Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Building Bridges to Faerie

              So here’s a fun fact – the word pontiff, used to refer to Catholic bishops in general and the Pope in particular, is popularly etymologized to come from a Latin root meaning “bridge-builder”.  In addition to a literal meaning deriving from the priestly duty to maintain bridges over the sacred Tiber river, the term also alludes to the priestly duty to build a bridge from the earthly to the divine, neither elevating the profane nor drawing down the sacred but rather allowing the two worlds to intermingle and effect each other, primarily in the form of receiving divine blessing.
              The reason I mention this (probably not all that fun, now that I think about it, but I enjoyed it) piece of trivia is because  our classes so far, especially this past Monday, have made me think a lot about bridges (and, to a lesser extent, etymologies). Tolkien’s entire project, as we have discussed at length, was an act of sub-creation, to make through his stories a Secondary Reality to fit into our Primary one. He was focused on the great work not just to appease audiences like Nokes, whose focus in making the Great Cake was that it be pretty to the children, but almost for its own sake, to make something of substance.
But the Great Cake, despite Alf’s distaste for its frivolousness, was meant to be eaten, and Tolkien must at some point regard the audience. Middle-Earth can’t work if no one reads Tolkien’s books. But he cannot “betray” the work for the sake of appeasement either, as he has shown by the way he treats his writings and ideas as given things of which he is in many ways a transcriber. When something he wrote on later reflection didn’t make sense or didn’t fit the tone, Tolkien didn’t always (though he did sometimes) just go back and change it, but treated it as it was and tried to “find” an explanation for what he saw. The work must stand on its own, but must also draw readers in a way that a collection of strange tales of imaginary lands cannot do alone.
Tolkien’s task, it appears, was not to bring Middle-Earth to his readers, but to bring his readers to Middle-Earth. To accomplish this, he used plenty of different methods, but two that we have discussed the most (and which I was the most interested in) was the Elf-friend and etymologies. In the former we have a character who is in the fantastic world of the books, but not quite of it. This character serves as both a framing device and as, well, a character, driving events and the plot. Frodo, then, is an Elf-friend, as is Bilbo, or the Smith’s grandfather, or Aelfwine. In a more general sense Tolkien is himself an elf-friend, as is his son Christopher and, debatably (as shown by our debate), even Peter Jackson.  The elf-friend allows us to be brought into the world of the sub-creation by someone familiar with it, but not intimately so. Were they less intimate, we’d run the risk of just reading an editor describe stories devoid of real meaning – more intimate, and the elves (no longer elf-friends) might seem so different from us as to offer us no hope of bringing us into their world. The Elf-friend, the pontiff, the guide, eases us in and takes us safely and carefully out of our world into Faerie.
The second tool, as mentioned, was etymologies. To further connect the audience and the work, Tolkien blurred the lines between fiction and reality, making his world the origin of ours: “Hey Diddle-Diddle” is a half-remembered garbled version of one of Bilbo’s songs, a half-elf has become, in modern stories, an angel. Through these tidy little origins, Tolkien again familiarizes us with what might have been an alien world, and allows it to be fulfilling to us.
Let me put it another way. Neil Gaiman once described Tolkien’s writings as “like natural things, like rock formations or waterfalls”. The Lord of the Rings is so potent, so couldn’t-be-other, in a way that makes clear that Middle-Earth was itself a labor of love, where he described a land that was already there. But so too was Niggle’s painting, which was not complete without Parish’s help. Now the importance of the audience to the completion of the work in Niggle’s case is clear, but what I think is even more important is that Niggle didn’t bring his painting to Parish. Parish came to Niggle’s slice of the afterlife, and there they worked together to complete something that the creator was foolish to have once believed belonged only to him. What’s so magnificent  about Tolkien’s work is that the audience does not feel like one for whom this great story was written, but like the recipient of an invitation into a fantastic world. Concessions to the audience feel like just that – a way to ease the audience into a world that exists almost independently of them. The elf-friends hold our hands, the etymologies provide familiar landmarks. Even the conceit that The Lord of the Rings is translated fits into this framework, as it is meant to help an audience who might, for some unfathomable reason, not read Westron.
Tolkien’s genius, I think, did not lie in the novel’s work of reaching an audience, but in an unparalleled act of world-building and in guiding the audience to that world. Clearly he is not at all interested in bringing the mountain to Muhammed, but Muhammed could not have hoped for better help in getting to the mountain.

