by Jonathan Geltner
Part I: Glimpse
But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst;
but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water
springing up into everlasting life.
I desired dragons with a profound desire.
February of 1989: Grey skies, grey rocks, grey highways, blowing sleet and rain and snow, and a grey minivan driving through it almost nine hundred miles: over the Berkshires and over the Hudson, winding through the Catskills and Poconos, across the Susquehanna and over and under and in and out of the Alleghenies, down into the hilly lands and hollow lands of the Ohio Valley; blue-grey and black-grey and evergreen-grey, brown and purplish hues and hazy distances, murk-strewn vistas and twilit dales where steeples and smokestacks reach up among the surrounding slopes, streams in deep shadow and cold steel spans of rail and road high above them, mountains cut away and boulders tumbled down, pines and hardwoods, gloomy copses of hemlock; and never a straight stretch in all of it but always the mystery of our curving way.
I was just shy of my seventh birthday when my family moved from Newton, Massachusetts to Cincinnati, Ohio. And the appearance of the country that I watched from the windows of our minivan is not all that remains with me now from that move. After all, I must have seen much of it before, since one set of grandparents lived on the shore of an obscure lake in the far northeastern corner of Pennsylvania, and the other set lived in Pittsburgh. But I have no vivid recollection of any previous journey into and through the dark and green mountainous heart of eastern North America.
That is likely because on the journey in February of 1989 I had something more than the view of the land—indeed, something I’d never had before. To entertain me on the drive, and distract me from the displacement I was undergoing in the middle of the school year, my parents had given me the use of a Walkman and six cassettes housed in a wooden box. I could just sound out the letters on the cover of the box and pronounce the title: The Hobbit. This was a radio drama. Basically a straight reading of Tolkien’s story, but with different voices for the characters and the narrator, and some sound effects and music. Oh, the music… I still know exactly how to sing:
Far o’er the misty mountains cold
To dungeons deep and caverns old
We must away ere break of day
To seek the pale enchanted gold
My mind was filled with images while I first listened to these tapes—not images of my own invention, nor the virtual images our world of screens mantles us with now, but images of the actual world passing outside the windows of our minivan. These images would grow familiar and more perfectly mixed with the story of The Hobbit on the many occasions afterwards, in warm seasons and cold, when I would listen to the tapes again as my family drove—now from Cincinnati—to visit grandparents in Pittsburgh or in the far northeastern corner of Pennsylvania.
I saw so much vast rock and highland forests while I listened to The Hobbit, and crossed rivers great and small, and caught glimpses of strange horizons that seemed to call to me and promise yet further stories, that I knew exactly what wild Middle Earth looked like. Rivendell was my paternal grandparents’ home in the wooded hills and water-carved ravines just outside Pittsburgh. When I heard about the cave in the mountains where Bilbo and his companions are abducted by goblins, I knew I had seen many such places from the highway or hiking around the environs of Pittsburgh. And my mother’s parents lived on the far side of the Misty Mountains and Mirkwood, in a lonely but starkly beautiful corner of the world, with solitary rounded mountains rising here and there, near the border with New York State by Binghamton.
It is difficult to describe the feeling of this experience of merging worlds, because there is something open about it, unfulfilled. The feeling is longing, primarily, but of a unique kind. There is no one place where it rests permanently, and yet it is all about a particular sense of place. Actually there is a sort of quantum uncertainty as to whether I’m speaking about one world or two. I incline to speak of two worlds, but what shall I call them? One world is Earth, but for the other world I want a word that means a place distinct yet not different (or should that be different yet not distinct?), something that implies another version of the Earth. I could call it Heaven or the Kingdom of God, but I want to sidestep the transcendent for a moment. And I want to bracket the language of the traditional dominant religion of the West. That language needs to be re-enchanted. Whether true or not, it has grown stale and shopworn and, for many people, alienating. It’s not alienation I’m after but unfamiliarity, which may seem similar but is very different: alienation is repulsion and isolation; unfamiliarity is perhaps most palpable, in this doubled world, as a beckoning call from afar. So I’ll call the second world Faerie. Three syllables, equally accented: Fah-ay-ree.
The word goes deep down, way back. Faerie is the place or characteristic activity of the fées, and those creatures take their name from Fata, the Roman goddesses or triple-goddess (Parcae, they are also called) of destiny—in a word, Fate. And Fate by any name is one of the most primordial and essential human experiences of life: the experience of being carried along in a great current of Life, along a great Way. When we understand or perceive our fate, we feel that we behold Truth—that which lies behind the world of appearances. We invoke the idea of Fate when we speak of the most intense desires and experiences of our lives: falling in love, the genealogy this may produce (and so the fate of families). It was meant to be, we say, or It had to be. We speak of an individual’s or a people’s fate as shaped by their character or, to put it differently, by that person’s or people’s chief desire. Faerie/Fate and desire are intermingled, and the essential feeling of what I call fantasy—which is whatever medium or text discloses Faerie, or opens it to us—that emotional quintessence is longing and yearning.
