On March 23 we gathered to enjoy a magical evening in the Hobbit Hole, celebrating the Tolkien Reading Circle’s first observance of International Tolkien Reading Day. We shared the warmth of friendship as we read some of our favorite poems and readings in honor of JRR Tolkien. A relaxing aura of companionship settled around us as we laughed and sang and offered our deep thoughts and appreciation. Thanks, friends, for bringing your warm energy to this special Middle-earth celebration!
In the Rivendell Hall of Fire Charles peered over Frodo’s shoulder, and “the enchantment became more and more dreamlike…”
And Dan’s voice passed from a dream of music to “Eärendil was a mariner…”
Roger read a musical version of “Errantry” that was on its way to becoming Bilbo’s Eärendil poem.
Linda joined the hobbits on their way to the house of Bombadil, and everyone sang Goldberry’s greeting.
Andrea shared a Game of Thrones song, “The Bear and the Maiden Fair,” and she took us to a dell in the wild to recite Aragorn’s song of Tinúviel.
Elanor shares her book with Charlie.
Elisha read her story about Elanor Gardner, and she shared with us little Elanor’s favorite book, All the World.
Katy gave us “The Duel” by Eugene Field… a spat between a gingham dog and a calico cat.
Dyhrddrdh visited the moonless Merlock Mountains, and there we found “The Mewlips.”
Charles held us spellbound with his reading of Neil Gaiman’s “The Treasures of the Gods” from Norse Mythology – an introduction to a new book that we have heard so much about.
Fantasy, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is “the faculty or activity of imagining impossible things.” This may be why we can enjoy Fantasy so easily; it is, by definition, impossible. Wile E. Coyote paints a cave on a solid rock wall. Road Runner speeds through the painted hole. The coyote follows, and, predictably, splatters himself on solid rock. We laugh, turn off the TV, and get on with the day. Nothing in this story touches us.
Then, there are the other Fantasy stories. These are the ones that hover at the fringes of our lives like whispering shadows. They offer insight, pose questions, and brighten what might otherwise be a mundane day by opening a world of color and texture for our enjoyment. They lend strength, treat us to laughter, and begin friendships with characters that share their lives with us, however short those lives may be. These stories, even if they don’t involve swords or sorcery, are what I like to think of as High Fantasy. They are the ones that make us think. They are the ones that last.
What divides common Fantasy from High Fantasy? I am not a literary scholar, but I have a theory formed from my own observation. High Fantasy stories are the ones set in a world so real that it seems ordinary to us “normal” people, except for the one or two little magical bits. Nothing in the telling makes us want to check reality. We can accept it all and go with the tale, eager to see what happens next.
Let me illustrate this by contrasting two versions of a classic fantasy story. The first version is the animated short Little Red Riding Hood, as told by Walt Disney. In this story, a young girl is sent to her grandmother’s house with a basket of treats. As she walks through the dark woods, she meets a wolf and tells him where she is going. The wolf races ahead of her, breaks in to her grandmother’s house, eats the grandmother, and dresses in the nightgown and cap his victim was wearing. The girl arrives, enters the house, and is nearly eaten by the wolf before a woodsman hears the commotion and rescues her.
This story is easy to enjoy, but hard to take seriously. For one thing, did Grandmother look enough like a wolf for the ruse to work? That’s assuming that the wolf could kill and eat Grandmother without damaging her nightgown and cap, of course. Then again, Red Riding Hood was willing to talk with a wolf in the forest, and the wolf could converse in human language. Never mind the illogic of a parent sending a small child on an errand through a dangerous forest, all the while assuming that staying on the path would protect the child from danger. Good grief! The Reality Check bounced a long time ago. By the time we see the wolf in Grandmother’s bed, we are so soaked in the unreal that we cannot truly share the experience with the characters.
The second version of the story is given in the film Red Riding Hood (2011). In this tale, a village somewhere in northern Europe is terrorized by werewolves. The heroine, at odds with her father over the man she wishes to marry, goes to stay with her grandmother in an isolated cottage. She discovers that her father is, in fact, a werewolf. So is her grandmother. So is her lover, the woodsman who rescues her from her enraged father when he is in the form of a huge wolf.
In the second, more adult, version of the story, everyone in the village knows there is danger in the woods. The wolves do not talk. The heroine realizes immediately that something is wrong with her grandmother. Instead of staying to discuss the size of Grandma’s eyes, she does the sensible thing and runs for her life.
