Tag Archives: tolkien

Fairy and Fairy Tales

During my Christmas holiday, I’ve largely indulged two things for which my appetite is large — Marvel superhero films* and the world(s) of fantasy. The latter has taken the form of The Ring of Words: Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary, A Short History of Fantasy, Terry Pratchett’s sci-fi novel Strata (with a classic, garish Pratchett cover) and currently The Complete Fairy Tales of George MacDonald — the Penguin edition, edited by U C Knoepflmacher.

You’d think that a professor of English at Princeton who has written such books as Ventures into Childland: Victorians, Fairy Tales, and Femininity and Forbidden Journeys: Fairy Tales and Fantasies by Victorian Women Writers wouldn’t make the error I’m about to highlight, but perhaps Prof. Knoepflmacher is more interested in the alleged asexuality of MacDonald’s characters and other gender issues than philology (although the introduction is, by and large, very good).

I, on the other hand, prefer philology.

The error Knoepflmacher (who has a tremendous name!) is to inform the reader that the first three MacDonald fairy tales in the collection, ‘The Light Princess’, ‘The Shadows’, and ‘The Giant’s Heart’, are not really ‘fairy tales’, there being no fairies in them.

Alas that a distinguished professor who probably writes interesting literary criticism could fall so easily into the trap set for all readers by what C S Lewis calls the ‘dangerous sense’ of a word (in Studies in Words). A word’s dangerous sense is the commonest sense in current use that could easily be confused with other and older senses that context cannot immediately reveal to the reader.

So with fairy.

A ‘fairy story’ or ‘fairy tale’ is not a story or tale about fairies. It is, as Tolkien makes clear in his essay ‘On Fairy Stories’ (in Tree and Leaf), a  story or tale about fairy. Most contemporary writers of fantasy try to disassociate these two senses of fairy by using the alternate spelling faerie or a variation thereof. This sense is not about ‘those little twinkly guys’ — not about Oberon or Puck or Tinkerbell or the Man with the Thistle-Down Hair — but about the realm of fairy, of Faerie.

Here, etymology actually saves us, rather than leading us down the terrible path of the Etymological Fallacy, so common to undergrads and popular preachers, that the oldest or root meaning of a word is its truest meaning or ever-present meaning in time of trouble. In this case, the stories we term ‘fairy tales’ are clearly tales about faerie not fairies.

Take, for example, Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Little Mermaid.’ There are no fairies in this tale, but it is about mermaids and witches and magic. Or the Grimm version of ‘Cinderella’ (vs the earlier version of Perrault or the later version of Disney with the Fairy Godmother) with the supernatural intervention of Cinderella’s mother and a bunch of birds. Or ‘Little Red Riding Hood’. Or ‘The Fir Tree’. These tales are not about fairies, but the subject is very much faerie.

Faerie is the land where fairies dwell. It is the Other World. It is a place inhabited not just by pixies and sprites or the Good Folk or Tolkienesque elves but also by dwarves and unicorns and trolls and sorcerers and witches and magic swords and singing mountains and talking wolves and giants and sentient trees and so on and so forth. The spirit of faerie need not be bound to some other locale, some pseudo-physical difference in spatiality but, rather, is to be found wherever the folk of faerie, from Puck and Peter Pan to Poseidon and Pippin.

And, of course, if faerie’s boundaries are not fixed spatially, then the otherplace can be right here. Right now. In your living room. Or cubicle. Or on the subway as you make your way home from work. Perhaps magic and faerie and all suchlike are to be found everywhere.

*Iron Man 2, Thor, Captain America, Avengers Assemble (because this is Britain), and The Incredible Hulk.

