Read Tales From the Perilous Realm Page 1




  J.R.R. Tolkien

  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

  Table of Contents

  Title Page
























  12 CAT


















  About the Author

  Works by J.R.R. Tolkien



  We do not know when Tolkien began to turn his thoughts to the Perilous Realm of Faërie. In his essay “On Fairystories”, to be found at the end of this book, he admits that he took no particular interest in tales of that kind as a child: they were just one of many interests. A “real taste” for them, he says, “was wakened by philology on the threshold of manhood, and quickened to full life by war”. This seems to be strictly accurate. The first of his works to take an interest in fairies, that we know of, is a poem called “Wood-sunshine”, written in 1910, when Tolkien was eighteen and still at King Edward’s School in Birmingham. By the end of 1915, the year in which he took his Oxford degree and immediately joined the army to fight in the Great War, he had written several more, some of them containing major elements of what would be his developed Faërie mythology. By the end of 1917, most of which he spent in military hospital or waiting to be passed fit for active service once more, he had written the first draft of tales which would sixty years later be published in The Silmarillion, and much of Middle-earth, as also of Elvenhome beyond it, had taken shape in his mind.

  What happened then is a long story, about which we now know a great deal more than we did, but once again it was summed up concisely and suggestively by Tolkien himself, in the story “Leaf by Niggle”. It is generally accepted that this has a strong element of self-portrait about it, with Tolkien the writer—a confirmed “niggler”, as he said himself—transposed as Niggle the painter. Niggle, the story tells us, was busy on all kinds of pictures, but one in particular started to grow on him. It began as just a single leaf, but then it became a tree, and the tree grew to be a Tree, and behind it a whole country started to open out, with “glimpses of a forest marching over the land, and of mountains tipped with snow”. Niggle, Tolkien wrote, “lost interest in his other pictures; or else he took them and tacked them on to the edges of his great picture”.

  Once again this is an accurate account of what Tolkien can be seen doing in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. During those thirty years he kept working at variants of “Silmarillion” stories, writing occasional poems, often anonymously, and making up other stories, not always written down and sometimes told initially only to his children. The Hobbit started life as one of these, set in Middleearth, but to begin with connected only tangentially with the Elvish history of the Silmarils: it was, to use the modern term, a spin-off. The Lord of the Rings was a further spin-off, this time from The Hobbit, and initially motivated by Tolkien’s publisher’s strong desire for a Hobbit-sequel. But what Tolkien started to do, just like Niggle, was to take things he had written before and start “tacking them on to the edges”. Tom Bombadil, who had begun as the name for a child’s toy, got into print in 1934 as the hero of a poem, and then became perhaps the most mysterious figure in the world of The Lord of the Rings. That work also drew in other poems, some of them comic, like Sam Gamgee’s “Oliphaunt” rhyme, first published in 1927, others grave and sad, like the version Strider gives on Weathertop of the tale of Beren and Lúthien, again going back to a poem published in 1925, and based on a story written even earlier.

  Quite what was the “leaf” of Tolkien’s original inspiration, and what he meant by “the Tree”, we cannot be sure, though the “forest marching over the land” does sound very like the Ents. But the little allegory makes one further point which corroborates what Tolkien said elsewhere, and that is that “fairy-stories”, whoever tells them, are not about fairies so much as about Faërie, the Perilous Realm itself. Tolkien indeed asserted there are not many stories actually about fairies, or even about elves, and most of them—he was too modest to add, unless they were written by Tolkien himself—were not very interesting. Most good fairy-stories are about “the aventures of men in the Perilous Realm or upon its shadowy marches”, a very exact description once again of Tolkien’s own tales of Beren on the marches or borders of Doriath, Túrin skirmishing around Nargothrond, or Tuor escaping from the Fall of Gondolin. Tolkien remained strongly ambivalent about the very notion of “fairy”. He disliked the word, as a borrowing from French—the English word is “elf”—and he also disliked the whole Victorian cult of fairies as little, pretty, ineffective creatures, prone to being co-opted into the service of moral tales for children, and often irretrievably phony. Much of his essay “On Fairy—Stories”, indeed (published in 1945 in a memorial volume for Charles Williams, and there expanded from a lecture given in 1939 in honour of Andrew Lang the fairy-tale collector) is avowedly corrective, both of scholarly terminology and of popular taste. Tolkien thought he knew better, was in touch with older, deeper, and more powerful conceptions than the Victorians knew, even those as learned as Andrew Lang.