Of utmost importance for at least artistic reasons, is that the literary genre we now call fantasy should enfold within itself the fateful longing that is also its total quality. Consider this passage from the first chapter of The Hobbit (emphasis mine):
As they sang the hobbit felt the love of beautiful things made by hands and by cunning and magic moving through him, a fierce and jealous love, the desire of the hearts of dwarves. Then something Tookish woke up inside him, and he wished to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine-trees and the waterfalls, and explore the caves, and wear a sword instead of a walking stick. He looked out of the window. The stars were out in a dark sky above the trees. He thought of the jewels of the dwarves shining in dark caverns. Suddenly in the wood beyond the water a flame leapt up—probably somebody lighting a wood-fire—and he thought of plundering dragons settling on his quiet Hill and kindling it all to flames. He shuddered; and very quickly he was plain Mr Baggins of Bag-End, Under-Hill, again.
If you know the story, you know how much foreshadowing is present in this paragraph. It comes through in the things of this earth, in basic human craft and in geography: roving in the open weathers of the world: mountains, winds, forests, rivers—all these we will now explore with Bilbo. But look at this finer artistry: it is by catching sight of the stars in the dark night sky (dark, I presume, because it is a night sky without a moon) that he thinks of jewels. This is the organic link in the mind between nature and artifice. Bilbo’s consciousness in this moment is remarkably attuned to his immediate environment and has not by any means escaped into some unconnected fantasy. The same thing happens again: someone lights a fire and this makes him think of the dragon. He is not brought back to where he is; rather, where he is shows him a truthful presentiment of the far-off wonders of the dwarves’ song.
So this experience of Faerie that I call fantasy, this yearning for the far and wondrous, may actually be an intense realization of where you are. But fantasy does not restrict itself to the sense of expanse reachable in questing. Not only does Faerie enfold its own feeling of longing for the far-off, it also reduplicates itself interiorly. In other words, there is Faerie within Faerie. Bilbo longs to adventure in Faerie, conceived one way, and so he shall. But there is another Faerie where he will not go. (Actually, when he does finally go there, his story will be over, or it will have passed beyond language.) Here is the narrator of The Hobbit exercising his omniscience when Bilbo and the Dwarves have come upon the elves in Mirkwood (emphasis mine):
The feasting people were Wood-elves, of course. These are not wicked folk. If they have a fault it is distrust of strangers. Though there magic was strong, even in those days they were wary. They differed from the High Elves of the West, and were more dangerous and less wise. For most of them (together with their scattered relations in the hills and mountains) were descended from the ancient tribes that never went to Faerie in the West. There the Light-elves and the Deep-elves and the Sea-elves went and lived for ages, and grew fairer and wiser and more learned, and invented their magic and their cunning craft in the making of beautiful and marvelous things, before some came back into the Wide World. In the Wide World the Wood-elves lingered in the twilight of our Sun and Moon but loved best the stars; and they wandered in the great forests that grew tall in lands that are now lost.
This passage, unlike the previous one I quoted, was not in the radio drama I listened to as a boy, despite being a very important moment of world-building: here in miniature is the entire sweep of elvish history, imparting to the story the flavor of deep time (which I’ll expand upon in a moment). I have sometimes wondered whether part of the reason the passage was omitted is that the role of geography and the sense of place in fantasy (indeed, in fiction more broadly) is difficult to grasp, though the genre simply could not exist without it. But simply put, it is this: We require a sense of some yet further world beyond what the story will reveal: in The Hobbit, apart from this reference to Faerie (elsewhere called the Undying Lands or Valinor, etc), there is the wine from the south, or rumors of the Necromancer.
In his seminal essay “On Fairy-Stories,” Tolkien writes of the primary world—this world where I am writing and you are reading—and of the secondary world or “subcreation,” as he calls it, which the fantasist makes. For the secondary world to be successful, it must have “the inner consistency of reality.” But what is that? How, as a writer, can you make that? For Tolkien, in the context of what he was calling fairy-stories but which we now more commonly call fantasy—that is, fiction set within some kind of Faerie or secondary world, whatever it may be called—reality included what he called “eucatastrophe” or the “sudden joyous turn” which produces a happy ending. This feature of reality (at any rate within Faerie, the subcreation) is, he adds, a “miraculous grace” and it gives, he says, “a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.” He concludes the essay by stating that “when the sudden turn comes we get a piercing glimpse of joy, and heart’s desire, that for a moment passes outside the frame, rends indeed the very web of story, and lets a gleam come through.”
