The Road to Fairyland

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Introduction:

The ensuing essays form a three part interconnected series that discuss Tom Bombadil through the lens of a suppositious affiliation to ‘fairyland’ – specifically with respect to The Lord of the Rings. In employing such an angle several slightly odd textual matters begin to fall into place. When combined these articles end up providing us with more meaning to the Bombadil segment of the tale, as well as exposing a layer of depth not appreciated before.

Revealed will be Tom’s further tie-in to three other classic fairy tales. Also a re-look at the initial leg of the journey across the Barrow-downs from a dual viewpoint of Celtic mythology and fairy tale will grant the reader a vastly new perception of Tolkien’s contrived landscape. It is quite possible much more was put into the midday halt and accompanying scenery than has so far been understood. Accordingly, we will finally grasp the cardinal essence of the story line behind the Barrow-downs mini-adventure. Bared will be a woven-in intricacy so paramount and so subtly finessed, that it has escaped every single reader of Tolkien’s masterpiece since publication. And I do not make so bold a claim lightly!

 

Part I: On the Border of ‘Middle-earth Faërie’

Before the reader gets too involved in thinking about the merit of Part I’s title, it is emphasized upfront that this essay is not meant to be a generic discussion of ‘faërie’. Nor is it one that delves into the Elven kingdoms in Middle-earth. Rather it is one tailored to considering the idea of Tom’s residence possibly being situated nearby or within a faërie of sorts itself. However before we get too deep, some discussion of terminology ought to come in useful.

Now the Professor employed the term ‘faërie’ (in capitalized or lower-case form) many times within his works. Thankfully he furnished us his with own definition at a time closely coinciding with the early formation and editing of The Lord of the Rings chapters depicting Tom. In his March 1939 On Fairy-stories lecture, Tolkien told us:

“Faërie is a perilous land.”, a
– On Fairy-stories, Andrew Lang Lecture, March 1939  (my emphasis)

“… land, full of wonder …”, serving as
– On Fairy-stories, Andrew Lang Lecture, March 1939  (my emphasis)

“… the realm or state in which fairies have their being.”
– On Fairy-stories, Andrew Lang Lecture, March 1939  (my emphasis)

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Andrew Lang, 1844 – 1912

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For him, faërie was primarily a place – the so-called ‘Perilous Realm’. Putting aside the question of whether fairies really exist outside of imagination, Tolkien believed the concept and perhaps origin of faërie began with man as a sub-creator in the so-called ‘invention’ of a fairy tale. And that tale might have been born indirectly from hearsay or directly from personal experience; yet it would likely have possessed at least a nugget of truth. A genuine fairy tale always exhibits a magical face and is more often than not set in the land of faërie. A place which is not only the natural habitation of fays (fairies) but also contains creatures such as:

“… elves and … dwarfs, witches, trolls, giants, or dragons: …”.
– On Fairy-stories, Andrew Lang Lecture, March 1939

Tolkien made plain that for humans with a natural bent towards make-believe:

“Fantasy, the making or glimpsing of Other-worlds, was the heart of the desire of Faërie.”
– On Fairy-stories, Andrew Lang Lecture, March 1939

Of great significance is the employment of the term: “Other-worlds”. Most notably it is delineated in plural form. And thus the case can be made that ‘faërie’ was not in his mind limited to a singular ‘Other-world’ where all these fantastic creatures existed in some corner or at some time within its own chronological history. For us, it is essential to grasp the concept and possibility of several other-worlds being present in Tolkien’s literature. These can simply be equated to secondary worlds, being distinct from our primaryone.

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In Fairyland, Andrew Lang, Originally illustrated 1870 (above 1979 reprint)

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The most definite and obvious other-world of his sub-created mythology is voiced in Bilbo’s poetic recital at Rivendell:

“from Otherworld beyond the Sea”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Many Meetings, Poem: Eärendil was a mariner

The fabled realm of the ‘gods’, also known as ‘Elvenhome’, and once part of the primary world had, due to the transgressions of men, been sundered away into a separate other-world. Initially termed as ‘Faëry’ in some of the earliest works of the mythology (see The Book of Lost Tales Vols. I & II) – by the time of The Hobbit it had become titled:

“Faërie in the West”.
– The Hobbit, Flies and Spiders

Naturally, as the publication of The Hobbit was swiftly followed by the inception of The Lord of the Rings which in turn early on was hindered by preparation for the Andrew Lang lecture, one might wonder whether multiple worlds in the forefront of Tolkien’s mind actively led to another jump in a developing mythology. After all, though witches, trolls, giants, dragons2 and other such fantastical beings ‘might’ intrude into our primary world – they really belonged to faërie; but for Tolkien, certainly not the ‘Faërie in the West’. Because the idyllic ‘Blessed Realm’ where:

“… naught faded nor withered, neither was there any stain upon flower or leaf in that land, nor any corruption or sickness in anything that lived.”,
– The Silmarillion, Of the Beginning of Days

was wholly incompatible.

And so where exactly was the faërie of all those monsters and fay creatures? Was it just a place that resided in his mind, or the minds of other fairy tale inventors? I do not think so. Rather I believe that for The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien sub-created a faërie in Middle-earth consistent with existing real-world mythology from the soil of England and nearby lands. Intimately connected to ‘Middle-earth Faërie’ (my expression) and central to the plan, was Tom Bombadil.

Yet one might ask: ‘Why bother? Was it absolutely necessary to create another faërie? And where is the proof?’

The simple answers, to the first two of the above, again revert back to Tolkien’s basic desire to blend in some of the most ancient folklore and legends of the European continent and thus provide coherent mythological roots. Absolutely necessary would be the presence of historical connections to our own world. After all if there was little to nothing ancestral in common – we might as well be reading a story set on an entirely make-believe planet. Yes, maybe one similar to Earth, but certainly not authentic, nor one we could happily relate to or empathize with. It was those historic links which were so essential. And this could best be achieved by entangling our world’s ancient myth and fairy tales deeply into his own story line.

Then what were the instances where the land of faërie pops out to the forefront in our early literature? Where exactly does faërie loom large?

Actually the examples are reasonably numerous and there is sufficient evidence Tolkien knew all below and others too:

(a)  Thomas the Rhymer being carried off into fairyland upon the Queen of Faërie’s milk-white steed.
(b)  Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed, entering Annwn while lost in a magical fog and spending a year in the Welsh otherworld per the Mabinogion.
(c)  Sir Orfeo entering the realm of Faërie.
(d)  King Arthur’s Avalon – described as both across the water in the west but also at Glastonbury Tor.
(e)  The ‘Land below Woolpit’ where two legendary green children emerged according to Ralph of Coggeshall.
(f)  The fabled realm below hilly mounds in the legends of the Celtic Tuatha-de-Dannan.

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The Riders of the Sidhe

 Riders of the Sidhe, John Duncan (1911)

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This might be all fine and dandy – but again one might ask: ‘Where is the evidence of a ‘Middle-earth Faërie’ in The Lord of the Rings, and how does Bombadil fit in?’

The answers to both questions have already been touched upon in Tom Bombadil: Cracking The Enigma Code, but will we greatly expanded on in Part III of this series. From my part, Tom has consistently been advocated as a fleshed-out manifestation of a faërie-being throughout the series of essays output so far. However in order to aid our understanding, I need firstly to revisit Tom’s dwelling and its location.

As I deduced in Tom Bombadil: Cracking The Enigma Code, Tom’s residence lay on the very boundary of two worlds. Those being our primary world and the one I loosely described as the ‘auditorium’. But in my view the ‘auditorium’ is an abstract concept serving multiple purposes. One of these was functioning as an alternate world – effectively another plane of existence. Another purpose is that it illustrated in simple terms how different worlds could overlap and how portals can potentially connect them to each other.

For us considering the matter – a leading remark in The Lord of the Rings, which other scholars have picked up on, is the crossing of a seemingly magical threshold in passing through Tom’s doorway. The manner of description has a teasing hint of the supernatural to it:

“… the hobbits stood upon the threshold and a golden light was all about them.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

Another hint is the ‘coincidental’ meeting of the hobbits and Tom in the Old Forest:

“Just chance brought me then, if chance you call it.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

In discussing fairies, seemingly this encounter was echoed in On Fairy-stories:

“Our fates are sundered, and our paths seldom meet. Even upon the borders of Faërie we encounter them only at some chance crossing of the ways.”
– On Fairy-stories, Andrew Lang Lecture, March 1939   (my emphasis)

