“Mind to Mind”: Tolkien’s Faërian Drama and the Middle English Sir Orfeo
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“Mind to Mind”:
Tolkien’s Faërian Drama and the Middle English Sir Orfeo1

Now “Faërian Drama”—those plays, which according to abundant records the elves have often presented to men—can produce Fantasy with a realism and immediacy beyond the compass of any human mechanism. As a result their usual effect (upon a man) is to go beyond Secondary Belief. If you are present at a Faërian drama you yourself are, or think that you are, bodily inside its Secondary World. The experience may be very similar to Dreaming and has (it would seem) sometimes (by men) been confounded with it. But [in Faërian Drama you are in a dream that some other mind is weaving, and] the knowledge of that alarming fact may slip from your grasp. …2 You are deluded—whether that is the intention of the elves (always or at any time) is another question. They at any rate are not themselves deluded. This is for them a form of Art, and distinct from Wizardry or Magic, properly so called. They do not live in it, though they can, perhaps, afford to spend more time at it than human artists can. The Primary World, Reality, of elves and men is the same, if differently valued and perceived.

(OFS 63, ¶74)

faierie a state of being in which the will can more or less directly cause things imagined or desired actually to be, or can at least present them to the senses; and the very immediacy of the operation enhances the quality of the product: beautiful things produced by faierie retain the beauty of the vision that precedes the making …

(OFS 255)

Between every two trees is a doorway to a new world.

(Attributed to John Muir)3

J.R.R. Tolkien’s foundational theories of “On Fairy-stories” include the coining of the term “eucatastrophe,” the definition of subcreation, a term first implied by George MacDonald4 though without the expansion Tolkien gave it, and the concept of Secondary Belief in a created Secondary World. But another phrase, Faërian drama, has gone mainly undiscussed as a literary term except in some of Verlyn Flieger’s work,5 perhaps for obvious reasons. It appears as a somewhat peculiar [End Page 1] reference to what fairies/elves might create as art but becomes a springboard for philosophical and metaphysical considerations of how two created species with inherently different minds might communicate what is most central to their experience of the world. On one level, “On Fairy-stories” is a manifesto, as Verlyn Flieger has rightly called it (“Fairy-tale” 27). It does not simply attempt to discuss the terms, rules, and history of what are commonly called fairy tales; it declares Fantasy the highest form of human literary art because, motivated by a desire to be closer to the original creator of worlds, it attempts in its subcreated worlds to imitate that maker. It offers reasons why the desire to tell a story that gives us new ways to see the world, that turns unexpectedly to joy, is central to any being and its health, but even more, central to the created world and its purpose. Within an essay with such a sweeping context for human art, then, Faërian drama initially seems paradoxically important and a minor aside. Tolkien invites us to acknowledge that “fairy-stories” are really human stories about Faërie and its immortals, and asserts that Faërie in its own art would consider humans and mortality as similarly puzzling and alien. Both bodies of stories would inevitably be partial and sometimes in error, constrained by the minds and natures of each. Of what use then, perhaps especially in an academic essay, is an imagined art and genre for an equally imagined or even nonexistent race of artists? The key here is Tolkien’s refusal to separate his scholarly and intellectual interests from his urge, as a created being, to create fiction and fictional settings that command credibility. He had to work out the metaphysical possibilities of Faërie art, constituted by him here under the term “Faërian drama,” to create his own...


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