Thursday, March 31, 2011


“My picture!” (Tolkien Reader, 107)

It’s not always exclaimed, said, sighed, or explicitly thought by Niggle, but this phrase seemed to run right throughout the story. Even when Niggle is merely biking along, forced to do other things, I could almost hear it as a rhythm to his pedaling: mypicturemypicturemypicturemypicture. But it’s on page 107 where this simple, innocuous phrase broke my heart. For this is the moment when the Inspector comes to chastise Niggle and he refers to Niggle’s painting materials as building material and as the Driver led Niggle away, I could almost imagine the Inspector tearing into the painting─ even before the door has shut upon Niggle─ and shredding it to carry the materials over to Parish’s house to be utilized in a “proper” manner.

It is this question about the proper use of materials which stuck with me after reading the story, after discussion on Wednesday, and after re-reading “On Fairy Stories.” After thinking everything over, I think I’d like to add something to Tolkien’s commentary on how Fantasy enables one to Recover the clear view of one’s Primary World (Reader, 77): Fantasy causes one to rediscover the roots of the glorious complexity of our world. He seems to allude to this concept, but not say it quite outright in his claim that “[w]e should look at green again, and be startled anew (but not blinded) by blue and yellow and red” (Reader, 77). In short, Fantasy allows the individual to not only rediscover his/her world anew, but also look at its very building blocks in a new way in order to continue to create and improve upon the Primary World. This process then creates a loop, for it gives the individual the “knowledge and feeling for clay, stone and wood which only the art of making can give” (Reader, 78), which not only allows one to create in the Primary World, but also form a more elaborate, developed Fantasy world, which will lead to even new interpretations of the building material in the Primary World, yielding a stronger, more complete Fantasy, which will in turn feed back to the Primary World… and so on and so forth.

Building on this, I’d like to argue that Tolkien’s nostalgia and desire to return to older, simpler times is also a reflection of this building process. One returns nearly to the roots, to the base form of the world, bearing in mind the failures of the first development, and begins to create afresh. Much as Sam Gamgee would prune plants in Mr. Frodo’s gardens in order to cut away extraneous growth and permit the plant to more fully blossom into its potential, so the return to the clay, stone, wood, and simplicity creates a chance for fresh growth and for humanity to develop further. As was pointed out in class, Tolkien has no desire to simply return to the past and stagnate in that mindset (consider his sharp criticism of the Gondor first witnessed by Pippin); instead, he wishes to utilize its highest points as goals and then surpass its glory, much as King Elessar does after the line of Isildur is restored to the throne (RotK, 275)*. So while the Scouring of the Shire seems horrible and sad, I almost wonder if it was one of the best things that could have happened to the hobbits. Forest fires are possibilities for cleansing; pruning brings forth new growth; the seed must die before it may become a plant; one could argue that the hobbits had become too complacent and comfortable in their well-protected corner of the Shire and had forgotten what it means to engage with their surroundings and actually develop their lands. It should be noted that the bricks and other materials used to build the ugly houses and factories were not evil in themselves. They were first used to create means of destruction and oppression, but were then repurposed for new growth and improvement upon the basic as they were “used to repair many an old hole, to make it snugger and drier” (RotK, 337). Holes are one of the oldest distinctive features of hobbits, but here old meets new and two basics were combined to create a more secure future. Or if we return to the tale of Niggle, at the end, all that was left of his great and majestic painting was the very base from which he began his work: a tiny leaf; and yet this leaf provided inspiration for Atkins.