-Daniel Betancourt


  1. I love the fact that pontiff means ‘bridge builder’. It reminds me of the fact that the pope, in Italian, is called ‘papa’, and that Jesus often called God ‘father’. These words, despite having different meanings, show a link that exists between the speaker and the person being talked about; the people with the given titles are looked up to as being bridges between two worlds. In a similar way, one could argue that an author is such a person. An author creates bridges and connections between their reader and the world they are writing about. In cases such as with Tolkien, this world if very much a faerie world.

    And there is more than one way to enter the world of faerie. C.S. Lewis’ works illustrate that faerie has more than one entrance, be it a painting, a ring, or a wardrobe. And Tolkien’s story ‘Smith of Whootton Major’ shows us that sometimes a door opens up to faerie when we least expect it. In my humble opinion, though, books are second best to entering faerie, second only to dreams. These two mediums allow the visitor to see the world for themselves in their own way, but the door is opened up often with the assistance of others, whether it be through a book or simply a kiss goodnight.


  2. Dan, thanks for the post.

    I think you're right in terms of Tolkien’s wanting to bring his readers into Middle Earth. In a way, this is part of his project of creating myth rather than literature. He’s not holding up a mirror to reality in any sort of way, he’s reinterpreting the grounds upon which it rests, in the hope that that will bring us a new perspective on the world we live in most of the time (and perhaps some Consolation as well).

    Bill the Heliotrope

    P.S. In the ninth-century compliation of the Durham Rite, the word “pontifex” is glossed literally in Anglo-Saxon (Northumbrian branch) as brycgwyrcende, “bridge-worker” (brycg + wyrc -ende. I have no real reason for bringing this up, other than Tolkien almost certainly knew it…

  3. So I'm really interested in this idea of a bridge-builder, particularly in the religious context. I believe it was during this discussion of Elf-friends that Jesus was mentioned as an archetypal Elf-friend, particularly in the episode after his resurrection where he appears to the two travelers and makes sense of his own actions in the context of the Hebrew scriptural canon. You bring up an interesting aspect in the post of inviting someone into a different world—Tolkien taking us to Middle-Earth or Niggle bringing Parish into his painting—which I find particularly compelling for the Christian application. Was Jesus simply bringing a story to the travelers or was he inviting them into a story, a new life? His explanation of his own actions and life provides a context for the travelers to understand what is going on, and perhaps the offering of a meal can be a way to understand them as entering into a different "world." This may be pushed back on by the fact that the travelers didn't seem to realize what was happening until after it had already been happening.


  4. I think the tie between Tolkien transporting his readers to Middle-Earth rather than taking Middle-Earth to them and his creation of myth is an interesting one. I would argue that the fundamental goal of myth is to bring the world of the divine down to a human level rather than to bring people into the world of the divine. The question of applicability, then, is how being a bridge-builder ties into being an elf-friend.
    I really like your idea that we need relatable characters to take our hand and guide us into the secondary reality. The bridge is between the primary and secondary worlds, and they’re the ones guiding our hands. In that way, The Lord of the Rings has a lot in common with historical fiction for me. The idea of looking at a past time and place (if we accept that Middle-Earth is supposed to represent England) and the idea of having a guide to take us there is what historical fiction tries to achieve. I know Tolkien wanted to write Fantasy, but it’s interesting to think of the way stories of history are secondary creations.

    --Micah Sperling

  5. Cool! Not only am I always up for learning new fun facts, but I really enjoy your analysis of Tolkien’s concerted effort to build bridges via elf friends and etymologies. I agree that the etymologies are very helpful stepstools into the “alien world,” and I would like to consider a bit further your claim that elf friends are relatable guides. For one, I think that the fact that many of the elf-friends we’ve seen sort of fit the category of “fairy-tale hero” further emphasizes your point. Over the course of their stories, elf friends seem to start as relatable, everyday people (just like readers) and it is through happenstance that they go on an adventure. ~ERGG