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.

Eighty Years of The Hobbit

Harry Potter may have turned twenty this last June, but The Hobbit turned eighty. September 22nd marked the eightieth anniversary of the publication of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. 2017 also marks one hundred years of Middle-Earth—both reasons to celebrate the author who forever changed the face of literary fantasy.
Tolkien was a philologist and medieval scholar who taught at Oxford from 1925-1959. As a young man, newly married to Edith Bratt, and on his way to establishing a family and academic career, Tolkien began writing his myths of Middle-Earth. He fought in the Great War as one of the Lancashire Fusiliers, lost most of his closest friends, and returned to England an altered man.
By some curious chance one morning long ago in the quiet of the world, when there was less noise and more green, Professor Tolkien sat marking student papers:
“It all began when I was reading exam papers to earn a bit of extra money. That was agony. One of the tragedies of the underpaid professor is that he has to do menial jobs. He is expected to maintain a certain position and to send his children to good schools. Well, one day I came to a blank page in an exam book and I scribbled on it. ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”
This is one of those literary moments that has become part of the myth around Tolkien and Middle-Earth. See Tolkien’s 1968 interview in the Telegraph here.
The Hobbit began as a children’s tale—a fairy story to amuse his children. Tolkien had already established Middle-Earth, beginning the tale of Beren and Luthien as early as 1917. But Bilbo and his adventures with Thorin and Company didn’t have a place in that world at first. Not until Tolkien’s publisher, Allen and Unwin, began requesting a Hobbit sequel did Tolkien try continuing the story of hobbits. Another eighteen years would pass before The Lord of the Rings gave the world a closer peek inside Tolkien’s mythology. And by the way, the word hobbit entered the language because of Tolkien.
I first read The Hobbit at the age of eleven. I had recently lost my sight in a car accident, but by some curious chance, this book came my way. I was in the hospital, and it filled a void in my life I didn’t know I had. And the book continues to be part of my life to this day. I teach it every year to my children’s literature students, and my inaugural blog post from 2014 was about this book.
You may not be a Tolkien fan. You may have read and hated both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Even if you never intend to read these books, acknowledge to yourself the achievement they represent—the scribblings of an Oxford professor who loved languages and altered the way people read and wrote fantasy.
It’s impossible to do justice to Tolkien and his achievement in a single blog post, but here’s a point on which to close for now. C. S. Lewis, Tolkien’s friend and colleague at Oxford, had this to say about The Hobbit in his 1937 review that appeared in the Times Literary Supplement:
“For it must be understood that this is a children’s book only in the sense that the first of many readings can be undertaken in the nursery. Alice is read gravely by children and with laughter by grown ups; The Hobbit, on the other hand, will be funnier to its youngest readers, and only years later, at a tenth or a twentieth reading, will they begin to realise what deft scholarship and profound reflection have gone to make everything in it so ripe, so friendly, and in its own way so true. Prediction is dangerous: but The Hobbit may well prove a classic.”

