Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Elf-friends and Credibility

            The concept that I enjoyed most from these readings was that of the Elf-friend, the mediator between our world (the “real” world) and the world of Faerie. Although Tolkien is clearly the supreme Elf-friend, I was particularly struck by the concept mentioned in the reading from the Legendarium that Tolkien invented characters as Elf-friends to stand in his place because that makes his myth more believable. Flieger states that myths cannot be written; they can only be written down or written about. Therefore in order for Tolkien’s work to appear to the reader as a myth or history instead of just art, he needed a participant in the story to be telling it. It wasn’t something that had ever occurred to me before, but once I read it, I realized how true a statement it was and how profound its impact on Tolkien’s work. The notion of an Elf-friend allows Tolkien to participate in his own mythology without hurting its credibility. In Tolkien’s works, he has not one Elf-friend but many. In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo, Bilbo, Aragorn, Sam, and more serve this role.

Tolkien’s stories are remarkably believable. Even though they contain these elements of Faerie that are foreign to the inhabitants of the “real” world, the elements are presented in such a way that they fit with our world. In some instances Tolkien’s weaving of our world and the world of Faerie is seamless. His incorporation of “Hey Diddle Diddle” into Frodo’s song in The Prancing Pony works perfectly. As a philologist, he creates a history for this remnant or fossil of the real world. In creating histories for real world “fossils” Tolkien adds to the believability of his world as a precursor to our own. These fossils also help to refute Tolkien’s claim that the stories just came to him out of thin air. While certainly some parts of the stories come purely from Tolkien’s imagination, he is still a philologist and constructed off fragments of the real world in order to weave aspects of our world into his own.

Adding to the apparent reality of Tolkien’s world is its detail and completeness. His stories span multiple ages and take place in a number of locations. The sheer number of stories, those that he actually completed and those that he merely sketched out, demonstrate the immensity of the world. This world is so vivid and complete that at times it seems almost real. Even though they are fictional stories, they make up a history and we study them as such. In fact there are times Tolkien’s letters and other comments on his writings almost give the impression that he believes that this world he has created is real. We can safely assume that Tolkien is not delusional enough to actually believe that his stories are real, but they are so captivating that you can understand where he’s coming from. In order to be a good Elf-friend, he must believe them in some way. As our bridge to the world of Faerie, our belief is dependent on his conviction.

The question of whether or not Peter Jackson is and Elf-friend came up in class, and there was some debate about the issue, but the general consensus seemed to be that he was not an Elf-friend. I would like to challenge that idea. Perhaps I am unlike many of the people who spoke against Peter Jackson in class in that I saw the movies before reading the books and that has an effect on my position on this issue. Peter Jackson was my first introduction to Middle Earth and the reason I chose to delve further into the world by reading the books. Jackson by no means does a perfect job of interpreting Tolkien’s work. He focuses heavily on the action in the story and leaves out large sections of the book that really bring us into Tolkien’s version of Faerie such as the time The Fellowship spends in Lórien. But in the context of the movie, Jackson truly is the mediator between the real world and the world of Faerie. Faerie is not one set thing, and in the movies Jackson is the Elf-friend to his version of Faerie. Some people also argued that Jackson is not “in” the movies so he cannot be a true elf friend. However Jackson is in the movies through the actors in the same way that Tolkien is in the books through his characters. Jackson’s being an Elf-friend should not be confused with his being “friendly” to the original work (either in the sense of enjoying it or in the sense of providing a faithful adaptation). I see Jackson as an Elf-friend to his own work and his own version of Faerie. He is the (indirect or unseen) teller of the tale. He tells the tale through his choice of actors, sets, costumes, cinematography, etc. All of these were things that Tolkien could not use to tell his tale, but in my opinion are of equal importance as the means Tolkien used to secure his place as an Elf-friend. It follows that in this sense every writer, director, or artist who works in the world of Faerie can be a type of Elf-friend. I would qualify this, though, by saying that they are an Elf-friend only if they bridge the gap between the worlds successfully, which I believe Jackson does.



  1. The argument for Peter Jackson as an Elf Friend is compelling both ways. On the one hand, Jackson in some ways has only as much claim to being an Elf Friend as any other reader of Tolkien’s Legendarium; on the other hand, by realizing an audio-visual representation of Middle Earth, Jackson serves to link his audience to the fantasy. However reaching a definitive conclusion on this matter is difficult.
    Regardless, Jackson should not be discounted from discussion of the Legendarium. In fact, his creation serves an absolutely critical role. The film series actually serves as one of the so-called “fossils” of the past. Jackson’s films obviously lack certain content that the original books contained, just as the modern “Hey Diddle Diddle” lacks much of the content present in Frodo’s version. As Tolkien’s tales move through time, they are morphed and changed to suit the flavor of the time, just as the fossils he looks for were fragmented as society and culture changed through history. Despite many true believers’ protestations at the changes made in the movies, such changes actually serve to further Tolkien’s insistence on creating as believable a world as possible. By beginning the fossilization of Tolkien’s tales, Jackson serves to legitimize them as cultural touchstones and pieces of mythology. Furthermore, by perpetuating and fossilizing Tolkien’s tales, Jackson works to further blur the line between the primary and secondary realities; as the Lord of the Rings and it’s related tales become more a part of our cultural conscience, they begin to leave the realm of Faerie and enter that of history.
    - Brendan McGuire

  2. Thanks, ECB, for the comment.

    Pardon if this reply is on the terse side, I composed a longer one and Blogger ate it. The upshot was that I think you have several interesting ideas here, any one of which could be discussed profitably, but they’re a little vaguely structured with regard to each other and an overall theme.

