Tolkien's Shorter Works
Margaret Hiley & Frank Weinreich (editors)
Cormarë Series No. 17
Tolkien’s Middle-earth and its legendarium have drawn extensive scholarly attention. But there is more to Tolkien than the history and legends of Middle-earth, and there has hitherto been a certain lack of academic criticism focused primarily on his shorter fictional works Farmer Giles of Ham, Smith of Wootton Major, Roverandom and his poetry. Although scholarly evaluations of these works exist, they often deal with the shorter texts more as an afterthought, as footnotes to the ‘major’ texts rather than as demanding attention in their own right. This dearth of studies suggests that it is time for a closer look at Tolkien’s 'Shorter Works'. The current volume collects the findings of a joint conference of Walking Tree Publishers and the German Tolkien Society at the Friedrich Schiller University in Jena, Germany in 2007. Various interesting aspects, details and connections are unearthed which are likely to broaden not simply the understanding of Tolkien’s Shorter Works, but also of the author’s overall fictional work as well as the man and author J.R.R. Tolkien himself.
Tolkien's shorter works
The poems collected in The Adventures of Tom Bombadil are presented in the wake of The Lord of the Rings as a further selection from the Red Book. However, many of the individual pieces, which represent a cross-section of the types of verse that Tolkien wrote chiefly in the 1920s and 1930s, have a longer history of publication. What gives the collection its appearance of unity is on the one hand a series of revisions and accretions which draw the subject matter into the world of Middle-earth, and on the other hand the pseudo-scholarly Preface which offers a parallel to the Appendices of The Lord of the Rings and subsumes these texts within the same frame narrative.
Beasts and birds often talk like men in fairy-stories. To some extent, this marvel derives from one of the primal ‘desires’ that, according to J.R.R. Tolkien, lie near the heart of Faerië: the desire of men to hold communion with other living things. But our language has little to do with that desire, and is often wholly oblivious of it. We desire instead the understanding of the proper languages of birds and beasts as such, and that is much nearer to the true purpose of Faerië. Fairy-stories are plainly not primarily concerned with possibility, but with desirability. This desire, as ancient as the Fall, reveals a sense of separation – or even severance – of ourselves from beasts. Man has broken off relations, and looks now only from the outside ... with a few who are privileged to travel abroad a little; others must be content with travellers’ tales. ‘Even about frogs ‘(Tolkien added in ‘On Fairy- Stories’). What is this desire, this ‘desirability’ and even this ‘possibility’ to us? This article tries to find an answer through the dynamics that underlie a couple of the sub-creational Tales from the Perilous Realm, i.e., The Adventures of Tom Bombadil ( I and II) and Farmer Giles of Ham (or rather, Garm of Ham).
One of the most fundamental assumptions of Tolkien’s famous essay “On Fairy Stories” is that fairy-stories – mythopoeic fantasy, as I prefer to call the genre Tolkien had in mind – speak to our spiritual and psychological needs. One among these, and quite important for human well-being, is a thirst for justice. This paper is concerned with how Tolkien represents the working of justice in human relationships and in politics. By examples taken from Farmer Giles of Ham and from the last three chapters of The Return of the King, I argue that the relationship between customary and legal, social and political justice in Tolkien’s work is structured on the principles of compensational justice. More satisfying to human spirit than legal justice, more psychologically desirable than the political justice known to his contemporaries in pre-WWII Europe, compensational justice is, I believe, presented by Tolkien as a viable concept on the individual as well as on the political level. As such, compensational justice constitutes an important part of Tolkien’s appeal to modern readership.
For a reader of The Lord of the Rings, it would be a mistake to remember only the return of the king, for this event only shows the long absence of a king and the vacancy of power. These motifs – echoes of Beowulf – are the most obvious signs of a political crisis which seems to be general in Middleearth, affecting leaders, and kings especially. My paper addresses the criticism found in shorter works by Tolkien, Farmer Giles of Ham and The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth, and refers to the political analysis, developed in Tolkien’s critical texts, which underlines the failure of the king: in Beowulf (in 1936) and Sir Gawain (in 1953). Tolkien’s main target appears to be Arthur, the centre of a triumvirate with Beowulf and Beorhtnoth: in a political reading of the medieval texts, Tolkien accuses the three leaders of failure in their leadership and responsibilities, of hubris, while he suggests – in his fiction – another model for a king.
Tolkien was interested in dragons since childhood. In Middle-earth they occupy minor roles; however, in his other fictional work they appear more often, even playing crucial roles, as in Farmer Giles of Ham. Beginning with an introduction to the history and mythology of dragons in Western culture (since Tolkien refers to this general picture of dragons) an overview of dragons in Tolkien’s work will follow. The article then focusses on “Farmer Giles of Ham”, presenting the editions of Farmer Giles and giving an introductory survey of its topics and myths. An evaluation of Tolkien’s humour in the story, and of the tradition he takes part in with it, sums up the analysis of the story. Further thought is then given to the impact Farmer Giles had on modern dragon fiction. Some observations on how Farmer Giles can be seen as typical for Tolkien’s work conclude the article.