This version of the story is not muddled by a number of contradictions in what we consider normal in the natural world. In Red Riding Hood, the world shown is so real that the fantastic elements of the story dance at the edges of our sight, half-realized but not entirely real. That is, until the moment a “normal” character begins to shift into a werewolf and we can only watch, frozen, in shock. The realistic world the story is set in makes the unreal believable.
Over the next year, with your indulgence, I plan to explore some of the realities exposed in our favorite fantasy worlds. My essays will look at the real-world necessities our favorite characters need, and fit the real-world facts into the fantasy settings to show how the mundane bends the fantasy into a more believable shape. My first effort will cover clothing worn in the pre-industrial world, and I hope you’ll stick with me. Reality can be more fascinating than a dragon’s hoard.
Cover image: “Little Red Riding Hood” (Smlshin, Deviantart)
In the “olden times” of Cornwall, England every village had its own white witch. A midnight ceremony bestowed upon them the power to heal and to “ill-wish,” as well as the magical ability to ride ragwort stems. These witches wore rings with blue stones – rings made by snakes breathing on hazel-twigs. And they could transform themselves into toads and hares.
These interesting details about white witches were set down during the 1880s by a Cornish folklorist named MA Courtney. Just a few years before, in an 1873 book on the traditions of West Cornwall, William Bottrell discussed the doings of white witches, pellars, charmers, wise women, enchanters, conjurors, and a “white wizzard.” I get the impression that many of these terms were interchangeable, referring to a general class of tradition keepers with special knowledge of herbs, healing rituals, and esoteric powers of mind.
Throughout the 19th century male and female white witches could be found across the English countryside. In my 2016 edition of Tolkien in Pawneeland, I touch on white witches in writings by Sir Walter Scott, Walter Skeat, and Sabine Baring-Gould. And I suggest that in 1940-1942 JRR Tolkien made a decision to weave traces of this heritage into the cultural fabric of Middle-earth, conjoining his wizards with folk tradition pertaining to white witches.
Pondering his wizards sometime in late 1940, Tolkien settled on white as Saruman’s special color, electing him to serve as “chief of the White Council” – casual mention of such a council had materialized at the end of The Hobbit. Now Tolkien gave the group more definition and depth and narrative duties. And a year later in late 1941 Tolkien invented Galadriel and set her on this White Council. Not long after inventing Galadriel, Tolkien decided to kill Gandalf the Grey and replace him with Gandalf the White.
When we first meet the Elf Queen Galadriel in The Lord of the Rings we find her surrounded with the words “white” and “wise.” Tolkien probably accepted the idea that “witch” and “wizard” and “wise” had intertwined roots. Noting the widespread assumed link between “witch” and “wise,” Michael Dilts has more recently questioned that construction, as well as efforts to connect the term with other Old English terms for “divination” and “bend.” He prefers the suggestion by Calvert Watkins that the old forms of “witch” may refer instead to “the wakeful one, the watcher.”
Dilts makes a fascinating argument. But it is apparent that Tolkien in his day accepted an association between wizard and wise. Merging the invisible roots of these words together with vanishing British tradition about white witches, Tolkien elevated his wizards into transcendent figures of otherworldly power and majesty – while reserving the word “witch” for the leader of his Ringwraiths.
It is reasonable to suggest that when Tolkien sat down to write The Lord of the Rings, he was then the foremost academic expert on British folklore. As I show in Tolkien in Pawneeland (p. 310-318), the white witches of Skeat and Baring-Gould are arguably evident in Middle-earth. But it is less clear that Tolkien ever encountered the Cornish white witches – we can identify only a few wispy traces of MA Courtney’s witches.
It may not be coincidence in The Fellowship of the Ring that Gandalf threatens to turn a too talkative Sam into a toad – one could read this as a subtle reference to Cornish white witchery. And in The Two Towers when Wormtongue calls Galadriel a sorceress, Tolkien has Gandalf softly sing a poem about her, referring to the color white: “White is the star in your white hand[.]” And in The Return of the King when we notice Elrond’s “ring of gold with a great blue stone,” perhaps we are glimpsing the forgotten Cornish white witches and their magic rings mounted with blue stones.
Investigating the sources that shaped Tolkien’s White Council, others typically make mention of notable literary white witches in the novels of H Rider Haggard and CS Lewis. But when Tolkien summoned the lords and the lady of his White Council, it is reasonable to sense that he was doing something more than referencing purely literary imagery, and that he was evoking misty British historical tradition.
In the end, it is difficult to weigh with any specificity the influence of any of these sources – a wealth of wizards and witches in European literature complicates such a task. Even so, we can assume that at least a few white witch echoes came to Tolkien’s hand from the British countryside as he conjured the magic of Middle-earth.