What to Do with Narnia

Reading C. S. Lewis’ Narnia books is a varied experience. As part of our discussion of Narnia, my students and I explore a Christian reading of the series. They work hard to decode the books in terms of Christian metaphor and allusion, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, especially. Many read Narnia specifically for its Christtian allegory; others read it for the fantasy and the adventure.
As it applies to Narnia, the term allegory is problematic. For one, it forces people to read the characters in a particular way. If we read Aslan as a Christ figure, then do we necessarily read the White Witch as Satan and Edmund as Judas? The answer to both is no. Writers use Christ figures all the time. People read Frodo as a Christ figure. What does that make Sam? My point is not to treat a book like a puzzle. A book worth reading doesn’t have pieces that fit neatly together to form a particular picture, Christian or otherwise.
Lewis has drawn various criticism over the years for his Narnia books. They have been called both racist and misogynistic. According to Philip Pullman in “The Dark Side of Narnia” (The Guardian 1998), “there is no doubt in my mind that it is one of the most ugly and poisonous things I’ve ever read.” Pullman offers some noteworthy criticisms of the series, but his vitriolic condemnation of the series is excessive, to say the least.
However, many will be surprised to learn that J. R. R. Tolkien, Lewis’ longtime friend and colleague at Oxford, intensely disliked The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe upon a first reading. Tolkien was mistrustful of allegory in all its forms, which I’ve always found odd considering he was a medieval scholar.
In a conversation with Roger Lancelyn Green, Tolkien comments, “I hear you’ve been reading Jack’s [Lewis’s] children’s story. It really won’t do, you know! I mean to say: ‘Nymphs and their Ways, The Love-Life of a Faun’. Doesn’t he know what he’s talking about?” (qtd. in Green, Roger Lancelyn, and Walter Hooper. C. S. Lewis: A Biography. Revised Ed., Harcourt, 1994, p. 241).
Lewis and Tolkien became friends in the 1920s, and they founded the Inklings, a group of Oxford writers and intellectuals who met regularly in Lewis’ rooms at Magdalen College to discuss books and writing. By 1950 when Lewis was writing Narnia, the friendship between Lewis and Tolkien was deteriorating, and the Inklings no longer met in the same way. Tolkien’s dismissive attitude towards Narnia was, in part, a further sign of that disintegrating friendship.
These criticisms aside, it’s possible to read the Narnia books for more than just the Christian allegory. This last July, I attended the conference for the International research Society of children’s Literature (IRSCL) in Toronto. The conference took place on the Keel campus of York University. It was a pleasure to meet and talk to so many interested and interesting children’s literature people from around the world.
I presented a paper on Lewis and narrators, which was less a discussion of narrative than one of Lewis. I’ve tried for some time to understand how Lewis himself fits into the chronicles. Lewis loved placing himself in his own fiction. Maybe it was a kind of inside joke for Lewis and his Inklings cronies: Lewis puts himself in Out of the silent Planet, The Great Divorce, and his unfinished story the Dark Tower.
Lewis does something different with the Narnia books. Read the series carefully. You will notice the narrator of the books—which may or may not be some version of Lewis—commenting to young readers about character and action. Here are some examples:

“I hope no one who reads this book has been quite as miserable as Susan and Lucy were that night; but if you have been—if you’ve been up all night and cried till you have no more tears left in you—you will know that there comes in the end a sort of quietness. You feel as if nothing was ever going to happen again. At any rate that was how it felt to these two.” (LWW)

“That ride was perhaps the most wonderful thing that happened to them in Narnia. Have you ever had a gallop on a horse? Think of that; and then take away the heavy noise of the hoofs and the jingle of the harness and imagine instead the almost noiseless padding of the great paws. Then imagine instead of the black or grey or chestnut back of the horse the soft roughness of golden fur, and the mane flying back in the wind. And then imagine you are going about twice as fast as the fastest racehorse. But this is a mount that doesn’t need to be guided and never grows tired. He rushes on and on, never missing his footing, never hesitating, threading his way with perfect skill between tree-trunks, jumping over bush and briar and the smaller streams, wading the larger, swimming the largest of all. And you are riding not on a road nor in a park nor even on the downs but right across Narnia, in spring, down solemn avenues of beech and across sunny glades of oak, through wild orchards of snow-white cherry trees, past roaring waterfalls and mossy rocks and echoing caverns, up windy slopes alight with gorse bushes and across the shoulders of heathery mountains and along giddy ridges and down, down, down again into wild valleys and out into acres of blue flowers.” (LWW)

“(By the way, if you are going to read this story at all, and if you don’t know already, you had better get it into your head that the left of a ship when you are looking ahead, is port, and the right is starboard.)” (Dawn Treader)

“And suddenly there came a breeze from the east, tossing the top of the wave into foamy shapes and ruffling the smooth water all round them. It lasted only a second or so but what it brought them in that second none of those three children will ever forget. It brought both a smell and a sound, a musical sound. Edmund and Eustace would never talk about it afterwards. Lucy could only say, “It would break your heart.” “Why,” said I, “was it so sad?” “Sad!! No,” said Lucy.” (Dawn Treader)