Dragons are a species often encountered in Tolkien’s works, as anybody familiar with his essay on Beowulf can confirm. This paper argues that Tolkien’s dragons are far more than a mere fabulous detail to his oeuvre but that they encroach upon “the machinery and the ideas of a poem or tale” and thus create a reality that transcends the one typically called ‘fantastic’. The “deep significance” of Tolkien’s dragons adds a world-view that refers to an epic historic quality far beyond and different from the fairy tale elements of his texts.
This article will examine the possibility of a theological reading of Tolkien’s shorter works by theologically analyzing his essay “On Fairy-stories” concerning the aspects of his theory of sub-creation, the functions of fantasy (Recovery, Escape and Consolation) and the connection between fantasy and evangelium. Thus, it will be shown that Tolkien depicts the creative activity of Man as analogous to God’s creating activity and as necessary for accomplishing his own likeness to god. Although Tolkien does not deny the Fall, it does not abrogate the right to be creatively active. Arising out of Man’s creative activity, successful fantasy can be – by its functions Recovery, Escape and Consolation and the eucatastrophe contained in it – a gleam of evangelium.
The second part of the paper deals with four shorter works and the way in which these elements are present in them: Roverandom, Leaf by Niggle, Farmer Giles of Ham, and Smith of Wootton Major. Whereas Roverandom shows clearly how Tolkien worked as a sub-creator and how his depiction of Faërie and fairy-stories changed, Leaf by Niggle and Smith of Wootton Major cannot be regarded as classical fairy-stories either, since they illustrate narratively the central characteristics for a fairy-story which are demanded by Tolkien. Only Farmer Giles of Ham seems to represent the main characteristics as a story and not a narrative illustration of a concept. But each of the four analyzed works support Tolkien’s theory of sub-creation and fantasy in its own way.
In this article, we try to understand what Tolkien tried to express through Leaf, by Niggle. This tale centres on what Tolkien calls “the laws”. The laws are things that have to be respected for life – or to survival to be possible – in a sense they are almost biological. For this very reason, respecting them is crucial. Unfortunately for Niggle – and Tolkien – and contrary to his neighbour Parish, he is involved in a creative activity that tends to make him forget that he has to respect the laws. This story shows up to which point Tolkien was tormented by the incompatibility between the necessity to satisfy daily needs and his urge to be involved in artistic creation. Throughout his long life and despite this incompatibility, Tolkien tried to adopt an attitude which would allow the reconciliation of these two apparently irreconcilable things. Leaf, by Niggle tells this attempt.
Despite Tolkien’s emphatic statements that he did not write allegory, even detested it, and his denial of the reader’s need to know anything about the author in order to understand and enjoy his works, he wrote two stories which contain various allegorical aspects, namely Leaf by Niggle and Smith of Wootton Major. This paper explores what he says about himself as a person, about his relationship to his family and their connection to his work, and about the rift and conflict between the author and the private person. Special emphasis is placed on the differences and contrasts shown in the two books and their significance in the context of the time of their writing. The conclusion ponders the effect they have had on both the author and his readers.
This essay deals with the seeming contradictions between Tolkien’s depreciation of biographical and allegorical readings on the one hand and his frequent use of such elements in his writings on the other. The main goal is to show that Tolkien’s attitude towards allegory and biography is not ambivalent, as it has often been considered, but indicates a fully consistent position, especially when we regard it in the wider context of Tolkien’s theory of literature. In order to make this plausible I attempt to discuss step by step the relevant statements and texts. Special regard is paid to Leaf by Niggle, which proves to be the toughest challenge when it comes to reconciling Tolkien’s theoretical statements with his literary works. Here a major issue will be to distinguish different notions, like allegory and applicability, universal and concrete allegories, or the occurrence of biographical elements as opposed to their representation. Tolkien’s denial of various theoretical approaches does nevertheless stem from one common origin: his overall attitude to consider immediate fascination as prior to theoretical reflection, both in writing and reading. And this position is not arbitrary, but grounded both in the idea of sub-creation as well as in Tolkien’s objective aesthetics.
In his literature, Tolkien presented several versions of fictional heroes that are torn between a love for a particular place and a longing for a different reality, deeper and more meaningful than prosaic everyday life is able to offer. While these heroes share some basic motivations with especially (though not exclusively) Romantic antecedents, they differ substantially from the Romantic hero’s approach to the conflict. In this paper, I will take a look at some similarities and differences between Smith of Wootton Major and Ludwig Tieck’s Der Runenberg, in order to see if Tolkien’s deviations can be explained with reference to the latter’s particular theory of fairy stories.
