On Tolkien and Faerie

As J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit turns eighty this year, I’m going to be posting a number of pieces in celebration. Here is the second in the series.
I first read Tolkien’s The Hobbit at the age of eleven. Because I was a weird and obsessive kid, I read it over and over. In reading the book, I first learned how to read critically—for a twelve-year-old, at any rate. Here’s a passage I read over and over and never understood.
“Though their [the Wood Elves] magic was strong, even in those days they were wary. They differed from the High Elves of the West, and were more dangerous and less wise. For most of them (together with their scattered relations in the hills and mountains) were descended from the ancient tribes that never went to Faerie in the West.”
(Tolkien, the Hobbit, “Flies and Spiders)
Two questions occurred to me, even then. What did Tolkien mean by Faerie? And why was it a place?
I went on to read Lord of the rings, but the questions only piled up. One thing was clear. Tolkien kept referring to places, people, and even gods that seemed part of a larger mythology—one that only Tolkien knew about. I felt a strange longing for these people and places only hinted at in these stories.
Years passed. I went to university and studied English, and I began to see how the books and authors I had read for years fit within a larger history of English literature. I never forgot Tolkien, but I reread the books less and less as I explored other authors. In part, I was looking to recreate the same overwhelming reading experience I had with Tolkien. I never found it—came close, had many and varied reading experiences, but never the same as reading Tolkien.
It’s important for you to understand my llife as a reader before the Internet came along and publishers began seeing the value in electronic texts. In those days, I read my books on tape—first on a giant reel-to-reel tape-recorder, then special cassette players that had a much higher capacity than regular players. I got my books in the mail, and I had to order them on the phone. I rarely had access to the books people were talking about—new books, anyway. I always had to wait to see if either the CNIB (Canadian National Institute for the Blind) or RFB (Recordings for the Blind) was going to record the books I desperately wanted to read. This was another reason I read and reread the books I had. My mine of books was rich, but it was small. All the trouble with tapes that wouldn’t play, tape players that broke down, waiting and waiting for books—all this abruptly changed with the advent of digital recordings. Suddenly, I had a chance to explore Tolkien in a new way—one that I didn’t have before. Around this time, I also began teaching The Hobbit on a regular basis, which returned me to the old questions. And finally, I got some answers.
According to The Tolkien Gateway, the term Faerie only appears in Tolkien’s The Hobbit and not in LotR. Faerie is the land in the farthest West, the home of the Valar (the gods of Middle-Earth), and the place to which the elves return. In LotR and The Silmarillion, this place is Valinor. All this raises another question. Why did Tolkien use the term Faerie in The Hobbit?
The Hobbit was published in 1937. In 1938, Tolkien delivered the Andrew Lang lecture at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. This lecture, later published as “On Faerie Stories,” is the basis for Tolkien’s understanding of Faerie and fantasy. Faerie, according to Tolkien, is the realm that lies on the borders of human consciousness and human understanding. It is the perilous realm, the place that contains and embodies Story, and it is both wonderful and dangerous:
“The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords. In that realm a man may, perhaps, count himself fortunate to have wandered, but its very richness and strangeness tie the tongue of a traveller who would report them. And while he is there it is dangerous for him to ask too many questions, lest the gates should be shut and the keys be lost.”
(Tolkien, “On Faerie Stories”)
If you want to understand Tolkien, then read “On Faerie Stories.” It’s a difficult essay but worth reading. In this essay, Tolkien offers his understanding of Faerie and faerie stories, and he provides a foundational approach to fantasy for the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
If you find the essay heavy-going, don’t be discouraged. I’ve read this essay a dozen times, and each time I discover something new. If you want to see Tolkien exploring the realm of Faerie in fiction, read Smith of Wootton Major—an odd little story, but full of the power of the otherworld. Always remember, if you venture into that world, you do so at your own risk; the realm of Faerie will leave its mark, and you won’t be the same ever again.

The Enchanted Pig, A Retelling (Part III, the conclusion)

From, The Red Fairy Book, edited By Andrew Lang
And retold by William Thompson
Finding herself alone, the Princess wept so that she thought her heart would break. But after a while, she got up, determined to go wherever fate should lead. On reaching a town, the first thing she did was to buy three pairs of iron sandals and a steel staff, and then she set out in search of her husband.
