In class on Monday, Professor Fulton-Brown asked us how we ought (and how Tolkien would have liked us) to look at the stories of Middle-Earth. Are they fiction? Or perhaps fantasy? Or something else? In attempting to answer this question, I referred to a section from Tolkien's landmark essay on the poem "Beowulf," "The Monsters and the Critics." Unfortunately, my answer did not come out quite the way I had intended, and I thought I should clear up any confusion I may have caused.
The section of "The Monsters and the Critics" to which I was referring is the following, which I have taken from page 115 of the Norton Critical Edition of "Beowulf" (2002):
"...we perceive that he who wrote hæleth under heofenum may have meant in dictionary terms ‘heroes under heaven’, or ‘mighty men upon earth’, but he and his hearers were thinking of the eormengrund, the great earth, ringed with garsecg, the shoreless sea, beneath the sky’s inaccessible roof... that even this 'geography,' once held as a material fact, could now be classed as a mere folk-tale affects its value very little. It transcends astronomy."
What I meant by referring to this passage was not that Tolkien resents the dissection of "literature" in search of a factual origin or meaning. That he feels this way is of course abundantly clear elsewhere in the essay. But these words seem to me to convey more than what the antiquarian or scholar's relation to "literature" (or to folk-tales, or to fairy-stories) ought to be: they signify what the reader's relation to such stories ought to be. The quote is, I think, particularly applicable to Monday's lecture because it deals with a change in conception of the shape of the Earth and its position in relation to the other spheres of existence, a change that separates a modern reader from the poem. The comparable event in Arda, the creation of the Straight Road, must have had a similar effect on someone born in the Third Age who hears the story of Beren and Luthien. And yet Frodo and Sam, though they know they live in a different world, can still immerse themselves in the story, can still regard it as a true story (and a continuing one).
When we set aside our copies of The Lord of the Rings, we undergo our own "geographical" shift. The world we have occupied for several hours is changed into a fundamentally different (but yet vaguely similar) place. We are dividing ourselves from the historicity of the story, as we do when we remember that garsecg does not in fact exist. For Sam and Frodo, of course, the tale of Beren and Luthien was History as well as Myth, while "Beowulf" and The Lord of the Rings cannot be both for us. But knowing that "Beowulf" takes place in what is essentially another world (or more correctly a fundamentally different version of our world) has no effect on the poem itself, internally or externally. The character and importance of the heroic-mythical North and the stories that are told of it transcend our knowing that Beowulf did not actually kill Grendel and that our world is not the world of garsecg and eormengrund. Tolkien, I think (and this is my answer to Prof. Fulton-Brown's question), would want us to regard his works as a true myth, in much the same way that he wants us to regard "Beowulf" as a true myth. The subtle links between the Primary World and Arda (like Frodo's song at the Prancing Pony) or Beowulf's world (knowing that Hygelac and Hroðgar were real people) make the myth true, and our knowledge of the Primary World makes the truth mythical. Without the "historical" links, we are too distant from the Secondary World, and without knowledge of the separation of the Primary and Secondary Worlds, we are not distant enough, at which point Myth becomes too much like History. If fairy-stories are an escape, then the Fairy-world must be far enough away from our own that we wish to travel to it. But since we are escaping, not fleeing, we cannot enter a wholly foreign world. It must be an alternate version of our own world, one in which we are free from our bonds: an older version, perhaps, encompassed by the Great Sea and trodden by the feet of men half-real or long dead, or one inhabited by Elves and Ents and by West-midlanders who smoke tobacco and chat about dragons.