In this paper I aim to explore the topic of the ‘perils of Faerie’ as it is presented in Smith of Wootton Major, the poem “The Sea-Bell” and the Lothlórien episode of The Lord of the Rings. Although vastly different, these three texts share their treatment of the motif of mortals who manage to enter Faërie and experience its ‘otherness’ in different ways. In doing so, I will draw upon both literary and folklore sources, as well as some of the most important critical contributions on the subject.
This paper begins with the notion that man has at his core a desire to make ‘the Great Escape’ into another world. This paper posits that by reflecting the eternal world, the secondary world of Faërie holds echoes of what man seeks in that escape, and that it is this that prompts him to venture into the Perilous Realm. By examining some of Tolkien’s minor works (Smith of Wootton Major, The Sea Bell, Leaf by Niggle and Bilbo’s Last Song) in conjunction with Tolkien’s theory of eucatastrophe, this paper explores how men in Tolkien’s works relate to Faërie. In turn, these relationships are assessed to see how they may shed light onto Tolkien’s own views both of dealing with Faërie and the Great Escape itself.
This paper will focus on two of Tolkien’s shorter texts: the story Smith of Wootton Major and the poem “The Sea-bell”. Both story and poem can be interpreted as belonging to a genre typical of fantasy literature: the quest. However, they are not traditional quest tales, but rather serve to illustrate a statement Tolkien makes in “On Fairy-Stories”: their heroes are “hardly more than wandering explorer[s] in the land, full of wonder but not of information.” As their journeys progress, they fail to gain knowledge of the perilous realms they have entered, remaining always strangers and outsiders. While this same condition of strangeness and alienation can also be seen in Tolkien’s longer works such as The Lord of the Rings, it is particularly marked in these two texts.
Here, Tolkien can be seen as starting an innovation that was to become typical of modern fantasy: the hero sets out not to discover and master a new world, but to realise that the fantastic world is and will always remain unknowable. As the quest tale is also traditionally seen as constituting self through the gaining of knowledge, the failure to do so results in a fundamental questioning of identity and can end in its utter collapse. We can see this in both poem and story, which each show a different way of how the journey into the unknown can end: Smith returns to his home and family after giving up the star, his passport to Faërie, saddened by its loss but content to know that it will pass on to a worthy successor; the speaker of “The Sea-Bell”, by contrast, through his journey has become an outsider in his own world too, and the result is disorientation and madness. Both Smith and “The Sea-Bell” conclude (again like The Lord of the Rings) with the loss of the strange and wonderful fantastic world. Thus both texts give different and to a certain extent complementary answers to the question of what happens when one reality is exchanged for another, and how one can cope with the loss of the fantastic. While these themes are also central in Tolkien’s longer works, both poem and story necessarily focus on them more directly and thus they can be read as representative of his oeuvre as a whole in this regard.
Smith of Wootton Major and the texts belonging to it can be seen as Tolkien’s last published thoughts on Faery and its relation to and function for human primary reality. This relation can be classified as religious, but is not limited to the Christian faith. Smith’s experiences in Faery resemble numinous and mystical experiences, and his travels into and within Faery widely follow traditional mystical ideas and motifs. But as these religious contents of the story are not directed towards some transcendent deities, but towards material and particular things and beings, the mysticism of Smith of Wootton Major may also be related to a “godless mysticism” directed not towards God but the world, an idea that developed in modernity alongside traditional mystic concepts. Faery represents a world beyond human physical as well as mental domination to which man must reconnect in order to regenerate himself and his world, and in this is equitable to the holy time of creation as defined by Mircea Eliade. This religious reading implies for the relation of primary and secondary realities that they stand in a polar opposition that cannot be dissolved by interpretations. Instead, this opposition drives a human oscillation between them as distinct conditions that is necessary both for realizing the full human potential and for motivating a careful and sparing attitude to the non-human environment.
There are some places in Tolkien’s fictional work which express the ontological beliefs of the author and in which his personal convictions about creativity and human (sub-)creational powers can be described and identified. “Mythopoeia”, the poem which he dedicated to C.S. Lewis in order to show him that myth does not consist of lies, but instead conveys facts and deeper truths, is the most important place of these. For this is what the poem really is about – it is the quintessence of Tolkien’s ontology, which is, as will be shown, at the core a Platonic one. To demonstrate this the following article will take a look at the circumstances of the origin of “Mythopoeia”, it will examine the form and content of the poem and the opinions expressed therein or lying behind its metaphors.
More on Tolkien's Shorter Works