Green Suns and Faërie: Essays on J.R.R. Tolkien
Reviewed by Douglas C. Kane
[This review originally appeared in Mythprint 49:6-7 (#359-360) in June-July 2012.]
The publication of Verlyn Flieger’s latest book, Green Suns and Faërie: Essays on J.R.R. Tolkien is an important milestone in the field of Tolkien scholarship. I hesitate to call it Flieger’s most important book; after all, each of her three previous books of Tolkien scholarship are essential reading to anyone interested in furthering their understanding of Tolkien’s work, and her first book, Splintered Light, literally revolutionized the field. However, Green Suns is certainly Flieger’s most personal work, in that it documents the development of her long consideration of Tolkien’s canon over the course of over thirty years. That in itself makes this an important work. Nonetheless, most of the essays contained in this book have been published before in different contexts. The question that I had when I first heard about this book’s pending publication was whether the result would be a series of disconnected pieces, or whether bringing them together would create a coherent whole. I am happy to report that the book exceeded my expectations in this regard. Virtually all of the essays (many of which I had read before), took on new meaning when considered together with their neighbors and in the context of the overriding theme of the book, like individual flowers, pretty by themselves, but taking on new and more profound aspects as part of a well-tended and finely choreographed garden.
That overriding theme is based on the two terms that form the title of the book — “Green Suns” and “Faërie” — both of which are taken from Tolkien’s own essay “On Fairy-stories.” Few authors have as successfully described their own work as Tolkien does in this essay, and no one has done a better job than Flieger in interpreting and expanding upon that self-reflection. Each of the essays in this book contribute in different ways to understanding Tolkien’s unique success in creating a viable and compelling secondary world that continues to have relevance in the primary world of the twenty-first century. The book is divided into three parts. The first part, “Tolkien Sub-creator” focuses on the nitty-gritty of how Tolkien successfully created his secondary worlds. The second part, “Tolkien in Tradition,” looks at how Tolkien borrows from — and adapts — elements from mythic literature dating back to the Middle Ages. The final part, “Tolkien and His Century,” concentrates on showing the relevance of Tolkien’s mythology — for all of his elements rooted in the past — to his own time. Weaving through these different but complementary sections is the secondary theme of the ongoing development of Flieger’s own thought processes about Tolkien’s work, as newer and older essays are interspersed throughout all three parts. The result is a fascinating journey into to the minds of both one of the greatest authors of modern times, and of the scholar who has arguably gone deeper than anyone else in delving into the meaning and significance of that author’s work.
Part One, “Tolkien Sub-creator,” contains eight essays. It begins, appropriately enough, by going directly to the source by looking at the “On Fairy-stories” essay and how it relates to Tolkien’s own fiction, in “Fantasy and Reality: J.R.R. Tolkien’s World and the Fairy-story Essay.” As the title implies, Flieger discusses various ways in which the fantastical elements of Tolkien secondary world are actually firmly rooted in reality.
Next is one of the most important essays in the book, “The Music and the Task: Fate and Free Will in Middle-earth.” This essay first was presented at Mythcon 39 and stirred considerable controversy then ¼ and since. It later was published in Tolkien Studies 6, and continued to be so controversial that a rebuttal essay was even published in the following year’s issue. The controversy is largely generated by Flieger’s willingness to take Tolkien at his word in his statement (published in Chapter One of The Quenta Silmarillion but actually written as part of the The Ainulindalë ) that the Music of the Ainur is “as fate” to all of the denizens of Arda other than Men, a statement that existed virtually unchanged in any significant way for the entire history of Tolkien’s legendarium. However, by focusing on rejecting the contradictions that this acceptance creates, these critics miss the point that Flieger is making. The importance is not the bare fact that Men have free will and the Elves do not (a statement that has little real meaning when stated in bald black and white terms). The importance is in the discussion of the reasons for this seeming contradiction. Flieger notes that there are strategic and personal reasons, as well as a sub-creative one, the latter being “to provide a plausible mechanism for change in an ordered universe” (36). The discussion, particularly of this latter sub-creative reason, expands upon thoughts that Flieger has previously explored, particularly in Splintered Light, and represents in some respects the culmination of her long exploration into the meaning of Tolkien’s work.
The following essays are also important. “Tolkien and the Idea of the Book,” Flieger’s contribution to The Lord of the Rings 1954–2004: Scholarship in Honor of Richard E. Blackwelder, presents a concrete example of Tolkien borrowing from the real world to enhance his secondary world, a real life prototype for the Red Book of Westmarch. “Tolkien on Tolkien: ‘On Fairy-stories,’ The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings,” published here for the first time (though presented at the Tolkien 2005 Conference in Birmingham), explores the idea that Tolkien “used the mistakes he perceived himself to have made in [The Hobbit] to develop and articulate in ‘On Fairy-stories’ a theory of fantasy and sub-creation, which he then put into practice in The Lord of the Rings” (54), a concept also discussed by Flieger and Doug Anderson in their introduction to their expanded edition of Tolkien On Fairy-stories.