Beowulf and The Hobbit: The Monsters and the Magic 3 – Magical Items

This post will be brief.* Magical items are present in both Beowulf and The Hobbit. Most famously, The Hobbit includes a magic ring, discovered by Bilbo in the roots of the Misty Mountains just prior to his game of Riddles in the Dark with Gollum. This ring can turn its wearer invisible (save his shadow) — but, as readers/viewers of The Lord of the Rings know, it is much more than that.**

I interpret this item found at the Canadian Textile Museum as Grendel's Mother

I interpret this item found at the Canadian Textile Museum as Grendel’s Mother

Without rereading Beowulf a third time (I read it in June, after all), I can think of no magic rings. There are, of course, many objects of beauty and great craftsmanship. However, the only mangical item I can think of is the magical, used by Beowulf in his combat against Grendel’s mom after the mighty blade Hrunting fails to protect him. Later, he is given Naegling by Hrothgar in honour of his defeat of Grendel’s mom.

The Hobbit also has magic swords — Glamdring (‘Foehammer’, called by goblins ‘Beater’), Orcrist (‘Goblin-cleaver’, called by goblins ‘Biter’), and Sting. These items were forged in the elder days by elves and prove very useful in the combat against goblins and, in the case of Sting, the spiders of Mirkwood. Being of Elvish manufacture, they glow blue when goblins are in the vicinity.***

These are about all the properly magical items I can think of just now. Here the connexions between Beowulf and The Hobbit are more slender than with the monsters. But still we have magic swords that enable their bearers to wreak terrible deeds.

*Unlike the others in this series on Beowulf and The Hobbit: ‘The Epic and the Episodes‘, ‘The Monsters and the Magic: Grendel and the Goblins‘, and ‘The Monsters and the Magic: Dragons‘.

**Here come in the inevitable references to Wagner and The Saga of the Volsungs, although Tolkien claims no relation to the former.

***More inevitable references to Wagner and The Saga of the Volsungs? Perhaps also The Princess Bride for good measure, right?

Beowulf and The Hobbit: The Monsters and the Magic 2 — Dragons (with reference to Fafnir)

Tolkien’s image of Smaug

Thus far, our discussion of Beowulf and The Hobbit has taken us to the world of genre and then into the world of Grendel and the Goblins. Now we turn from such petty monsters as Grendel, trolls, goblins, what-have-you, to the big beasts. Dragons.

Beowulf has a dragon in the last, violent episode. Sadly, this wyrm is much less famous than Grendel, descendant of Cain. I think he deserves his day in the sun. So here it is.

The dragon of Beowulf comes upon a barrow left behind by the men of Geatland of old, now long-dead, long-forgotten — there is a touch of sorrow in the poet’s telling of this fact; the sorrow of the fated — doomed — Anglo-Saxon. Much feared by the Geats, the dragon takes possession of the hoard then lies silent and sleeping for three hundred years, almost if not entirely forgotten.

Then, one day, a wandering thief takes a vessel from the hoard, shows it to his master (Beowulf, King of the Geats?). The dragon knows. Is enraged. The fire worm flies into a rage, realising that men now know of the treasure. The dragon attacks the people of Geatland, attacks Beowulf’s kingdom.

Then the giver of gold disdained
to track the dragon with a troop
of warlike men; he did not shrink
from single combat, nor did he set much store
by the fearless dragon’s power, for had he not before
experienced danger, again and again
survived the storm of battle, beginning with that time
when, blessed with success, he cleansed
Hrothgar’s hall, and crushed in battle
the monster and his vile mother? (Trans. Kevin Crossley-Holland in The Anglo-Saxon World: An Anthology)

Beowulf did take with him 12 men, 12 thegns, 12 apostles of battle. And he did battle with the dragon, though only one of his men, Wiglaf, would stand by his lord. And, although victorious, clad in armour, Beowulf died in battle with the fire dragon.

Thus the dragon of Beowulf.

Smaug is a very similar case — although he took his hoard from the living. Nonetheless, he, too, has a precious vessel stolen. He, too, flies out in a rage and ravages the countryside. He, too, is slain by a man of valour.

Look, here. Beowulf takes 12 men to defend his kingdom; Thorin takes 12 dwarves (and one hobbit) to reclaim his kingdom. In the events that transpire, Beowulf is slain; so also is Thorin. Not perfect parallels, but present nonetheless.

But what do dragons represent? This, for me, is an important question. If memory serves me right, according to The Complete Guide to Middle-Earth, Tolkien’s dragons symbolise the evil within human nature.




