Wednesday, April 5, 2017

A Place for Elf-friends

This is going to be a haphazard, some may say fragmentary, blog post, because I’m mostly going to stray from topic to topic based on points raised in class that I found interesting. But the overall course of this entry will tend from the nature of Tolkien’s myth to the implications on the role of Elf-friends.

To begin, the fragmentary nature of myth was a really interesting discussion and not a topic that I had thought much about before class. Of course Tolkien’s own work mostly exists in fragmentary form, but the realism inherent in this account of legend (intentional or not) does add a lot of depth to the world itself. And then there are the in-universe hints at the myth-progression that we laid out, in the form of Bilbo’s primordial Hey Diddle Diddle (and I think I remember The Hobbit offering an origin story for the phrase ‘out of the frying pan, into the fire’). In this progression, which roughly reads history/myth > fairy-story > scraps/fragments of cultural memory, Tolkien takes modern examples of the last step and reconstructs one or more of the earlier steps. This has the dual effect of enriching his own universe while more effectively immersing us, the readers, into it.

I will admit that much of The Lost Road reading intimidated me in its complicated account of the development of the tale. But I think it begins to answer a question posed during lecture, when someone asked what justification there is for Tolkien to claim that he ‘recovered English myth’. I don’t claim to have an answer to this. But I think Tolkien, if challenged about this, would point to the parallels he has drawn between attested tropes of Old English literature (namely, Scyld Scefing and other such figures) and the framing devices that he has constructed for his own universe. The Lost Road is all about making explicit the implicit goal in most of his work, which is to tie our fragmentary understanding of mythology back to some sort of reality.

At one point, someone in the class made the claim that by interacting with Tolkien’s world in such a professional way (and by adding to it with our final projects), we too become elf-friends. At the risk of diluting the term, then, we might be able to posit ‘elf-friend’ in the modern context as somebody who takes mythology seriously enough to use it in a real, material way in the ‘primary’ world; a bridge that itself builds. Smith uses his gifts to make trinkets and tools for Wootton Major, Sam becomes Mayor and produces the final form of the Red Book, and so on. Elf-friends in this way are storytellers, but their contributions are used and appreciated even if the stories themselves are not. Somebody who listens to Blind Guardian’s Nightfall in Middle Earth may love the album for its musical merit while not caring at all about its subject matter (namely, The Silmarillion).

In this vein, a certain amount of the class discussion focused on Tolkien’s goal to incorporate the reader into the story’s universe. The class discussion about Sam seemed to encapsulate this. Sam is a protagonist that many can immediately identify with, at least at first. Throughout the book, he (along with Frodo) expresses his fascination with the ‘old stories’, all the way up until that moment below Cirith Ungol when he realizes that he is in the stories. Similarly, Tolkien wishes to elaborate upon a universe where his readers can achieve a similar moment of self-realization. The fragments of older tales sprinkled throughout the Lord of the Rings evoke a collective cultural consciousness, sometimes explicitly (as in the form of Hey Diddle Diddle). In parallel to these real-world Tolkien-world connections, Sam connects the in-universe tales of Beren to his own experiences and those of Frodo; and the reader connects this story to their own memories, becoming an active participant in the world that Tolkien illustrates. What is remarkable about this is that Sam is providing a very explicit link between the elf-dominated history of the First Age, his own time, and with us ourselves.

Sam also seems to epitomize a notion that Tolkien writes about in his Letters, when he places his work in the context of “deeds of virtue of the apparently small, ungreat, forgotten in the places of the Wise and Great” (160). This codependency of the high and noble with the simple and vulgar is also found in the general trend in his work from the elf-centric (Eldarcentric?) Silmarillion to the human-dominated Lord of the Rings. In any case, he like other elf-friends becomes ‘better than what he was’ (as somebody said during class), which Tolkien seems to posit as a universal trait among elf-friends who experience Faërie firsthand.

I wanted to touch on an aspect of Faërie that I think we somewhat overlooked in class, and may provide some vindication of Smith and validation of his troubles. Flieger cites Smith of Wootton Major when she writes that the connection between the real world and Faërie is “contingent on the good will” of the latter (196). We pointed out that Smith seemed to have failed in his role as Elf-friend, in that he failed to relay his account of the secondary world to the inhabitants of the primary world. But the secondary world that Smith explored was very hostile and isolating. Smith is depicted in his wanderings as ‘without a guide’; he is left alone or ignored by many of the inhabitants; and when he finally meets the elf-queen (unknown to him), she suggests that his star is “not a passport” to travel in the land as he pleases. This is not to say that Middle-Earth was not often hostile, but Frodo had Gandalf for at least part of the journey.

More than anything, I get the impression that Smith is a cautionary tale about Faërie, and that the role of Elf-friend is as dangerous as it is hallowed. Sam and Frodo made it out alright in the end – they get to go live in paradise – but contrast this with Elendil, who dies a horrible death at the hands of Sauron; or with Beren, who meets a similarly bleak fate. Adam mentioned the unenviable fate of Snorri Sturluson, an ‘Elf-friend’ of sorts who paid dire consequences. We are quick to label Smith a failure, but he is a traveller in a land that seems to reject him; that he manages to love it until the end and pass on the role to another generation is itself admirable.

-AJ Corso


  1. To add to your point about how Smith is an admirable elf-friend despite not conveying a ton of information, I think it's also worth noting that because he doesn't have a guide (e.g. a Gandalf) he's pretty much as lost for meaning as the reader is at times within the secondary world, and so it wouldn't even be very honest of him to try to pass on much more of his gift than he does to the village. He did still pass the gifts of the secondary world to the primary world, and so even though he didn't really do it similarly to how other elf-friends we've been exposed to did, I don't think I'd say his different gift of the secondary world is inherently worse than the gift given by Sam to the readers of the Red Book of Westmarch.

    I think to make the odds even worse for Smith becoming the sort of elf-friend we see in other parts of Tolkien's mythos, even Sam and Frodo had some knowledge of the world outside of the Shire before leaving on their adventure. Smith pretty much left for the secondary world with no guide and no prior knowledge of what he would find, which on one hand makes him a bit easier to identify with as a reader (when he's confused, we are too, as it's both of our first times seeing this world), but without a guide also still leaves both us and Smith in the dark as to the deeper workings of the world. Because of this, I think it's pretty fair to characterize Smith's efforts as perfectly understandable and admirable given the journey he was thrust into.

  2. I would like to hear more about how you read "Smith" as a cautionary tale. Certainly Shippey reads it this way! What--and who--would Tolkien be cautioning with Smith's adventures? RLFB