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Tree and Leaf

J. R. R. Tolkien

  Tree and Leaf

  Fairy-stories are not just for children, as anyone who has read Tolkien will know. In his essay On Fairy-Stories, Professor Tolkien discusses the nature of fairy-tales and fantasy and rescues the genre, on one hand, from the academics, and, on the other, from those who would relegate it to ‘juvenilia’. The third part of the book contains, as an apt and elegant illustration, one of Tolkien’s earlier short stories, Leaf by Niggle. Written in the same period (1938–9), when The Lord of the Rings was beginning to unfold itself to Tolkien, these two works show his mastery and understanding of the art of ‘sub-creation’, the power to give to fantasy ‘the inner consistency of reality’.


  The poem Mythopoeia (the making of myths) is additionally published, in which the author Philomythus, ‘Lover of Myth’, confounds the opinion of Misomythus, ‘Hater of Myth’.

  The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son

  Professor Tolkien’s dramatic poem, The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son, takes up the story following the disastrous Battle of Maldon in 991, where the English Commander Beorhtnoth was killed. The night after the fight two servants of the Duke come to the battlefield to retrieve their master’s body. Searching amongst the slain they converse in unheroic terms, about the battle, their ‘needlessly noble’ master and the wastefulness of war.






  Title Page


  On Fairy-Stories


  Leaf by Niggle

  The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son


  Works by J.R.R. Tolkien


  About the Publisher


  The two works On Fairy-Stories and Leaf by Niggle were first brought together to form the book Tree and Leaf in 1964. In this new edition a third element is added: the poem Mythopoeia, the making of myths, in which the author Philomythus ‘Lover of Myth’ confounds the opinion of Misomythus ‘Hater of Myth’. Mythopoeia, now published for the first time, is closely related in its thought to a part of the essay On Fairy-Stories – so much so indeed that my father quoted fourteen lines from it in the essay (see here in this edition); but before saying something further about it I cite first my father’s ‘Introductory Note’ to the original edition of Tree and Leaf.

  These two things, On Fairy-Stories and Leaf by Niggle, are here reprinted and issued together. They are no longer easy to obtain, but they may still be found interesting, especially by those to whom The Lord of the Rings has given pleasure. Though one is an ‘essay’ and the other a ‘story’, they are related: by the symbols of Tree and Leaf, and by both touching in different ways on what is called in the essay ‘sub-creation’. Also they were written in the same period (1938–9), when The Lord of the Rings was beginning to unroll itself and to unfold prospects of labour and exploration in yet unknown country as daunting to me as to the hobbits. At about that time we had reached Bree, and I had then no more notion than they had of what had become of Gandalf or who Strider was; and I had begun to despair of surviving to find out.

  The essay was originally composed as an Andrew Lang Lecture and was in a shorter form delivered in the University of St Andrews in 1938.1 It was eventually published, with a little enlargement, as one of the items in Essays presented to Charles Williams, Oxford University Press, 1947, now out of print. It is here reproduced with only a few minor alterations.

  The story was not published until 1947 (Dublin Review). It has not been changed since it reached manuscript form, very swiftly, one day when I awoke with it already in mind. One of its sources was a great-limbed poplar tree that I could see even lying in bed. It was suddenly lopped and mutilated by its owner, I do not know why. It is cut down now, a less barbarous punishment for any crimes it may have been accused of, such as being large and alive. I do not think it had any friends, or any mourners except myself and a pair of owls.

  In the essay On Fairy-Stories, my father quoted ‘a brief passage from a letter I once wrote to a man who described myth and fairy-story as “lies”; though to do him justice he was kind enough and confused enough to call fairy-story making “Breathing a lie through Silver”’. The quoted lines begin:

  ‘Dear Sir,’ I said – ‘Although now long estranged

  Man is not wholly lost or wholly changed.

  There is no trace among the Mythopoeia manuscript material of any ‘verse epistle’ of this kind; there are seven versions of the poem extant, and none has any form of personal address – indeed, the first four texts begin ‘He looks at trees’, not ‘You look at trees’ (and the title of the earliest was ‘Nisomythos: a long answer to short nonsense’). Since the words Although now long estranged depend on and require the preceding lines

  The heart of man is not compound of lies,

  but draws some wisdom from the only Wise,

  and still recalls Him

  and since all this passage goes back with little change to the earliest version, it is clear that the ‘letter’ was a device.

  The ‘man who described myth and fairy-story as “lies”’ was C. S. Lewis. On the fifth version of Mythopoeia (that in which the opening words ‘He looks at trees’ became ‘You look at trees’) my father wrote ‘JRRT for CSL’, and again on the sixth, adding ‘Philomythus Misomytho’. To the final text he added two marginal notes,2 the first of which (against the word trees in the opening lines) refers to the ‘mental scene’ of the poem:

  Trees are chosen because they are at once easily classifiable and innumerably individual; but as this may be said of other things, then I will say, because I notice them more than most other things (far more than people). In any case the mental scenic background of these lines is the Grove and Walks of Magdalen at night.