Perhaps Tolkien had Tom in mind; especially because he was simultaneously drafting him into The Lords of the Rings as well as preparing his Andrew Lang thesis:

“Most good ‘fairy-stories’ are about the adventures of men in the Perilous Realm or upon its shadowy marches.”
– On Fairy-stories, Andrew Lang Lecture, March 1939

Was the hobbits’ escape from the malevolent Old Forest followed by a dreamlike trek to Tom’s abode – effectively on the shadowy marches of a Perilous Realm? The problem faced by the inquisitive scholar, trying all too hard to extract the truth from The Lord of the Rings, and summarized so neatly by Tolkien is that:

“It is difficult to define the boundaries of this realm …”.
– Tolkien On Fairy-stories, Manuscript B, Anderson & Flieger

Unfortunately there was:

“… no password or signpost that will announce infallibly when the border is crossed.”
– Tolkien On Fairy-stories, Manuscript B, Anderson & Flieger

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A Non-directional Signpost 

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.All on offer, as a meager clue, that a crossing had been made was:

“Magic (even if not explicitly named) is one of the tokens by which you shall know it: …”.
– Tolkien On Fairy-stories, Manuscript B, Anderson & Flieger

One had to recognize that:

“Over the border there will be magic though it will not always be opened or named.”
– Tolkien On Fairy-stories, Manuscript B, Anderson & Flieger

Some readers will likely disagree – but arguably the most magical place depicted in any part of the novel was Tom’s residential zone. Though what appears to be ‘magic’ is used elsewhere, never was it employed so often or as astonishingly as during the travelers’ short stay.

To those not in the know, potent magic must have been invoked by Tom to keep rainfall off all but his boots. Making the ring vanish having rendered it ineffectual must have astounded the hobbits. It must have seemed like the most powerful sorcery of all. And then there is that dreamlike vision of the Undying Lands which only happened once throughout Frodo’s quest. Its description matches better than anything else, Tolkien’s own definition of a ‘Faërian Drama’ in On Fairy-stories. So collectively, surely these were unmistakable trademarks of faërie! Surely Frodo and company had crossed over the border? If not – they must have been really, really close!

Subtle is the best way to describe Tolkien’s methodology. A substratal hint such as the smell of ‘apple-wood’ burning in Tom’s hearth – a tree connected to both the fairy lore of the Celts and even more strongly with the Arthurian otherworld Avalon: The Island of Apples – is too soft an undertone to use as proof.

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The Death of King Arthur in Avalon, James Archer, 1860

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Equally subtle is how both Tom and Goldberry were portrayed as being so close to the ‘magic’ of Nature, possessing much knowledge and power over some of its elements. Frodo sensed this unusual harmony fairly early on:

“… the spell that was now laid upon him was … nearer to mortal heart; marvellous and yet not strange.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

If in the presence of fairy-folk, this gels with:

“For it is man who is, in contrast to fairies, supernatural … whereas they are natural, far more natural than he.”
― On Fairy-stories, Andrew Lang Lecture, March 1939

Then there is attire, size and location attestation (corroborated by eyewitnesses) in English folklore that Tolkien probably knew about3 :

“I had often heard, of Fairies … At some times they would seem to dance …The place near which they most ordinarily showed themselves was on the side of a hill … appearing like men and women, of a stature generally near the smaller size of men. Their habits used to be of red, blue, or green, according to the old way of country garb, with high crowned hats. One time a person living at Comb saw, …”.
― English Fairy and Folk Tales, The Fairy Fair, Edwin Sidney Hartland, 1890  
(my underlined emphasis)

Don’t the emphasized words resonate with the book? Tom too is a being smaller than a man who danced along in his blue jacket and tall crowned hat while heading back to his home nestled below a hill not far from the village of Combe!

Furthermore Tom’s green girdle – may not have been his only magical garb. An ability to travel fast may have been fairy tale linked to those standout big yellow boots. It would not be at all surprising if Tolkien had endowed Tom with a pair of legendary ‘seven-league boots’. These adjust to the wearer, allowing him, when needed, to traverse seven leagues for every stride taken. Was myth and fairy tale behind why:

“… His feet are faster.” ?
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Fog on the Barrow-downs

Is that how he appeared so quickly at the barrow?