She wandered over the land, across wide plains and through dark forests. She stumbled over fallen branches, the boughs of the trees striking her face and the shrubs tearing her hands, but on she went, and never looked back. At last, wearied with her long journey and overcome with sorrow, but still with hope in her heart, she reached a house.
It was the house of the Moon. The Princess knocked at the door, and begged to be let in that she might rest a little. The mother of the Moon, seeing the Princess’s torn clothes and sorrowful face, felt a great pity for her, and took her in and nursed and tended her. While the Princess recovered in the house of the Moon, she had a little baby.
“How was it possible for you, a mortal, to come all this way to the house of the Moon?” asked the mother of the Moon, one day, as the Princess sat nursing her child.
The Princess told her sad tale. “I shall always be thankful for your kindness to me and my child,” the Princess concluded, “but I would beg one last favour. Can your daughter, the Moon, tell me where I may find my husband?”
“She cannot tell you that, my child,” replied the mother of the Moon, gravely, “but, if you travel towards the East until you reach the house of the Sun, you may discover something of your husband.” Then she gave the Princess a roast chicken for the journey, and warned her to be careful not to lose any of the bones.
When the Princess had thanked her once more for her care and good advice, and had thrown away one pair of worn-out iron shoes, and had put on a second pair, she tied up the chicken bones into a bundle, and taking her child in her arms and her staff in her hand, she set out once more on her wanderings.
On and on she went. She crossed wide deserts and scaled high mountains, always walking to the East. The sun burned her face, and the bitter snow of the mountains froze her hands, but on and on she went. At length, wearied to death, her body torn and bleeding, she reached the house of the Sun.
With the little strength she had left, the Princess knocked. The mother of the Sun opened the door, and was astonished to find a ragged mortal and her child. She wept with pity upon hearing of all the Princess had suffered. “I will do what I can for you, my dear,” said the mother of the Sun, “but I must hide you in the cellar before my son returns. He is always in a terrible temper at the end of the day.”
The mother of the Sun then helped the Princess and her child into a bath, and then fed them a wholesome supper. After that, she put the Princess and her child into the cellar, where she had set up a soft bed. As the weary Princess fell asleep, she could hear the Sun raging and storming upon his return.
The next day, the Princess feared that things would not go well with her. Before leaving the house, the Sun grumbled to his mother: “Why does the whole place stink of mortal?”
“The smell of the mortal world can reach us even here, my dear,” said his mother, soothingly. “Now, off you go.” And the Sun stumped off to shine on the world for another day.
“Why is the Sun so angry?” asked the Princess, later that day. “He is so beautiful and so good to the mortal world.”
“Well,” said the mother of the Sun, “he begins well enough, but watching the wickedness of the world for an entire day puts him in a bad mood.”
“Now, I asked my son about your husband, but even he has seen nothing of him. I think your best hope is to journey on to the house of the Wind. There you might get word.”
When the Princess had recovered herself, the mother of the Sun gave her a roast chicken for the journey, and told her to take care of the bones, for she might have a use for them. The Princess then threw away her second pair of iron shoes, which were quite worn out, and with her child on her back and her staff in her hand, she set forth on her way to the Wind.
The Princess met with even greater difficulties on her way to the house of the Wind. She crossed mountains that belched fire and smoke into the sky, entered forests where no mortal foot had trodden, and crossed fields of ice and avalanches of snow.
The poor Princess nearly died of these hardships, but she kept a brave heart, and at length she reached an enormous cave in the side of a mountain. It was the house of the Wind. The mother of the Wind took pity on her, and brought the Princess and her child inside to give her food and heal her many hurts.
The next morning, the mother of the Wind came to the Princess, where she had hidden her in the cellar and away from her son. “Your husband, it seems, is living in a thick wood far from here. He has built himself a house from the trunks of trees, where he lives alone, shunning all human companionship.”
After the mother of the Wind had given the Princess a chicken to eat, and had warned her to take care of the bones, she told her to go by the Milky Way, which at night lies across the sky, and to wander on till she reached her goal.
Thanking the old woman with tears in her eyes, the Princess set out on her journey and rested neither night nor day, so great was her longing to see her husband. On and on she walked until her last pair of iron shoes fell in pieces. She threw them away and went on in bare feet, not heeding the thorns that wounded her, nor the stones that bruised her. At last she reached the edge of a dark wood. With her child on her back, she slashed her way into the wood with her steel staff, till it was quite blunt. She threw it away, overcome with despair.