On the religious level, it is worth considering how this process of rebirth and re-creation from the ashes figures into Tolkien’s larger assessment of humanity’s constant struggle to imitate God and achieve new levels of closeness with him through this process of Creation. “Redeemed Man is still man. Story, fantasy, still go on, and should go on” (Reader, 89). Fantasy is not something which should be accessed once, but should instead be a process of constant renewal and re-evaluation and progress. To what extent, then, can this process of escaping to the realm of Faërie be likened to the Sacrament of Reconciliation? For Tolkien seems to be implying that one’s relationship with the Primary World and the world of Fantasy cycles between periods of creation and engagement, apathy, retreat, and renewal. Eventually, one’s creations fail and one loses sight of the ultimate goal. The search to draw ever closer to God is often expressed in a similar way, where at some point one falls off the path and the extraordinary connection which exists between humanity and God is forgotten (as one forgets the extraordinary beauty of the world). In the Sacrament of Reconciliation, that apathy─ even fear and hatred perhaps─ is removed and one can attempt to begin to recover what was lost in Fall, re-forging and re-creating that closeness with God, always bearing in mind those structural failures that lay at the root of the separation. However, because humans are human, full of free will and also frailty, they will eventually again fall away and need to be renewed─ even cleansed─ by Reconciliation. Can the wonder and awe that result from a retreat into Fantasy be likened to grace? I am not a theologian by any means, but Reconciliation has always seemed to be expressed as a process of stripping away the extra trappings and once again standing naked before God, ready to be re-formed and even re-created. Fantasy seems to do a similar thing, revealing the nakedness of the world, its basic, pure splendor, which leaves it open to re-cultivation and creation.

Ultimately, I personally keep coming back to─ and fixating on─ this question of how one uses materials to construct and how Fantasy allows one to constantly return to the drawing-board with those materials. Fantasy breaks down the surrounding world to its bare bones, allowing individuals to creatively re-engage with their surroundings and form new worlds within the Primary World. It provides the opportunity to use an untraditional cornerstone (this is a topic for another essay, but the improbability of a hobbit as a hero) to create an unconventional solution. So the next time we look at green and are shocked by the blue and the yellow, hopefully it will remind us that yellow can also be combined with red to form orange and who knows what world could be created if we added orange grass to a green sun.

~Jacqueline Trudeau

(Although now I'm questioning if I used the right materials to write this or try to work through these musings. Did I pick the right words? The sentence structures? The placement? The ideas? I can definitely sympathize with Tolkien's obsession for the details.)

*Quoting from the DelRey edition published in 1995. Yes, it is physically split into 3 books, unfortunately. The reference in question is from the chapter “The Steward and the King.”

Fairy Tales, Faërie Stories, and What to Tell the Kids

I have always been a fan of fairy tales, but, I must admit, I hadn’t always thought much about them. They were always cheerful, silly tales with happy endings that allowed me to think about something other than my “real” life. I still get that feeling sometimes, like when watching Disney movies. I suppose many of Tolkien’s critics would say I’m an escapist, though I prefer to think of myself as one of Tolkien’s prisoners attempting to relieve the doldrums of life in a cell as opposed to a deserter abandoning actual life. That may just be pretention on my part. All the same, I never thought of fairy tales as much more than entertainment. I didn’t associate them with the kind of fantasy I loved and felt so enthralled with, fantasy like The Lord of the Rings and the legends of King Arthur. I confess, I placed fairy tales into the realm of children’s stories.

Tolkien’s essay On Fairy Stories finally explained the difference between fairy tales and Faërie stories. Fairy tales could be any short story with unusual elements designed (or adapted) for children. Faërie stories, on the other hand, deal with what Tolkien describes as “primordial human desires”. According to him, the enchantment of Faërie is based in the desire to realize “imagined wonder”. He uses the example of communicating with animals, but it seems like practically anything could apply. For me, the Faërie elements are what make fantasy stories compelling. Contrary to what many of Tolkien’s critics seem to think, fantasy, when it is Faërie, goes straight to the heart of what humans want most. It addresses our fears and our hidden or overt desires. The reason The Lord of the Rings can speak to us so powerfully is because it is a Faërie story that addresses real human problems, of hope, despair, love, greed, fear, anger, friendship, hatred, and basically any other human emotion that influences our actions (which would be all of them). The enchantment of Faërie gives us a mirror to look through at ourselves, showing us things that were, are, and have not yet come to pass. The Faërie makes stories timeless because it shows us elements of the nature of humanity, a nature that is not likely to change.