“When is a Fairy Story a Faërie Story?” leaves the Middle-earth legendarium and instead discusses Tolkien’s purest story about “Faërie”, Smith of Wootton Major (my favorite by far of Tolkien’s shorter fiction). “The Footsteps of Ælfwine” is reprinted from Tolkien’s Legendarium, the seminal collection of essays on The History of Middle-earth that Flieger edited with Carl Hostetter. This essay tracks the role that the archetypal figure of the “Elf-friend” plays throughout Tolkien’s fiction, both in the Middle-earth legendarium and beyond. “The Curious Incident of the Dream at the Barrow: Memory and Reincarnation in Middle-earth” is another essay that first appeared in Tolkien Studies, in this case the fourth volume. In this essay Flieger closely examines a single incident in The Lord of the Rings: Meriodoc Brandybuck’s dream in the barrow in which he experiences the death of a man from the older world of Cardolan, as well as Tolkien’s exploration of reincarnation as it applies to the Elves, and in his time travel story The Notion Club Papers. This paper in particular takes on new meaning in relation to “The Music and the Task” and its discussion about the Tolkien’s explicit effort to distinguish his mythopoeic fiction with his Catholic faith. The last essay in this part, “Whose Myth Is It,” originally appeared in the 1997 proceedings of the Arda Symposium at the Second Northern Tolkien Festival in Oslo, and also was adapted as part of Flieger’s last book, Interrupted Music. This is another case of an essay taking on new meaning in the context of this collection, with the overall focus on Tolkien’s successful sub-creation of a secondary world adding a new and different coloration to this study of his usage of differing points of view.
Part Two, “Tolkien in Tradition,” is the longest of the three parts, with ten essays covering 122 pages. In the first essay, “Tokien’s Wild Men from Medieval to Modern,” Flieger provides several examples of Tolkien’s use of “a traditional figure in medieval romance and history: that fugitive from society and the outlier on the edge of civilization known as the Wild Man” (113). This essay provides a prime example of Flieger’s ability to think outside the box. The examples that she cites are increasingly eccentric. She begins with the most obvious example, Ghân-Buri-Ghân. Next are Aragorn and Túrin, both of whom make sense with a bit of consideration, as does Gollum, the fourth example. But who in their right mind would think to include the genteel Hobbit Frodo Baggins as an example of Tolkien’s use of the traditional figure of the Wild Man? That Flieger not only makes it work, but uses the example to demonstrate how Tolkien is able to successfully weave a traditional motif into his unique secondary world is a prime demonstration of the creativity of her own thought process.
In “Tolkien and the Matter of Britain,” Flieger addresses the influence of the central British myth — that of Arthur — on Tolkien in the creation of his own mythology. Then, in “Frodo and Aragorn: The Concept of the Hero” (the oldest essay in the book, dating back to 1981) she tackles the differing ways that Tolkien incorporates medieval “epic and fairy-tale archetypes” (113) into his modern story. In “Bilbo’s Neck Riddle,” Flieger provides yet another example of how much depth underlies The Hobbit, Tolkien’s supposedly simplistic children’s tale. In this essay she demonstrates how Bilbo’s final riddle to Gollum — which appears both to Gollum and to the modern reader to be less than an authentic riddle — actually qualifies as a “neck riddle” in the “no less fictive but much more traditional world of Scandinavian mythology” (162).
In “Allegory versus Bounce” Flieger revisits Smith of Wootton Major, this time as part of a debate with that other dean of Tolkien scholarship, Tom Shippey, about the allegorical nature of that tale. It is joy to watch these two leading lights of Tolkien scholarship exchange differing ideas on the same subject. And which one do I agree with? That question is surprisingly easy to answer: both of them!
Next are two essays addressing the influence of Finnish mythology on Tolkien. First is “A Mythology for Finland: Tolkien and Lönnrot as Mythmakers,” in which Flieger talks about how Tolkien was influenced from a young age by the example set by Elias Lönnrot, the compiler of the Finnish Kalevala, about whom was said, “[a] single man, by scurrying about, has created a heritage for us” (181). The difference, of course, was that Tolkien himself wrote his whole body of work, rather than “scurrying about” collecting it. The second essay is “Tolkien, Kalevala, and ‘The Story of Kullervo’,” the newest essay in the book, presented here for the first time. This essay “grew out of [Flieger’s] work with the manuscript of the story” (x), which was published in Tolkien Studies, Volume 8. This story, written sometime between 1912 and 1914, was Tolkien first effort at borrowing from the Kalevala, which ultimately had such a profound influence on Tolkien’s legendarium, particularly the tale of Túrin. This essay provides valuable insights into how that early effort was “an important step on the winding road from imitation to invention” (201).
