Conundrum Press

“Let all the locked things fly away like cage-birds”

January 13th, 2014  |  Published in Blog

by Debbie Vance

J.R.R. Tolkien‘s 1937 fantastical masterpiece The Hobbit is much more than a child’s fairy tale story. It is more than the adventures of Bilbo and Smaug and Gollum. It is an adventure tale with a final eucatastrophe, an English mythology, and a sub-created Secondary World where we are freed from triteness and caught up into the power of story. And a well illustrated one at that.

C.S. Lewis, a friend of Tolkien’s and a brilliant writer in his own right (see The Chronicles of Narnia and Til We Have Faces), reviewed The Hobbit when it first came out in 1937 (Times Literary Supplement (2 October 1937), 714). In his review, he praises both the deft craftsmanship of a story that is at once adventuresome, light, and profoundly true, “in its own way,” as well as the “admirable illustrations and maps” drawn by the author’s very own hand:

To define the world of The Hobbit is, of course, impossible, because it is new. You cannot anticipate it before you go there, as you cannot forget it once you have gone. The author’s admirable illustrations and maps of Mirkwood and Goblingate and Esgaroth give one an inkling—and so do the names of the dwarf and dragon that catch our eyes as we first ruffle the pages. But there are dwarfs and dwarfs, and no common recipe for children’s stories will give you creatures so rooted in their own soil and history as those of Professor Tolkien—who obviously knows much more about them than he needs for this tale.

Tolkien’s illustrations are, in fact, beautiful. You can see a good many of them here


In his article, “The Hobbit unearths a hoard of myths,” Christopher House of The Telegraph points out that Tolkien’s fantastic tale is not merely a child’s fairy tale, but rather an English mythology to replace what was once lost:

As the most learned of Tolkien critics, the Anglo-Saxonist Tom Shippey, has argued, Tolkien, knowing that English mythology had soaked into the earth without trace after the Norman conquest, sought to make one from scratch. He would dignify his ancestors from the West Midlands with as proud a mythology as the Greeks had in Homer and Hesiod.

Always, even in Tolkien’s most trivial tales, there are hints of forgotten roots.

One very significant aspect of Tolkien’s mythical invention is language. As House points out later in his article, the very names of the mythical creatures in Tolkien’s worlds are derived from Old Norse, Old English, and the Common Language of Middle Earth, and are not merely fantastical names, but carry the burden and weight of meaning.

Tolkien himself speaks on the nature of mythology and and the power of language in an essay published shortly after The Hobbit, entitled “On Fairy Stories” (collected in Tales from the Perilous Realm):

Mythology is not a disease at all, though it may like all human things become diseased. You might as well say that thinking is a disease of the mind. It would be more near the truth to say that languages, especially modern European languages, are a disease of mythology. But Language cannot, all the same, be dismissed. The incarnate mind, the tongue, and the tale are in our world coeval. The human mind, endowed with the powers of generalization and abstraction, sees not only green-grass, discriminating it from other things (and finding it fair to look upon), but sees that it is green as well as being grass. But how powerful, how stimulating to the very faculty that produced it, was the invention of the adjective: no spell or incantation in Faerie is more potent. And that is not surprising: such incantations might indeed be said to be only another view of adjectives, a part of speech in a mythical grammar. The mind that thought of light, heavy, grey, yellow, still, swift, also conceived of magic that would make heavy things light and able to fly, turn grey lead into yellow gold, and the still rock into a swift water. If it could do the one, it could do the other; it inevitably did both. When we can take green from grass, blue from heaven, and red from blood, we have already an enchanter’s power — upon one plane; and the desire to wield that power in the world external to our minds awakes. It does not follow that we shall use that power well upon any plane. We may put a deadly green upon a man’s face and produce a horror; we may make the rare and terrible blue moon to shine; or we may cause woods to spring with silver leaves and rams to wear fleeces of gold, and put hot fire into the belly of the cold worm. But in such “fantasy,” as it is called, new form is made; Faerie begins; Man becomes a sub-creator.

He later speaks of the unique power that fantasy, specifically, carries. This power, he argues, is greater in fact that the more “somber” fiction that receives such acclaim in literary circles in that it requires a higher degree of creativity to arrange human language into both something new and something believable.

Fantasy … is difficult to achieve. Fantasy may be, as I think, not less but more sub-creative; but at any rate it is found in practice that “the inner consistency of reality” is more difficult to produce, the more unlike are the images and the rearrangements of primary material to the actual arrangements of the Primary World. It is easier to produce this kind of “reality” with more “sober” material. Fantasy thus, too often, remains undeveloped; it is and has been used frivolously, or only half-seriously, or merely for decoration: it remains merely “fanciful.” Anyone inheriting the fantastic device of human language can say the green sun. Many can then imagine or picture it. But that is not enough — though it may already be a more potent thing than many a “thumbnail sketch” or “transcript of life” that receives literary praise.

To make a Secondary World inside which the green sun will be credible, commanding Secondary Belief, will probably require labour and thought, and will certainly demand a special skill, a kind of elvish craft. Few attempt such difficult tasks. But when they are attempted and in any degree accomplished then we have a rare achievement of Art: indeed narrative art, story-making in its primary and most potent mode.

He explains that fantasy is not only a way by which to practice sub-creation in it fullest, “most potent mode,” but also as a means by which we are freed from holding too tightly to familiar things. Fantasy allows us to “clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness and familiarity-from possessiveness.”

Creative fantasy, because it is mainly trying to do something else (make something new), may open your hoard and let all the locked things fly away like cage-birds.

It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.

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