*Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from The Spiritual World of The Hobbit by James Stuart Bell.
Faërie and Fairy Stories
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Once upon a time.
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The way you react to that phrase—the emotions it stirs up and how you feel thereafter—probably has a lot to do with the kinds of stories you’ve been exposed to. But whether those four words leave you feeling happy, wistful, bored, nostalgic, or even downright annoyed, it’s undeniable that they help introduce some of the best-loved stories in the history of the world.
Fairy stories (or fairy tales) have been an important element of many cultures for many years. On one level, they have an academic appeal. They provide a common mythology and shared values. Most people will understand why it’s a bad idea to “cry wolf,” for example, because they’ve heard about The Boy Who Cried Wolf.
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On a more practical level, people enjoy fairy stories simply because they are good stories. They provide fascinating characters who move through compelling plots. In other words, fairy stories are fun. Both aspects appealed to J. R. R. Tolkien at different times in his life. Like many children, he was a fan during his younger years.
He especially liked the many volumes of stories compiled by Andrew Lang, as well as various tales within Norse mythology. During his maturation as a scholar, Tolkien took a much more academic (and assionate) interest in fairy stories. He studied their development over time—the way certain stories morphed and changed when moving from culture to culture. He delved into the historical roots of characters. He even explored the impact of fairy stories on the development of different words and languages, and vice versa.
Not surprisingly, Tolkien’s passion for these stories influenced his own fictional world. In fact, one of the most central facts about The Hobbit is that Tolkien intended it to be a fairy story in the very best sense of the term. Lucky for us, he succeeded.
Fairy story can mean different things to different people. Some view fairy stories as silly narratives written primarily for children. Others define them as tales whose main characters are fairies, pixies, brownies, elves, and other magical creatures. Still others think of them as adventures that are touched by some element of magic or the supernatural. We know exactly what Tolkien thought about fairy stories because he was not shy about offering his opinions on this subject.
And those opinions lend a great deal of insight into his views on The Hobbit and other stories within his mythology. In 1939, two years after The Hobbit was published, Tolkien gave a presentation called “On Fairy-Stories” as part of the Andrew Lang Lecture Series at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. In 1947—while writing The Lord of the Rings trilogy—Tolkien revised this presentation for publication in a book called Essays Presented to Charles Williams.
“On Fairy-Stories” was Tolkien’s attempt at both explaining and exploring fairy stories as a valid genre of literature. What makes the essay fascinating for our purposes is that Tolkien was working through it at the same time he was creating what would become arguably the best fairy stories of the twentieth century: The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
So, what is a fairy story?
To be fair, Tolkien wasn’t entirely certain. Or to say it another way, he felt that the borders separating fairy stories from other literary genres were hard to define. He admitted this within the first few paragraphs of his essay:
In that realm a man may, perhaps, find himself fortunate to have wandered, but its very richness and strangeness tie the tongue of a traveler 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.1
Still, Tolkien did highlight a number of characteristics that must be present in order for a story to be considered a true “fairy story.” I’ll take a moment to briefly explaineach of these characteristics, and then we’ll see how they impact The Hobbit in particular.
A TOUCH OF MYSTERY
First, Tolkien believed fairy stories should contain an element of the mysterious, even mystical—something beyond what we’d call the “real world.”
A fairy-story is one which touches on or uses Faërie, whatever its own main purpose may be: satire, adventure, morality, fantasy. Faërie itself may perhaps most nearly be translated by Magic—but it is a magic of a peculiar mood and power, at the furthest pole from the vulgar devices of the laborious, scientific, magician.2
If you don’t recognize that word Faërie, don’t worry. It’s not common today, nor was it used frequently in 1939. For Tolkien, the term encompassed a magical and mysterious reality outside the ordinary routines and practices of everyday life. In many ways, Tolkien viewed Faërie as an ideal reality—what our world should have been like if it weren’t messed up by the chaos and noise and confusion of sin.
Yet this reality, what Tolkien sometimes referred to as the Perilous Realm, was not completely separated from “normal life” routines and practices. It could be reached and touched by ordinary people. (Or, perhaps more accurately, it could reach out and touch them.) For Tolkien, then, a fairy story succeeded when an author succeeded in accessing this realm during the process of creating a story—and, by extension, granting a similar sort of access to those who experience the author’s creation.
