Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Keepers of Faerie

            One of the major topics of discussion covered during Tuesday’s lecture was Elf-friends within context of Tolkien’s mythos and within the context of our own world. Flieger’s “The Footsteps of Aelfwine” gives an account of the Elf-friend, his definition extrapolated from Tolkien’s writings and brought into our mortal world; however, I do not believe that Flieger gives a complete account of Elf-friends. Rather, I believe that there exist at least two degrees of Elf-friend, degrees that can be best observed in, as Flieger refers to it, the ultimate expression of the Elf-friend, Smith of Wootton Major. Smith brings to the Elf-friend a nuance that was only hinted at in Tolkien’s earlier works, and I believe that these nuances reveal that we too are Elf-friends, if of a different sort than Tolkien. Below I distinguish between two degrees of Elf-friend so as to provide a more complete account of Elf-friends.
            Flieger rightly establishes Tolkien as the ultimate Elf-friend, and it is this formulation of the Elf-friend that comprises the first type of Elf-friend. Flieger’s Elf-friends are the non-elven intermediaries between the world of Faerie and our mortal ears. They serve as interpreters, translators, writers – but they are more than mere story tellers. Elf-friends are, as the Legendarium puts it, those that are “neither wholly outside nor completely inside but in between [the myth]” (186): They discover Faerie and act as the true mediators between the myth and the audience. These Elf-friends are scattered throughout Tolkien’s works, but they are guises that allow Tolkien to take part in Faerie and to experience Faerie so that he may mediate between Faerie and us thus giving life to myth. In this way, Tolkien is the ultimate Elf-friend: He experienced the Faerie story and brought it to us so that we might experience it too.
            Using Tolkien as the standard by which we define this first degree of Elf-friend we find that the Elf-friends scattered throughout Tolkien’s works are ultimate Elf-friends in their own respects – including the original Master Cook of Wootton Major. The Master Cook, more than any earlier Elf-friend, is Tolkien’s counterpart. Like Tolkien, the Master Cook is a discoverer of Faerie. When he returns, he bridges the divide between worlds in two ways: First, the Master Cook brings with him a small star that allows its bearer to pass, for a time, into Faerie; second, the Master Cook’s Faery companion, Alf, eventually teaches the Master Cook’s successors. In regard to the first, the Master Cook’s star provides a path into Faery much in the way that Tolkien’s works allow their readers to pass into Faerie. In regard to the second, it was Tolkein’s hope that his own work would pave a way for others to follow in his footsteps and become “ultimate” Elf-friends. Finally, the Master Cook’s departure, presumably to explore Faerie, is analogous to Tolkien’s continued work on The Silmarillion.
            However, Tolkien’s is not the only analogue to be found in Wootton Major: Smith is the reader’s analogue. Smith of Wootton Major does not discover Faerie; instead, the key to Faery is bequeathed to Smith by his grandfather. Nor does he participate in Faerie or mediate between his world and Faerie in the way that his predecessor did. While Smith can enter Faery, he is a mere observer: His star protects him from the evils of Faerie, but he is not allowed to get too close to Faery’s fantastical elements lest Faery threaten to expel him as it did when he touched the lake. At most, Smith is able to lose himself in an occasional dance. And throughout all his wandering, the only bridge that Smith establishes between his world and Faery is a small flower, a memento. Finally, Smith’s excursions into Faery come to an end, and the star is passed on to another. Substituting Tolkien with the Master Cook reveals how we, the readers, relate to Smith. Our key to Faery is Tolkien’s written word; we experience Faery as observers, safe from evils but also unable to look too closely at the creation lest it fly apart, our only takeaway the small memories of Faery that we will look upon and cherish. Finally it is time for the story to come to its end – it is time for us to pass it on.
            It is clear now that Smith is not an Elf-friend by Flieger’s definition of the term, yet Smith is also distinguished by shining eyes and a ringing voice that, in the Lord of the Rings, reveal Frodo to be an Elf-friend to Goldberry. What, then, is Smith? I believe Smith is the aspect of the second sort of Elf-friend. This sort of Elf-friend is not a discoverer or a communicator of Faery like Tolkien was; rather, this Elf-friend preserves Faery much as the Elves preserved the beauty of Lothlórien. If Smith is this second sort of Elf-friend, then we, Tolkien’s readers, are Elf-friends as well.
This formulation of Elf-friends can be supported by evidence from Book I of The Lord of the Rings. The term “Elf-friend” builds in meaning as Frodo enters different stages of his journey, and here I will examine how the terms evolves over the course of Frodo’s encounter with Gildor. When Frodo greets Gildor for the first time, Gildor refers to him as Elf-friend but seems to attach no special significance to the term – the wandering Elves only allow the Hobbits to travel with them when Gildor catches a sense of the importance of Frodo’s mission; at the end of their encounter, Gildor names Frodo Elf-friend, using the term with a great deal more respect. Gildor’s use of Elf-friend changes with his understanding of Frodo: I believe that Gildor initially perceived Frodo to be an Elf-friend of the second degree, a keeper of Bilbo’s stories; yet by the end of his encounter with the Hobbits, Gildor recognizes that Frodo is about to journey into the realm of Faerie and thus take his place amongst the “ultimate” Elf-friends and thus treats the term with reverence.
I have tried to show in the above that Elf-friend extends beyond those that make the journey into Faerie and bring it back with them – it is also a term for those who partake of Faerie and maintain the beauty of Faerie so that others may follow in Tolkien’s footsteps. I have also tried to show that this dichotomy is consistent with Tolkien’s other works. And so I conclude with this: Tolkien made possible the passage into Faerie, but it is we keepers who have kept it open.

-N. Malaqai Vasquez

1 comment:

  1. Very nice parsing of what it means to be an “Elf-friend” to Fleiger and Tolkien! You give us a very clear description of what it means to be a “true mediator,” neither fully inside nor fully outside but between. I very much like the gradation of “Elf-friendishness” you posit here—I agree that there seem to be degrees of distance and mediation in the roles of the “interpreters, translators, and writers.”

    I'm not sure I fully understand how Tolkien-as-Elf-friend performs the same work as the Master-Cook-as-Elf-friend. If Tolkien is a “first degree” Elf-friend because he mediates between the myth and the audience, what does it mean for him to “take on the guise” of Elf-friends who function within the story as themselves (or in Fleiger's words, a "semitransparent mask")? Is there some distancing that happens when we read aspects of the persona or function of Tolkien in a character—perhaps some slippage between a primary and secondary reality? I very much like your reading of the Master Cook functioning in Smith the way that Tolkien functions in his whole corpus, but do they actually inhabit the same space on your gradient of Elf-friendishness? I'm not sure, but I'm willing to be convinced.

    Very nice reading of the encounter between Frodo and Gildor—I agree that initially, “Elf-friend” feels more like a salutation than an identity, and that Frodo makes the transition from keeper of stories to active participant in an ongoing story. I am with you on the distinction between second and first-degree Elf-friend, as typified by the Master Cook and Smith. Where I am a bit lost is in the distinction between “communicator” and “preserver”--if we are like Smith, able to lose ourselves in Faery but not to touch or alter it, what does it mean to “preserve Faery much as the Elves preserved the beauty of Lothlorien”? Can you be a husbandman of something you cannot actually impact? If we can only take away small memories (or flowers) to cherish, are we in fact “maintaining” anything unless we too become communicators?

    A thought-provoking analysis. Great work thinking through the various functions and degrees of the Elf-friend!

    - Jenna