Tolkien: On Fairy Stories II

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?


  1. I. LOVE. This. I love that you have drawn these interesting parallels in this series. Though I’ve never read Tolkien (I just can’t really get into it), I can definitely understand the concept of the “true myth.”
    I’m an African American convert to the church, but I didn’t take the traditional path to baptism. I actually found all of my information, got all my questions answered, and read the Book of Mormon and the other volumes of scripture online.
    I realized going in ( and I honestly think that it was the Spirit), that there were parts of the Book of Mormon that were, in my opinion, more allegory than historical, and while yes, there may be time stamps on the pages (ie *600 BC and such), I absolutely believe that the stories related to us once in the New World are not based in a “reality” like we know of today. I agree that searching for archaeological evidence of the presence of the societies in the latter part of the Book of Mormon is futile.
    I know enough about Tolkien that he did combine his spirituality with his knowledge of myth. I think that he did have a great understanding of how one can see truth in myth in without having to believe that the myth itself is true.
    I’m a high school English teacher, I teach Freshmen and Juniors. I remember one day having a discussion with my Freshmen about the literary value of the Bible, and my kids got so mad at me for suggesting to them that yes, there are parts of the Bible that are history, and some parts that are literary, that they are fiction. I couldn’t believe the response! It was so interesting, so I like that you are voicing this idea.
    I see the Bible and the Book of Mormon as mirrors. I think both volumes hold the mirror up to humanity because we see, starting with the Old Testament all the way through to Moroni, the constant rising, sustaining, flourishing, and falling of civilization through the lens of faith. And isn’t that the human story? Faith and belief in truth is the framework for myth. People often forget that myths were told in order to explain, inform, and answer questions that the society had about things beyond their understanding.
    I think in Christianity, we tend to do ourselves a disservice by not lending to the idea that Scripture is derived from myth. Most creation stories in most cultures are very similar, and they predate the Christianity and the Bible, and I think that’s beautiful. For example, The epic of Gilgamesh. VERY similar to the Bible in many ways. Another example is Beowulf. Truth in these epics is derived from their myths: good vs. evil, the creation of man, etc.
    I think that if you are strong enough in your convictions, if you are truly a follower of Christ, and a believer in his everlasting Gospel, then these idea are mere trifles (not to downplay what you’re saying here) because it’s ultimately the truth that gives us freedom and salvation. I don’t think our faith should be so dependent on the belief of the historicity of scripture. I think it is the way we read scripture, as you’ve suggested, that is important.
    For me, as a convert to the LDS, and an African American, this totally makes sense to me because in my culture, stories, tradition, and ritual keep us going. It is our faith tradition that keeps us going. I honestly think that’s why the Church is growing so much in Africa because the African tradition is so strongly rooted in faith and myth. The proverbs and folklore in our culture has truth to it, but are the stories always true? No.
    I love the Book of Mormon, I love the Bible, I love all of the scriptures because they edify me, uplift me, and enlighten me. I’m not always looking for evidence of everything I read because I don’t need evidence of it to know that the message is true.
    Thank you soooo much for this! Hopefully I didn’t sound too broad, having not read Tolkien, but I do love myths, so I hope that I’ve been able to contribute to the conversation!
    Again, thank you for this!

  2. *I meant to explain in the first part of my lengthy response that the missionaries had very little to do with my conversion process, and thus, I did not have their influence while studying the Book of Mormon, so reading your post, again, makes total sense to me because that was my sentiment, exactly, and I still joined the Church and have not regretted it.

  3. Welcome, Domi. Give Tolkien another try. Start with the Silmarillion if you like myth. I have just finished reading Gilgamesh with a class and they were gripped, so I hear you. Of course, I think Tolkien would remind us of the necessity for true myth, that is historical myth. I think Christianity needs, and will always need, the power of the belief in a literally empty tomb. It’s just that those literal truths are surrounded by other truths and it’s okay to notice the difference.

  4. RJH, would a similar comparison in myth be the Arthurian legends? How Avalon was removed from the world and Glastonbury Tor existed both in Avalon and in the Camelot, separated but by a veil?

  5. Kevin Christensen says:

    Well, Alma 32 does encourage listeners to start with whatever portion of the word they want to work with. It’s what happens over time and under nurture that produces discernible results that matters. And those results ought to include expansion of the mind, enlightened understanding, fruitfulness, deliciousness and future promise. Personally, as far as contortions go though, I have to consider a Mormon and Moroni who happened to fix precisely the profile that Terrence Des Pres found in survivor witnesses of Nazi and Soviet death camps (see the Hawkins and Thomasson paper), and a Moroni who displayed plates to witnesses, and provided plates that others handled. For me, that gives them a particularly human quality, one that is tied to specific kinds of human experience that go beyond universal archetypes that populate myth. I have to consider that Larry Poulson has demonstrated that the only river in the Western Hemisphere that matches the physical description of the Sidon in the Book of Mormon happens to be the Grijalva. And that if Limhi’s explorers happened to mistake the source of the Usamacinta for the that of the Sidon (they are only a few miles apart), and followed that, then they would pass through a land of many waters (Mos. 8:8), and encounter a La Venta, the only possible site which could have been mistaken for Zarahemla, it being in the right location for them to encounter, and unoccupied at the time.

