Tolkien: On Fairy Stories III

imagesHaving briefly considered Tolkien’s defense of fantasy fiction and asked whether the Book of Mormon partially treads the borderlands of Faërie, I want to finish this look at Tolkien’s thought by saying something about three works that further illuminate Faërie: the poem Mythopoeia, and the short stories Leaf by Niggle and Smith of Wootton Major. We thereby cover the canon of Tolkien’s literary philosophy. 

Mythopoeia was Tolkien’s poem written to C.S. Lewis who, in his agnostic days, believed that myths were “lies . . . breathed through silver.” Mythopoeia is thus a further defense of myth as a vehicle for telling the truth. I find the poem somewhat cumbersome, but I am not a great reader of poetry, so feel free to set my opinion aside. Still, there are moments of insight and beauty. For example, the opening two lines

You look at trees and label them just so,
(for trees are ‘trees’, and growing is ‘to grow’)

strike at the heart of rationalism (and its limits). A tree is not just “a tree”, or not solely a “tree”. Does its arboreal nature exist only in a “regimented, cold” description of such, or is there a truth in trees to be found in simile, myth, rhyme, and song? Seeing through the glass darkly as we do, a fictional story can begin to penetrate the noumenal fog as well as anything, often better. This is not to deny science or rationalism — water is H20 — but water is also the silvery deep, the wellspring, the lazy river swim on a sunny afternoon, the devil that drowns the lungs and eats the sailor.

In order to demonstrate the truths conveyed by myth, we have Leaf by Niggle, a curious story about a painter of trees, Niggle, whose niggly niggles in life get in the way of completing his great painting. Tolkien claimed to dislike allegory but this is exactly that, whether he likes it or not. In fact, as an allegory of Purgatory, it’s pretty damn good. Niggle finds himself in a rather austere afterlife in which his self-inflicted niggles are purged, after which he goes on to discover the true Tree which he had long tried to paint. This is a message of sub-creation: our art and stories are but leaves of the One Tree. What is curious is that Niggle’s paintings in some way create the Tree; in other words, the sub-creation is symbiotic.

Leaf by Niggle is a work of fiction, obviously, but it is not a work of lies, as Mythopoeia makes clear. And so we come finally to Smith of Wootton Major, a more Tolkienesque work in that you can happily read it to children. Again, this is not to say that Faërie is childish, but that children tend to be more open to its charms. The eponymous Smith has adventures in the land of Faërie, an enchanting but sometimes ominous place, and brings its light back to his own “real” world. The antagonist in the tale is a cook named Nokes, who mocks the Tinkerbell-reputation of Faërie. In this, the enemies of myth are once again revealed. In Nokes I see mainly the obsessive literalist who dismisses the value of myth — Nokes sees Faërie as silly but really the failure is in seeing Faërie as literally about fairies, which are, if we are honest, indeed a little silly (if taken literally).

Given Tolkien’s standing as the greatest author of the 20th century (put that in your pipe, haters!), it is heartening to see such a defender of myth in the modern canon.


Next: Ainulindalë and Valaquenta. I shall then discuss the rest of The Silmarillion over at Kulturblog.


  1. The reference to trees and the contrast between scientific fact and poetic metaphor or allegory reminds me of ‘Birches’ by Robert Frost, where he admits the scientific reasons why birches sometimes bend, but then finds real truth in a fictional explanation.

  2. Thanks, Norbo. I knew I could rely on an English teacher of repute such as yourself.

  3. I think that it is unfortunate that Tolkien isn’t talked about as much as CS Lewis among Mormons. Even though he didn’t write in an overtly Christian way, I think that he has at least as much to offer. I am prone to deconstructing and analyzing everything to death. I don’t think it is bad to look closely at things, but if you forget the big picture, you can begin to wonder why you are doing anything at all. I think Tolkien’s message to modern people that they need a story, a mythology. Your story might need changing sometimes, but you need one to live a meaningful life. Tolkien has been one of the main ways that I have been kept spiritually motivated. Since The Lord of the Rings is the 2nd most printed novel of all time (A Tale of Two Cities is first and the Hobbit #4), it seems that he hit upon something that people around the world have felt they needed.

  4. Your discussion of trees and rationalism reminds me of Eric Jepson’s short story:

  5. Here is the whole poem of Mythopoeia:

  6. “What is curious is that Niggle’s paintings in some way create the Tree; in other words, the sub-creation is symbiotic.”

    Or maybe the tree was already there all along, and Niggle just had the gift of seeing it and painting it.

  7. Ed the Fed says:


    Myth isn’t my field of expertise, but I was perusing the “The Silmarillion” just the other day and was struck by how many themes and ideas resonated with my LDS soul. Thanks for the thoughts… I’ll follow this discussion on the Kulturblog.

  8. Can’t wait for your musings on the Music of the Ainur.

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