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Tom Thumb stealing a pair of seven-league boots, courtesy of Wiktionary

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Hmm – you can see where I’m heading. We are inexorably drawing nearer to a conclusion that the whole mini-episode revolved around faërie and fairy-beings. So taking the above into account, perhaps in combination with other factors such as fairy tale linkage, the evidence is becoming too strong to ignore. Yet there is more. Indeed much more.

We have already seen in What a Colorful Pair – Part IV, how almost certainly Tolkien applied the widespreadtheme of the ‘little old man as a fairy’, thus connecting Tom to Jack and the Beanstalk. Quite remarkably there are at least two more examples buried (and never uncovered before) in The Fellowship of the Ring. It is theorized Tolkien’s own accumulated knowledge and minor research led him to reinforce the same theme by including elements of the tale of The Blue Mountains as recorded in Andrew Lang’s The Yellow Fairy Book. Within is the character of an extremely long lived (hadn’t seen a soul for three hundred years) old man (presumably of fairy race) who has the ability to rapidly travel vast distances, and with a whistle can call the birds of the world. It is theorized that this last aspect was alluded to by the following:

“And there was Tom whistling like a tree full of birds.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Fog on the Barrow-downs

Just as likely is the inclusion of snippets from a Grimm fairy tale: The Little Folks’ Presents. Once again the tale involves the proverbial little old man, and just like the Bombadil episode – disappearing gold. Two innocent travelers comically have their heads shaved after accidentally stumbling upon a fairy gathering upon a hill. For us an important point is that they allow the old man (presumably a fairy) to proceed without complaint. Afterwards they are told to fill their pockets with coal which later turns to gold. However one of the men wants to return for more – but due to his greed loses everything and is disfigured as punishment. The tale not only highly moralizes the folly of avarice. but it also highlights what the fairy wants – which is a set quantity of human hair in exchange for a set portion of gold. However, the most interesting part for us is the implied ‘fairy pact’7  between the two mortals and the little old man. In order to seal the agreement:

“… the old man clapped them both on the shoulder, in a friendly manner …”.
– The Little Folks’ Presents, Grimm’s Complete Fairy Tales, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm   (my emphasis)

Such an act is also present in The Fellowship of the Ring where Tom, as an old man, taught the hobbits a summoning verse. Then via a specific motion:

“… he clapped them each on the shoulder with a laugh …”,
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil   (my emphasis)

 his side of the ‘fairy pact’ was thereby sealed in agreeing to answer a distress call.

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Presents of the Little Folks, Anne Anderson, 1930

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Hmm … three fractured fairy tales involving little old men possessing fairy-like powers all bundled closely together within the text appears too much to be pure coincidence. Leaving us to wonder whether this cluster was echoed by:

“These tales are ‘new’, they are not directly derived from other myths and legends, but they must inevitably contain a large measure of ancient wide-spread motives or elements. After all, I believe that legends and myths are largely made of ‘truth’, and indeed present aspects of it that can only be received in this mode; and long ago certain truths and modes of this kind were discovered and must always reappear.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #131   (my underlined emphasis)

Hmm … so Tom appears and reappears via fairy tale perhaps? Be that as it may, undoubtedly the text’s most interesting and well-disguised fairy tale of all is yet to be exposed. To come – we will finally see the ‘missing’ link that gives the entire plot of the Barrow-downs adventure both meaning and purpose!

Footnotes:

1  Which is cast by Tolkien in his mythology as ours, but in a bygone fictional epoch.

2  Tolkien’s following remark is of significance:The dragon had the trade-mark Of Faërie written plain upon him. In whatever world he had his being it was an Other-world.”On Fairy-stories.

3  See ‘Bibliographies’ in Tolkien On Fairy-stories. Edwin Hartland’s English Fairy and Folk Tales is listed as a source of information.

4  These boots also crop up in a plethora of European fairy tales. The most notable English one is: Jack the Giant Killer.

5  For example, there are at least four instances in Grimm’s Fairy Tales where a little old man plays a magical role in the story.

6  Much the same theme is also present in Joseph Jacob’s The Swan Maidens per Europa’s Fairy Book.

7  A ‘fairy pact’,  seems also to have occurred in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight between the fairy Bertilak and Gawain. Within that tale the agreement to exchange winnings at the end of the day was sealed via the action of a drink.

 

 

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