Dragons represent evil.

Outside of Pern or ‘Puff the Magic Dragon’ where they are good and Harry Potter where they are mere beasts, this is obvious, taken straight from Revelation and other biblical references where a dragon may represent the devil, or even from Apollonius of Rhodes’ Argonautica (although E V Rieu was very adamant in the introduction to his translation of it, The Voyage of Argo, that the beast guarding the Golden Fleece is a giant snake, for that is what drakon means).

But what sort of evil?

I believe that dragons are greed, avarice. Tolkien even makes reference to Smaug’s rage at the treasure burgled by Bilbo as being the extreme sort of anger only displayed by the very rich who have lost something they didn’t even know they’d owned until it was gone, but now it is very precious to them. Smaug is avaricious and sly — and so is avarice. It slips in when you aren’t looking, burns up everything, consumes you, and makes you want more, more, more.

The Beowulf dragon is about the same, really, given the parallels between him and Smaug.

Sigurd kills Fafnir; Norwegian stave church door

And if we want to press home this vision of dragons as symbols of greed, I shall quickly bring in the Volsunga Saga (trans. by Jesse L Byock as The Saga of the Volsungs). In this Icelandic saga, Sigurd slays the dragon Fafnir (an event known to one and all through Wagner’s Der Ring des Niebelungen — read my thoughts on Siegfried here) Tolkien himself tells it in The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, on which I blogged here and here).

Fafnir, brother of Otr (Otter) and Regin, has demonstrated himself very avaricious from the start, when he and Regin encounter the Aesir with the skin of Otr who was slain by Loki (naturally). He demands, as ransom (wergeld), the skin of Otr filled with gold. And then he wants the entire skin covered with gold. At last — and I believe it is Regin and Fafnir’s father who does this — a cursed ring is added to the treasure, covering the last portion of Otr’s hair. Otter’s Ransom (gold).

Fafnir takes the treasure and the ring and eventually transforms into a greedy dragon.

Dragons are avarice, and this allegorical/analogical/symbolic interpretation of them is perfectly in keeping with mediaeval literary tastes, since mediaeval people loved a good allegory (see Dante’s Divine Comedy or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight or Pearl). Now, Beowulf may be an early mediaeval, pre-Viking, Germanic/Anglo-Saxon tale, but it was recorded by a Christian in an England acquainted with Continental tastes — and Tolkien was no stranger to symbol, although he hated allegory.

Could we not say that, although not an allegory for greed, Smaug is a symbol of greed and its destructive power in the human heart? Yes, I think so.

Beowulf and The Hobbit II: The Monsters and the Magic — Grendel and Goblins

This is the first of my examinations of ‘The Monsters and the Magic’ as I consider the similarities between Anglo-Saxon philologist JRR Tolkien’s novel The Hobbit and the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf. My first post on the topic is here.

Grendel and Goblins

Grendel from Gareth Hinds’ graphic novel of Beowulf

The first monsters we encounter in The Hobbit are the trolls.* I have little to say about them in relation to Beowulf, except that some people interpret Grendel as a troll — these trolls bear their character more to Norse myths than to Anglo-Saxon epic. Instead of trollBeowulf cites Grendel as a descendant of Cain; evil borne out of something originally good. Something twisted from something straight. Kevin Crossley-Holland’s translation** also calls Grendel ‘the brutish demon who lived in darkness’ (p. 76; no line nos given).

Not to say Grendel is a literal demon, but the metaphor of him as a demon hearkens us back to the rebellion in Heaven and the former status of demons as angels. Again, something twisted out of something straight.

I think, therefore, that Grendel and the Goblins go well together. This is not because of anything in novel The Hobbit itself, however. No, indeed, Professor Tolkien does not elaborate on the origins of goblins (aka ‘orcs’) in this, his first novel. However, in his other work, such as the never-finished-but-always-being-tweaked The Silmarillion, we learn that goblins/orcs started off as elves but were twisted from their straightness by the villainous devil-figure Melkor. Something twisted out of something straight.