  However, while he had no time for fairies, Tolkien was all for Faërie itself, the land, as Bilbo Baggins puts it, of “dragons and goblins and giants”, the land where one may hear of “the rescue of princesses and the unexpected luck of widow’s sons”. The stories and poems in this book show Tolkien trying out various approaches to perilous realms of one kind or another, all of them suggestive, original, independent. They represent, one may say, the pictures Niggle did not “tack on to the edges of his great picture”. They hint tantalisingly at directions which might have been explored further, like the later unwritten history of Farmer Giles’s Little Kingdom. And they give quite different views of Tolkien’s inspiration, spread over a period of at least forty years, and extending from maturity to old age. Also, as it happens, we know a good deal about how each of them came into being.

  Roverandom, not published till 1998, began more than seventy years earlier as a story with a single limited purpose: to console a little boy for the loss of his toy dog. In September 1925 the Tolkien family, father, mother, and three sons, John (aged eight), Michael (aged five), and baby Christopher, went on holiday to the seaside town of Filey in Yorkshire. Michael at that time was very attached to a small toy dog, which went everywhere with him. He and his father and elder brother went down to the beach, he put it down to play, but when they went back for it they couldn’t find it: the dog was white with black spots, and on a white shingle beach it was invisible. They looked for it without suc
cess that day and the next, and then a storm wrecked the beach and made further search impossible. To cheer Michael up, Tolkien invented a story in which toy Rover was not a toy, but a real dog turned into a toy by an angry wizard; the toy then met a friendly wizard on the beach, who sent him off on various quests in order to become a real dog again, and be reunited with his one-time owner, the boy called “Two”. Like all Tolkien’s stories, this grew in the telling, being written down, with several of Tolkien’s own illustrations, probably around Christmas 1927, and reaching final shape at about the same time as The Hobbit, in 1936.

  Besides the beach at Filey, where Rover meets the sandwizard Psamathos, Roverandom has three main settings, the light side of the Moon, where the Man in the Moon has his tower, the dark side, where sleeping children come down the moon-path to play in the valley of dreams, and the undersea kingdom of the mer-king, where the angry wizard Artaxerxes has gone to take up a position as Pacific Atlantic Magician, or PAM. Both in the Moon and under the sea Rover is befriended by a moon-dog, or a mer-dog, both called Rover, which is why he has to take the name Roverandom. The three of them get into continual scrapes, teasing the Great White Dragon on the Moon, and stirring up the Sea-serpent on the ocean-bed, whose writhings send a storm like the one that scattered the shingle at Filey, while Roverandom is carried by the great whale Uin across the Shadowy Seas and beyond the Magic Isles to within sight of Elvenhome itself and the light of Faery—the nearest Tolkien comes to attaching this story to his greater mythology. “I should catch it, if this was found out!”, says Uin, diving hastily, and we hear no more of what would be Valinor.