Fairy tales, on the other hand, seem to endure out of habit, told over and over again simply because they were told to us. There doesn’t necessarily need to be any sort of substance in them, though they seem to try to stuff morals in somewhere. Indeed, a lot of fairy tales today have been substantially altered for children so their minds won’t be corrupted or their psyches damaged from dark tales with scary imagery and lacking happy endings. This, I think, takes away most of the interesting parts of the fairy tales, or of any story. I work in a children’s library and I’ve always found it amusing to look at picture book versions of these stories. All the rape, incest, adultery, and murder mysteriously vanish from Arthurian legend in a modern children’s library. Many would argue that that is a good thing and that children do not need to be exposed to such harsh real world elements. I’m sure that’s true… to an extent. However, it seems to be going a bit too far, and not just in fairy tales.

For example, recently the movie Gnomeo and Juliet came out. Poor Shakespeare. To be fair, I haven’t seen the movie, but, SPOILER: nobody dies. Even Tybalt, though smashed, apparently reappears in the credits glued back together. I have a problem with this, and I think Tolkien would have too. Romeo and Juliet is a great story, though not a Faërie story, and there is no reason to soften it for children. Tolkien says, “the age of childhood-sentiment has produced […] a dreadful undergrowth of stories written or adapted to what was or is conceived to be the measure of children’s minds or needs. The old stories are mollified or bowdlerized, instead of being reserved; the imitations are often merely silly”. Gnomeo and Juliet is probably the silliest an imitation can get.

I am of the opinion that, as a society, we are getting a bit too protective. Sure, I can see not mentioning to a six-year-old that Arthur slept with his sister, but why not mention he had a son with someone other than Guinevere? Why not say that Lancelot and Guinevere were having an affair? Is that really something too inappropriate for children?

When I was a child, I created my own drama. I started a collection of Fisher Price dolls when I was seven or eight. Every time I got a new doll, I had to explain not only how the new doll arrived, but why they hadn’t been with my original dolls. Reasons included kidnapping, comas, adoption, orphaning, amnesia, car accidents, war, and escaping from Mexico across the border. There were all kinds of romance, complicated when a new doll came into the mix. A standard story when something like, “Dave thought Karen was dead and she didn’t remember him for the longest time but now she’s back with his child but he’s married Sarah!” Generally my solution was to ask my mother for another doll that would even things out. The point, however, is that children are more than capable of creating a soap opera’s worth of drama.

Children are not so fragile that they can’t handle or appreciate a Faërie story. The degradation of fairy tales has inadvertently degraded fantasy as a whole. Maybe if we start allowing children to dictate the type of stories they want to hear, instead of letting adults determine what is “appropriate” for them, fantasy stories will finally be appreciated as a viable art form that can provide real insight instead of the second-class citizen of literature.


P.S. All the quotes (with the exception of the movie reference) were taken from On Fairy Stories. I'd cite the pages but my version of The Tolkien Reader is from 1966 so it'd just be confusing for everyone else.

Fear neither root nor bough! Tom goes on before you.

I have a confession to make: I’ve always quite liked Tom Bombadil.

Nearly every other person I’ve talked to who’s been a fan of Lord of the Rings has found him irritating at best and more than enough reason to entirely skip his section of the book at worst. I heard that he was ridiculous, that he was obnoxious, that people couldn’t stand his songs—but mostly, I heard that he was out of place in Lord of the Rings. These friends read Tom Bombadil as a holdover from nursery rhymes and fairy-tales, from simple, childish works, and because of that, they felt that he had no place in a sweeping high-fantasy epic like Lord of the Rings.

I never read Bombadil that way. He seemed silly and strange when I first read the book, a mysterious man who spoke in song and talked to trees and wore clothing in funny colors, but what he never seemed was out-of-place. I had been mystified by his presence, yes, but although it was confusing, it still seemed to me as if he was a necessary part of the story.

