The World of Fantasy

© 2005, Peter Wilkin

An essay on Tolkien, Beowulf and the concept of the Secondary World

    The relationship between fantasy and reality is a question which has been raised time and time again ever since the genre became a self-conscious literary mode subsequent to the publication of Lord of the Rings.[1] The question has necessarily had crucial bearing on the notion of the Secondary World and its use as a vehicle of inducing Secondary Belief through its drawing from the Primary World.  In this regard two profoundly influential works, Beowulf and Lord of the Rings, warrant particular consideration. The significant influence which Beowulf had on Tolkien's imagination invites a comparison between these two works, and the similarities that may be seen reveal some crucial aspects that are in contrast to much within the Fantasy genre. That is, both works place their Secondary Worlds on this earth, set in a mythic history which may nevertheless be (in theory) traced back to the present day. This effect, called by Tolkien "the illusion of historical truth," has profound implications for the employment of the Secondary World within the genre, and it is a question which this discussion shall endeavour to explore in some detail.

    Before this is done however, it is important to qualify the notion of the "Secondary World", a term first used by Tolkien in his seminal essay On Fairy Stories and central to subsequent definitions of Fantasy. At its most fundamental level, the term "Secondary World" refers to the writer's (or 'sub-creator's') ability to create an internally consistent world which successfully induces "Secondary Belief".
Inside it, what he relates is 'true': it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside. The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed. You are then out in the Primary World again, looking at the little abortive Secondary World from outside.[2]
Likewise the Encyclopedia of Fantasy provides a similar view:
A Secondary World can be defined as an autonomous world or venue which is not bound to mundane reality, which is impossible according to common sense and which is self-coherent as a venue for story.[3]
Both views essentially put the main stress on "internal consistency". Unfortunately Tolkien is rather vague on what precisely this entails. He does state that this is achieved by Art, which he asserts is "the operative link between Imagination and the final result, Sub-creation". Yet this definition brings us back full circle and we are left wondering what the nature of this "Art" is.

    What in fact is missing from most modern definitions, and rather surprisingly in Tolkien's case since he was at pains to stress it in his Letters and his essay on Beowulf, is the notion of "historical reality", or more specifically; "the illusion of historical truth".[4] Both The Lord of the Rings and Beowulf, use this device effectively to create what is often termed "depth", and it is essential to the success of Secondary Belief in an internally consistent Secondary World. Such a term is complex and should not be confused. The "illusion of historical truth" does not imply that a Secondary World must cohere with the actual history of the Primary World - though there is an important element to this in both Beowulf and Lord of the Rings as we shall see in the course of the discussion. Rather, this term refers to the "sub-creator's" method of inventing a pseudo-history which appears to be 'true' and which provides the backdrop for the main action of the story. It is thus the intention of this discussion to explore the broad use of this literary device in these two works and to examine its overall effect on the use of Secondary Worlds.

    Even a cursory read of Beowulf will render to the reader a peculiar awareness of temporal distance which colours the narrative as a whole. Such a sense is created in the opening of the poem, the only time that the Beowulf poet refers to himself in the entire work:
Hear! We know of the bygone glory of the Danish kings, and the heroic exploits of those Princes.[5]
The most significant word in the line is 'bygone' which immediately sets the time of the narrative in a period somewhere in the remote past.[6] This literary device, as Tolkien pointed out in his renowned essay Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics, is essential in providing the frame for the Secondary World of the poem. Here Tolkien asserts
The author has used an instinctive historical sense - a part indeed of the ancient English temper...of which Beowulf is a supreme expression; but he has used it with a poetical and not an historical object.[7]
In regards to this observation, a qualification must be made in light of Sullivan's argument,[8] that Beowulf cannot be viewed in such terms since the poet himself would not have been able to distinguish between actual and pseudo history. In this case the crucial word in the quote above is 'instinctive', and the result produced has the same overall effect on the modern reader if the poet was conscious. This effect is to produce the sense of a deep temporal gap between the reader and the time of the story, which serves to create a powerful sense of antiquity.[9] This device is an essential aid to the creation of a Secondary World.