The character of Grendel is that of a destroyer. He, like the goblins, stalks by night. He, like the goblins, invades the realm of men. He, like the goblins, slaughters and slays. He, like the goblins, has a taste for man-flesh. Evil is seen in both of them as the destructive force it is; evil is not a presence but a lack. It is the deprivation of good.

The good of humanity in Cain was twisted in him and his descendants, becoming the man-eater Grendel. The good of elvishness in their ancestors was so twisted in them that the goblins, too, became man-eaters. Goblins and Grendel together are ravagers and violent destroyers.

Philosophically, the world of early mediaeval men has penetrated Tolkien and left a deep mark on the works of this Catholic scholar, even if there is not explicit God in the novels.

*Not the trololololos.

**In the Oxford World’s Classics volume The Anglo-Saxon World: An Anthology.

The Hobbit: Please Only Make Two Films

I have read The Hobbit four times. Once when I was in Grade 4, once in Grade 12, once aloud with friends in between degrees, and once again during my Master’s at U of T. I am likely to reread it again this September, along with Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.*

The Hobbit is one of my favourite books. I used to say that it was my favourite, but as the years go by and I read more books, it becomes harder to say which of them ranks number one. It depends on the day, really. Nonetheless, it is one of my favourite books, and it is a novel. A magnificent novel, in fact.

Some people think certain bits of it childish. And what of it? That is part of the charm of The Hobbit. This is an adventure story set in Tolkien’s mythic world, and it ties into that world in a few ways, but it is largely about the adventure — it gives us a hobbit’s-eye view from Hobbiton to the Lonely Mountain and back again.

And the heart of a good story is the story (Tolkien said so, in ‘On Fairy Stories’). Tolkien has provided us with a wonderful, fun story. High adventure is all the novel was meant to provide. And it does so with aplomb. And the centrepiece, if you ask me, is the Lonely Mountain. It is Smaug, the wyrm.


Not central to this story is where on earth Gandalf has got off to. Something to do with some person called the Necromancer who lives in Mirkwood. This is part of the wider world of the setting of the novel, but it is non-essential to the action and plot of The Hobbit.

If Peter Jackson wishes to include the Necromancer in his films, that is all fine and well with me. It will help draw the connection with The Lord of the Rings, as will, of course, gollum, gollum — who is an integral part of The Hobbit.

But to use the 125 pages of appendices to take a face-pasted, high-flying adventure that Tolkien was able to tell in less space than any of the three volumes of The Lord of the Rings and make it into a film trilogy is no longer to tell the story of The Hobbit. It is to take the prelude to The Lord of the Rings and make it a prequel, giving on-screen, visual answers to questions we already know the answers to.

As well, three films will give him unwarranted opportunity to expand the Battle of the Five Armies, an event that takes fewer than 20 pages (10? I forget) in my copy of the novel. The battle is not the most important part of the story. Bilbo is, and he is unconscious throughout most of it. But we have already seen in The Two Towers and The Return of the King that Jackson likes to draw out his battle scenes unnecessarily.

What I think we are seeing here is not simply a difference between the ‘mature’ storytelling of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit with an attempt to reconcile it with the whimsy that guides so much of The Hobbit, but a difference between types of Tolkien fans.

There are those who are Middle Earth fans. They read the original four novels and gobbled up The Silmarillion when it appeared. Unfinished Tales and The Book of Lost Tales kept them happy. They read every volume of Christopher Tolkien’s History of Middle Earth and then The Children of Hurin. These are the fans who learn Elvish and probably write fan fiction. These are a good breed of fan, and I am happy to have them around. They are absorbed in the world of Tolkien’s mythology and very clever, with an eye for detail and precision in interpretation that is often unrivalled by other readers.

I am one of the other readers. I am a fan of Tolkien’s writings, especially his novels. What The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit do that none of the other Middle Earth writings do, is set a story, a modern novel, an adventure, in the midst of a grand sweep of epic proportions, blending verse and prose, high adventure and deep themes in a tight, well-knit plot that has been worked and reworked, both in terms of story and of style. This love of the writing itself drives me to read Farmer Giles of Ham, Tree and Leaf, and Tolkien’s translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. I also read The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun (I blogged about it here), partly for Tolkien’s poetic ability, partly from a love of Norse mythic/heroic tales.