It was only upon rereading the section before Wednesday’s class that I realized why, exactly, Tom Bombadil was a necessary character, and why he was, in fact, not out of place in his appearance. Quite likely, it was because I’d finished On Fairy-Stories about five minutes beforehand, but Bombadil’s presence suddenly made sense, and the lecture later on only reinforced my ideas of his purpose. Tom Bombadil is storytelling made incarnate—simultaneously completely powerless and more powerful than gods or wizards, utterly nonsensical but in possession of the deepest wisdom, silly and strange but somehow deeply familiar, and a necessary bridge between the ‘ordinary’ world of the Shire and the fantastical world of the lands beyond. As he tells the Hobbits,

‘Don’t you know my name yet? That’s the only answer. Tell me, who are you, alone, yourself and nameless? But you are young and I am old. Mark my words, my friends: Tom was here before the river and the trees; Tom remembers the first raindrop and the first acorn. He made paths before the Big People, and saw/ the little People arriving. He was here before the Kings and the graves and the Barrow-wights. When the Elves passed westward, Tom was here already, before the seas were bent. He knew the dark under the stars when it was fearless—before the Dark Lord came from Outside”. (LotR, 131)

Tom knows the stories of the beginning, the stories of the world’s creation and of the Vala and of all of the various peoples of Arda. He is the storyteller, the master, and what he does is essentially magic, placing the hobbits into a trancelike state that allows them to accept the strangeness of the world that they’ve just entered into. Without Tom’s guidance, without the guidance of stories to ease them into their new reality, the hobbits would be much less successful in making the change from their familiar, comforting, ordinary lives to the adventure and danger and seemingly impossible occurrences that await them.

Tom is telling stories within the main story of Lord of the Rings, and within this framework—inside Tolkien’s secondary reality, telling stories relating to that same secondary reality—they are true. He acts as an educator and as an all-knowing force with one leg inside the narrative and one outside of it, able to see the turn of the world and everything that happens or has happened in Arda. And the Ring has no power over him—because Tom is storytelling incarnate, he cannot be corrupted or otherwise affected by evil. Taking the Catholic imagery that Tolkien uses into account, because Tom is a concept, an entity that existed before the Fall, evil has no effect on him; storytelling itself, although it is done and touched and changed and corrupted by imperfect humans, as is everything else, is in itself somehow above mortality. And so is Tom—he is permanent. He was there before, and he will be after; timeless, unaffected by the millennia, he exists, imparting his wisdom to others and forever building on himself, forever learning and hearing and collecting in order that he may tell. In that sense, Tom is not just an embodiment of the act of storytelling, but he is the embodiment of the history and the tradition that go along with storytelling. And, like storytelling, Tom is permanent and everlasting in a world that is constantly shifting. Being everlasting does not mean that he is unchanging, but it does mean that what changes he, as storytelling, does undergo do build themselves from the traditions, stories, and historical or legendary events that came before then.

Tom’s odd, supernatural (even for Middle-earth) nature gives him an additional element: while he is certainly a representative of storytelling as a whole in his all-seeing nature and timelessness, when taken out of the secondary reality and looked at from the point of view of our own primary reality, Tom seems to take on another role as a representative of fairy-stories themselves, and he reinforces all of the arguments that Tolkien makes in favor of fairy-stories in his essay. Tom is powerful. Tom can bring the hobbits—or us humans—into another world entirely. Tom is ancient, there to tie all the ages of Middle-earth together.

Perhaps most importantly, though, Tom remembers. Tom knows. Tom knows history and myth and the inner workings of souls. And what better mirror of reality is there than fantasy?
- Michaela Jandacek

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Balrog, Beware!

"I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor! You cannot pass. The dark fire will not avail you, flame of Udûn. Go back to the Shadow! You cannot pass."

--J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1994), p. 322.

With thanks to the "Hitchcocker's Guide to the Snellaxy" 2010 University of Chicago Scavenger Hunt team for the opportunity to battle the Balrog.* And congratulations for coming in first!

*Oh, and just if you're wondering now that you've seen the video, we had a long discussion (complete with the text of LotR, which "Gandalf" just happened to have on hand) about the signature line. We knew that in the book, Gandalf only says, "You cannot pass," but thanks to the movie, the terms of the ScavHunt item were that Gandalf should say, "You shall not pass!" So we went for the points.

Originally posted on Fencing Bear at Prayer.