    As Tom Shippey points out, one of Beowulf's most profound influences on Tolkien is this "impression of depth...effect of antiquity...illusion of historical truth and perspective." The impression of antiquity is important but surprisingly subtle within the course of The Lord of the Rings. We get glimpses of it occasionally in statements such as this one:
Those days, the Third Age of Middle-earth, are now long past, and the shape of all lands has been changed...[10]
Like Beowulf, Tolkien creates an effect where a large and unknowable gap of time exists between the time of the story and the reader. This sense is effectively enhanced by Tolkien's meticulous feigning of an entire 'history' which may supposedly be traced to the present day.[11] A pertinent example of this may be found in the Prologue to the Fellowship of the Ring:
It is plain indeed that in spite of later estrangement, Hobbits are relatives of ours; far nearer to us than Elves, or even than Dwarves. Of old they spoke the languages of Men after their fashion...But what exactly our relationship is can no longer be discovered.[12]
Behind this 'feigned' piece of history is an underlying assumption that is often missed. That is, that Middle-earth is this world as opposed to an other world (like most Fantasy worlds). The significance of this is demonstrated by Tolkien's frequent insistence of this fact in light of contrary assertions by his readers. In a footnote to a letter addressed to a fan, Tolkien even designated a specific time period:
I imagine the gap (between the events of Lord of the Rings and the present day) to be about six thousand years: that is we are now at the end of the Fifth Age, if the Ages were of about the same length as S.A. and T.A. But they have, I think, quickened; and I imagine we are actually at the end of the Sixth Age, or in the Seventh.[13]
The notion that Middle-earth is this world, but set in a mythic and largely unknowable past is absolutely critical to this sense of genuine antiquity that The Lord of the Rings exhibits and to the successful inducement of 'Secondary Belief'. In this respect Tolkien borrows heavily from the sense of time that we have seen being created in Beowulf. Both works, thus, create a literary effect where a large and unknowable gap of time exists between the time of the story and the reader. The fact that this time gap is inaccessible increases the realism of the Secondary World since it resembles actual history,[14] and it consequently aids the inducement of Secondary Belief.

    The art of creating 'depth' through the "illusion of historical reality (another essential element to the inducement of Secondary Belief), relies heavily upon an extensive body of connected stories which lie behind the main plot. Of Beowulf Tolkien stated that
This impression of depth is an effect and a justification of the use of episodes and allusions to old tales, mostly darker, more pagan, and desperate than the foreground.[15]
Beowulf is indeed full of allusions to other tales, some rather short and subtle while other are lengthy digressions. Of the former, an example may be seen when Beowulf is about to confront Grendel:
If I am killed in combat, send to Hygelac the coat of mail which I am wearing. For it is the best corselet in the world, the work of Weland Smith, and an heirloom that once belonged to my grandfather Hrethel.[16]
The reference alludes to the tale of Weland Smith (equivalent to the Norse Volund), who was a reputed wizard and shape-shifter. The effect of allusions such as these is to remind the audience of a larger and wider 'mythic history' which lies behind the main action of the story. Such allusions serve further purposes. One of the most notable is the account of Sigemund and Fafnir, recounted by one of the king's chieftains, that takes place after Beowulf kills Grendel.[17] This tale serves to put the main action of the plot in a wider 'mythical' perspective since we are inclined to view Beowulf's achievement (his victory over Grendel) in light of the famous Dragon-slaying myth of Sigemund. We are consequently able, while we keep this parallel in mind, to regard the story within the context of a much wider 'history'. This serves at once to create depth but also to impress upon the reader the importance of the main story and the effect certain events within the plot may have on the wider world.

    Likewise, The Lord of the Rings is set within the context of a pre-existing and extremely detailed and elaborate mythic history.[18] In the same manner as Beowulf, the sense of depth which is impressed upon the reader is largely created through frequent references to a set of interconnected tales in the distant past,[19] an aspect that The Lord of the Rings is particularly noted for. Tolkien himself expressed this aptly in a letter to a reader:
Part of the attraction of the L.R. is, I think, due to the glimpses of a large history in the background: an attraction like that of viewing far off an unvisited island, or seeing the towers of a distant city gleaming in a sunlit mist.[20]

