I think the Book of Mormon treads the borderlands of Faërie.
This thought came to me while riding my bike on a country lane between Cradley and Colwall, leafy villages in Tolkien’s Worcestershire. Remember that by Faërie we do not mean a juvenile land of make-believe where Tinkerbell reigns, but rather that world which contains all things, “tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, mortal men, when we are enchanted” (Tolkien, On Fairy Stories, emphasis mine). I have glimpsed Faërie, that is I have been enchanted by things both of this world and another, and, given Tolkien’s Christianity, we may assume that such enchantments can include the ministry of the divine — after all, is that not what the sacraments achieve? (“Wine and bread” are mentioned twice in “On Fairy Stories.”)
The idea of the Book of Mormon as being partially Faërie came to me on my bike (a great place to think) as I pondered a rather striking turn in the book: the narratives of the Old and the New Worlds are remarkably different in their geographical ontology. The tales set in the Old World — 1 Nephi 1-18, Ether 1-6 — are strongly anchored to the real world. We have references to identifiable and recoverable places (Jerusalem, the Tower of Babel), the people act in ways that are congruent with ancient oriental custom (their nomadic culture, their agriculture, their religious language), their names bear striking allusions to actual languages (the deseret bee and Egyptian dshrt), and their footsteps can plausibly be traced (the Nahom altars in Arabia). Indeed, it is this last fact that is particularly striking: the best archaeological evidence for the Book of Mormon is found in the deserts of the East. I am quite confident that if one were to anonymise the Book of Mormon and present only the Old World chapters, it would find more people sympathetic to its claim to be an ancient record. Nibley’s work on Lehi and the Jaredites is good precisely because this is so.
But then it changes. The migrants reach the Promised Land — identified as America — but it does not seem to be in an America recoverable today. This is not to say that it did not happen in an America, simply that it seems to be in an America no longer visible to the human eye. Note how no-one really knows where to look. Joseph Smith himself went from a macro-geography — the Book of Mormon lands are the whole of the Americas — to seeing connections with specific and disparate places — Mesoamerica, Missouri, New York. FARMS has presented a credible internal geography in Mesoamerica but even the most ardent admirer might allow himself to recognise that Book of Mormon tours to Guatemala are not a great deal more than a reasoned stab in the semi-dark. Note the contortions required by the Two Cumorah Theory. We may chuckle at attempts to situate the Book of Mormon lands in Malaysia but note how no-one is suggesting that Lehi’s migration was across Scotland. You cannot because 1 Nephi is rather clearly not set in Faërie. It is very plausibly set in Jerusalem and the Negev and Arabia.
This is not the case for the rest of the book, however. It will sound like a strange claim but I shall do it again anyway: the American Book of Mormon takes us into the environs of Faërie. The New World Book of Mormon carries that all-important verisimilitude necessary for Faërie. To use Tolkien’s vocabulary, it is the sub-creation of a Secondary World that is internally plausible . . . but it is also a magical world, full of slippery treasures and moving mountains and, most importantly, the seamen who found it seemed to have sailed off the edge of the world and into Aman. The cities of Eldamar will never be found by archaeologists. This does not mean that Aman is not a true place, of course.
As far as I know, Tolkien never really made clear why scripture is not Faërie — certainly it contains tales of the fantastic and otherworldly. He seems to simply accept, as a Catholic, that the Gospel is the “true myth.” Given that the Book of Mormon is consciously presented as scripture, I can only suggest that it treads the borderlands of Faërie and nothing more. Mostly, and thanks to Tolkien, I want to alert the reader to the possibility that the Word of God can be presented in different genres in one book: history, poetry, prophecy, myth . . . and perhaps even fantasy (avoid the slander directed towards that term). That Nephi may have lived in our world of men but Alma trod the land of Faërie seems entirely possible to me. It also helps explain why I feel sympathetic to studies of Nahom and the Arabian coast but simultaneously think that Book of Mormon archaeology in America is a fool’s errand.
History, Faërie — Truth. Why not?