    What makes the Two Cumorah theory the result of contortions more than the two Jerusalem theory, that the text mentions a Jerusalem in the Old World and on in the New, and two Bountiful, one in the Old World, where Nephi built a ship, and one in the New where a temple was built and where the Lord appeared? Does it take contortions to explain several people named Nephi in the Book of Mormon, two Almas, two Moronis? Three LDS prophets named Joseph Smith? No one gets confused on those points because details of time and place matter enough to resolve ambiguity in names. Do the 1000+ passages with geographic information in the Book of Mormon count towards resolving ambiguity? And what happens when we add in cultural information to that? Do we get convergence, or conflict? Or do we deal with complexity via the engineering method of deferring to authority (assuming someone “must have known”), while never testing the quality of that authority against both text and context?

    We can ignore the blunt statement in D&C 1, that far from being infallible and omniscient, that as far as LDS leaders go, “inasmuch as they erred, it shall be made manifest” and that knowledge comes from time to time based on seeking and expedience. If we ignore that, we can then insist that Joseph Smith “must have known” certain details about Book of Mormon geography. If a letter to his wife mentions “plains of the Nephites” we need not wonder why that expression that does not have a parallel in the Book of Mormon. We can forget that the varied accounts of the Zelph incident during Zions camp don’t correlate with any stories of any Zelph in the Book of Mormon. And we can ignore Joseph Smith’s obvious excitement in reading and reviewing the Stephens and Catherwood Incidents of Travel volume and his statement that it would not be bad to make comparisons in the locations the books describes.

    In dealing with various proposals for the New World setting of the Book of Mormon, we have competing solutions to a complex puzzle. But we have to remember that those who offer puzzle solutions are doing so with specific paradigms. And in comparing paradigms, the key questions involve “Which paradigm is better? And which problems are more significant to have solved?” Is opinion of a favored authority or unquestioned tradition enough to make a paradigm better? Is authority the most significant problem to solve? What about the Thomas Kuhn’s suggestions that “better” is most effectively measured in terms of puzzle generation and solution, accuracy of key predictions, comprehensiveness and coherence, fruitfulness, simplicity and aesthetics, and future promise?

    Take the central suggestion here, regarding the New World portions of the Book of Mormon as faerie. What happens to puzzle generation and solution, regarding the specific details of culture, as discussed by Brant Gardner, or the detailed description of the Sidon in Larry Poulson’s work, or the 3 Nephi disasters compared to Bart Kowallis’ work? Or the cultural patterns that Sorenson and Clark have observed. (And Mormon’s Codex is coming fairly soon.) Clearly, those puzzles and solutions don’t enter in here. They disappear under the umbrella of “contortions.” It is a simple solution, I grant you. And one that some might find promising, not so much on grounds that it provides puzzle generation and solution, with all its mess and debate, but because it removes the criteria altogether.

    Still, whatever portion of the word you want to start with, whether historicity, or faerie, what matters in the long run, is how you nurture what you plant. And what grows.


    Kevin Christensen
    Bethel Park, PA

  6. Kevin,
    You have ably demonstrated the verisimilitude of the Book of Mormon. That is never a problem in Faërie, however. I want to add, of course, that I am not making some statement of faith, rather a whimsy of possibility.

    Sadly, I’m utterly illiterate in the Arthurian legends.

  7. Wonderful follow-up to your first post. I am sympathetic to the interpretive framework of Faërie — or rather, the borderlands of Faërie, as you put it — for reading, studying, and gleaning Gospel truths from the Book of Mormon though I personally would do so while embracing the historicity of the book, i.e. taking both Nephi and Alma as historical figures. Embracing the historicity of the Book of Mormon, however, does not mean reading it as a history text, much less as the type of “history” promoted since at least the nineteenth-century efforts at the scientific approach to history. Perhaps the prophets who contributed through their sermons or writings to what eventually made it into the Book of Mormon through Mormon’s and then Moroni’s editorial guidance (working through spiritual inspiration about what to include or exclude or what to summarize or otherwise editorialize) viewed history very differently than we do. What if for them “history” was closer to what we in our time look at as myth-creation, i.e. stories rooted in events meant to descrive those events but with the cultural accretions of centuries included? This would bring it closer to Faërie in any event, or at least the two genres (scripture and serious Faërie) would closely relate to each other, would possibly inform each other or reinforce each other, and never moreso than in the instances in which both look to and express glimpses of the sublime, or the divine, that are accessible to the authors.