It was then, in a little clearing, she noticed a house made of the trunks of trees. It had no window, and the door was in the roof. What was she to do? How was she to get in?
Then, she thought of the chicken bones that she had carried all that weary way, and she said to herself: “They would not all have told me to take such good care of these bones if they had not had some good reason for doing so. Perhaps now, in my hour of need, they may be of use to me.”
She took the bones out of her bundle, and having thought for a moment, she placed the two ends together. To her surprise they stuck tight. Then she added the other bones, till she had two long poles the height of the house. Across them she placed the other bones, piece by piece, like the steps of a ladder. As soon as one step was finished
She stood upon it and made the next one, and then the next, till she reached the door in the roof. With her child on her arm she entered the door of the house. Here she found everything in perfect order. Having taken some food, she sat down with her child to rest.
When her husband, the Pig, came back to his house, he was startled by what he saw. At first he could not believe his eyes, and he stared at the ladder of bones. He felt that some fresh magic must be at work, and in his fear he almost turned away from the house. But then, he changed himself into a dove, so that no witchcraft could have power over him, and he flew into the room without touching the ladder. Here he found his wife rocking a child. At the sight of her, looking so changed by all that she had suffered for his sake, his heart was moved by such love and longing and by so great a pity that the enchantment that was upon him broke, and he became a man.
The Princess stood up when she saw him, and her heart beat with fear, for she did not at first know him. But suddenly she recognized her husband, and in her great joy she forgot all her sufferings, and they lifted from her like a cloak. He was a very handsome man, as straight as a fir tree. They sat down together and she told him all her adventures, and he wept with pity at the tale. And then he told her his own history.
“I am a King’s son,” he told her. “Once, my father was fighting against a family of dragons,, who were the scourge of our country. I slew the youngest dragon myself. His mother, who was also a witch, cast a spell over me and changed me into a Pig. It was she who in the disguise of an old woman gave you the thread to bind round my foot. So that instead of the three days that had to run before the spell was broken, I was forced to remain a Pig for three more years. Now that we have suffered for each other, and have found each other again, let us forget the past.”
And in their joy they kissed one another. Next morning, they set out early to return to his father’s kingdom. Great was the rejoicing of all the people when they saw the Prince and his Princess and their child. His father and mother embraced them both, and there was feasting in the palace for three days and three nights.
Then they set out to see the father of the Princess. The old King nearly went out of his mind with joy at beholding his daughter again. When she had told him all her adventures, he said to her:
“Did not I tell you that I was quite sure that that creature who wooed and won you as his wife had not been born a Pig? Great has been your suffering, my child, but greater has been your courage, and rich will be your reward.”
And as the King was old, he put them on the throne in his place. And they ruled as only kings and queens rule who have suffered many things. And if they are not dead, they are still living and ruling happily.
The End

The Enchanted Pig, A Retelling (Part II)

From, The Red Fairy Book, edited By Andrew Lang
And retold by William Thompson
Time passed for the Princess, till one fine day an enormous pig from the North walked suddenly into the palace, and going straight up to the King said, “Hail! Oh King. May your life be as prosperous and bright as sunrise on a clear day!”
“Greetings, friend,” answered the King, cautiously, “what wind has brought you hither?”
“I come a-wooing,” replied the Pig.
The King was astonished to hear such a speech from a Pig, and he was certain something strange was afoot. He remembered the book and his daughter’s fate, but he still didn’t want to give the Princess in marriage to a pig.  As he hesitated, one of the courtiers whispered in his ear that the Court and the street were filled with hundreds of pigs. The King saw there was no escape, and he knew he must give his consent. The Pig insisted that the wedding should take place within a week, and he refused to go away till the King had sworn a royal oath upon it. What was the King to do?
The King then sent for his daughter. “Your fate is upon you, my dear,” he said.
The Princess began to weep, but the King said: “My child, the words and demeanor of this Pig are unlike any creature I have ever seen. Depend upon it. Some magic is at work. Go with him and obey him.  I feel sure that fate has more in store for you than marriage to a pig.”
“If you wish me to marry him, dear father, I will do it,” replied the Girl, swallowing her tears.
The wedding-day arrived, and soon after, the Pig and his bride set out for his home in one of the royal carriages. The parting from her father was grievous, but the Princess did her best to be brave.
