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  • These Are Not the Elves You're Looking For:Sir Orfeo, The Hobbit, and the Reimagining of the Elves
  • Thomas Hillman (bio)

Fairy-stories are not in normal English usage stories about fairies or elves, but stories about Fairy, that is Faërie, the realm or state in which fairies have their being. Faërie contains many things besides elves and fays, and besides dwarfs, witches, trolls, giants, or dragons: it holds the seas, the sun, the moon, the sky; and the earth, and all things that are in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, mortal men, when we are enchanted.

(OFS 32, ¶ 10)

To say that the fairies have "their being" in Faërie is to say more than that they live there. The expression posits an intimate link between them and their world as well as a breach between them and mortal men, who enter Faërie only "when we are enchanted." In what follows I shall explore the mythological and literary dimensions of this breach, and the ways in which Tolkien sought to mend it, using fairies such as those found in Sir Orfeo to restore to them something like the moral and physical stature he clearly felt they possessed before the paths of Elves and Men were sundered and the mythology of England was lost. The Hobbit, as we shall see, offers an ideal opportunity for this study, since its Elves are neither those of the Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings, nor the more nearly Victorian "fairies" found in The Book of Lost Tales and much of Tolkien's poetry even into the 1930s.

As is often the case, it is Sam Gamgee who most clearly articulates both the connection and the breach. Speaking of the Elves in Lothlórien in particular, he says:

they seem to belong here, more even than the hobbits do in the Shire. Whether they've made the land, or the land's made them, it's hard to say, if you take my meaning. … If there's any magic about it, it's right down deep, where I can't lay my hands on it, in a manner of speaking.

(FR, II, vii, 376) [End Page 33]

Sam's words, though hedged about with qualifications, are clear in their assertion of the involvement of the being of the Elves and the land of Faërie. We may see a similar view in the remarks of Gandalf and Legolas on the long deserted elvish realm of Hollin, whose very stones remember the Elves though millennia have passed (FR, II, iii, 297); in Frodo's perception that he has stepped into a different world and time upon entering Lórien (FR, II, vi, 364–65); and in Aragorn's living vision of meeting Arwen there, on Cerin Amroth, which he describes to Frodo as "the heart of Elvendom on earth" (FR, II, vi, 367). The experiences of Frodo and Aragorn here are clearly examples of mortals being contained in Faërie "when [they] are enchanted." As such, they demonstrate the breach that normally exists between Elves and mortals. Our paths are sundered.

It should be no surprise of course that Tolkien's practice in The Lord of the Rings corresponds with the theory he puts forward in On Fairy-stories, especially since he first composed the latter while drafting and redrafting the early chapters of the former.1 Unfortunately, however, The Lord of the Rings is also rather vague and unenlightening about the nature of the being of the Elves. Galadriel, for example, arrives complex and mysterious, perilous and imperiled. Thingol does much the same in the Silmarillion, that most elvish of works. For a perspective on the being of the Elves, I would argue that we need to turn our attention to The Hobbit, a work in which we can see Tolkien forming them even before the worlds of The Hobbit and of the Silmarillion come together in The Lord of the Rings.

Yet we must also consider, as Thomas Honegger aptly notes, that the Faërie Tolkien speaks of in On Fairy-stories little resembles the traditional world of fairy tales or...


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