Tolkien: The Lord of Fairy Tales

Today, September 2nd, marks 48 years since the death of J.R.R. Tolkien, undoubtedly the most transcendent and influential fantasy author in the history of the genre. So, I want to take this opportunity to pay a small tribute to the writer who made us dream of other worlds… And of the possibility of creating them with our own words.

Introduction

Now, however, I will move away from the rather generic commentary to focus on a sometimes forgotten aspect of his fantastic production. This is the reason why I’ll dedicate this space to talk about the (modern) fairy tales that Tolkien wrote.

Fairy tales

Although The Lord of the Rings is undoubtedly his most recognized work, Tolkien’s literary production is marked by his taste—some might call it obsession—to clarify the importance and real value of fairy tales. 

To begin with, Tolkienian Elves are, in essence, a pristine, “un-Frenchified” view of fairies. As can be read in his essay “On Fairy Stories”, Tolkien argues that the phenomenon of tiny fairies (in the style of Tinkerbell) is nothing more than the result of the rationalization of these stories. Or, in other words, of a positivist reading of them. 

This means, paraphrasing Tolkien, that fairies are now small to the point of invisibility (and their magic ridiculous) because the modern, rational mind can only understand the subtlety and power of Faerie in that way.

For this reason it is not surprising that, in the first stories that we know of the British author, Fairies are the protagonists in an epic-heroic context. These are, of course, the stories compiled in The Book of Lost Tales (Parts 1 & 2), which we can read thanks to the work of Christopher Tolkien, his father’s literary executor. Christopher dedicated much of his life to compiling and presenting his father’s writings to an audience eager for more stories set on Middle-earth.

Now, even when Tolkien had abandoned the project of “The Lost Tales of Elfinesse”—that “genuinely English” mythology that he never completed—the rest of his literary production remained always focused on fairy tales. This is reflected in most of his poetry, which, even in his first attempts, reflected a deep, melancholic longing for Faerie, the realm of Fairies.

The Hobbit as a Fairy Tale

But it would not be until The Hobbit that Tolkien would risk producing a fairy tale more in line with those that he admired—more on the Brothers Grimm’s side than Perrault’s—and one in which, by the way, the Oxford professor brings out the best of this literary form. 

Because, you will agree with me, the story of Bilbo Baggins is a novel that is clearly framed in fairy tales more than in any other literary form.

First, the constant reference to the reader is reminiscent of the classic formulas of fairy tales, which have been epitomized in the famous “Once upon a time”. Tolkien, of course, does not cling to form but instead explores the depths of fairy tales. 

Following his own words on the matter, Tolkien immerses himself in the power of the (sub-)creation of worlds to give the reader a refreshment from the “real” world, a refreshing break that allows them to return to reality with the hope that having a clear sense of purpose provides. 

Stories from the Perilous Realm

However, The Hobbit is not an isolated phenomenon in Tolkien’s literary output—far from it. 

The Tales from the Perilous Realm (Farmer Giles of Ham, Leaf by Niggle, and Smith of Wootton Major) are, separately and as a whole, fairy tales in their own right but, at the same time, they show us a different side than that we are used to in this type of story. Thus, although their approach and resolution, and even its prose, are closely related to traditional fairy tales, its themes are extremely modern.

In Giles, for example, there is a clear satirical intention, as well as a critique of a modern culture that has quickly forgotten its folkloric, legendary, and mythological roots. In Leaf, on the other hand, the fairy tale serves as a narrative framework for a deep and highly symbolic discussion about artistic creation. 

Meanwhile in Wootton Mayor, finally, the relationship between Faerie and the mundane world is made explicit through a melancholic story that tells us about the cost and the renunciation of the realm of Fairies.

Conclusion

As you can see, even with a shallow brushstroke like this, (modern) fairy tales are a literary form in which Tolkien excelled. One that, moreover, has received tremendous attention—and a fair treatment—thanks, in no small due, to the work that the British author developed, both as a writer and as a critical reader of them.

This is how I choose to remember Tolkien today: talking about him and remembering his love of fairy tales in the month that Bilbo and Frodo, respectively, left the Shire to embark on an adventure.

The same one in which he left this land to travel to the Undying Lands.

PS: The original version of this article was written in September 2014 for the now (defunct) website Fantasía Austral. I have only updated some of its writing to make it clearer but remains, in essence, the same article.


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