This language is spatial or lends itself easily to realization in spatial categories. The feeling that Tolkien is talking about is in fantasy realizable as a sense of place. More accurately, it is a sense of the transcendent (that which passes or comes from outside the “frame”) figured as a sense of place, the ever-receding yet ever-beckoning horizon (or the ever-coiling river, the road that “goes ever on and on”), things glimpsed on the periphery or in utmost distance, hinted at in outline or shadow and only partially and mysteriously known. One of the most important ways the fantasist has at her disposal to render this geographical figuration of the transcendent, is to make use of the recursiveness or reduplicating quality of Faerie. It is like the play-within-the-play of drama.
From the point of view of the primary world, all of the secondary world is Faerie, the realm that we here in actuality so desire and long for (Tolkien’s “profound desire,” which he avows in the essay on fairy stories, for dragons and the rest of the world of which they are a part: Faerie). In order for the secondary world to meet that desire, to have the “inner consistency of reality”—Tolkien speaks of it fostering “secondary belief” if it is successful in this conjuring—it must be like our world in containing its own Faerie. It is as if we enter the empire of fantasy through one frontier, and we must sense that in other directions lie other frontiers. The recession is infinite, for this is the world of potentiality. The denizens of Faerie communicate with, or are accessible to, whatever or whoever lies beyond those other frontiers just as they are accessible to and perhaps communicate with us in the primary world. And those others, in turn, must know yet more distant frontiers and those who dwell on the far side of them, and so on.
There is a temporal element to this phenomenon as well, or you could say a historical figuration of the transcendent to complement its geographical figuration. The sixth paragraph of The Hobbit begins with this sentence:
By some curious chance one morning long ago in the quiet of the world, when there was less noise and more green, and the hobbits were still numerous and prosperous, and Bilbo Baggins was standing at his door after breakfast smoking an enormous long wooden pipe that reached nearly down to his woolly toes (neatly brushed)—Gandalf came by.
As an aside (I’ll take up the theme fully in the second part of this essay), I call your attention to “curious chance” and remind you of the derivation of Faerie from Fata. But the main point here is the setting of the story “long ago.” Just as the experience or intimation of Faerie is a feeling for the horizon and the glimpsed and hinted, the rumored and the far-off (but perhaps approaching), so it may also be a call—a song or legend or prophecy—coming from the deep past. The famous epigraph to Star Wars does both at once: A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.… Can you imagine the story without that epigraph? Why do we need both aspects of unfamiliarity? I don’t know, except to say that distance in both space and time, like the experience of Fate, is part of how we experience the transcendent: but it is a closable distance (if only asymptotically), and somewhat violently at that, for the transcendent, as we saw Tolkien perceived, is something that breaks into our frame from without, the glimpse piercing and the feeling poignant (Tolkien, philologist that he was, surely knew that this word in its root means pricking, stinging, punching).
The enfolding I have written about occurs in the temporal aspect of Faerie as well. Fantasy is long ago—but it is long ago from the point of view of our world, the cosmos that contains, as the passage I quoted previously puts it, our Sun and Moon. I have said that from the point of view of the primary world, all of the secondary world is Faerie. But Faerie is at the same time and from this same point view only a version of this primary world. Tolkien himself said of The Lord of the Rings, “the book is about the world that God created—the actual world of this planet.” And so, just like our primary world, Faerie must have its own Faerie; and just as Faerie lies in our deep past, in mythical time, so it must have its own deep past or mythical tme. The sense of Faerie’s own deep time is something that Tolkien accomplished perhaps better than anyone who had come before him. Here is Bilbo having snuck into the Lonely Mountain and first laying eyes upon Smog’s treasure (emphasis mine, purely to draw attention once more to this language of desire as a pierced heart that Tolkien was evidently fond of):
To say that Bilbo’s breath was taken away is no description at all. There are no words left to express his staggerment, since Men changed the language that they learned from elves in the days when all the world was wonderful. Bilbo had heard tell and sing of dragon-hoards before, but the splendor, the lust, the glory of such treasure had never yet come home to him. His heart was filled and pierced with enchantment and with the desire of dwarves; and he gazed motionless, almost forgetting the frightful guardian, at the gold beyond price and count.
