The Quality of Faerie
In 1975, my English teacher, one Mr. Sweeting, came up with the idea of a reading list from which we (his unforgiving class of 16-year-old Australians, amongst whom I was the shy, bookish, stranded Yorshireman) were to select items from which to read. The list was long and mainly uninspiring, in that I don’t remember any of them -except for one.
‘The Lord of the Rings,’ Mr. Sweeting explained in a tired voice, ‘is a three volume fantasy epic -but none of you will be interested in that.’ On the contrary, my ears pricked up at once: it was the only one on the list that did interest me. At the first opportunity, I went to the school library to get it, only to find that they only had the first two volumes and there were no maps included. But I was hooked in that rare way that a book can ‘hook’ a reader before they know anything much about it. I raced through the first two volumes, demanded that my father order the book through the newsagent (the closest thing to a bookshop in the middle of the Australian desert) and when my own copies arrived I was delighted to find that they had maps -which meant that I no longer had to re-structure Middle earth as I read the tale, having got directions and landscapes wrong in my head at first.
I was completely gripped from the very first word. Even the chapter titles sounded totally intriguing: ‘The Scouring of the Shire’, I noticed, was towards the end, along with ‘The Grey Havens’. What did they mean? What was it about this world that I found so hypnotic? Somehow it was as though I’d read the book before, it all seemed so familiar. As another of my favourite writers, Father Stephen Freeman, put it in his blog ‘Glory to God For All Things’ (which you can visit here) :
‘What I had no word for, though, has a word: faerie. Tolkien knew the word and discussed it with great care and understanding. It is a generic term for a certain kind of story. The Hobbit books were Tolkien’s own attempt at writing faerie.’
I hadn’t encountered anything like this for years. The Lord of the Rings mesmerised me more than any book since early childhood; it was of the same sort, I felt, in some way, as C. S. Lewis’s Narnia books. Father Freeman had also made a parallel connection:
‘I had a similar experience when, several year’s later, I stumbled across C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. He was famous for the Screwtape Letters at the time, while his children’s books were not so well known (the movies had not been made). And though very different from Tolkien, they carried the sense of some unspeakable, similar, experience.’
It wasn’t until I’d finished the book and wandered further into Middle earth in any way that I could -remembering that this was the desert of 1970s Australia, decades before the internet or the huge explosion of works on Tolkien that has happened since, and certainly long before anyone had contemplated the films -that I discovered an almost uncanny thing: Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings, not only knew C.S. Lewis, author of the Chronicles of Narnia, they were close friends. They had listened to each others’ stories being read aloud, helped each other formulate their ideas. Tolkien was even largely responsible for Lewis becoming a Christian. This common quality, which at times I thought only I had noticed, turned out to have been born out of both writers’ spiritual beliefs. As Father Freeman puts it:
‘The Kingdom of God is like Middle Earth. It is in a very great and dangerous struggle between a dark lord and the powers of Light. The most common and simple things may very well be the most important. Hobbits are like pleasant human beings who go about their business, never realizing the great and terrible things happening around them – until, one day, you are caught up in the adventure of salvation itself.
‘The Kingdom of God is like the Land of Narnia. It often appears in the oddest places when you least expect it. But there are doors from here to there, or maybe everywhere is a door if you know how to open it.’
It was hard to define in any other way. I determined to discover more, and the desire to understand this quality was the main prompt for me to go to university, whatever else was going on at the time. I made my way through an undergraduate degree with the eventual goal of finding out what it was that lay ‘behind’ Tolkien’s and Lewis’s primary works, and indeed I spent a good three years delving very deeply into both Middle earth and Narnia.
Father Freeman sums it up better than I could:
'Faerie is an attempt to say this but does it in very imaginative forms. You read such stories and something about them rings true, like something you remember but can’t quite put your finger on. The Kingdom of God is exactly what you’ve been looking for all your life, but might not have had the words to say it or think it.’