Skip to content

An Author’s Journey: Epic Fantasy & the Literary Middle Ages (9) Medieval Literature (Tolkien as Storyteller & Philologist: “On Fairy Stories”)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: "Dancing Faeries" (August Malmström, 1866)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: “Dancing Faeries” (August Malmström, 1866)

An Author’s Journey: Epic Fantasy & the Literary Middle Ages (9) Medieval Literature (Tolkien as Storyteller & Philologist: “On Fairy Stories”)

If you’re an aspiring epic fantasy writer (or simply a “bored-with-Tolkien/Lewis-imitators” reader), I’ve been arguing in this series of blogs that knowing some medieval literature might do wonders for (1) stimulating the imaginations of a new generation, and (2) provide alternative creative wellsprings from which creators might draw when making new worlds.

Tolkien, "The Elves of Rivendell" (art by Michael Hague)

Tolkien, “The Elves of Rivendell” (art by Michael Hague)

The argument is based on the fact that our current enjoyment of “fantasy” literature is derived in no small part from J.R.R. Tolkien & C.S. Lewis’s popularizing a faux-medieval past in their stories of Middle Earth and Narnia.  Both Tolkien and Lewis were medieval scholars whose professional lives were daily informed by a direct contact with the Middle Ages; for Tolkien, that engagement was Anglo-Saxon oriented, whereas Lewis more comprehensively studied the entire gamut of medieval and Renaissance literature.

Given that origin, when I look upon the current spate of so-called “fantasy” works on the market today, I’m genuinely surprised that many fantasy authors seem content to retread the same paths that Tolkien and Lewis discovered, departing only in half-steps from the medieval elements those Oxford dons chose to emphasize in their works of the 1930s through 1950s (e.g., elves, dwarves, dragons, wizards, etc).

Many of these elements are needful if one is to write a fantasy that evokes a bygone age, but too often I read fantasy books and feel as if the writer is using tracing paper over Tolkien’s kingdoms and forests, or Lewis’s creatures and magic portals.  Why not leave Middle Earth and Narnia alone, and instead drink deeply of the same waters that Tolkien and Lewis did over 80+ years ago?  It would certainly be the “medieval” thing to do!

"Construction of Aix-la-Chapelle" (from Jean Fouquet, Grand Chroniques de France, by Jean Fouquet,1455-1460 (Paris, Francais 6465, fol. 96)

“Construction of Aix-la-Chapelle” (from Jean Fouquet, Grand Chroniques de France, by Jean Fouquet,1455-1460 (Paris, Francais 6465, fol. 96)

That is, when designing their churches and castles, the Romanesque architects of the 8th to 10th centuries certainly created something new, but they did so by casting back centuries to Roman and Byzantine models of vaulted ceilings and massive columns.  So, too, did the 12th Century Scholastics revisit the ideas of Antiquity when the newly rediscovered works of Aristotle demanded a reconciliation of Greek philosophy with a Christian theology that had dominated the West since the 4th Century.

Aix-la-Chapelle (interior)

Aix-la-Chapelle (interior)

Anyone who’s gone to Charlemagne’s palace & chapel complex at Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle) or visited pilgrimage churches near Santiago de Compostela knows that those Carolingian architects created great beauty in their designs, and their efforts literally laid the framework needed for the awe-inspiring Gothic architecture which most people associate with the Middle Ages.  In this example, using old ideas to make new buildings inspired both generational continuity and completely new creations.

"Meditations of St. Anselm" (12th c. illuminated manuscript)

“Meditations of St. Anselm” (12th c. illuminated manuscript)

So, going “back to basics” doesn’t mean sacrificing originality; in another medieval example, when Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) was confronted with Greek philosophical questions of existence and metaphysics, he acknowledged the complexity by blending the reasoning of the ancient past with a very Christian 11th Century “present” to create a maxim for the future that remains vibrant to this day: credo ut intelligam (“I believe that I might understand”).  In that birth of Scholasticism — a reconciling newly recovered Greek philosophy with medieval Christian theology — Anselm demonstrated a mastery of philosophical questions that preoccupied Plato & Aristotle (“What is the Good?”) and created a template for existential thought that remains in the modern era (i.e., compare Anselm’s maxim with Descartes’, Cogito ergo sum, or, “I think, therefore I am.”)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: The Epics & Sagas ("The Yggdrasil Tree," by Simon Brett, engraving)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: The Epics & Sagas (“The Yggdrasil Tree,” by Simon Brett, engraving)

The use of ancient languages to both understand a lost past and to express modern realities was a subject of great interest to Tolkien.  He first and foremost identified himself as a medieval philologist, but understood better than many storytellers (before or since) that innate “truths” about human existence could be gleaned from a knowledge of medieval literature and topoi  (here, topoi’s taken to mean “literary traditions, characters, and themes”). Moreover, he believed that those truths could be revealed in fantasy tales.  He repeatedly argued that from Beowulf to children’s fairy tales, the domain of Fantasy was an explicitly literary realm, and one whose language and literature evoked the best and worst of the Middle Ages (c. 500-1500).