On the road into the North they passed a great bog, and the Pig ordered the carriage to stop. He got out and rolled about in the muck till he was covered from head to foot. Then He clambered back into the carriage and turned to his bride. “Kiss me, my dear,” he said.
What was the poor girl to do? She remembered her father’s words, and, pulling out her pocket handkerchief, she gently wiped the Pig’s snout and gave it a kiss.
By the time they reached the Pig’s home, which stood alone in a thick wood, it was dark. They sat down quietly for a little, as they were tired after their journey. Then they had supper together, and lay down to rest. During the night, the Princess noticed a strange thing: the Pig had changed into a beautiful young man. She was surprised and a little frightened, but remembering her father’s words, she took courage. She decided to wait and see what would happen.
Every night after that, she saw that the Pig turned in to the beautiful young man, and every morning he was back to being a Pig. This happened night after night, and the Princess knew that her husband must be under an enchantment. As the days passed, she grew quite fond of him, for he was kind and gentle.
One day, as the Princess was sitting alone and watching the forest, she saw an old woman walking through the trees. She could hardly contain her excitement, as it was so long since she had seen another human being.
She called out to the old woman: “Come sit with me, old mother. You can join me in a cup of tea.”
The old woman joined her, and the two of them were soon deep in conversation. Among many other things, the old woman told the Princess that she understood all manner of magic arts, and that she could foretell the future, and knew the healing powers of herbs and plants.
“I shall be forever grateful, old mother,” said the Princess, “if you will tell me what is the matter with my husband. Why is he a Pig by day and a man by night?”
“I was just going to tell you that very thing, my dear, just to show you what a good fortune-teller I am. He’s under an enchantment, of course. If you like, I will give you a charm to break the spell.”
“If you only will,” sighed the Princess. “I will give you anything in return, for I cannot bear to see my poor husband like this.”
“Here, then, my dear child,” said the old woman, with a curious gleam in her eye. “Take this thread, but don’t say anything to your husband, for if you did, it would lose its healing power. Once he is asleep, get up very quietly and fasten the thread round his left foot. In the morning, you will see no pig beside you, but the beautiful young man.”
“And I need no reward. I shall be repaid by knowing that you are happy, for it breaks my heart to think of all you have suffered, and I only wish I had known it sooner, as I should have come to your rescue at once.”
After the old woman had gone away into the forest, the Princess hid the thread very carefully. That night, she got up quietly, and with a beating heart she bound the thread round her husband’s foot. Just as she was pulling it tight, the thread broke with a crack, for it was rotten to the core.
Her husband awoke with a start. He looked at her in the moonlight that streamed through the open window.  “Unhappy woman!” he cried. “What have you done? Three more days and this cursed spell would have fallen from me. Now, who knows how long I may have to go about in the shape of a pig?”
“I am leaving you at once, and we shall never meet again: not until you have worn out three pairs of iron shoes and blunted a steel staff in your search for me.” And so saying, he fled the house and disappeared into the forest.
(To be continued)

The Enchanted Pig, A Retelling (Part I)

From, The Red Fairy Book, edited By Andrew Lang
And retold by William Thompson
For my Daughters
ONCE upon a time there lived a King who had three daughters. One day, the King had to go to war, so he called his daughters and said to them:
“: My dear daughters, I must go to war. The enemy is at hand with a terrible army. It is a grief to me to leave you. While I am gone, take care of yourselves and be good girls. Look after everything in the house. You may walk in the garden, and you may go into all the rooms in the palace, except the room at the end of the hall on the second floor. Into that room you must not enter, for much harm would befall you.”
“Don’t worry, father,” they replied with dignity. “We would never disobey you. Go in peace, and may you win a glorious victory!”
Upon his departure, the King gave his daughters the keys to all the rooms in the palace. He reminded them once more of the room they mustn’t enter. But the parting was hard, and with tears in their eyes, the three daughters hugged their father. “Come back to us!” they cried.
“I will,” said the King, gravely. And he hugged his daughters in turn. And with that, he rode from the palace, sitting tall upon his great, black horse.
After that, the three daughters felt so sad and dull that they did not know what to do. To pass the time, and to keep themselves from worrying about their father, they decided they would divide their days between working, reading, and enjoying the garden. All went well for a time, but every day they grew more and more curious about the forbidden room.