    For example, I agree with you that Jackson should be considered an ælf-wine for three important reasons, what he does, what Tolkien set out to do, and how Tolkien did it.

    First, Jackson does bring new elements into the universe of Tolkien, e.g., Boromir’s dying speech to Aragorn (though he probably should have called him “cousin” rather than “brother”). In Tolkienian terms, he’s brought these back from Faërie (at least where they work).

    Second, Tolkien set out to create an open, collaborative mythology for England to be worked on by many hands.* If Jackson’s prodigious creative participation in the universe can be dismissed, then Tolkien’s project is a dead letter, a hermetic gnosis that dies with Christopher as the last initiate of Eru.

    Third, Tolkien himself in The Simarillion originally set out to present his universe as a series of fragmentary texts through which it could be reconstructed. Jackson’s films are merely a new set of texts. They retell Tolkien’s tale which itself alleges to be the translation of the Red Book of Westmarch, itself incorporating many original texts. These Jackson texts may clearly derive from them—they are later, they may be defective, but they clearly participate in and add to our knowledge of Arda, if we allow for additions to its canons by hands other than Tolkien père et fils.

    Consequently, I think Jackson—whatever you think of his films—has to be granted the status of elf-friend. He may have been led to Faërie by Prof. T., but he clearly potters around there a fair bit himself these days. I don’t known if Tolkien would have approved of the adaptation (though I suspect more than the one to whom he wrote Forrie Ackerman—for which, see Letters), but ultimately it can’t matter if Tolkien‘s mythological project is really a mythological project, and not merely the œuvre of a single, philologically-inclined novelist.

    Professors Flieger and Fulton Brown likely differ, and as a mere wizard, I must defer to the Valar.

    Bill the Heliotrope

    *I don’t know that Tolkien was aware of it at all, but his contemporary, H.P. Lovecraft (1890–1937) and a bunch of like-minded writers on the low-rent horror–sci-fi pulp side of the street basically did what Tolkien’s college club imagined and created a haunted-house sub-creation, imbuing the world with an atheistic nihilism that was, at its core, incomprehensibly insane by human standards. This world is usually referred to as “the Cthulhu mythos.” There were authors (notably August Derleth, an occasional collaborator of HPL’s and his self-anointed literary executor) who treated this mythos in very different ways, but perhaps due to the fact they were largely just firing off short stories for the pulps, they ended up creating a whole blizzard of texts that illustrated a cosmos haunted by the absence of God and, more to the point, the presence of many terrifying alien entities with god-like powers.

    As a parenthesis to last week’s class, in The Shadow Out of Time, Lovecraft also imagined space-time travel through the medium of another’s consciousness, although his solution also turns out to be ancient and alien.

  3. Whether Peter Jackson is an elf friend or not is an interesting question, mainly because I think it is a question of the medium. Movies are an interesting world. I think that Peter Jackson is certainly an elf friend insofar as he is trying to build his secondary reality (and by that, I mean that of Tolkien). He is trying to interact with the characters, to make something that expands the reality of the world.

    I disagree with your notion that “We can safely assume that Tolkien is not delusional enough to actually believe that his stories are real.” Not because Tolkien is delusional, but because you seem to be missing the idea of the secondary reality. It is, to some extent, real. It exists as a story, as something that somewhere happened. It was not in our primary reality, if that is what you mean by real, and Tolkien did not believe it was a historical time period in our primary reality, but the world is real.

    That brings us back to Peter Jackson. To be an elf friend, one must interact with and participate in this secondary reality. The elf friend, much like Starbrow in the Smith of Wooton Major, enters the world, interacts with the characters, and accepts it as his reality. The job of elf friends, then, is partially to bring other people into that world they are so familiar with. If you view movies as a full immersion into a world, then Peter Jackson is certainly an elf friend. He is taking us inside of Middle Earth, making it a reality for us, and helping us understand how real it is. If you consider a movie to just be a show that demonstrates something to you, then Peter Jackson is not an elf friend but just a related artist. One may say he does not really interact with the world, he just paints it for everyone to see.

    I tend to view movies as a full immersion, and I think Jackson worked hard to contribute to the world and make something that brings other people into the world, to help them feel and understand Middle Earth. it is not just an artwork about someone else’s secondary reality, Jackson participated in an already existing secondary reality and helped many people make it in.