Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The Agency and Destiny of Elf Friends

            As I aim to understand who is an elf friend and what their exact role is, I find that Tolkien also presents a separate set of people. While the Smith and, according to Verlyn Flieger, the Master Cook are truly elf friends, Nokes actively refuses and denies the world of Faery. He acts as the elf-foe.
            Nokes’ very first reaction to anything fay is “Tha’s funny!” (Smith of Wooten Major, 5).  From the onset, Tolkien casts this man as the antithesis to the type of people friendly to the fairies.  He’ll permit  children to believe in fairies, and even the seemingly young Alf.  For his own part Nokes dismisses anything supernatural as nonsense.  Tolkien draws this characterization beyond a mere reality of growing up; Nokes is characterized as brutish, unqualified for his position, boring, and rude.
            Even after a definite run-in with the Fairy King, Nokes refuses to acknowledge the presence of Faery.  At the end of his life, Nokes openly mocks Alf, and goads him, “If you've got one of your fairy friends hidden in the kitchens, send him to me….. and make me thin again” (Smith of Wooten Major, 5). After this Alf shows him his true and terrifying power, only for Nokes to discount the whole experience as a bad dream.  However, this inspires the man to eat better (so as to not have these terrifying dreams) and he ends up losing the weight.  Even to a non-believer, interactions with Faery have a benefit. 
            As we, the elf-friends of this class, read these stories, it is hard to imagine a world not filled with Nokeses.  Despite the fact that they give up Faery as children, and fail to have the more adult, mature relationship with it that Smith does, they do benefit from its work.  How could Nokes have been Master Cook without Alf’s constant aid? While Tolkien would argue for a more serious approach to Faery stories, it seems like Nokes doesn't have much of a choice of whether or not he will believe in Faery’s power.  Similarly, the elf-friends also lack agency in their interactions with the Faery world.
            From the beginning, Alf chooses Smith to be the Starbrow.  While Smith may have been a good boy in temperament (he charitably shares his coin with Nell), someone else decides to give him the star. The star compels Smith to “sing, high and clear, strange words that he seemed to know by heart” (Smith of Wooten Major, 22) and he slaps the star on his forehead for no apparent reason.  Similarly, when Alf gives Tim the star next, he is chosen.  While he may be “a rather plump little boy, clumsy in the dances” (Smith of Wooten Major, 57), he has a penchant for singing-- a quality associated with the elf friends again and again, whether it be in  Wooten Major or The Lost Tales
            Smith’s forays into the world of Faery seem to be restricted, limited, and guided by an outside hand as well.  Take the language in the scene where the eleven mariners terrify him:
“When he first began to walk far without a guide he thought he would discover the further bounds of the land; but great mountains rose before him, and going by long ways round about them he came at last to a desolate shore.  He stood beside the Sea of Windless Storm where the blue waves like snow-clad hills roll silently out of Unlight to the long strand, bearing the white ships that return from battles on Dark Marches of which men know nothing.  He saw a great ship cast high upon the land, and the waters fell back in foam without a sound.  The eleven mariners were tall and terrible; their swords shown and their spear glinted and a piercing light was in their eyes.  Suddenly, they lifted up their voices in a song of triumph, and his heart was shaken with fear, and he fell upon his face, and they passed over him and went echoing away into the hills”- Smith of Wooten Major, 26-28
            Tolkien is certainly an author who chooses his words carefully.  We see the mountains ‘rising’, the hills ‘rolling’, and the sea ‘falling’, while Smith is ‘standing’.  The world changes around him, as he observes this world, which in this case, is strong, awesome, and beautiful, to the point that it inspires fear in his heart; clearly, even the friends of the elves are only observers in this world, and imperfect ones at that.  In fact, these journeys lack a concrete physicality.  Although he does get a small keepsake from his trips, the exercise itself seems to be more mental than physical.  Smith physically departs from is village, but once in Faery “turns his mind toward” (Smith of Wooten Major, 28) the places he wishes to travel to. When he does finally try to interact with the world, and sticks his toe in a lake, Faery reacts hostilely, trying to kill him in a gust of wind. A benevolent birch tree manages to save him with its own life, but tells him “You do not belong here.  Go away and never return!” (Smith of Wooten Major, 31).
            This type of passivity and lack of agency come to a point when we learn of the Fairy Queen.  We see that she is truly a figure of power, and that so far Smith has only traveled in the world by her leave.  Not only did his ability to enter Faery come from outside, but his ability to travel with in it is restricted.  Smith is clearly not on his own terms in this land. 
            Although Smith is not allowed to retain his star forever, and does not even pass it along directly to his bloodline, he is granted a hereditary keepsake in the form of a flower which never dies. The smith makes a casket for it, and his heirs open it from time to time.  However, they could only look “till the casket closed again: the time of its shutting was not theirs to choose” (Smith of Wooten Major, 34).

            It seems odd, that Tolkien would force not only his ‘elf foes’, but the beloved elf friends to be so passive, to relinquish their possessions.  However, this is central to his ideas of corruption, power, and story-telling.  We see how Bilbo, the first hobbit hero seems, to happen on things accidentally; Gandalf speculates if he was ‘meant’ to find the ring.  Frodo and Sam recognize that their part in the story will end, sooner or later.  The heroes of Tolkien’s world don’t always choose their roles.  They stumble into the stories as they spring out of the grass.  The choices they have within their parts allow them agency, but they are thrust into the tales by circumstance, or fate, or destiny.  The elf friends don't get to choose whether or not they are one, but choose how to act as an elf friend.  On the other hand, those who try to possess the world and powers of Faery for themselves, as Feanor does the silmarils, or as Saruman does the palantiri, are ultimately driven to destruction.


1 comment:

  1. I like that you highlighted the character of the elf-foe. We might think of other characters throughout Tolkien's works which embody the characteristics of Nokes, and now this embodiment leads to considerably worse consequences than mediocre cakes. A question I have, though, and indeed a question that could be broadened to apply to a lot of the issues you confront here, is how passive ultimately do we take Nokes to be in the face of Faery? Are the changes in his diet that occur after his run-in with Alf in his true form a passive consequence, or a signal of Nokes recognition, at least on a (very) dim level, of what he has been confronted with? I'm not sure that Tolkien really gives an answer to this question, or if there is an answer to give at all.

    Likewise, when you say: "The elf friends don't get to choose whether or not they are one, but choose how to act as an elf friend." Perhaps, Tolkien's response, or at least the response of someone advocating for a more active role on the part of the elf-friends, would be to suggest that it is precisely this choosing how to act as an elf-friend that determines whether or not we're going to be one? Tolkien seems to suggest that children are natural elf-friends, and it may be that it is in retaining or losing this elf-friendship (the paths of Smith and Nokes respectively) that our agency lies.

    (just an additional note, some of the formatting irregularities in this post can probably be eliminated by pasting text in as plain text, ctrl-shift-v, rather than simply pasting it in with existing format)