A TOUCH OF FANTASY
The second characteristic of fairy stories is similar to the first, although the two have a cause/effect relationship. In order to help readers experience the mysterious realm of Faërie, Tolkien believed fairy stories should include elements that are fantastical—people and places and situations that break through the boundaries of normal, everyday life. This is where imagination comes in: The author needs the ability to conceive of what Tolkien referred to as “arresting strangeness.” Yet being able to imagine these elements is not enough. The author must also possess the artistic skill needed to incorporate those elements into a working story.
In other words, it’s not terribly difficult to imagine a creature like a hobbit—take a man, make him smaller and shoeless, and you’ve got a good start. But it’s quite another matter to place that creature into a story in such a way that we care about him and worry about what happens to him. As you would imagine, The Hobbit is a wonderful example of the use of fantasy. There are countless stories of humble protagonists who become heroic after passing through the crucible of trials and tribulations. What makes Bilbo’s story a work of fantasy is that it includes goblins and dragons and magic rings that turn people invisible— and hobbits too, of course.
A TOUCH OF TRUTH
Finally, Tolkien believed a fairy story must be presented as true in order for its magic to have any effect on the reader. And he wrote about this in very definitive terms:
It is at any rate essential to a genuine fairy-story, as distinct from the employment of this form for less or debased purposes, that it should be presented as “true. . . .” Since the fairy story deals with “marvels,” it cannot tolerate any frame or machinery suggesting that the whole story in which they occur is a figment or illusion.3
For Tolkien, then, any story that turned out to be a dream or other form of hallucination could not be considered a fairy story. (He specifically disqualified Lewis Carroll’s Alice stories for this reason; I wonder what he thought about The Wizard of Oz?) The same is true for stories that overuse technology in order to manufacture otherworldly situations. He believed that such artificial explanations for a story’s fantastical elements essentially were tantamount to pulling out the rug from underneath a reader’s feet—they break the magic. This has a lot to do with Tolkien’s idea of “subcreation,” the subject of this book’s chapter 2.
Of Faërie and Mr. Baggins
Perhaps you’re wondering why all this is important for a proper understanding of The Hobbit today. And given the title of this book, you may be thinking that these theories have little to do with finding the spiritual themes tucked inside Bilbo’s adventure. Both questions have a straightforward answer: In order to suitably explore The Hobbit, we must grasp what Tolkien was trying to accomplish when he wrote it. We need to get our minds around what he was trying to do. And what he was trying to do was write a fairy story.
Knowing his parameters and definitions gives us a peek at the bones of Bilbo’s quest. It’s like seeing the structure and foundation of a house before the walls are painted and the shingles tacked into place. But Tolkien wasn’t satisfied with writing just any old fairy story. He was a connoisseur of the genre and a respected literary critic; he wanted to represent fairy stories in the best possible light. He wanted Bilbo’s journey to represent the very best of what a fairy story could achieve—an escapade that allowed him to experience the magic of Faërie as he wrote, and a story that offered the same opportunity to his readers.
Fortunately, he identified the perfect vehicle to accomplish this enchantment: Bilbo Baggins. It’s been well documented that Tolkien characterized Bilbo so as to reflect many of his own values. For example, here is an excerpt from a letter to a reader:
I am in fact a hobbit in all but size. I like gardens, trees, and unmechanized farmlands; I smoke a pipe, and like good plain food (unrefrigerated), but detest French cooking; I like, and even dare to wear in these dull days, ornamental waistcoats. I am fond of mushrooms (out of a field); have a very simple sense of humour (which even my appreciative critics find tiresome); I go to bed late and get up late (when possible). I do not travel much.4
But it’s also true that the hobbit represents the values of many who read Tolkien’s work—people like you and me. At the beginning of the story, Bilbo places a high value on safety and comfort. He is a good enough fellow but very much a consumer and very focused on himself. In other words, he is a typical Western person at his core. Given those realities, when safe, comfortable Bilbo meets the wizard Gandalf on the third page of The Hobbit, we know he is about to be confronted with the power of Faërie. We also know that the rest of his adventures in that Perilous Realm will provide opportunities for growth and change in the midst of danger and potential loss. In fact, the only thing that can be said for certain is that Bilbo will not come out the same. And if we allow ourselves to become enchanted by the tale, neither will we.
*This excerpt poster 11/15/2013. The Spritual World of The Hobbit is currently available through Bethany House Publishers.
**James Stuart Bell is a Christian publishing veteran and the owner of Whitestone Communications, a literary development agency. He is the editor of many story collections, including the Cup of Comfort series, the compiler of From the Library of Charles Spurgeon.