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Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Fairy and Elves in Tolkien and Traditional Literature

Fairy and Elves in Tolkien and Traditional Literature

Beginning of article


WORLD ARE, as expected in a legendarium sprung from his longing for a body of legends dedicated to England, motifs drawn from English traditional fairy-tales, often reinterpreted under his particular vision of how they "should be." Thus there are, among many other wonderful things, magical bewildering woods, dragons like those of ancient legends, stout Dwarves (unlike the classical dwarfs!), (1) and specially Elves, the central characters of the mythological ages.

However, there is a persistent silence about "fairies" or "fays" (except in the earliest writings), which, judging by their name only, could be considered one of the principal elements in fairy-tales. Only in his earliest poems and in the Book of Lost Tales did fairies play an important part. But soon he abandoned terms such as fairy or fay, and chose to stick to its synonym elf. This fact has been attributed to four possible reasons (cf. Fimi 58-60): (a) unlike fairy or fay, which come from Old French, elf has an Old English origin more suitable for his project of a "mythology of England"; (b) in English literature the creatures of Fantasy had generally received an imprint of playfulness and prettiness both inconsistent with the
serious and tragic characteristics of the tales, but this affected the popular fairies and fays to a larger extent than the more archaic elves; (c) the term fairy also became charged with sexual connotations that Tolkien would have preferred to avoid; and (d) after the Great War, fairies ceased to be a popular literary theme, and that could have discouraged Tolkien, too--although in many other points he radically detached himself from Modernist trends.

Thus Tolkien preferred to name the Elder Children of Iluvatar by the Germanic word, and used the Old French terms sparingly, reserving them for specific contexts in which their original sense was suitable. (2) That fact, together with Tolkien's occasional commentaries about his dislike of the style of the contes de fees in that language (Letters 274), and his explicit regret of "Goblin Feet," a representative piece of Tolkien's early fairy-poetry (The Book of Lost Tales, Part One [BLT1] 32), might lead readers to underestimate the importance of the "fairy" element in his later
work. The objective of this essay is to show that many typical characteristics of modern fairies were not simply avoided by Tolkien, but integrated into his Elves, albeit transformed or reinterpreted in order to keep the internal coherence of his mythology.

That transformed continuation was also applied to the term fairy itself, which was respected by Tolkien. That word is actually one of the first elements discussed by him in his essay On Fairy-Stories. In that essay he declared his interest on the word's meaning of "Otherworld beyond the five senses," and usually spelled it archaically as Faerie, Faery or Fayery to mark the difference (On Fairy-Stories [OFS] 85)--just like he preferred the spelling Dwarves rather than Dwarfs. But such special use is usually regarded as an exception; on the other hand, Tolkien's disdain for fairy as a synonym of elf is often argued, on the basis of its foreign, French
origin and its fanciful connotations (see above, and also Shippey, The Road to Middle-earth [Road] 56-7; Burns 23; Spangenberg 186). This apparent ambiguity in Tolkien's regard for that word can be explained by the greater antiquity of the abstract meaning, in contrast to its later, distorted application as a name for elvish creatures. However, such a straightforward opposition is a simplification of the literary facts about the word.

Etymology of fairy

As commented on above, Tolkien had a special interest in the original, abstract sense of fairy, so it is worth exploring in detail how that word entered and evolved in English language, although it is a complicated matter, since its earliest attestations are scanty, and a great part of its history would be explained by the unrecorded oral tradition, which is beyond our reach.

By De Rosario Martinez, Helios
Academic journal article from Mythlore, Vol. 28, No. 3-4
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