    As Mormons we can be more directly uplifted by such an attitude because we are not encumbered with the necessity to believe that God Himself literally wrote the scriptures through the writers whose names are attributed to the books in the scriptures. We should in theory (except to the extent that we have fallen into company with American creedal Christian Evangelicals or other fundamentalists who ascribe inerrancy and infallibility to the scriptural canon and its authors — and unfortunately it appears to me that this is a growing trend among us as Latter-day Saints) be able to accommodate the idea that perhaps the writer of 1 and 2 Nephi drafted those books in such a way that, though yes they do reflect historical events, spin details to bolster Nephi’s claim to dynastic leadership, inheritance and political domination.

  8. John, that’s another reasonable way of looking at the text, akin more, if we are to continue to be inspired by JRRT, to his work The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son.

    You will note, of course, that the model above does indeed embrace the historicity of *some* of the book. That is the thing I would like people to see — that a book can be many things at once.

  9. “Sadly, I’m utterly illiterate in the Arthurian legends.”

    Seriously? My world is shattered.

  10. Also, Ronan, you wrote “This does not mean that Aman is not a true place, of course.”

    This is more correct than you know. Spend some time with the Book of Lost Tales. Christopher Tolkien has done a lot of groundwork in his commentary to the tales collected in these volumes to show a “bridge” between Middle Earth and England.

    Reading CT’s commentary, one gets the sense that The Silmarillion is actually similar to the small plates of Nephi — an essential distillation of a much larger universe of information that serves to chrystalize and formalize what is out there. A lot of material in the Book of Lost Tales actually contradicts the way things are presented, portrayed in The Silmarillion.

    In the Lost Tales, a wanderer named in the earliest of the collected tales (circa 1916) as “Eriol” has left the “Great Lands” to the east and has come over to Tol Eressëa to gain knowledge of the broader world. Notes collected by CT from his father reveal that “Eriol” was alternatively named “Angol” in conception. (In later tales collected in the Lost Tales his name changes to “Ælfwine”, meaning “Elf-friend” in Old English.)

    Eriol is the bridge. CT discusses Tolkien’s obsession with Hengest from Anglo-Saxon history/legend whose name also surfaces in Beowulf. If I remember correctly (I don’t have the book to hand at the moment so I should probably be waiting to write this comment until I have it with me but oh well) CT identifies draft notes that indicate Tolkien’s intention to portray Eriol as Ottor Wǽfre (cf. “wanderer, wayfarer?”), the father of Hengest and his brother Horsa (both meaning “horse” — technically Hengest meaning “stallion” and Horsa meaning “horse” — which is thought to be the source of the decorative horse-headed gables that are familiar from Anglo-Saxon artifacts). Eriol the “wanderer” (“whose name before is not given” — this little tidbit appears in The Cottage of Lost Play — if memory serves) leaves the “Great Lands” to the east, which is referred to as Kor or Kôr, are in later tales identified as being located in a narrow neck of land between two seas, i.e. Anglia (Schleswig on the Jutland Peninsula) or the homeland of the Anglo-Saxons and sails to Heligoland where an ancient sage directs him out further across the ocean in search of “the Lonely Island”, which is Tol Eressëa. He ends up in a town there called Kortirion, which Tolkien specifically identifies in the prelude to a 1915 poem as Warwick, the tower at Warwick being the “tirion” referred to in the name Kortirion. I believe in that same prelude Tolkien laments that Elves no longer live in England, having been spirited away, though, he writes, particularly sensitive individuals can still sense their presence in England’s rolling hills and forests, especially during the autumn (his poem to Kortirion, which survives in about three versions, including one from 1915-1916, i.e. the very earliest of his writings, and one from the late 1930s).

    Mind you, Tolkien ended up changing a lot of this (all of it?) when he assembled The Silmarillion. But it is all still out there, having been published posthumously by his son together with notes and marginal material discussed in CT’s commentary. Very fascinating. But it very much identifies England as the setting. All of this is perfectly natural considering Tolkien’s actual professional activities of researching and writing about the Anglo-Saxon period and materials. England was Tolkien’s “Promised Land”, identifiable as such through these notes and background information, even if details have changed in the “official” canon of The Silmarillion.

  11. JBF, that is pure epicness.

    MCQ, but I’ve been to Glastonbury, have you, Yank-boy? But seriously, as a student I was drawn to the exotic tales of the orient, eschewing those of my own land (although note Tolkien’s dissatisfaction with the Frenchiness of Arthur). JRRT is bringing me back, however.

