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.