  “Catch it!” captures the tone of this early and humorous piece. The little dogs’ adventures are playful, the animals who transport them, Mew the gull and Uin the whale, are no worse than condescending, and even the three wizards who make an appearance are good-natured or, in the case of Artaxerxes, something less than competent. Nevertheless there are hints of things older and darker and deeper. The Great White Dragon the dogs tease on the Moon is also the White Dragon of England in the Merlin legend, forever at war with the Red Dragon of the Welsh; the Sea-serpent recalls the Midgard Serpent who will be the death of Thor on the day of Ragnarok; mer-dog Rover remembers a Viking master who sounds very like the famous King Olaf Tryggvason. There is myth, and legend, and even history, in Roverandom. Nor did Tolkien forget that even for children there must be suggestions of peril in the Perilous Realm. The dark side of the Moon has black spiders, as well as grey ones ready to pickle little dogs for their larders, while on the white side “there were sword-flies, and glass-beetles with jaws like steel-traps, and pale unicornets with stings like spears…And worse than the insects were the shadowbats”, not to mention, on the way back from the valley where the children go in dreams, “nasty creepy things in the bogs” that without the Man in the Moon’s protection “would otherwise have grabbed the little dog quick”. There are sea-goblins too, and a whole list of calamities caused by Artaxerxes tipping out his spells. Already Tolkien had grasped the effect of suggestion, of stories not told, of beings and powers (like the Necromancer in The Hobbit) held just out of sight. Whatever logic may say, time spent on details, even when they lead nowhere, is not all simply “niggling”.

  Humour is also the dominant tone of “Farmer Giles of Ham”, but it is humour of a different sort, more adult and even scholarly. Once again, this story began as a tale told impromptu to Tolkien’s children: his eldest son John remembered being told a version of it as the family sheltered under a bridge from a storm, probably after they moved to Oxford in 1926. (One of the major scenes in the story is the dragon Chrysophylax coming out from under a bridge to rout the king and his army.) In the first written version, the narrator is “Daddy”, and a child interrupts to ask what is a “blunderbuss”. The tale was steadily expanded, reaching its final shape when it was read to an Oxford student society in January 1940, and was eventually published in 1949.

  The first joke lies in the title, for we have two of them, one in English and one in Latin. Tolkien pretends to have translated the story out of Latin, and in his “Foreword” imitates a kind of scholarly introduction, which is thoroughly patronising. The imaginary editor despises the imaginary narrator’s Latin, sees the tale as useful mainly for explaining place-names, and raises a snobbish eyebrow at those deluded people who “may find the character and adventures of its hero attractive in themselves”. But the tale takes its revenge. The editor shows his approval of “sober annals” and “historians of the reign of Arthur”, but the “swift alternations of war and peace” he mentions come from the start of the romance of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, as marvellous and unhistorical a source as one could hope to find. As the story indicates, the truth is that the “popular lays” which the editor sneers at are much more reliable than the scholarly commentary imposed on them. All through Farmer Giles, the old and the traditional defeat the learned and new-fangled. The “Four Wise Clerks of Oxenford” define a blunderbuss, and their definition is that of the great Oxford English Dictionary with (in Tolkien’s day) its four successive editors. Giles’s blunderbuss, however, defies the definition and works just the same. “Plain heavy swords” are “out of fashion” at the king’s court, and the king gives one away to Giles as being of no value: but the sword is “Tailbiter” (or if one insists on using Latin, “Caudimordax”), and Giles is heartened by having it, even in the face of dragons, because of his love of the old tales and heroic songs which have gone out of fashion too.

  Gone out of fashion, maybe, but not gone away. All his life Tolkien was fascinated by survivals: words and phrases and sayings, even stories and rhymes, which came from a prehistoric past but which had been passed on by word of mouth, quite naturally, often garbled and generally unrecognized, right down to modern common experience. Fairy-stories are an obvious example, kept in being for centuries not by scholars but by old grannies and nursemaids. Nursery-rhymes too. Where do they come from? Old King Cole figures in Tolkien’s “Foreword” (suitably transferred to scholarly pseudohistory), and Chrysophylax quotes “Humpty Dumpty” when he comes out from under the bridge. Two more nursery-rhymes were rewritten as the “Man in the Moon” poems in Tom Bombadil. Riddles are survivals as well, told by Anglo-Saxons (we still have more than a hundred of them), and by modern schoolchildren. And then there are popular sayings, always open to revision—“Sunny Sam” the blacksmith inverts a couple of them in Farmer Giles, as does Bilbo in The Lord of the Rings, with his “All that is gold does not glitter”—but never dying out. And the commonest types of survival are names, of people and of places. They often descend from remote antiquity, their meaning is often forgotten, but they are still overpoweringly present. Tolkien was convinced that old heroic names hung on even in names associated with his own family, and one inspiration for Farmer Giles must be the urge to “make sense” of the local Buckinghamshire placenames of Tame and Worminghall.