I have chosen a difficult passage with which to make my point about the deep time of Faerie mirroring our own, but I’ve done so because this is also an extraordinary passage, and a “rending of the web of story” if ever there was such.
Tolkien made use of the storyteller narrator, the normative narrator for what we now call fiction until about a hundred years ago. The storyteller always exists in the same world as the audience of the story, and he is able to address that audience directly. (Incidentally, the storyteller’s speaking to the audience accentuates the secondariness or potentiality of Faerie, a healthy reminder that it is special world we only access through a shared social occasion or ceremony, like storytelling or religious rite.) So when the storyteller-narrator tells us that he has no words to describe Bilbo’s reaction to the sight of the treasure because the very language we speak has decayed, we are still operating with the primary world-sense of Faerie lying somewhere off in the deeps of time—our time. What sort of time Faerie itself possesses we cannot infer from the first two sentences.
But then the narrator tells us that Bilbo himself was unprepared despite having heard told and sung many words about dragons’ treasure. He was susceptible to the dwarves’ song in the beginning, and now, seeing it, he irrefusably desires the treasure and other precious wrought things that those songs told about (he will not be able to stop himself from purloining the Arkenstone of Thrain, which will become important as a plot-point later, only to then lose all importance in the further unfolding of the plot). But the implication in this passage is that there was once, before the time of the story—that is, deep time from the perspective of Faerie—a language in which those two experiences, hearing about and actually seeing the treasure, would not have been distinct. The feeling in this moment is that even in the time of the tale it was already a late age of the world, when potencies of language had been lost. We might gloss it by saying that for Bilbo and his time, language had lost the capacity to be efficacious sign, to both symbolize and be the thing symbolized.
For a more straightforward interpolation of the deep time of Faerie, you can read the chapter where Bilbo comes to Rivendell, and Elrond’s origins in what readers would later learn to call the First Age are sketched and hinted at vaguely. But I like the passage just quoted because it seems to be a moment where the narrator is actually frustrated, as well he should be if the very substance of his craft is at stake. If language had already been evacuated of some power in the deep time that is Faerie, where indeed does that leave the stories told in the primary world?
But of course it is mysterious that this moment in the tale is possible at all. How can we know that there is something beyond our ken? To acknowledge that there is while at the same time avowing its ineffability—to catch a glimpse of some unreachable further Faerie from within a tale of Faerie, or to catch some inkling of deep time from within a tale set already in deep time—is an apophatic moment in storytelling, one of the frontiers of fiction, you could say. Tolkien preferred the imagery of a gleam of light breaking into one’s consciousness, and as we saw, he associated it not only with joy but also with grief. Perhaps this dual valence is to be expected, for compounded of both emotions is desire, that which knows what it does not possess (and perhaps possesses what it knows not). Desire is perilous, all religious traditions agree. Some say it is also necessary. At the beginning of the essay on fairy-stories, Tolkien speaks of the perils of Faerie, and I believe he was quite in earnest. There is a kind of madness that always threatens when one uses the instrument of fiction to peer into and magnify the world of potentiality, this other version of reality or the Earth that we call fantasy or Faerie. The danger is that our desire for the sense of distance within that distant land, and our desire for the depths of time hinted at in that deep time, will keep us stuck forever in fantasy.
But at the same time I want to say that Faerie is the right place for desire, and fantasy its proper and ordained mode. This world, the primary world or world of actuality, is finite and we are finite—except in our desire. This means that we are, in a way, too much for the world. If we satisfy our desires and slake our thirst upon what is, the actual, we deplete this world, or we transgress its moral law, which is founded in the finitude of the world. There is no remedy but to sink our desires elsewhere, lay up our treasure in heaven. Here is where some of that religious language may return, with a different cast than the usual, for we may speak of Faerie instead of heaven. In meeting desires in this life we consume the world, but Faerie is like the bush which burned and was not consumed. Christ’s words to the woman at the well, quoted in the epigraph, teach this same necessity: infinite desire for things of the finite world will never give you peace. Desire the transcendent, which is infinite and pierces into this finite world like a lance into the heart, and you may know the peace which passes understanding but perhaps does not pass telling, the peace that not the world but that Faerie may give.
Jonathan Geltner serves as fiction editor at Orison Books and teaches at Adrian College. His translation of Paul Claudel’s Five Great Odes is available from Angelico Press, and his novel Absolute Music is forthcoming from Slant Books, where he also writes regularly on fiction. He is currently at work on a collection of essays (from which this essay has been adapted) on the sense of place and the sacred, and a historical fantasy set in the fifth century B.C.E. Jonathan lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with his wife and two sons.