Flieger looks at Celtic influence on two aspects of Tolkien’s work in “Brittany and Wales in Middle-earth.” Specifically she examines how he borrowed from Brittany in his treatment of the Otherworld (or Faërie, as Tolkien called it), as well as the Welsh influence on the creation of Tolkien’s invented language, Sindarin. In “The Green Knight, the Green Man, and Treebeard: Scholarship and Invention in Tolkien’s Fiction,” Flieger provides an example — in the form of the character of Treebeard — of how “[t]he intersection of imagination and scholarship was the flashpoint at which his creativity ignited. The result in The Lord of the Rings is a work deeply rooted in medieval tradition and at the same timely created, wholly fresh and original” (211). The final essay in this part, “Missing Person,” discusses the fact that despite the obvious Judeo-Christian influence (and particularly that of Tolkien’s deeply-felt Catholic faith) on his fiction, there is no Christ in his mythic world, and no overt references to religion or religious practices. This essay, dating back to 1986, is another example of one that takes on greater significance in the context of this book. One can trace some of the threads of the development of Flieger’s thought over the years when reading this piece side by side with “The Music and the Task.”
The final part is the shortest, with only seven essays covering 71 pages. “A Cautionary Tale: Tolkien’s Mythology for England,” written in 2003 just as the Peter Jackson films of The Lord of the Rings were winding down and the increase of critical analysis of Tolkien’s work that seemed to accompany them was in evidence, discusses Tolkien’s famous misnomer that he sought to create a “mythology for England” (what he actually said was that he wanted to create a mythology dedicated to England, though as Flieger points out, there is “little qualitative difference between the two phrases” [314, n. 1].) Flieger shows that Tolkien’s mythology paints a picture of “a culture in decline, torn by dissension and split by factions, a society perpetually at war with itself” (238).
In “The Mind, The Tongue, and the Tale,” another new essay that was presented in somewhat different form at the 2010 Modena Conference on Tolkien and Philosophy, provides a number of examples of Tolkien’s philosophy of language, as well as revisiting the influence of Owen Barfield’s theory of Poetic Diction on Tolkien (discussed at length in Splintered Light) and that of nineteenth century German Romanticism. This is followed by “A Post-modern Medievalist,” which as the title suggests shows that despite evoking a medieval sensibility in The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien actually successfully employs a number of post-modern literary devises, and that ultimately he is “an essentially modern author using all the authorial tools and techniques available from whatever period — writing to, and for, and about any audience from his own time and beyond it that can appreciate his story” (261).
“Taking the Part of Trees: Eco-conflict in Middle-earth,” which was previously published in 2000 in Clark and Timmons’s J.R.R. Tolkien and His Literary Resonances, has long been a favorite of mine, so I was pleased to see it in this collection. It provides another good example of Flieger’s ability to pierce the veil of Tolkien’s sub-creation. Flieger describes the wildly contradictory portrait that Tolkien paints and trees and forests in The Lord of Rings and elsewhere, for instance contrasting the wildness and danger of the Old Forest and Fangorn Forest with the tranquility of Lothlórien, and traces what this means with regard to Tolkien’s success at sub-creation.
Because of the very believability, the “inner consistency of reality” of the world he created, he has always been and continues to be held to a higher standard that most authors. We require of fiction that it be consistent, a demand we rarely make of real life and would not get if we did demand it. We have especially required of Tolkien that his sub-creation — so vivid and convincing that many of his readers pretend to live there — stick to its own norms, when the wonder is that he managed to achieve as much consistency within it as he did. (274)
The irony is that here, this very inconsistency makes Tolkien’s secondary world all the more successful in reflecting the real world.
The next two essays both address how Tolkien’s real-life and particularly wartime experiences influenced his fiction, especially the character of Frodo Baggins. The first, “Gilson, Smith and Baggins,” reflects on the loss of two members of Tolkien’s first fellowship, the TCBS, in World War I, and the influence that had on Tolkien’s writings. The second, “The Body in Question: The Unhealed Wounds of Frodo Baggins” (another new essay that makes its first appearance here), “continues along the same lines with a more focused look at the war-torn body of Frodo Baggins” (235). In the final essay, “A Distant Mirror: Tolkien and Jackson Through the Looking Glass,” Flieger compares the way Tolkien reflects older stories (such as the cup stolen from Smaug by Bilbo being taken directly from Beowulf with Jackson consciously borrowing from previous fantasy films such as The Wizard of Oz and Star Wars, the latter of which itself liberally borrows from Tolkien himself. Flieger then concludes by noting that in The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien demonstrates a more mature form of “mirroring” in which “external allusion is largely replaced by an internal self-reflexivity more like that of the Beowulf poem’s awareness of its own origins.” This is a fitting conclusion to the book in that it provides a vivid example of the type of advance that Tolkien made as a writer from when he wrote The Hobbit, through the ideas expressed in “On Fairy-stories,” and finally reflected in The Lord of the Rings, as discussed in earlier essays, particularly “Tolkien on Tolkien.”
These rather cursory comments only hint at what a joy it is to read Green Suns and Faërie. Flieger’s writing is as clear as it is insightful, often a rare quality in an academic work. There is no sense of an attempt to show off her erudition, nor is there any need for her to do so; her knowledge of Tolkien’s work is obvious throughout, as is her passionate appreciation of it. I can think of no higher compliment than to say that it is impossible to read this book without increasing one’s own knowledge of and appreciation for Tolkien’s work.