Tolkien and Post-Tolkien Faerie Analysis with John Burridge


Written by guest blogger, John Burridge. John is a science fiction and fantasy author, former Renaissance fair performer, fairy enthusiast and all around funny guy. John recently gave a presentation in Eugene on Faerie which I found insightful and inspiring. In fact, it was so inspiring I wrote two short stories immediately afterward based on some aspect of his presentation that sparked my imagination. For that reason, I wanted him to share his fairy expertize here.

Tolkien Faerie:  Mythic Time vs. Historic Time

Now we get to Tolkien. The Hobbit. The Lord of the Rings. On Fairy Stories. Everyone who writes Elves needs to read On Fairy Stories, which is a short essay.  Here’s a quick summary.  In his essay, Tolkien says of the Elves: “Elves are not primarily concerned with us, nor we with them. Our fates are sundered…”

He says of Fairy Magic:

“The part of magic [faeries] wield is power to play on the desires of [man’s] body and heart.”
Fairy magic satisfies the desire to survey space and time and commune with other living things.
Fairy magic enables the realization of imagined wonder.
The magic of faerie re-enchants the familiar with its wonder-ful connection to the natural, as opposed to mortal magic which is concerned with willing power over nature.

He says of Fairy Stories:

There’s a distinction between myth and history. Historical people and places become attached to mythic ones.
Fairy stories are mythic tales.
Fairy-tales confound Comparative Folk-lore’s list of correspondences and story element concordances.
Fairy stories are mystical toward the supernatural, magical toward nature, and the beings of Faerie regard mortals with pity and scorn.
Fairy stories contain prohibitions.

And of Faerie in general: Faerie cannot be caught within a net of words.

In Tolkien’s works, Elves are so connected with Nature that they appear “supernatural.” Their immortality sunders them from humankind, who is given the gift of death.  This makes the Elves weary preservers of nature.  Tolkien’s Elves are also caught up in Tolkien’s theme of the One Ring of Power, which is “Absolute power corrupts absolutely”; therefore, Tolkien’s Elves have the unenviable choice of watching the nature and world they love and are intimately connected with fade away, or of becoming corrupted by power that could preserve it.


Post-Tolkien Faerie:  Several Steps Removed

Tolkien set the mold for the fantasy genre, but since Tolkien, there have been a few other approaches to Elves and Faerie.  Charles de Lint’s Elves of European descent are close to Tolkien’s; his expansion on them is to have them interact with Native American nature spirits.  His fey folk also are able to adapt to modern technology, like the internet.

Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Fairies in The Mists of Avalon (1982) are beings that inhabit a kind of parallel world. Faerie, such as it is, is portrayed as an other-worldly haven for an enclave practicing the old ways of Goddess Religion. It is a mist-filled place removed from the advances of Christianity and male-centric civilizations. The Fairies who do appear seem part-and-parcel of a magical, parallel-realm accessible only to those with The Sight. This realm, or possibly The Sight used to see it, is malleable to observers’ expectations or state.

More modern Faerie seems to have pushed the immortality, removal, and indifference so far that it suffers from a kind of stasis or arrested development.  Prince Shadowbow (1985), by Sherri S Tepper, shows a Faerie that is fragile and must seek renewal through the more vital mortal world.

In War for the Oaks (1987), by Emma Bull, the folk of Faerie seem drawn to human music and movies to such an extent that the mortal protagonist asks the Queen of the Unseelie Court if there isn’t anything she hasn’t stolen from a movie. They seem to not understand love and death.

Patricia C. Wrede’s Snow White and Rose Red (1989) presents a renaissance England fairy court, with magical court intrigues. One of the story’s arcs concerns the nature of the connection between the Mortal and Faerie realms. “Mortal lands are our stability,” says Wrede’s Fairy Queen, “Without them we would fade to mist and shadows.”

Ellen Kushner, in Thomas the Rhymer, (1990) has the Queen of Fairy tell Thomas that Elves are drawn to Humans because they burn bright, with a kind of fire which sustains them. Later Thomas opines that Fairies are bad liars because living in Faerie has blunted their ability to invent. In one of her last appearances, the Queen reports that she cannot change (and possibly cannot love because that would require change).

These modern four stories share Terri Windling as an editor. All though they are long-lived or immortal, partake of magic, and have a separate fate from humanity, “Windling Elves” do not appear to have the Tolkien Elves’ supernatural connection to the natural world — their magic stems from their removal from the natural world; their other-worldliness is rooted in their inability to understand mortal emotion.

And then there’s Brian Froud’s Fairies. I want to be flippant and call them Muppet Fairies because of Froud’s influence on the movies The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth. I admit my own ambiguity of feeling toward Froud’s Fairies. I love Labyrinth for the stunning visuals, artistry, and costuming.  If I were pressed, I’d say that Froud’s art in general is in touch with Faerie as wonder; Labyrinth is in touch with fairy as trickster; and Dark Crystal is in touch with a holistic politics and aesthetic.

Oh yeah, and then there are the D&D Elves.  And Hobbits.   Um… I think these count as humans with pointy ears.  With the copyright filed off.


John Burridge Bio 

John Burridge’s parents wanted to be world travelers, so that’s why he was born at a dam construction site in Pakistan decades ago. Before long, he had scaled Egyptian temples, explored throne rooms, and raised havoc in cathedrals. 

On the family’s Oregon return, John’s focus soon turned to adventures of science, fiction, and fantasy.  By 4th grade, he wanted to be a physicist like his hero, Mr. Spock.  His physics fantasies died in college calculus, though John did learn to run Reed College’s experimental reactor.

John lives in Eugene with his family. He is a computer support technician by day and a fantasy and science fiction writer by night. Since 2001 he has been an active member of the Eugene Wordos, which he serves as co-chair. 

He is probably over-caffeinated.