    The one instance where this sense is achieved without using allusions are seen in the Lothlorien chapters. Lothlorien is a striking example of the juxtaposition of the 'mythic past' within the present action of the narrative to give the reader the impression of a living history lying behind the story. Tolkien's description of Lothlorien is characterized by marking it as manifestly different from the rest of Middle Earth. Everything, for example, seems larger than life; from the mallorn trees, which "stood up in the twilight like living towers"[21] to the massive hall within Cerin Amroth[22] - to the king and queen, Celeborn and Galadriel:
Very tall they were, and the Lady no less tall than the Lord; and they were grave and beautiful. They were clad wholly in white; and the hair of the Lady was of deep gold, and the hair of the Lord Celeborn was of silver long and bright;[23] but no sign of age was upon them, unless it were in the depths of their eyes; for these were keen as lances in the starlight, and yet profound, the wells of deep memory.[24]
The purpose of this differentiation is to emphasize the role of Lothlorien as a symbol of the Elder Days, a memory of the bliss and wonder of the past that shall inevitably disappear forever in a rapidly changing world.[25] In fact Lothlorien is a piece of 'living history' anachronistically juxtaposed within Middle-earth. The effect this has on the Secondary Belief of readers is twofold. Firstly, like Beowulf, we are aware of a complex 'history' that lies behind the main action of the story which gives the reader the impression of 'depth'. Secondly, we are made aware that this 'history' is in fact living; it has noticeable consequences on the events in the present and this adds the most essential element - 'realism'. In both works, these techniques serve to heighten the 'illusion of historical truth' that is essential to inducing Secondary Belief.

    Having noted a number of similarities between The Lord of the Rings and Beowulf, it is important to be aware of some significant differences that are inherent through their different modes of composition. The most important difference in relation to the use of the Secondary World in both works arises from the fact that Beowulf's pseudo history derives its power from actual history whereas the 'illusory history' that lies behind Lord of the Rings is entirely the product of invention,[26] and derives its power from imitating actual history. This important difference is seen most particularly in the case of geography. In Beowulf the place names correspond directly with the Dark Age Scandinavia that it was set in. Denmark, Geatland and Sweden are real places which may be visited today. While the story does not revolve around geography a great deal, these names naturally add realism to the Secondary World that is created in Beowulf.

    Middle-earth in Lord of the Rings on the other hand does not have this advantage, and Tolkien was thus obliged to create place names which resembled names of actual history. Tolkien's philological background placed him in the ideal position to do this. Tom Shippey stated that
...when he wrote Appendix F to The Lord of the Rings...(he) declared that he had used names like Bree, Combe, Archet and Chetwood because they contained non English elements and he needed words to sound 'queer' to imitate a 'style that we should perhaps vaguely feel to be "Celtic". This was Tolkien's major linguistic heresy. He thought that people could feel history in words, could recognise language 'styles', could extract sense (of sorts) from sound alone...[27]
Key to Shippey's observation is the assertion that Tolkien believed one could "feel history in words". This conviction lies behind the complex geographical naming that is lies at the foundation of Tolkien's creation. As Shippey points out, Tolkien was able to manipulate language so that names could reflect a particular atmosphere he wished to create. 'Michel Delving, Buckland and Crickhollow are familiar sounding names since they closely resembled names of English towns, while names such as 'Gondor' and 'Minas Tirith' sound entirely foreign but nevertheless give the impression (quite fittingly) of grandeur and power. Geographical naming forms one part of a wider linguistic philosophy that provides an essential basis for the Secondary World of Lord of the Rings and it is a major component in achieving 'the illusion of historical reality'. Thus both the Secondary Worlds of Beowulf and Lord of the Rings achieve a sense of realism but by different methods. Beowulf uses aspects of actual history while Lord of the Rings relies on invention which resembles actual history to produce this effect.

    In the previous discussion, we have explored a term often unacknowledged in modern definitions of the Secondary World. This has been the concept of "the illusion of historical truth" which serves to create "depth" and consequently to assist in inducing Secondary Belief (the primary purpose of the Secondary World). In particular, we have viewed this notion in relation to the comparison of two texts which have employed this literary technique to the utmost effect: Beowulf and Lord of the Rings. In the first instance we have seen that both works use this device to create a distinct sense of temporal distance between the audience and time of the narrative. In Beowulf's case this is instinctive, while in Tolkien's case this is created by setting the story of Lord of the Rings in this world, but in an imaginary past. By doing this he was able to feign an entire history which may theoretically be traced to the present day. In both cases, this temporal distance adds to the realism of the Secondary World and enhances Secondary Belief.

