Review of Prof. Tolkien's 'Tree & Leaf' (1964)

2011 Jeff Lynch

For Michael, if he does not know why by now he never will.

Part the First … pp.11 to 17

1967 ... a Scottish chap took my wife and I to see a faerie ring. Ok, perhaps so it did look a bit like a faerie ring too but that’s not what floored me. It was the obvious fact that this local guy truly believed it to be a faerie ring that did it. Now read on about Professor Tolkien’s article first published in 1964. He opens up by telling us how rash he thinks he is to enter into the matter of faeries. The professor usually uses the spelling faeries throughout his introduction. Perilous is a word that the scholar of these arcane worlds uses. He is most disappointed when he attempts to consult The Oxford Dictionary for the OD gives the professor almost no help at all. That is there is little under the heading of fairy stories and even less to go on under faeries in general. The OD editors obviously threw up there hands at such fanciful matters. He goes on to opine that word supernatural’ is of little help here either. For he says that in his opinion that word is better suited to humans than faeries themselves. Shades of Aragorn appear here then as well.

Tolkien continues on to have a word about the legendary ‘diminutiveness’ of the denizens of faerie worlds in general. He implies this is a rather modern and unsuitable generalization. They (the minute figures) become a finesse he tells us. In the professor’s wonderful words, ‘the flower and the butterfly minuteness’ is a rationalization. And what is this for then? He says that in this manner, the worlds are able ‘to be hidden in cowslip or behind a blade of glass. ‘O easy for Leonardo’ those kinds of words JRRT. He shows us what a bloody fine essay writer he is. Can he challenge George Orwell then perhaps?

He then goes on to surprise the hell out me with a possible origin of the word used to name a South American country. A country so named in part at least for a faerie world too. And that country is Brazil reader. Yes I thought that would move you as it did me. Listen to a learned professor and see what you may learn. Tolkien makes yet another fine point when he suggests that the Tudor times were perhaps a critical time for faerie literature. He introduces us to Michael Drayton’s book, ‘Nymphydia’ (which I have not read) although I know of some of Drayton’s poetry. And he helped me to remember how much I like productions of Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The good professor does not mention Edmund Spenser at all though his ‘Faireie Queene’ is I think again of a different nature to most of ‘Fairie’. There is he says, another side of the coin to the Tudor writings. This is connected perhaps to the sense of faerie diminutiveness as mentioned above. With the new ‘space age’ type explorations by the Portuguese, the Spanish and the English sea captains, the world began to shrink anew. The world is circumnavigated several times round. Tolkien suggests that it’s feasible to reckon that faerie worlds were now made even smaller (and thus hidden further) because these magical realms had not been reported or even hinted at except in the fanciful giving of names like ‘Brazil’ to an exotic location.

I also heavily related to Tolkien’s explanations how he disliked the fairy tale books of his childhood and the similar dislike of the same kind of things by his own children. These pet hates of the wan tales and the very gooey drawings which went with these tales for boys and girls. Oh for the most they were just so bad mate. Arthur Rackham’s pen work may been the best of these, but most of this genre did leave a bad taste in one’s mouth. He gives us the information that surprisingly the word elf or elfe is another Tudor period (or the just post Tudor period) invention. He instances the word elf (or elfe) as crossing over to the German language after a translation of Shakespeare’s Midnight Summer’s Dreams (by Weiland).
On page fifteen the professor begins to broaden his concept of ‘faerie’ and faerie folk. He says that it is much, much broader than the shadowy concept of a shadowy and magical faerie land as such. The faerie concept might include ‘many things beside elves and fays, and besides dwarfs, witches, trolls, giants or dragons: it holds seas, the sun, the moon, the sky; and the earth, and all things that are in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, mortal men, when we are enchanted.’ Oh hello five meals a day and Aragorn once more.

But wait let us go back those last four words above. 'when we are enchanted.' Ah this says it all by Toller’s lights if my interpretation be near correct. Look at it once again in the context…..all these other (more earthly) things can or must be found in faerie worlds (but only) ‘when we are enchanted.’ It‘s not exactly the faerie or the fanciful world that is enchanted but ourselves. I mean the consumer, the reader, the listener or the watcher. Was blind Homer really a man? Did he sit around those huge blazes in those rough hearthstones in those freezing bloody stone huts? All those cruddy and crude pre- Greek buildings full of stinking beasts and human bodies alike. In all those God forsaken stone huts scattered around the rough Aegean coastline. Was he really there and spinning his yarns to the hungry minds of those peasants, kings and warrior peoples? I don’t know if he existed at all but I do know that we all think that he should have. We need him to be so, in order to compliment the words handed down to us. I mean to complete the circle of our enchantment.

