A passport to Faery (04.09.13 by James Dunning) - Comments

The land of Faery is a marvelous land. Far from the syrupy realm of sentimentalized, over-diminutized creatures of fancy that resemble a thimble-sized Cupid retrofitted with dragonfly aerodynamics (Our Professor exhibited righteous exasperation with such fancies (1)), Faery like our world contains wood and water, green leaf and stone, fire and peril, and more: beings of frightening aspect and dimension that disclose the raw, untamed seed of humanity’s origins, potentiality and visions of the Universe.

And Faery at odd intervals yields its hidden paths to mortal men. These paths are not merely sought but are granted as gifts. Why do certain mortal men become enchanted and happen upon the hidden paths?
Alan Lee - Tales from the Perilous Realm - The Mewlips

Tolkien has given us indirect and ominous intimations early on. In The Hobbit the Dwarves and Bilbo are starving on Mirkwood’s benighted forest path, and happen across an Elven feast. Here Thorin, driven mad by the aroma of luscious viands, by lights and sounds of entrancing music, laughter and feasting, steps into the “fairy ring” to beg for food.  Dead silence falls, the merry fires implode into ashes and cinders in the Dwarves’ faces, and the Elven banquet disappears into darkness and confusion. Still worse, with the Elven protection now withdrawn, the Dwarves fall prey to the spiders. (2)

Likewise Tolkien’s poem “The Sea Bell” portrays a similar exclusion, when an inquisitive mortal crosses the great sea and enters Faery as it were, hearing “echo of song ... pipes, voices, horns on the hill.” Crowning and arming himself with random artifacts of nature’s provenance, he rashly declares himself king, and calls out the revelers to royal audience. In answer “Black came a cloud as a night shroud,” damning him to silence and slow decay for a year and a day. He is miserably exposed to the hostile elements that will ravage him nearly to his destruction.
Alan Lee - Tales from the Perilous Realm - The Sea Bell

When he returns to the sea he finds his boat once again, but once over sea and ‘home’ again, he is aged and worn, and seems to have lost forever even that which he once possessed. The poem is parenthetically labeled ‘Frodo’s Dreme,’ as if to recount the despairing visions that shadow the Ring-bereaved Frodo upon his return to the Shire. (3)

Not just each and every mortal wayfaring Tom, Dick or Harry can find or enter the hidden portal into Faery.  The first mighty trial is to attain the certainty that Faery is out there (or in there) and that the portal exists.

Tantalizing keys to further insight appear in Smith of Wootton Major, written near the end of Tolkien’s life (©1967 by George Allen & Unwin, Ltd.).  In Wootton Major at a Great Hall constructed of good oak and good stone, a Twenty-four Feast is held every twenty-four years, and to this Feast twenty-four children are invited, seemingly by chance (a right hazardous term in Middle-earth (4)). Its cake is crowned by a tiny fairy figurine bearing a wand. Into the cake the Master Cook’s apprentice, ‘Prentice’ Alf, bakes a tiny star, fey because it comes from Faery. A small boy unknowingly receives the Faery star in his slice of cake.   Like Bilbo, he receives his ‘gift’ in kindness and mercy. The star quietly rests within him until his tenth birthday. Then his mind is opened and he bursts into song in a strange unknown language of Faery. The star falls from his mouth into his hand and he claps it to his forehead, where it remains.

Smith bears the star on his brow for many years, and although invisible to all but the initiated, the Faery star lends him unusual graces, strange gifts of vision and creative talents in craftsmanship. He would walk or ride about into Faery, for the star on his brow was a passport to shield him from many evils that might there befall him, and there he witnesses many strange beauties and terrors, much more than he could ever remember. His visions turn progressively more sublime and also more terrifying. Circumstances turn ominous when a breeze from the mountains rises to become a wild wind to thrash him and tear him from the land. Smith clings to a birch tree in desperation. When the wind subsides, he sees that he has stripped the poor weeping birch naked of leaves. He gives thanks to the birch, but the birch warns him, “Go away! The Wind is hunting you. You do not belong here. Go away and never return!” Smith wanders on to meet a maiden who chides him to beware lest the Queen might discover him, but then proceeds to welcome him and invites him to dance. Smith returns home bearing an heirloom flower of Faery, which his family preserves in a small casket. His family marvel at the flower and they can see the star on his brow. (5)
Alan Lee - Tales from the Perilous Realm - Smith of Wootton Major 2

Smith returns one last time to Faery only to meet the Queen herself, and finds in dismay that it was with her in other guise that he had danced before. He is filled with shame as he remembers the tiny fairy doll with a wand atop the Twenty-Four Feast cake, in light of the terrible beauty of the actual Queen of Faery.  But the Queen simply laughs and tells him, “”Better a little doll, maybe, than no memory of Faery at all. For some the only glimpse. For some the awaking.”  The Queen speaks to Smith at length of many things, mostly without words, but once she lays her hand upon Smith’s brow he realizes that he must now return to mortal lands in bereavement.

Smith is left to reflection, walking homeward among fallen leaves. He is joined on the way by a stranger who calls him “Starbrow,” none other than Prentice Alf. Alf asks Smith whether the time is not now ripe for him to give up the star. In the Great Hall the star falls from Smith’s brow into his hand and Smith returns it to the spice box whence it came. He feels a stab of pain and the tears run down his face as he realizes what precious passport he is losing forever. Alf reveals to Smith which child shall next receive the star of Faery. In the end humble Prentice Alf is revealed in terrible glory as the King of Faery.  And the star that had belonged to Smith’s maternal grandfather and later to Smith himself is passed on to another child.

