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Tolkien, Fantasy and Our Practice.

Sandra Bayona.

We tend to associate Fantasy with childhood as it is usually assumed that children are the natural
audience for fairy stories. In Tolkien’s opinion, the value of fairy stories is not to be found by considering
children in particular. He himself found a real taste for them on the threshold of manhood. He asserts that
if fairy stories should be related to children it is because they are human, and fairy stories are a natural
human taste. Adults can get more out of them than children can. So, it is an error to reduce fantasy to a
particular age. Fairy tales are as worth reading in childhood as in “manhood”: there will always be a
treasure to obtain from them at any stage of our lives. As regards the supporters of the idea that children
should not be exposed to material that contains more than they can understand, Tolkien claims that it may
be better for them to read some things (especially fairy stories) that are beyond their measure rather than
short of it. Their books like their clothes should allow for growth, and their books at any rate should
encourage growth.
What did Tolkien think of Fantasy?
First of all, he said that it is a form of art (in his opinion, almost the purest). Some people
confound Fantasy with Dreaming -in which there is no art- and with mental disorders. But on the contrary,
Fantasy is a rational activity, a sub-creative activity, and to sub-create, we need reason; moreover, the
keener and the clearer the reason the better fantasy it will make. It is important to emphasize this: Fantasy
is a natural human activity. As Tolkien wrote in Mythopoeia, a poem to answer his friend C.S. Lewis, who
had described fantasy as a lie:
“Dear Sir, Although now long stranged, man is not wholly lost not wholly changed. Dis-graced he
may be, yet he is not de-throned, and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned Man, subcreator,
the refracted light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.
... ‘twas our right
(used or misused). That right has not decayed.
We make still by the law in which we’re made.”1

This poem means that we can be “sub-creators” and, through fantasy, “refract” what is in our
hearts; whatever we “make up” or “sub-create”, our inner values, what we really are, will show. Tolkien
calls humans sub-creators because in his view we are made by a Maker, who created us in his image and
likeness, so we refract this image and likeness. Our Maker is “the white” refracted into many
combinations and colours. And he says that fantasy is a human right because we were made with this
tendency to sub-create, to do Art, thus showing our inner values.
It is worth noticing the phrase “used or misused”. It means that Fantasy can be carried out to
excess; it can be ill done, but any human thing in this fallen world can be ill done.
Fantasy is, in fact, real life. In Tolkien’s words: “(Fantasy) is merely an imaginative invention, to
express, in the only way I can, some of my (dim) apprehensions of the world.”2 As teachers, it is our duty
to help students develop the awareness of the relevance of fantasy and of their being sub-creators as part
of their personal growth. We have mentioned the main points maintained by Tolkien as regards Fantasy.
These are illustrated in one of his major works, The Lord of the Rings.
The wealth of The Lord of the Rings allows the reader to approach the work in different ways, and
with different interests. So as to provide our practice with a theoretical framework, we will base our
reflection on Bakhtin’s concept of dialogism (Bakthin: 1982)3. Words cannot just be interpreted according
to the meaning stated in the dictionary. In communication, the meaning of a word depends on the
particular context in which the word is uttered. Once the word has been said, it comes into contact with the
conceptual horizon of the listener/reader, and thus it comes to represent a certain position from the
speaker/writer (Bakhtin: 1982)4.
As speakers of English (though not native, in most cases), we have the advantage of being able to
read the original version. That means the mediation of a translator (and thus another Other to impose their
viewpoint of the work) has not been necessary for us to have access to The Lord of the Rings. Our own
conceptual horizon is then directly in contact with the work in question.
This does not mean, however, that we, as readers, become aware of the richness of the language
Tolkien used right from our first reading. We do notice the development of the story and the characters
involved, but so as to have a deeper understanding of the people and the story, it is important to be aware
of certain features of their language. So as to work on some of these features, excerpts of The Lord of the
Rings, Book 1, Chapter 1, A Long-Expected Party, will be discussed. This is a link with preceding events,
and thus a frame for many events developed later. Characters are introduced, as well as aspects of life in
The Shire. It is a special occasion: Bilbo Baggins’ 111th birthday party. In his small society, the affairs of
public figures (as Mr. Baggins is) are of the utmost importance. Thus, his dealings are a frequent subject
among hobbits who meet at the local inn. The first excerpt analyzed is the hobbit dialogue at The Ivy
Bush5. Non Standard English structures in the hobbits’ speech can be identified in this extract, and thus it
is possible to compare these with the standard forms. An example of this:

“I’ve heard they went on the water after dinner in the moonlight,” said Old Noakes; “and it was
Drogo’s weight as sunk the boat.”
“And I heard she pushed him in, and he pulled her in after him,” said Sandyman, the Hobbiton
miller.
“You shouldn’t listen to all you hear, Sandyman,” said the Gaffer, who did not much like the
miller. “There isn’t no call to go talking of pushing and pulling.”6

Here we can see two instances of non-standard forms. The first one is in Old Noakes’s speech:
“and it was Drogo’s weight as sunk the boat”. The pronoun (which/that) has been replaced by the form as.
The Gaffer uses a double negative: “There isn’t no call.” The identification of these non-standard forms is
possible because of the knowledge the reader has of what is considered standard. Making use of this
knowledge, participants are asked to provide the corresponding standard forms and discuss the reason of
the use of non-standard English in the speech of certain characters. Such a variation can be attributed to
the social level of the speakers; this realization then leads to a reflection on the effects achieved by the
selection of non-standard forms and linguistic idiosyncrasies, and on the way we perceive others (and are
perceived by them) by the choice of forms. Thus we are able to consider the relation between language
structures, social levels marked by language and the notion of heteroglossia in our own discourse.
Another aspect to consider has to do with the social events mentioned in the excerpt under
discussion (marriages, births and deaths.) These are part of our life, and there are some social rituals
related to them, but which are seldom even touched upon. Among these rituals there are the social notices
that appear in newspapers. They entail a specific form and set of vocabulary, which are sometimes
overlooked in our teaching. A discussion on what is appropriate for a notice in each instance is a way to
focus on this issue. Provided with the appropriate format and vocabulary, participants are asked to produce
the corresponding notices for the different events mentioned by the characters. Through a reflection on the
marriages, births and deaths in The Shire, we come to think of different stages in life, and how feelings are
expressed in each occasion, in this case in newspapers.
Another aspect Chapter 1 allows us to reflect on is the use of irony as a means to express feelings.
The tags that accompanied Bilbo’s presents to his family, friends and neighbours represent a model for the
latter. The following is an example:

“For the collection of HUGO BRACEGIRDLE, from a contributor; on an (empty) book-case.


Hugo was a great borrower of books, and worse than usual at returning them.”7
Irony implies a horizon known by the reader and a sense of humour and a reflection on the people
or events involved. In the case of the tags, the horizon is provided in the form of a brief statement of the
reasons for the gift. After analyzing the different presents and their tags, participants are asked to choose a
gift and write the corresponding tag for certain public figures. To accomplish this holistic task, it is
necessary for them to negotiate, express their feelings, accept ideas, exchange points of view and finally
come to an agreement.
Certainly, these activities do not exhaust the possibilities offered by Chapter 1. Even with only
excerpts, other tasks may be designed. This task is up to the participants’ creativity and imagination.
Once again, in an ideal situation we would be working on the whole novel. But our aim was to
take a peep at this treasure (hidden or forgotten), which is The Lord of the Rings, and how important
creativity, imagination, fantasy are for us as teachers. In our daily practice, we should not forget that
“He sees no stars who does not see them first
of living silver made that sudden burst
to flame like flowers beneath the ancient song,
whose very echo after-music long
has since pursued. There is no firmament,
only a void, unless a jewelled tent
myth-woven and elf-patterned; and no earth,
unless the mother's womb whence all have birth.”8
1
Tolkien, J.R.R. Mythopoeia.
2
Carpenter, Humphrey. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. London: George Unwin & Allen.
3
Bakhtin, Mikhail. 1982. El problema de los géneros discursivos en Estética de la creación verbal. México: Siglo XXI
4
Bakhtin, Mikhail. 1982. El problema de los géneros discursivos en Estética de la creación verbal. México: Siglo XXI
5
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings. I, The Fellowship of the Ring. New York: Ballantine Books, pp 42-45.
6
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings. I, The Fellowship of the Ring. New York: Ballantine Books. p. 43.
7
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings. I, The Fellowship of the Ring. New York: Ballantine Books. p. 60.
8
Tolkien, J.R.R. Mythopoeia.