So now as we for the most have learned to read, our professor means that we the reader dear reader shall be the enchanted ones. There is here too an implied contract between the creators and the readers. The skill of the creator-writers will necessarily enmesh the readers. They will be enchanted if their sensibilities be tricked into it. This then is very the essence of the fine story teller since Homeric times. We all have the same ‘Odyssey’ to make and we all are only too well aware of it. We do not really require to undertake any further studies of French ideas on existentialism to come to any other conclusion. We all need to be entertained. We need indeed to be enchanted for sure. We do require that our minds be quietly taken away from thoughts of our all too mortal coil. And so like the very meaning of the word Islam we surrender to enchanted ideas around us.

We all need the words and the blessings of the heresy of poesy. Or we do, if our sensibilities are raised high enough I mean. And if you think that you ‘should never see, a poem as lovely as a tree,’ then you would have been in fine company with the pipe puffing professor over your few pints of mild in ‘The Bird and Baby on the high street in Oxford. Well goodnight all of you and thanks a lot for listening to me in your comfortable treetops.

Part the Second ... pp.17 to 28

Professor Tolkien is now concerned to define what a faerie tale is or isn’t for us. He begins by stating that the definition of a fairy story ‘what is and, or what it should be’ does not then, depend on any definition or historical account of elf or fairy, but upon the nature of Faerie; the Perilous Realm itself.’ At first this notion seems to be somewhat hazy but he then goes on to provide a whole lot of negative examples. He accepts himself that the definition he has proposed is a little vague but his list of exclusions, do provide us with a better idea of what he is driving at. Firstly he complains that few of the tales that most would choose as fairy stories have little or nothing to do with ‘Faerie’ at all. He is thinking of the likes of ‘Puss in Boots’, Cinderella or Little Red Hiding Hood. Secondly he chooses to exclude Swifts tales and ‘The Voyage to Lilliput’ in particular. Satire he says in Jonathan Swift’s style is more akin to a traveler’s tale. Swift finds his material in real life writ large. Similarly he can exclude works such as the Baron Munchausen tales and Verne’s works as well as HG Well’s ‘The Time Machine.’

Dreams and dream stories will not do for him either. They are excluded chiefly, because they baulk at the idea that the world of faerie is not true. Fairy–stories should be presented as ‘true’ and not a mere figment or an illusion of a non waking state. Lewis Carroll’s great works in the ‘Alice’ books are not fairy-stories precisely because of their dream sequence presentation. This is I think, a key part of Tolkien’s real grasp of what will make a great creative work and what won’t. I think that he is looking for that kind of ‘internal consistency here.’ It’s exactly what he did with his own created worlds.
The next group of stories that are to be excluded by him, are those that he calls the ‘beast fables’. Here he examples on page 20 such works as ‘The Monkey’s Heart,’ ‘Brer Rabbit’, ‘Reynard the Fox’, or even ‘The Three little Pigs.’ These tales he says are connected to ‘Faerie’ ‘by one of the primal ‘desires’ that lie near the heart of Fairie: the desire of men to hold communion with other living things.’ Also this lies very close to Tolkien’s own works. Talking to trees perhaps? Creating trees that will talk back to you? Well I ask you. But beast fables have moved on further to a kind of a specialized state. In doing so he says ‘that they have very little to do with that ‘desire’ and often wholly forgets it.’ He also points out the satiric content and the moral aspects of many of what he calls beast fables. These things also put the stories beyond fairy-tales.

Professor Tolkien now proceeds to spend a deal of time on the origins of fairy stories. He now ranges over a very wide area of sources and branches of ancient poesy and prose to establish some contexts and beginnings. He is of course, well qualified to roam over Norse and Gaelic tales of old from page 22 onwards. Firstly he deals with what might be called the recycling of tales by man down through the generations. That for instance the Greek tale of Jason and Medea might later become the Gaelic ‘The Battle of the Birds’ and so on. But he moves much further inwards into both the philological and sociological branches of academe quite swiftly. He his emphasis overall is on the changes and invention of language rather than a dependence on historical elements. In essence I think he comes down on the side of the poet to develop the myth and world of ‘Faerie’.

He briefly studies the once highly influential social thinker Max Muller and can easily dismiss his theories that mythology is ‘a disease of language.’ Tolkien says with some irony ‘that you might as well say that thinking is a disease of the mind.’ He goes on to say ‘that the incarnate mind, the tongue and the tale are in our world coeval.’ Then he starts to give some examples of how certain poetic thoughts and forces may spring from simple changes of ideas by the challenging and poetic mind. He says ‘that the mind that thought of light, heavy, grey, yellow, still, swift, also conceived of magic that would make heavy things light and be able to fly, turn grey lead into yellow gold, and the still rock into swift water.’ ‘New form is made,’ he tells us. This he says, is where ‘Faerie’ begins. And man has become what he calls a sub-creator. Maybe we would call it magic?