The gilding and vivid emblazoned colors of Wootton Major’s Great Hall have faded because its society’s connection to Faery is but dimly remembered. One divines this from the “modern” attitude of the pompous and blustery Master Cook Nokes, who summarily dismisses Alf’s talk of Faery as childish fairytale nonsense. Tolkien is reminding us how today if knowledge has grown, understanding is diminished, for men in earlier ages had infinitely more awe of Creation, just as he has told us more than once how old wives’ tales contain many things it was once good for the wise to know.
Alan Lee - Tales from the Perilous Realm - Smith of Wootton Major

Another reviewer gives us an intriguing and knowledgeable interpretation of Smith of Wootton Major. This interpretation invokes allegory, i.e., that the Great Hall is the village church, or the Master Cook is the priesthood, or that the denuded birch reflects how the b-scheme of education would truncate and wither Oxonian English philology. Yet he also asserts how Tolkien might be arguing with himself as to its ‘allegorical’ nature. (6)

However this reader’s very first edition of Ringlore (ballantine, 1965) contains Tolkien’s Foreword wherein he professes emphatically: “...I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations...” (7) This author takes Tolkien at his word, and therefore balks at the dire specter of Bunyanesque allegory, (8) and is thereby inspired to seek an alternate cognitive perspective. 

The realm of Faery could constitute an analogical metaphor, a parable to evoke and exalt that certain cognitive spark that resides perhaps in every man, yet kindles ablaze in a ‘public’ way only in very few. This spark of Faery is a gift of the higher graces of imagination and creation (9) that lead us outside the rat’s maze realities of workaday life through hidden doors into alternate, expanded vistas of the Universe, be they visual, auditory, mathematical, philological, spiritual or psychic, or even a rarest combination of all of these. These vistas cannot but inspire their seer to depart in further search for the miraculous in life. Smith of Wootton Major like Leaf by Niggle may or may not be ‘allegorical,’ however it certainly is a parable, a fable that via its applicability to how the Universe works, points the way into panoramas higher or deeper.

But like Faery, the Universe cannot forever yield benignly to the proddings and pokings of Smith or of any other mortal on his journeys, without exacting a terrible price. Odin gains the wisdom he seeks, but in payment he must lose his right eye. There are things too mysterious, too overwhelming or too mighty for Man’s finite mind to envelop or to fathom. There are beauties too piercing and too perilous, joys too overwhelming, dangers too unnerving and terrors too shattering. In the end every seeker must wrestle on his own with the angel and likely abandon the ladder that leads into higher realms, left to marvel and to reflect upon places he has been and things he has seen. (10)

And at the end of his life, having marveled at the glory of Ainulindalë, having perceived the hand and mind of Féanor in the Deeps of Time and having plumbed the depths of Kheled-Zâram, Tolkien must have become painfully cognizant that the engine that drives the higher spheres of imagination is youth and its vital energy. As life’s powers begin slowly to ebb and wane, yéni únótime, (11) finally we all must surrender our treasured personal star and pass its torch on to another.

- Dedicated to Pieter Collier of Tolkien Library

James Dunning

Author of The Bright Lady and the Astral Wind


(1) J.R.R. Tolkien, The Tolkien Reader, ballantine Books, New York, NY; Ed. 1975; “Tree and Leaf: On Fairy Stories.” Viz. Tolkien’s reference to Drayton’s Nymphidia on p. 6.

(2) J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, ballantine Books, New York, NY; Ed. 1973; Chapter VIII, “Flies and Spiders.”

(3) J.R.R. Tolkien, The Tolkien Reader, ballantine Books, New York, NY; Ed. 1975; “The Adventures of Tom Bombadil and Other Verses from the Red Book”, poem no. 15: “The Sea Bell.”

(4) J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, ROTK, ballantine Books, New York, NY; Ed. 1973; Appendix A: “We might now hope to return from the victory here only to ruin and ash. But that has been averted – because I met Thorin Oakenshield one evening on the edge of spring in Bree. A chance-meeting, as we say in Middle-earth.” Tolkien links other events to imply the denial of pure ‘random’ chance, such as Bilbo ‘meant’ to find the Ring (Op. cit., FOTR, Chapter 2, ‘The Shadow of the Past.”) Otherwise, for example, both Bilbo and Frodo spare the loathsome Gollum, who later steps in providentially during Frodo’s lapse to destroy the Ring, saving Middle-earth from the Shadow. This linking of events unambiguously indicates how all things evolve for the good in Middle-earth, that is, for those who make right moral choices.

(5) J.R.R. Tolkien, Smith of Wootton Major and Farmer Giles of Ham, ballantine Books, New York, NY, 1969.

(6) T. Shippey, Tolkien: Author of the Century, Houghton-Mifflin, Boston and New York, 2000. pp. 296-304.

(7) J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, FOTR, ballantine Books, New York, NY; Ed. 1965; Author’s preface to American ballantine paperbound edition: “But I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and have always done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. ... I think that many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory’; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.”

(8) The reference is of course to Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan’s allegory of life in this world and beyond, as the Pilgrim pursues the crown of righteousness.

(9) Or, as Tolkien might say, sub-creation [See “Tree and Leaf: on Fairy Stories (as above), p. 37: “What really happens is that the story-maker proves a successful “sub-creator.” He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is “true”: It accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, when you are, as it were, inside.” And “...we make still by the law in which we’re made.” (p. 54).

(10) This imagery derives from the awesome adventures of the Hebrew patriarch Jacob in The Holy Bible, Genesis chapters 32 and 28, respectively.

(11) J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, ROTK, ballantine Books, New York, NY; Ed. 1973; Appendix E: yéni únótime – Quenya‘long-years innumerable’ p. 490.

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