2018) was published on August 29. But this is the first announcement. There is simply no point competing with The Fall of Gondolin (August 30). This shade has proved welcome, though, because I’ve found myself unable to break the loop of patching. In fact, with this second ebook, I appreciate  that electronic release of an essay is not like release of a printed edition and is like a beta online program release. Having set my 29.08.18 release date in stone I now find myself seeing room for improvement everywhere I look.

The main patch – for which I apologize to the three or so people who have purchased the book – has been the section titled Biblical Myth in Part Two of the essay. But I am not sure I can do more than add patch upon patch (though every time I look I see the phrasing should be improved!)

My problem is that I have only just begun to appreciate how seriously Tolkien read the Book of Genesis. Until I can place my feet on the ground in the relations between his ‘Silmarillion’ stories, his reading of fragments of ancient northern stories, and his reading of the generations between Adam and Abraham, I can do no more than patch. Here is a paragraph recently inserted that is simply a temporary patch:

There is an *idea* of myth to be discovered in Tolkien’s literary sequels to the story of the Fall, but we will fail to reach it unless we recognize the textual basis of his meditations. The focus on ideas that is the chosen path of this essay falls easily into Protestant presuppositions, in which we approach the Bible as a book translated into our own language and assume that each individual alone may interpret the words on the page – a reformed manner of reading that has become a basis of modern literary criticism. But Tolkien knew the words of the Bible in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew as well as English, and he was evidently aware also of some at least of the many and varied traditions of commentary on each of the verses of a book that – it cannot be doubted – he believed was true. We are walking here at the very center of things, the crucible where everything emerges, and all that limits the view are the limitations of your guide, who can read only his native language and knows little of the great commentaries on the Book of Genesis by which both Tolkien and the old poet before him were fixing their imaginations.

When I talk of Protestant presuppositions I have in mind myself, in virtue of paternal inheritance and a higher education at one of England’s ancient universities, and also a friend who champions personal reflections on The Lord of the Rings and thinks of what he does in terms provided by modern literary theory. As a general rule of the kind of conversations I find myself having, however private, such presuppositions are widespread, inevtitably brought to the table, legitimate, in no way necessarily associated with the Necromancer (as I now apologize for having suggested), and ultimately inseperable from our free will and our relationship to the words that we speak to one another. My point is only that this enthusiastic Protestant tradition of reading is in certain respects quite at odds with Tolkien’s, who naturallly consults what past authorities have to say about a verse of Scripture and sets out his own reading in conversation with the living and the dead.

I have a sense that there is a whole conversation between two halves of North America in which science is pitted against Creationism and religious identity turns on a criteria of literal truth applied to the Book of Genesis. This is a conversation that completely passes Tolkien by, which is not to say that he might not find himself in uncomfortable arguments about the literal truth of, say, the Flood (or the drowning of Atlantis). But he really did not spend much time on asking himself about the truth of the biblical stories; that was not for him an interesting question – they were true, whatever that might mean. Where he began was a puzzling out of strange stories that seem to hide their meanings.

What I call Protestant presuppositions, and recognize in myself as well as many others who I converse with, embraces a fine individualism that runs the risk of not noticing, let alone coming to appreciate, our own inherited and native traditions. Tolkien’s meanings seem to me wrapped deeply in the learning of the learned of more than two millenia. While we may be happy to wonder alone in Middle-earth, and while the richness of our individual experiences as readers of The Lord of the Rings cannot be denied, I think we are missing the point if we do not admit from the get go that what is so wonderful about this reading experience is a recognition that we are not alone (and just what that means, as my friend well knows, is the more helpful question to ask).