    The second crucial aspect we have seen is the use of an elaborate 'mythic history' that lies behind the main action of the story. Through frequent allusions to a body of interconnected tales of the past, Beowulf and Lord of the Rings create a profound sense of depth that provides one of the foundations for inducing Secondary Belief. In Beowulf we have seen allusions used to parallel the main action of the plot and to provide 'perspective'. In the case of the Lord of the Rings, the juxtaposition of Lothlorien as a symbol of the past within the time of the narrative serves to increase the readers awareness of this mythic history but also to emphasize the effect of this history on the present. The resemblance this has to actual history is crucial to producing "the illusion of historical truth" that Tolkien's Secondary World relies on.

    Finally we have noted one crucial difference between Beowulf and Lord of the Rings in respect to the manner in which the "illusion of historical truth" is created. Through examining the use of geographical names we have seen that Beowulf uses elements of actual history which naturally increases the realism of its Secondary World while in The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien imitates actual history in order to produce the same effect.

    These aspects that have been discussed are fundamental to the creation of this "illusion of historical truth" which both works rely upon for the creation of an internally consistent Secondary World. The implications of this necessitate a re-consideration of the relationship between Fantasy and reality, a crucial question which needs to be explored further by scholars in this literary field.

Sources & Notes:

[1] In fact the question reaches much further back than this; it is a variant of the question which Plato first raised concerning the relationship between poetry and truth.
[2] J.R.R. Tolkien, "On Fairy-Stories" in Tree and Leaf, (London, 1964, 2001) p.37
[3] J. Clute, "Secondary Worlds" in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy Ed. John Clute and John Grant, (London, 1997), p.847
[4] This is a term that Tolkien himself used. See J.R.R. Tolkien, "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics", in Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays, Ed. Christopher Tolkien, (London, 1997), p.27
[5] Tolkien, "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics", p.27
[6] As Tolkien points out, this effect would have been the same for the original audience of the poem as it does on modern readers.
[7] Tolkien, "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics", p.7
[8] See Peter Hunt, "Introduction: Fantasy and Alternative Worlds" in Alternative Worlds in Fantasy Fiction, Ed. Peter Hunt and Millicent Lenz, (London, 2001), p.15
[9] Such a temporal effect is made more potent, as Tolkien pointed out, by the fact that Beowulf to the modern reader is ancient when the poet himself was writing about events in the dim past.
[10] J.R.R. Tolkien,  The Fellowship of the Ring, (London, 1954), 1993, p.19
[11] Humphrey Carpenter notes that  "As the years went by he came more and more to regard his invented languages and stories as 'real' languages and historical chronicles that needed to be elucidated. In other words, when in this mood he did not say of an apparent contradiction in the narrative or an unsatisfactory name: 'This is not as I wish it to be; I must change it.' Instead he would approach the problem with the attitude; 'What does this mean? I must find out.' See Humphrey Carpenter, J.R.R. Tolkien - A Biography, (London, 1977), p.102
[12] Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, p.19
[13] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Ed. Humphrey Carpenter, (London, 1995), p.283
[14] In the sense that it is set so long ago that the events in the story cannot be disproved by empirical investigation. In Beowulf's case this is a time period which is vague and undefined (and thus impossible to pinpoint), while in the case of Middle-earth, six thousand years is so long ago that virtually no evidence from the period exists.
[15] Tolkien, "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics", p.27
[16] Tolkien, "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics", p.37
[17] Beowulf, (translated by David Wright), (Suffolk, 1957), p.47
[18] That is, the main mythology Tolkien conceived - The Silmarillion, which lies behind The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, and predates both works. This is one of the distinguishing features of Lord of the Rings compared to other Fantasy worlds.
[19] See T.A. Shippey, The Road to Middle-Earth, (New York, 2003) p.321
[20] Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, p. 333
[21] Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Rings, p.458
[22] Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Rings, p.460
[23] It is possible that the gold hair of the Lady and the silver hair of the Lord are a subtle reference to the Two Trees, Laurelin and Telperion, that grew in Valinor and shed light on the world before the making of the Sun and Moon. Laurelin shed a golden light while Telperion shone silver. If this reference is true as seems likely, Galadriel and Celeborn act specifically as powerful symbols of the bliss of the Elder Days, before the coming of Morgoth.
[24] Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, p.460
[25] See for example Galadriel's words to Frodo; "Yet if you succeed, then our power is diminished, and Lothlorien will fade, and the tides of Time will sweep it away. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring,  p.474
[26] Though this term is problematic. See Shippey, The Road to Middle-Earth, p.25
[27] Shippey, The Road to Middle-Earth
, p.114


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