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.

Spring Walking, Spring Reading

As the days get longer, and the university term winds down, I find myself walking more and more. These days, I’m stress walking. It’s the kind of walking I do in the spring to help me recover from the year at the university. My average is ten to twelve kilometres a day—or so my IPhone tells me. That’s enough to help me sleep at night.
Apart from the stress, spring is the best time of year to walk in Edmonton. The days become longer and longer, while the geese, robins, and crows fill the evening air with a sound like longing.
The end of term is a transitional period—a stepping out of one thing and into another. It’s also that time of year in which we, who choose to live in these northern climes, embrace our seasonal amnesia and forget the six months of winter we’ve just left behind. We see the detritus of winter littering the ground, the dull nakedness of trees, the brownness of fields, and we think it’s spring. And every year it snows in late March, April, or May, just as it did this passed Easter weekend. But do we care? No, because the sun will shine and the snow will melt and soon the world will explode in a profusion of green.
In the meantime, I walk; I walk, and I read. I have to manage myself in these transitional periods. If I don’t, I will fall on my face from exhaustion as soon as the marking is done and the grades are posted. Reading and rereading is one way I manage myself. As I’m walking this spring, here are some of the books I’m reading.

Station Eleven
By Emily St. John Mandel

Station Eleven was the MacEwan book of the year for 2016-17. I read the book for that reason, but I also love dystopian fiction—and this one is by a Canadian. And, I was able to hear St. John Mandel read at MacEwan this past March.

The Handmaid’s Tale
By Margaret Atwood

And speaking of dystopian fiction written by a Canadian, I’m finally reading The Handmaid’s Tale. I’m not a big Atwood fan, and I had trouble getting through Oryx and Crake, the first book in her MaddAddam trilogy. However, I’m determined to read this book. I have a softer spot for Atwood after seeing her very disarming and personal talk at last year’s Kreisel Lecture in Edmonton.

Great Schools of Dune Series
Sisterhood of Dune
Mentats of Dune
Navigators of Dune
By Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson

Herbert and Anderson continue their stories in the Dune saga, created by Frank Herbert. None of the books by Brian Herbert and Kevin Anderson match the books in the original series, but if you want to immerse yourself in a science fiction universe, this is one place to do it.

The Underland Chronicles
By Susanne Collins

Before she wrote The Hunger Games, Collins wrote The Underland Chronicles, five books about Gregor and his adventures in the underworld that lies deep below New York city. This is a lost civilization series, populated with giant bats, cockroaches, and rats, all in a battle for control of the Underland. Great coming of age stuff.

Warriors of the Storm
By Bernard Cornwell

Cornwell’s Saxon Chronicles are set in the Britain of Alfred the Great, and each one is a wild ride—battles, horses, long boats, Northmen, and a mostly corrupt Christian church, all narrated by Uhtred of Bebbenburg. This is the ninth book in the series, and I’ve loved them all. Again, if you want to lose yourself in another world, and another time, check out this series.

Happy spring, and happy reading!