Next the professor alludes to what he calls the allegories of the large processes of nature. He dubs these ‘the nature myths’ and he means such examples as the Olympian Gods of the Greeks. These were mightier than men but already men. Or at least they had traits very similar to men and women. He notes that these tales dwindle down over time to become folk tales or Marchen. These then become our local stories or nursery-tales. He spends some time on the character of Thor (or Thorr) of Norse legend (in the Elder Edda). Thorr he states is so like so many of the red bearded not so clever farmers of the northern valleys of ancient Norse times. Yet he is thunder personalized! Tolkien wonders which came first the nature myth or the red bearded farmer character of Norse origin whom he calls boender?

So we have seen the professor name many genres which can never fit into his own definition of a fairy-tale for various reasons. We are no doubt free to agree or disagree with his dismissals of the various genres from ‘Fairie.’ Again I found his arguments attractive and forceful. As I have already commented, I can see many areas of these foundations are to be found in Tolkien’s own major works. One can see here the professor’s notion of the necessity of ‘the truth’ of a story. Or if you like, the internal consistency of the world created. There will be magic in these worlds. They will also be worlds largely without satire or moral fables.

Part the Third ... pp.28 to 33

Professor Tolkien now reintroduces the phrases ‘the pot of soup’ and ‘the cauldron of stories’ to describe what happens between history and myth. He tells that the pot of soup has always been boiling, and to have continually new bits, dainty and undainty. He instances the well know Grimm’s Brother’s tale called ‘The Goosegirl’ (Die Gansemagd in German). He says that a thirteenth century tale resembling this story has been handed down to us. It is about one Bertha Barefoot, who just happened to be the mother of Charlemagne. The story, unrelated to the French king’s mother or indeed, any other historical character is widespread. He says therefore that we cannot deduce whether or not the tale is truly of Charlemagne’s mother or not.

He goes on to say that he reckons that Charlemagne’s mother just got ‘put into the pot of soup’. He says ‘that (she) was just (a) new bit added to the stock. Another prime mythological figure in King Arthur seems similar he tell us. He might well have been a rather unimportant (warrior) figure once, until he too might have been ‘put into the pot.’ There he was in fact boiled for a very long time, until he became the major mythological figure that he is today. At the leading edge of ‘Fairie’ in fact. He then crosses over to the shield kings of Denmark as examples of this common technique of placing historical characters into ‘the cauldron of story.’ He is referring to the background of some of the actual characters we read about in ‘Beowulf in fact.’

Tolkien points out now that myth often resembles history, because they are made of the same stuff. It’s just that they both get put into the same cauldron and the two become almost inextricably intermingled. Still on his extended analogy of ‘the cauldron’ he also points out that we must not forget the cooks. They do not just choose the ‘ingredients’ at random for as historians or writers they also know a thing or two.

I found this section a little less satisfying than the two opening sequences story but I must admit that Tolkien has here managed to elucidate further the problems of the stew or soup that makes up history and myth making. He ends up the segment with a few words on prohibitions, taboos and moralizing. He is now getting us ready for a chapter or two on the subject of children and fairy-stories.

Part the fourth ... pp.33 to 39

The professor begins here by asking if there is any essential connection between children and fairy- stories and children he says is an accident of our domestic history. As yet though he does not define whether he means British domestic history or a wider European context. The fairy-tales he tells us have been relegated to the play room ‘because the adults do not want it and do not mind if it is. This misused.’ The professor even thinks that it is dangerous for such tales to be ‘adapted’ or written especially for children. He reckons that this must surely ban them from the full art world to a kind of lumber room or rubbish stall where they are safely out the way of grown men and women. He has a strong point here too in my own humble. After a few words on the credulity of children which enables writers to confuse fact and fiction with much impunity he considers the rather trickier question of children’s literary beliefs.

Straight out, Tolkien opts for the opinion that there is no doubt at all that children do have a sense of literary belief, ‘when the story teller is good enough to produce it.’ A nicely put distinction too I would have said. When a ‘secondary world has been successfully made it will be believed solidly. He says that the moment of disbelief arises when the spell is broken; the magic or rather the art, has failed. I think that truly, we all recognize this fact from our own childhood do we not? So Tolkien is beginning to talk about Secondary and Primary worlds to discuss the success or failure of imaginative tales (or fairy- stories).


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