  Myths are the greatest of survivals, though, and the most important revenge in Farmer Giles is the revenge of the mythical on the everyday. For who is to say which is which? It is the young and silly dragons who conclude “So knights are mythical!…We always thought so.” It is the silly over-civilised court which prefers sweet and sticky Mock Dragon’s Tail to Real Tail. The courtiers’ descendants (Tolkien implies) will eventually substitute their feeble imitations for the real thing even in fantasy—just like Nokes the Cook in Smith of Wootton Major, with his sad diminished idea of the Fairy Queen and Faërie itself. Giles deals firmly and fairly with king and court and dragon alike, though we should not forget the assistance he receives from the parson—a scholar who makes up for all the others—and from the story’s unsung heroine, the grey mare. She knew what she was doing all the time, even when she sniffed at Giles’s unnecessary spurs. He didn’t need to pretend to be a knight.

  The Adventures of Tom Bombadil also owe their existence to prompting from Tolkien’s family. In 1961 his Aunt Jane Neave suggested to him that he might
bring out a little book with Tom Bombadil in it, which people like her could afford to buy as Christmas presents. Tolkien responded by collecting a clutch of poems he had already written at different times over the preceding forty years or more. Most of the sixteen had been printed, sometimes in very obscure publications, in the 1920s and 1930s, but Tolkien took the opportunity in 1962 to revise them thoroughly. By this time The Lord of the Rings had appeared, and was already well-known, and Tolkien did what Niggle had done with his earlier pictures: he put these early compositions into the overall frame of his greater one. Once again he used the device of the scholarly editor, this time someone who has access to the Red Book of Westmarch, the hobbit-compilation from which The Lord of the Rings was supposed to have been drawn, and who has decided this time to edit not the main story but the “marginalia”—the things which medieval scribes in reality often wrote round the edges of their more official works.

  This device allowed Tolkien to put in poems which were clearly just jokes, like no. 12, “Cat”, written as late as 1956 for his granddaughter Joanna; or poems which had no connection with Middle-earth, like no. 9, “The Mewlips”, originally printed in The Oxford Magazine for 1937 and there sub-titled “Lines Induced by Sensations When Waiting for an Answer at the Door of an Exalted Academic Person”; or poems which did have such a connection, but one which now made Tolkien uneasy. No. 3, “Errantry”, for instance, had been first written at least thirty years before, and had then been revised to become a song sung by Bilbo in The Lord of the Rings, but the names in it did not fit Tolkien’s increasingly developed Elvish languages. Editor-Tolkien accordingly explains that while the poem is Bilbo’s, he must have written it not long after his retirement to Rivendell, at a time when he did not know much about Elvish tradition. By the time Bilbo composed the Lord of the Rings version, he knew better, though Strider still thinks he should have left well alone. Several other poems, like nos. 7 and 8, the two troll-poems, or no. 10, “Oliphaunt”, are ascribed to Sam Gamgee, which helps to account for their non-serious nature. Nos. 5 and 6, the two “Man in the Moon” poems, both of them dating back to 1923, confirm Tolkien’s interest in nursery-rhymes: they are, in Tolkien’s imagination, the old complete poems of which modern children’s rhymes are garbled descendants, and the kind of thing that would have been popular in his imaginary Shire.