  In J. R. R. Tolkien: A Biography (Allen & Unwin, 1977, pp. 146-8), Humphrey Carpenter identified this occasion that led to the writing of Mythopoeia. On the night of 19 September 1931, C. S. Lewis invited my father and Hugo Dyson to dinner in Magdalen College, and afterwards they walked in the grounds and talked, as Lewis wrote three days later to his friend Arthur Greeves, of ‘metaphor and myth – interrupted by a rush of wind which came so suddenly on the still, warm evening and sent so many leaves pattering down that we thought it was raining. We all held our breath, the other two appreciating the ecstasy of such a thing almost as you would.’ In a subsequent letter to Greeves (18 October 1931)3 Lewis recounted the ideas proposed by Dyson and my father in respect of the ‘true myth’ of the story of Christ; and both in his Biography and more fully in The Inklings (Allen & Unwin, 1978, pp. 42-5) Humphrey Carpenter has imagined the discussion of that night, drawing from Lewis’s letters and from the tenor of the argument of Mythopoeia.

  The second marginal note to the final text can be conveniently given here, though it is explanatory and does not bear on the history of the poem. The reference is to the eighth line of the ninth verse (bogus seduction of the twice-seduced): ‘Twice-seduced, since to return to earthly well-being as a sole end is one seduction, but even this end is mis-sought and depraved.’

  At the same time as these notes, my father wrote at the end of the manuscript: ‘Written mainly in the Examination Schools during Invigilation.’

  The text of Mythopoeia printed here is that of the final version exactly as it stands in the manuscript. Though the textual history is complex in detail, it can be said that the development of the poem through seven versions was largely a matter of extension. In the earlier forms it was much shorter, lacking the three verses beginning Blessed are, and ending with the line nor cast my own smal
l golden sceptre down.



  I propose to speak about fairy-stories, though I am aware that this is a rash adventure. Faërie is a perilous land, and in it are pitfalls for the unwary and dungeons for the overbold. And overbold I may be accounted, for though I have been a lover of fairy-stories since I learned to read, and have at times thought about them, I have not studied them professionally. I have been hardly more than a wandering explorer (or trespasser) in the land, full of wonder but not of information.

  The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords. In that realm a man may, perhaps, count himself fortunate to have wandered, but its very richness and strangeness tie the tongue of a traveller who would report them. And while he is there it is dangerous for him to ask too many questions, lest the gates should be shut and the keys be lost.

  There are, however, some questions that one who is to speak about fairy-stories must expect to answer, or attempt to answer, whatever the folk of Faërie may think of his impertinence. For instance: What are fairy-stories? What is their origin? What is the use of them? I will try to give answers to these questions, or such hints of answers to them as I have gleaned – primarily from the stories themselves, the few of all their multitude that I know.


  What is a fairy-story? In this case you will turn to the Oxford English Dictionary in vain. It contains no reference to the combination fairy-story, and is unhelpful on the subject of fairies generally. In the Supplement, fairy-tale is recorded since the year 1750, and its leading sense is said to be (a) a tale about fairies, or generally a fairy legend; with developed senses, (b) an unreal or incredible story, and (c) a falsehood.

  The last two senses would obviously make my topic hopelessly vast. But the first sense is too narrow. Not too narrow for an essay; it is wide enough for many books, but too narrow to cover actual usage. Especially so, if we accept the lexicographer’s definition of fairies: ‘supernatural beings of diminutive size, in popular belief supposed to possess magical powers and to have great influence for good or evil over the affairs of man’.

  Supernatural is a dangerous and difficult word in any of its senses, looser or stricter. But to fairies it can hardly be applied, unless super is taken merely as a superlative prefix. For it is man who is, in contrast to fairies, supernatural (and often of diminutive stature); whereas they are natural, far more natural than he. Such is their doom. The road to fairyland is not the road to Heaven; nor even to Hell, I believe, though some have held that it may lead thither indirectly by the Devil’s tithe.

  O see ye not yon narrow road

  So thick beset wi’ thorns and briers?

  That is the path of Righteousness,

  Though after it but few inquires.

  And see ye not yon braid, braid road

  That lies across the lily leven?

  That is the path of Wickedness,

  Though some call it the Road to Heaven.

  And see ye not yon bonny road

  That winds about yon fernie brae?

  That is the road to fair Elfland,

  Where thou and I this night maun gae.

  As for diminutive size: I do not deny that that notion is a leading one in modern use. I have often thought that it would be interesting to try to find out how that has come to be so; but my knowledge is not sufficient for a certain answer. Of old there were indeed some inhabitants of Faërie that were small (though hardly diminutive), but smallness was not characteristic of that people as a whole. The diminutive being, elf or fairy, is (I guess) in England largely a sophisticated product of literary fancy.4 It is perhaps not unnatural that in England, the land where the love of the delicate and fine has often reappeared in art, fancy should in this matter turn towards the dainty and diminutive, as in France it went to court and put on powder and diamonds. Yet I suspect that this flower-and-butterfly minuteness was also a product of ‘rationalisation’, which transformed the glamour of Elfland into mere finesse, and invisibility into a fragility that could hide in a cowslip or shrink behind a blade of grass. It seems to become fashionable soon after the great voyages had begun to make the world seem too narrow to hold both men and elves; when the magic land of Hy Breasail in the West had become the mere Brazils, the land of red-dye-wood.5 In any case it was largely a literary business in which William Shakespeare and Michael Drayton played a part.6 Drayton’s Nymphidia is one ancestor of that long line of flower-fairies and fluttering sprites with antennae that I so disliked as a child, and which my children in their turn detested. Andrew Lang had similar feelings. In the preface to the Lilac Fairy Book he refers to the tales of tiresome contemporary authors: ‘they always begin with a little boy or girl who goes out and meets the fairies of polyanthuses and gardenias and appleblossom … These fairies try to be funny and fail; or they try to preach and succeed.’