As a member of the second of these two categories, what matters to me is the story of the novels, not the rest of the history of Middle Earth. To say that The Hobbit is sparse on these details and needs supplementing is like saying that Captain America was sparse on details about Hitler and WWII and needed supplementing.

Nonetheless, I believe that a two-film version of The Hobbit would satisfy Tolkien fans of both types, whereas a trilogy would satisfy the first and leave the second type saying, ‘Well, I know this a story Tolkien wanted to tell, but it’s not The Hobbit anymore.’

*The important thing about rereading a book before a film is not to read it less than a month prior to the film. The experience will ruin both film and novel.

Q is a space fairy

I recently watched the “top 1o” episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation (‘TNG’; as listed here).  Two of these episodes featured the character Q (played by John de Lancie).  Q is there at the beginning and at the end of TNG.  He is a being of great power, almost beyond limits.

He (and possibly the whole Q Continuum?) put humanity on trial for being a “dangerous, savage child-race.”  Q made the USS Enterprise-D fly all the way to the ‘Delta’ Quadrant where they encountered the Borg (the journey at full speed would take several decades; Q brought them there in a moment).  Q could make people travel through time (or seem to), create scenarios right before their very eyes that seemed very real, snatch people right off their starships — basically, mess around with how human beings interacted with what, for us, is a stable space-time continuum.

Q is also responsible for Lt. Worf’s line, “I am not a merry man!” (see it here!)

But what is Q?  I think he’s a fairy.  Trek will probably tell us that he is a highly-evolved being with powers to control things and perceptions that we, too, may some day develop.  I think, though, that he’s a fairy.  The things he does are basically magic, after all.

But not only is Q essentially a magical being, he is also capricious.  Star Trek likes to have evolved beings with, in the words of Capt. Picard in Star Trek: First Contact, “an evolved sensibility.”  Q lacks this.  But why should he mirror a more highly evolved version of human ethics and good behaviour?

Fairies don’t.

And by fairies I mean those “dancing companies of Longaevi who haunt woods, glades, and groves, and lakes and springs and brooks; whose names are Pans, Fauns . . . . Satyrs, Silvans, Nymphs . . .’*  I mean the Sidhe.  I mean elves.  I mean leprechauns.  I mean the Gentry, the Children of Dana, Puck, Auberon, kelpies, wood-sprites, brownies, the Dagda, the man with the thistle-down hair and so on.  Not “little twinkly guys” who live in your garden.  Beings of great power who can perform, often with ease, what we consider “magic”, but — if you recall Galadriel in The Lord of the Rings, they don’t really get what we mean by that.

Fairies are capricious.  They do things for their own realm, for themselves, not for us.  For example, to resuscitate a young woman recently deceased, a fairy may take her pinky finger.  This finger will give her a link to the realm of the Sidhe, and she will spend her nights dancing in an endless ball, never sleeping.  Or someone accidentally stumbles into a fairy ring.  He dances, has a jolly good time, finally escapes the dance, and finds it’s 200 years later.  Poor soul.  Or they’ll turn your head into that of an ass.  For fun.

They don’t operate the way humans do.  Fairies operate by their own ethics, morals, and so forth.  They sometimes play tricks on us — “Lord, what fools these mortals be!”  They sometimes use us for their own ends.  They sometimes exact a terrible price for something that seems relatively trivial to us.  They sometimes do great, magnificent things for us for no apparently good reason or benefit to them.  They operate by their own whims.  They are, then, whimsical.

Q plays games with Capt. Picard.  He says that this enables him to see how humans act much better than confrontation, and gives insight mere observation never can.  He also, as mentioned, puts humanity on trial.  He does things to Picard to show Picard insights into his own life.  He is capricious.  He is whimsical.

Q is a fairy.  A powerful being who is not God/a god who does things to humans for his own pleasure and for reasons humans do not always perceive.  He is whimsical.  He is a space fairy.

*CS Lewis, The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature, 122, quoting Martianus Capella.