I’ll end this blog with some very relevant excerpts from Tolkien’s essay, “On Fairy Stories,” because I think the sentiments (1) perfectly express the need for fantasists to know their medieval literature, (2) have something to teach all fantasists about the “immersive quality” one needs to achieve to make a convincing story … at the end of these excerpts from Tolkien’s essay, his passion for the subject may very well have you believing in elves, but, if nothing else, you’ll at least find yourself thinking deeply about how one might approach epic-fantasy writing in ways that will fully immerse the reader in what Tolkien calls a “Secondary World.”

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Andrew Lang's Collection of Folklore & Fairy Tales (Sigurd Espies Brynhilde in "The Red Fairy Book," art by Lancelot Speed, 1890)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Andrew Lang’s Collection of Folklore & Fairy Tales (Sigurd Espies Brynhilde in “The Red Fairy Book,” art by Lancelot Speed, 1890)

From J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” in C.S. Lewis, editor, Essays Presented to Charles William (Grand Rapids, Michigan; 1966).

“I PROPOSE to speak about fairy-stories, though I am aware that this is a rash adventure. Faerie is a perilous land, and in it are pitfalls for the unwary and dungeons for the overbold. And overbold I may be accounted, for though I have been a lover of fairy-stories since I learned to read, and have at times thought about them, I have not studied them professionally. I have been hardly more than a wandering explorer (or trespasser) in the land, full of wonder but not of information.

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 …

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Silmarillion" ("Illuin: Lamp of the Valar," art by Ted Nasmith)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Silmarillion” (“Illuin: Lamp of the Valar,” art by Ted Nasmith)

[excerpt continued: J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories”]
“Fantasy, of course, starts out with an advantage: arresting strangeness. But that advantage has been turned against it, and has contributed to its disrepute. Many people dislike being “arrested.” They dislike any meddling with the Primary World, or such small glimpses of it as are familiar to them. They, therefore, stupidly and even maliciously confound Fantasy with Dreaming, in which there is no Art; and with mental disorders, in which there is not even control: with delusion and hallucination.

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Andrew Lang's Collection of Folklore & Fairy Tales ("The Sea King's Gift," in "The Lilac Fairy Book," art by Henry J. Ford, 1910)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Andrew Lang’s Collection of Folklore & Fairy Tales (“The Sea King’s Gift,” in “The Lilac Fairy Book,” art by Henry J. Ford, 1910)

“But the error or malice, engendered by disquiet and consequent dislike, is not the only cause of this confusion. Fantasy has also an essential drawback: it is difficult to achieve. Fantasy may be, as I think, not less but more sub-creative; but at any rate it is found in practice that “the inner consistency of reality” is more difficult to produce, the more unlike are the images and the rearrangements of primary material to the actual arrangements of the Primary World. It is easier to produce this kind of “reality” with more “sober” material. Fantasy thus, too often, remains undeveloped; it is and has been used frivolously, or only half-seriously, or merely for decoration: it remains merely “fanciful.” Anyone inheriting the fantastic device of human language can say the green sun. Many can then imagine or picture it. But that is not enough—though it may already be a more potent thing than many a “thumbnail sketch” or “transcript of life” that receives literary praise.

“To make a Secondary World inside which the green sun will be credible, commanding Secondary Belief, will probably require labour and thought, and will certainly demand a special skill, a kind of elvish craft. Few attempt such difficult tasks. But when they are attempted and in any degree accomplished then we have a rare achievement of Art: indeed narrative art, story- making in its primary and most potent mode.

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Tolkien & Shakespeare, "Macbeth & the Witches" (William Clarkson Stanfield, 1850)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Tolkien & Shakespeare, “Macbeth & the Witches” (William Clarkson Stanfield, 1850)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: "The Beguiling of Merlin" (Edward Burne-Jones, 1872-1877)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: “The Beguiling of Merlin” (Edward Burne-Jones, 1872-1877)