  But the business began, as I have said, long before the nineteenth century, and long ago achieved tiresomeness, certainly the tiresomeness of trying to be funny and failing. Drayton’s Nymphidia is, considered as a fairy-story (a story about fairies), one of the worst ever written. The palace of Oberon has walls of spider’s legs,

  And windows of the eyes of cats,

  And for the roof, instead of slats,

  Is covered with the wings of bats.

  The knight Pigwiggen rides on a frisky earwig, and sends his love, Queen Mab, a bracelet of emmets’ eyes, making an assignation in a cowslip-flower. But the tale that is told amid all this prettiness is a dull story of intrigue and sly go-betweens; the gallant knight and angry husband fall into the mire, and their wrath is stilled by a draught of the waters of Lethe. It would have been better if Lethe had swallowed the whole affair. Oberon, Mab, and Pigwiggen may be diminutive elves or fairies, as Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot are not; but the good and evil story of Arthur’s court is a ‘fairy-story’ rather than this tale of Oberon.

  Fairy, as a noun more or less equivalent to elf, is a relatively modern word, hardly used until the Tudor period. The first quotation in the Oxford Dictionary (the only one before AD 1450) is significant. It is taken from the poet Gower: as he were a faierie. But this Gower did not say. He wrote as he were of faierie, ‘as if he were come from Faërie’. Gower was describing a young gallant who seeks to bewitch the hearts of the maidens in church.

  His croket kembd and thereon set

  A Nouche with a chapelet,

  Or elles one of grene leves

  Which late com out of the greves,

  Al for he sholde seme freissh;

  And thus he loketh on the fleissh,

  Riht as an hauk which hath a sihte

  Upon the foul ther he schal lihte,

  And as he were of faierie

  He scheweth him tofore here yhe.7

  This is a young man of mortal blood and bone; but he gives a much better picture of the inhabitants of Elfland than the definition of a ‘fairy’ under which he is, by a double error, placed. For the trouble with the real folk of Faërie is that they do not always look like what they are; and they put on the pride and beauty that we would fain wear ourselves. At least part of the magic that they wield for the good or evil of man is power to play on the desires of his body and his heart. The Queen of Elfland, who carried off Thomas the Rhymer upon her milk-white steed swifter than the wind, came riding by the Eildon Tree as a lady, if one of enchanting beauty. So that Spenser was in the true tradition when he called the knights of his Faërie by the name of Elfe. It belonged to such knights as Sir Guyon rather than to Pigwiggen armed with a hornet’s sting.

  Now, though I have only touched (wholly inadequately) on elves and fairies, I must turn back; for I have digressed from my proper theme: fairy-stories. I said the sense ‘stories about fairies’ was too narrow.8 It is too narrow
, even if we reject the diminutive size, for 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.

  Stories that are actually concerned primarily with ‘fairies’, that is with creatures that might also in modern English be called ‘elves’, are relatively rare, and as a rule not very interesting. Most good ‘fairy-stories’ are about the aventures of men in the Perilous Realm or upon its shadowy marches. Naturally so; for if elves are true, and really exist independently of our tales about them, then this also is certainly true: elves are not primarily concerned with us, nor we with them. Our fates are sundered, and our paths seldom meet. Even upon the borders of Faërie we encounter them only at some chance crossing of the ways.9

  The definition of a fairy-story – what it is, or what it should be – does not, then, depend on any definition or historical account of elf or fairy, but upon the nature of Faërie: the Perilous Realm itself, and the air that blows in that country. I will not attempt to define that, nor to describe it directly. It cannot be done. Faërie cannot be caught in a net of words; for it is one of its qualities to be indescribable, though not imperceptible. It has many ingredients, but analysis will not necessarily discover the secret of the whole. Yet I hope that what I have later to say about the other questions will give some glimpses of my own imperfect vision of it. For the moment I will say only this: a ‘fairy-story’ is one which touches on or uses Faërie, whatever its own main purpose may be: satire, adventure, morality, fantasy. Faërie itself may perhaps most nearly be translated by Magic10 – but it is magic of a peculiar mood and power, at the furthest pole from the vulgar devices of the laborious, scientific, magician. There is one proviso: if there is any satire present in the tale, one thing must not be made fun of, the magic itself. That must in that story be taken seriously, neither laughed at nor explained away. Of this seriousness the medieval Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is an admirable example.