“Sisters,” said the eldest Princess, one afternoon, as they walked through the palace, “all day long we sew, spin, and read. We have explored every corner of the garden, and we have looked into every room in the palace. It is dreadfully dull. Could it hurt to just have a peek in the room at the end of the hall on the second floor?”
“Sister!” cried the youngest, how can you tempt us to disobey our father? He must have had a good reason for telling us not to go in there. Don’t you think?”
“I’m sure,” offered the second princess, looking superior, “that the sky won’t fall if we just have a peek. Its unlikely dragons and monsters will be lying in wait.”
“And how,” added the eldest, “will our father ever find out?”
While they talked, they suddenly found themselves in front of the door at the end of the hall on the second floor. With a mischievous smile, the eldest fitted the key into the lock, and snap! The door stood open. With a little shiver of anticipation, one by one, they entered the room.
“Why it’s just an old book,” said the eldest, sounding disappointed.
The room was indeed empty, but in the middle stood a large table, with a gorgeous cloth, and on the table lay a big open book. Still determined to find something interesting, the eldest stepped up to the book and read:
“The eldest daughter of this King will marry a prince from the East.”
The eldest gave a little gasp, and then the second Princess stepped forward. She turned over the page and read:
“The second daughter of this King will marry a prince from the West.”
The sisters were delighted, and laughed and teased each other. “So here are some secrets our father is keeping,” they said.
The youngest did not want to go anywhere near that book. She hung back, but her sisters dragged her forward. “Turn the page,” they said. “Turn the page.”
Fearfully, the youngest turned over the page and read:
“The youngest daughter of this King will be married to a pig from the North.”
Now if she had been nearly struck by lightning the youngest princess would not have been more frightened. She almost fainted from misery, and if her sisters had not held her up, she Would have dropped to the floor right there. Once she recovered herself a little, her sisters tried to comfort her, saying:
“How can you believe such nonsense?” said the eldest. “When did it ever happen that a King’s daughter marry a pig?”
“What a baby you are!” said the second sister. “Won’t our father and all his soldiers protect you, even if such a creature came a wooing?”
The youngest Princess felt a little better, but her heart was Heavy. She kept thinking about the book and what it said: that happiness awaited her sisters, while she was fated to marry a pig.
Even more, she felt guilty for having disobeyed her father. She grew ill, and in a few days she had gone from being rosy-cheeked and merry-faced to pale and sickly. She stopped playing with her sisters in the garden, ceased gathering flowers to put in her hair, and never sang as was her wont.
In the meantime, the King had royally trounced the enemy, and he hurried home to his daughters. Everyone went out to meet him before the great gates, and all the people rejoiced at his Victorious return. The King went straight into the palace, not even bothering to change out of his dusty cloak and muddy boots.
The three Princesses came forward to meet him. His joy was great as he embraced them all in his arms, for he had missed his daughters terribly
It wasn’t long before the King noticed that his youngest child was looking thin and sad, and suddenly he felt as if a hot iron were entering his soul, for it flashed Through his mind that she had disobeyed him. He felt sure he Was right, but to be certain he sat them down and looked at them gravely. “My daughters,” he said. “Did you disobey me about the room at the end of the hall on the second floor?”
The three princesses looked at him, and then they burst into tears. “We did, father! We did!” they cried. “We are dreadfully sorry.”
The King was so distressed that he was almost overcome with grief. But he took heart and tried to comfort his daughters, who continued to sob.
“My daughters,” he said, gently. “What’s done is done, and no amount of tears will change it.”
Life slowly got back to normal in the palace, and soon even the youngest forgot about the book and what lay in wait for her.
One fine day a dashing prince from the East appeared at the Court and asked the King for the hand of his eldest daughter. Remembering the words of the book, the King gladly gave his consent. A great wedding banquet was prepared, and after three days of feasting the happy pair were accompanied to the border with much ceremony and rejoicing. After a month, the same thing befell the second daughter, who was wooed and won by a debonair prince from the West.
Now when the young Princess saw that everything happened exactly as the book had said, she grew sad. She barely ate, and she wouldn’t put on her fine clothes nor go out walking, and declared that she would rather die than marry a pig.
The King tried to comfort his daughter the best he could. “Perhaps things will not come to pass in the manner the book suggests,” he said.
But he didn’t believe it, and neither did the princess. And despite feeling anxious about what was to come, the princess couldn’t help sometimes walking the battlements, watching the north-road to see what fate would bring her.
(To be continued)