[excerpt continued: J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories”]
“In human art Fantasy is a thing best left to words, to true literature. In painting, for instance, the visible presentation of the fantastic image is technically too easy; the hand tends to outrun the mind, even to overthrow it. Silliness or morbidity are frequent results. It is a misfortune that Drama, an art fundamentally distinct from Literature, should so commonly be considered together with it, or as a branch of it. Among these misfortunes we may reckon the depreciation of Fantasy. For in part at least this depreciation is due to the natural desire of critics to cry up the forms of literature or “imagination” that they themselves, innately or by training, prefer. And criticism in a country [i.e., Great Britain] that has produced so great a Drama, and possesses the works of William Shakespeare, tends to be far too dramatic. But Drama is naturally hostile to Fantasy. Fantasy, even of the simplest kind, hardly ever succeeds in Drama, when that is presented as it should be, visibly and audibly acted.  Fantastic forms are not to be counterfeited. Men dressed up as talking animals may achieve buffoonery or mimicry, but they do not achieve Fantasy …

Shakespeare, "Macbeth & the Witches" (The Picture Shakespeare, 1901)

Shakespeare, “Macbeth & the Witches” (The Picture Shakespeare, 1901)

In Macbethwhen it is read, I find the witches tolerable; they have a narrative function and some hint of dark significance; though they are vulgarized, poor things of their kind.  They are almost intolerable in the play. They would be quite intolerable, if I were not fortified by some memory of them as they are in the story as read. I am told that I should feel differently if I had the mind of the period, with its witch-hunts and its witch-trials. But that is to say: if I regarded the witches as possible, indeed likely, in the Primary World; in other words, if they ceased to be “Fantasy.” That argument concedes the point. To be dissolved, or degraded, is the likely fate of Fantasy when a dramatist tries to use it, even such a dramatist as Shakespeare.”

Titania & Bottom, from Shakespeare's "A Midsummer's Night Dream" (art by John Anster Fitzgerald, d. 1906)

Titania & Bottom, from Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer’s Night Dream” (art by John Anster Fitzgerald, d. 1906)

[excerpt continued: J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories”]
“Macbeth is indeed a work by a playwright who ought, at least on this occasion, to have written a story, if he had the skill or patience for the art.  A reason more important, I think, than the inadequacy of stage-effects, is this: Drama has, of its very nature, already attempted a kind of bogus, or shall I say at least substitute, magic: the visible and audible presentation of imaginary men in a story. That is in itself an attempt to counterfeit the magician’s wand. To introduce, even with mechanical success, in to this quasi magical secondary world a further fantasy or magic is to demand, as it were, an inner or tertiary world. It is a world too much …

Tolkien, "Ulmo, Lord of Waters" (art by John Howe)

Tolkien, “Ulmo, Lord of Waters” (art by John Howe)

[A.J. Here:  Tolkien continues making a distinction between the kinds of “fantasy” that might be presented in Drama (e.g., pantomimes, Macbeth’s witches) and then begins a discussion on how truly high fantasy achieves a kind of “elvish enchantment” that casts the reader into a Secondary World, an immersion that achieves a partnership between storyteller and listener/reader.  He concludes this section of the essay with a refutation of a critic who wrote a letter to Tolkien describing myth-making and fairy tales as “Breathing a lie through Silver.” Tolkien replied to this comment in the in an inimitable way that blends poetry, philology, and literary passion with a prelude to the essay’s conclusion that raises the possibility that there is religious potential inherent in mythology and allegory, if an author’s Fantasy creation properly binds together our Primary World with a well-rendered “fantastic” Secondary World.  He then returns to an earlier analogy about high fantasy’s achievement as being so immersive in a Secondary World, that the Maker of fairy-tales may as well be elvish.]  

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Finnish Folktales ("The Defense of the Sampo," art by Akseli Gallen-Kallela, 1896)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Finnish Folktales (“The Defense of the Sampo,” art by Akseli Gallen-Kallela, 1896)

Tolkien, "The Argonath" (art by John Howe)

Tolkien, “The Argonath” (art by John Howe)

[excerpt continued: J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories”]
… Now “Faërian Drama” — those plays which according to abundant records the elves have presented to men — can produce Fantasy with a realism and immediacy beyond the compass of any human mechanism.  As a result their usual effect (upon a man) is to go beyond Secondary Belief. If you are present at a Faërian drama you yourself are, or think that you are, bodily inside its Secondary World.  The experience may be very similar to Dreaming and has (it would seem) sometimes (by men) been confounded with it.  But in Faërian drama you are in a dream that some other mind is weaving, and the knowledge of that alarming fact may slip from your grasp. To experience directly a Secondary World: the potion is too strong, and you give to it Primary Belief, however marvelous the events. You are deluded — whether that is the intention of the elves (always or at any time) is another question.  They at any rate are not themselves deluded. This is for them a form of Art, and distinct from Wizardry or Magic, properly so called.  They do not live in it, though they can, perhaps, afford to spend more time at it than human artists can.  The Primary World, Reality, of elves and men is the same, if differently valued and perceived.