The most intriguing of these narrative comments is the last, the interaction between Lucy and the narrator. It suggests the narrator has a relationship of sorts with the Pevensie children outside the text of the series. Alternatively, perhaps Lewis had conversations with the Pevensie children in his own head, which isn’t that weird, if you think about the relationship many writers have with their characters.
More important, I think, is who Lewis had in mind when writing the Narnia books. Was he thinking of kids in general? Not likely. He didn’t know many kids. But Lewis new his reader of the Narnia books was going to be a young reader, an imaginative reader who understood something about books and reading. The point of my paper at the IRSCL conference was that Lewis had himself in mind as a reader of the series.
Lewis’ spiritual autobiography, surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life, is interesting in many ways. It’s Lewis’ picture of his life in the context of his eventual conversion to Christianity. The first chapter of the book describes Lewis’ imaginative childhood at Little Lee (the family’s Belfast home), and the death of his mother to cancer in August of 1908. It’s a sad and poignant account, and it’s the one that all the biographers turn to when writing about Lewis’ early life.
I’m convinced that the child of Little Lee—his love for reading and his willingness to be transported by the books he read—is the reader Lewis had in mind for the Narnia series. Maybe this is a stretch, but consider this: Lewis wrote surprised by Joy while he was writing the Narnia books. He was writing a children’s series and rethinking his own childhood at the same time. Each informs the other in interesting ways, and if nothing else, it adds something to a reading of Narnia that’s more than a rehashing of the old arguments around allegory.

Here Be Dragons

I love dragons. They are one of my favourite mythical creatures; they are powerful, cunning, destructive, disturbing, uncanny, magical, and downright terrifying. English literature is full of dragons, beginning with Beowulf, the oldest surviving manuscript in Old English. More than this, western mythology is full of dragon slayers, including heroes from ancient Greece, such as Cadmus, Perseus, and Heracles. Dragons have literally fired the imaginations of writers for hundreds of years.
Some of my favourite characters are dragons:
• Smaug, from J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit,
• Norbert, the Norwegian Ridged-back, from J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (although he isn’t much of a character),
• Ewstace, as a temporarily enchanted dragon, from C. S. Lewis’ Voyage of the Dawn Treader,
• and, Yevaud, from Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea.
You can find an extensive list of young adult books about dragons on Goodreads. Just follow the link.
As so many writers have depicted these amazing creatures, it’s difficult to find much that is new or different in the world of dragons. Recently, I discovered a new book by Brandon Mull. Dragon Watch is Mull’s latest book that continues the story of Fablehaven, a series centring on Kendra and Seth Sorenson—sister and brother—who discover their grandparents are keepers of a magical preserve, a place that houses and maintains mythical creatures. This five-book series is well worth the read.
In Dragon Watch, the first book of the new series, Kendra and Seth find themselves caretakers of Wyrmroost, one of the world’s dragon preserves. Kendra is fairykind, and Seth is a shadow charmer; together, they have the power to resist the enchantment of dragons. While written less well than the books in the original series, Dragon Watch is full of, well, dragons, so if you love these creatures, then add these books to your list.
Where I live is pretty short on mythical creatures—but perhaps not as short as you might think. I recently took a trip with a friend to visit the royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller. The museum is an amazing walk through the geological and palaeontological history of Alberta. Even if you aren’t’ a dinosaur person, you will find this museum fascinating. All the fossils are creatures that walked the swampy forests or swam the Bearpaw Sea that was once Alberta.
The Tyrannosaurus Rex and Edmontosaurus on display might not be dragons of myth, but looking at these fossils will help you understand why dragons, or even the thought of dragons, has so fully entered the imaginations of countless writers. They are those creatures that lie on the edges of our imaginations. They slumber in caves or under mountains; they are hoarders of wealth and of secrets. Wake them, if you dare.

Twenty Years of Harry Potter

In 1999, on a rainy afternoon in July, I was flaked out in my room reading an audio book. My kids and I had just moved in to our new house. They came home from an afternoon with their mom, and my youngest walked into my room. She heard:

He bent down and pulled his wand out of the troll’s nose. It was covered in what looked like lumpy gray glue.
“Urgh – troll boogers.”

“What are you listening to?” she asked, laughing in surprise.
It was Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Correction—Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, read by Jim Dale. A neighbour had given me the book on cassette tape (if anyone remembers what those were), and my kid’s mom and I agreed that I would read the book before letting our kids read it. Thus began the obsession.
This June 26th marks the twentieth anniversary of the release of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. These books have been part of my life as a parent, an academic, and a reader for the last eighteen years.
While the Harry Potter franchise has become something of a bloated monster, I mostly simply appreciate the books as books. I’m not a Harry Potter film person, which, to some, makes me a heretic. I don’t spend any time on Pottermore, I don’t visit fans sites such as The-Leaky-Cauldron.org, and I don’t write fanfic—although I did think about it, once.
The books first entered my life as a parent. My kids and I read the books together, and we mostly listened to the Jim Dale recordings. By the time Order of the Phoenix appeared, you could sometimes hear the voice of Jim Dale coming from three different rooms in the house.
The night Deathly Hallows was released, my kids and I lined up at the south-side Indigo for copies of our books. We listened to the first chapter together, sitting at the kitchen table (it was now after 1:00 in the morning), before scattering our separate ways to read—my youngest and I through the rest of the night. The series gave me one of the many points of connection with my kids, and it carries a particular weight for that reason alone.
Teaching the book is another story. I teach either Philosopher’s Stone or Chamber of Secrets each year in my children’s literature classes, and one year, I taught a senior level course on the series. I’ve published two articles on Harry Potter, and made several presentations at conferences. The books are rich, but as an academic, I read with a critical eye—always reminding my students that I love the series, even if I question it relentlessly on a variety of levels:

Yes, Harry Potter is a Cinderella figure.
Yes, the dialogue often gets awkward.
No, the snake that appears in the first book has nothing to do with those appearing in the second.
No, Harry’s desire to kill Sirius Black in the third book is nothing more than teenage anger and adolescent bravado.
And, did you catch the major plot problem in Goblet of Fire?

In my life as a reader, the wizarding world has an immovable place. That place isn’t that of Narnia or Middle-Earth, but it’s in there. The Harry Potter books, for me, constitute an experience of shared reading—mostly with my kids. My reading life is a private world, which probably sounds odd coming from someone who teaches for a living. But the reading I do for my classes isn’t the same as the reading I do for me: the one is meant for public consumption; the other isn’t.
In celebration of twenty years of Harry Potter, I’m providing some links to other pieces I’ve written on the series.

The Potter Effect and the School for Wizards
The Potter Effect for a Potter Generation
The Birthplace of Harry Potter
More on Harry Potter, The Glasgow Connection

Enjoy! And if you haven’t read the series, do yourself a favour and read the first book. Consider it part of your professional development as a reader. Go ahead and hate it, but you’ll at least get a glimpse into the world many people find so compelling.

Reading and the Celebration of Spring

Spring is not only a good time for reading—although what season isn’t—it’s a time of year that features into many of my favourite books. Spring is a time of transition, but more than that, it’s a time the world explodes into new life. If you live, like me, anywhere north of the forty-ninth parallel, you know that we sometimes bypass spring altogether and go straight to summer. Technically speaking, spring begins with the vernal equinox, but sometimes it takes a while to get some traction, especially in a place like Edmonton.
Here are three passages from favourite books that note the interesting, changeable, and verdant nature of spring. Spring is the herald of new life, but sometimes, too, it’s the herald of new adventure. So take care the next time you leave your front door.

Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows
So he scraped and scratched and scrabbled and scrooged and then he scrooged again and scrabbled and scratched and scraped, working busily with his little paws and muttering to himself, `Up we go! Up we go!’ till at last, pop! his snout came out into the sunlight, and he found himself rolling in the warm grass of a great meadow.
“This is fine!” he said to himself. “This is better than whitewashing!” The sunshine struck hot on his fur, soft breezes caressed his heated brow, and after the seclusion of the cellarage he had lived in so long the carol of happy birds fell on his dulled hearing almost like a shout. Jumping off all his four legs at once, in the joy of living and the delight of spring without its cleaning, he pursued his way across the meadow till he reached the hedge on the further side.

L. M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables
Spring had come once more to Green Gables the beautiful capricious, reluctant Canadian spring, lingering along through April and May in a succession of sweet, fresh, chilly days, with pink sunsets and miracles of resurrection and growth. The maples in Lover’s Lane were red budded and little curly ferns pushed up around the Dryad’s Bubble. Away up in the barrens, behind Mr. Silas Sloane’s place, the Mayflowers blossomed out, pink and white stars of sweetness under their brown leaves. All the school girls and boys had one golden afternoon gathering them, coming home in the clear, echoing twilight with arms and baskets full of flowery spoil.

J. R. R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
Sam sat silent and said no more. He had a good deal to think about. For one thing, there was a lot to do up in the Bag End garden, and he would have a busy day tomorrow, if the weather cleared. The grass was growing fast. But Sam had more on his mind than gardening. After a while he sighed, and got up and went out.
It was early April and the sky was now clearing after heavy rain. The sun was down, and a cool pale evening was quietly fading into night. He walked home under the early stars through Hobbiton and up the Hill, whistling softly and thoughtfully.
It was just at this time that Gandalf reappeared after his long absence. …