    One thing I should make clear — you can have an historical Alma if you want to but the *tale of Alma* can still be Faërie, rendering the Book of Mormon-led search for his actual bones in American soil (so to speak) futile. I come to this conclusion because the Old World Book of Mormon reads as much more grounded in the “real world” (i.e. Ishmael’s bones could be found, so to speak).

  12. >can still be Faërie,

    My tutor at you-know-where told me to make sure to be precise in my writing, so I will try that again:

    “can still roam the borderlands Faërie”

  13. Are we as Mormons precluded from seeing Mormon’s or Moroni’s view of “history” (or the view of the author of 1 and 2 Nephi) as more akin to that of The Venerable Bede in his 8th century Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (“Ecclesiastical History of the English People”) — or to Herodotus — than to that of Leopold von Ranke, or does the direction that our faith has trended commit us to a positivist, empiricist view of history such that we have to see the Book of Mormon as containing that kind of historical writing? For the record, I don’t see the former as harming historicity in any way or as being any kind of cop-out. It doesn’t change the religious truths (and doctrines) one bit. Bede certainly did not think he was writing fiction — and he wasn’t, though his “history” cannot measure up to “modern” standards of accuracy or sourcing, etc. Do we really need to look at Mormon as a nineteenth century German historian? If we do, then at the very least, I think he falls into the Hegelian camp. I don’t see how one could argue otherwise.

  14. Eriol: I want to believe!

  15. Also, Ælfwine is possibly a cognate of Albion, brother. Geek readings are off the charts!

  16. definitely

  17. RJH, in thinking about this a bit more, the books of Moses and Abraham seem like natural candidates for your fairy readings. Perhaps more natural than the BoM, as they tell stories that are purportedly more ancient, more infused with magic and cosmos, and much more fun.

  18. “That Nephi may have lived in our world of men but Alma trod the land of Faërie seems entirely possible to me.”

    Alma still seems pretty much a real life kind of figure to me, but Captain Moroni and Teancum? Now we’re getting into some heroic myths! I love those guys, and that makes me think Mormon may have dreamed them up purely for illustration and entertainment. Not that I wouldn’t be thrilled if they turn out to be real dudes, but I feel the exact same way about Finrod Felagund and Beren Erchamion.

  19. Surprised no one’s wondered about “Adam-ondi-Aman” yet ;)

  20. Ha! It looks like I’m a bit of a broken record — my comment #13 above in this thread unwittingly closely resembles (in substance at least) my comment #15 from JG’s “Looking for historicity in all the wrong places” post you linked above:

    Great post. I think it is a very good idea, even for people who perhaps do not find value in or wish to go where you want to go with this post, for all people to incorporate a few considerations about historiography, at least, into their study and interpretation of the Book of Mormon.

    Primarily, they would hopefully decide it is best to be realistic about how the book came together. Even in the most orthodox understanding of what the Book of Mormon is, aside from interpretations that are beginning to adopt Evangelical creedalist conceptions of infallibility and sufficiency in relation to Book of Mormon origins (a very unfortunate trend), one should not lose sight of the role played by Mormon and Moroni as compilers/editors. They did this work of summarising perhaps dozens or more writings and records without any training in historical method and of course without any knowledge of the science of history as developed in the nineteenth-century German mind. When summarizing historical events within a didactic narrative, especially a narrative that serves to explain Nephite economic and spiritual hegemony in an ethnically charged reality, there is every likelihood that such historical information could be inaccurate at best on the level of dates, numbers and things actually said in a historical moment by certain figures. But our view of BoM historicity remains intact because even remaining extremely flexible about historical facts that seem to come through in the Book of Mormon, this approach is still based on a belief that Mormon and Moroni were real people who lived and wrote in approximately the timeframe that can be deduced from the BoM narrative, i.e. 400 AD.

    To illustrate, if President Monson were given a blank book with 500 pages and told to summarize the religious development of Mormons starting from circa 1200 to the present using a circumscribed universe of source material consisting mostly of priestly writings and diaries (and based on a certain starting point, say the signing of the Magna Carta) then you’d surely get a great and inspiring book that describes things and events that really existed and happened but your primary use of the book would not be historical but rather devotional. It could still pass as Holy Scripture, given that it is written by the President of the Church (assuming that it goes through the canonization process that has been put in place in our times) but it would probably not be properly used as a textbook for English history.

    Though no one responded to it then, at least it shows me that I’ve been carrying on a consistent conversation with myself over the last 2.5 years at least, maybe more!

  21. (Well, it resembles my input on this thread if you combine my comment # 7 above with my comment # 13 above.)

  22. I’m listening to you John.

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