Inspiration of Medieval Language & LIterature: Arthuriana & the Quest for the Grail (Tapestry, William Morris, c. 1860s)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & LIterature: Arthuriana & the Quest for the Grail (Tapestry, William Morris, c. 1860s)

[excerpt continued: J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories”]
“We need a word for this elvish craft, but all the words that have been applied to it have been blurred and confused with other things. Magic is ready to hand, and I have used it above, but I should not have done so: Magic should be reserved for the operations of the Magician. Art is the human process that produces by the way (it is not its only or ultimate object) Secondary Belief. Art of the same sort, if more skilled and effortless, the elves can also use, or so the reports seem to show; but the more potent and specially elvish craft I will, for lack of a less debatable word, call Enchantment. Enchantment produces a Secondary World into which both designer and spectator can enter, to the satisfaction of their senses while they are inside; but in its purity it is artistic in desire and purpose. Magic produces, or pretends to produce, an alteration in the Primary World. It does not matter by whom it is said to be practised, fay or mortal, it remains distinct from the other two; it is not an art but a technique; its desire is power in this world, domination of things and wills.

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Finnish Folktales (from The Kalevala, "Väinämöinen & the Harp, art by John Sibbick)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Finnish Folktales (from The Kalevala, “Väinämöinen & the Harp, art by John Sibbick)

[excerpt continued: J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories”]
“To many, Fantasy, this sub-creative art which plays strange tricks with the world and all that is in it, combining nouns and distributing adjectives, has seemed suspect, if not illegitimate.  To some it has seemed at least a childish folly, a thing only for peoples or for persons in their youth.  As for its legitimacy I will say no more than to quote a brief passage from a letter I once wrote to a man who described myth and fairy-story as “lies”; though to do him justice he was kind enough and confused enough to call fairy-story-making “Breathing a lie through Silver.”
Tolkien, "The Great Goblin," from "The Hobbit" (art by John Howe)

Tolkien, “The Great Goblin,” from “The Hobbit” (art by John Howe)

“Dear Sir,” I said — Although now long estranged,
Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
Disgraced he may be, yet is not de-throned,
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned:
Man, Sub-creator, the refracted Light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.
Through all the crannies of the world we filled
with Elves and Goblins, though we dared to build
Gods and their houses out of dark and light,
and sowed the seeds of dragons — ’twas our right
(used or misused). That right has not decayed:
we make still by the law in which we’re made.”

“Fantasy is a natural human activity. It certainly does not destroy or even insult Reason; and it does not either blunt the appetite for, nor obscure the perception of, scientific verity. On the contrary. The keener and clearer is the reason, the better the fantasy will it make … Fantasy can, of course, be carried to excess. It can be ill done. It can be put to evil uses. It may even delude the minds out of which it came.

J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973)

J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973)

“But of what human thing in this fallen world is that not true? Men have conceived not only of elves, but they have imagined gods, and worshipped them, even worshipped those most deformed by their authors’ own evil. But they have made false gods out of other materials: their notions, their banners, their monies; even their sciences and their social and economic theories have demanded human sacrifice. Abusus non tollit usum. (“That’s not an argument against proper use.”) Fantasy remains a human right: we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made; and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker …” [end Tolkien quotation]

I’ve reread the entirety of this essay a few times, and I’m still blown away by the level of attention Tolkien gives the subject of Fantasy, but also by his slipping into poetry to reply to a critic … as my teenaged daughter might say, “who does that?” To me, the poetic reply to the man calling fantasy a “lie breathed through silver” shows that Tolkien truly lived and breathed epic fantasy to an extent that even his academic work became a part of his world-building, and (vice-versa), his myth-making was an extension of his career in studying medieval language and Anglo-Saxon literature.  In short, Tolkien thought long and deeply about his craft, balancing his writing side with an academic life that seriously treated mythology and folklore on terms rarely seen today.

J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Hobbit" (Thorin captured by Wood-Elves, art by Michael Hague)

J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Hobbit” (Thorin captured by Wood-Elves, art by Michael Hague)

But, if we’re not all specialists, you might ask, how can we trust that even the medieval literature Tolkien so loved collectively serves as a fair representation of the cultures of 500-1500 in Western Europe and the Mediterranean Sea Basin?  More importantly how can a study of medieval languages and literature enhance one’s epic-fantasy writing in an age where a person can supposedly learn everything there is to know about the period by surfing the internet or googling terms?  Lastly, you might be exhaustedly thinking, what in the heck do the works of a thousand years’ past have to do with modern storytelling, anyway?

Glad I prompted those questions: next up, Tolkien, Erich Auerbach, and Giambattista Vico!

Thanks for visiting.



Next time: Epic Fantasy & the Literary Middle Ages (10) Tolkien, Auerbach, & Vico


No comments yet

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: