The World of Fantasy
© 2005, Peter Wilkin
An essay on Tolkien, Beowulf and
the concept of the Secondary World
The relationship between fantasy and reality is a
question which has been raised time and time again ever since the genre
became a self-conscious literary mode subsequent to the publication of Lord of the Rings. The question
has necessarily had crucial bearing on the notion of the Secondary
World and its use as a vehicle of inducing Secondary Belief through its
drawing from the Primary World. In this regard two profoundly
influential works, Beowulf and
Lord of the Rings, warrant
particular consideration. The significant influence which Beowulf had
on Tolkien's imagination invites a comparison between these two works,
and the similarities that may be seen reveal some crucial aspects that
are in contrast to much within the Fantasy genre. That is, both works
place their Secondary Worlds on this earth, set in a mythic history
which may nevertheless be (in theory) traced back to the present day.
This effect, called by Tolkien "the illusion of historical truth," has
profound implications for the employment of the Secondary World within
the genre, and it is a question which this discussion shall endeavour
to explore in some detail.
Before this is done however, it is important to
qualify the notion of the "Secondary World", a term first used by
Tolkien in his seminal essay On
Fairy Stories and central to subsequent definitions of Fantasy.
At its most fundamental level, the term "Secondary World" refers to the
writer's (or 'sub-creator's') ability to create an internally
consistent world which successfully induces "Secondary Belief".
Inside it, what he
relates is 'true': it accords with the laws of that world. You
therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside. The moment
disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has
failed. You are then out in the Primary World again, looking at the
little abortive Secondary World from outside.
Likewise the Encyclopedia of Fantasy
provides a similar view:
Secondary World can be defined as an autonomous world or venue which is
not bound to mundane reality, which is impossible according to common
sense and which is self-coherent as a venue for story.
Both views essentially put the main stress on "internal consistency".
Unfortunately Tolkien is rather vague on what precisely this entails.
He does state that this is achieved by Art, which he asserts is "the
operative link between Imagination and the final result, Sub-creation".
Yet this definition brings us back full circle and we are left
wondering what the nature of this "Art" is.
What in fact is missing from most modern
definitions, and rather surprisingly in Tolkien's case since he was at
pains to stress it in his Letters and
his essay on Beowulf, is the
notion of "historical reality", or more specifically; "the illusion of
historical truth". Both The Lord
of the Rings and Beowulf,
use this device effectively to create what is often termed "depth", and
it is essential to the success of Secondary Belief in an internally
consistent Secondary World. Such a term is complex and should not be
confused. The "illusion of historical truth" does not imply that a
Secondary World must cohere with the actual history of the Primary
World - though there is an important element to this in both Beowulf and Lord of the Rings as we shall see
in the course of the discussion. Rather, this term refers to the
"sub-creator's" method of inventing a pseudo-history which appears to
be 'true' and which provides the backdrop for the main action of the
story. It is thus the intention of this discussion to explore the broad
use of this literary device in these two works and to examine its
overall effect on the use of Secondary Worlds.
Even a cursory read of Beowulf will render to the reader
a peculiar awareness of temporal distance which colours the narrative
as a whole. Such a sense is created in the opening of the poem, the
only time that the Beowulf poet
refers to himself in the entire work:
We know of the bygone glory of the Danish kings, and the heroic
exploits of those Princes.
The most significant word in the line is 'bygone' which immediately
sets the time of the narrative in a period somewhere in the remote
past. This literary device, as Tolkien pointed out in his renowned
essay Beowulf: The Monsters and the
Critics, is essential in providing the frame for the Secondary
World of the poem. Here Tolkien asserts
author has used an instinctive historical sense - a part indeed of the
ancient English temper...of which Beowulf is a supreme expression; but
he has used it with a poetical and not an historical object.
In regards to this observation, a qualification must be made in light
of Sullivan's argument, that Beowulf
cannot be viewed in such terms since the poet himself would not
have been able to distinguish between actual and pseudo history. In
this case the crucial word in the quote above is 'instinctive', and the result
produced has the same overall effect on the modern reader if the poet
was conscious. This effect is
to produce the sense of a deep temporal gap between the reader and the
time of the story, which serves to create a powerful sense of
antiquity. This device is an essential aid to the creation of a
As Tom Shippey points out, one of Beowulf's most profound influences
on Tolkien is this "impression of depth...effect of
antiquity...illusion of historical truth and perspective." The
impression of antiquity is important but surprisingly subtle within the
course of The Lord of the Rings.
We get glimpses of it occasionally in statements such as this one:
days, the Third Age of Middle-earth, are now long past, and the shape
of all lands has been changed...
Like Beowulf, Tolkien creates
an effect where a large and unknowable gap of time exists between the
time of the story and the reader. This sense is effectively enhanced by
Tolkien's meticulous feigning of an entire 'history' which may
supposedly be traced to the present day. A pertinent example of
this may be found in the Prologue to
the Fellowship of the Ring:
plain indeed that in spite of later estrangement, Hobbits are relatives
of ours; far nearer to us than Elves, or even than Dwarves. Of old they
spoke the languages of Men after their fashion...But what exactly our
relationship is can no longer be discovered.
Behind this 'feigned' piece of history is an underlying assumption that
is often missed. That is, that Middle-earth is this world as opposed to an other world (like most Fantasy
worlds). The significance of this is demonstrated by Tolkien's frequent
insistence of this fact in light of contrary assertions by his readers.
In a footnote to a letter addressed to a fan, Tolkien even designated a
specific time period:
imagine the gap (between the events of Lord of the Rings and the
present day) to be about six thousand years: that is we are now at the
end of the Fifth Age, if the Ages were of about the same length as S.A.
and T.A. But they have, I think, quickened; and I imagine we are
actually at the end of the Sixth Age, or in the Seventh.
The notion that Middle-earth is this
world, but set in a mythic and largely unknowable past is
absolutely critical to this sense of genuine antiquity that The Lord of the Rings exhibits and
to the successful inducement of 'Secondary Belief'. In this respect
Tolkien borrows heavily from the sense of time that we have seen being
created in Beowulf. Both
works, thus, create a literary effect where a large and unknowable gap
of time exists between the time of the story and the reader. The fact
that this time gap is inaccessible increases the realism of the Secondary World
since it resembles actual history, and it consequently aids the
inducement of Secondary Belief.
The art of creating 'depth' through the "illusion of
historical reality (another essential element to the inducement of
Secondary Belief), relies heavily upon an extensive body of connected
stories which lie behind the main plot. Of Beowulf Tolkien stated that
impression of depth is an effect and a justification of the use of
episodes and allusions to old tales, mostly darker, more pagan, and
desperate than the foreground.
Beowulf is indeed full of
allusions to other tales, some rather short and subtle while other are
lengthy digressions. Of the former, an example may be seen when Beowulf
is about to confront Grendel:
am killed in combat, send to Hygelac the coat of mail which I am
wearing. For it is the best corselet in the world, the work of Weland
Smith, and an heirloom that once belonged to my grandfather Hrethel.
The reference alludes to the tale of Weland Smith (equivalent to the
Norse Volund), who was a reputed wizard and shape-shifter. The effect
of allusions such as these is to remind the audience of a larger and
wider 'mythic history' which lies behind the main action of the story.
Such allusions serve further purposes. One of the most notable is the
account of Sigemund and Fafnir, recounted by one of the king's
chieftains, that takes place after Beowulf kills Grendel. This tale
serves to put the main action of the plot in a wider 'mythical'
perspective since we are inclined to view Beowulf's achievement (his
victory over Grendel) in light of the famous Dragon-slaying myth of
Sigemund. We are consequently able, while we keep this parallel in
mind, to regard the story within the context of a much wider 'history'.
This serves at once to create depth but also to impress upon the reader
the importance of the main story and the effect certain events within
the plot may have on the wider world.
Lord of the Rings is set within the context of a pre-existing
and extremely detailed and elaborate mythic history. In the same
manner as Beowulf, the sense
of depth which is impressed upon the reader is largely created through
frequent references to a set of interconnected tales in the distant
past, an aspect that The Lord of
the Rings is particularly noted for. Tolkien himself expressed
this aptly in a letter to a reader:
of the attraction of the L.R. is, I think, due to the glimpses of a
large history in the background: an attraction like that of viewing far
off an unvisited island, or seeing the towers of a distant city
gleaming in a sunlit mist.
The one instance where this sense is achieved
without using allusions are seen in the Lothlorien chapters. Lothlorien
is a striking example of the juxtaposition of the 'mythic past' within
the present action of the narrative to give the reader the impression
of a living history lying behind the story. Tolkien's description of
Lothlorien is characterized by marking it as manifestly different from
the rest of Middle Earth. Everything, for example, seems larger than
life; from the mallorn trees, which "stood up in the twilight like
living towers" to the massive hall within Cerin Amroth - to the
king and queen, Celeborn and Galadriel:
tall they were, and the Lady no less tall than the Lord; and they were
grave and beautiful. They were clad wholly in white; and the hair of
the Lady was of deep gold, and the hair of the Lord Celeborn was of
silver long and bright; but no sign of age was upon them, unless it
were in the depths of their eyes; for these were keen as lances in the
starlight, and yet profound, the wells of deep memory.
The purpose of this differentiation is to emphasize the role of
Lothlorien as a symbol of the Elder Days, a memory of the bliss and
wonder of the past that shall inevitably disappear forever in a rapidly
changing world. In fact Lothlorien is a piece of 'living history'
anachronistically juxtaposed within Middle-earth. The effect this has
on the Secondary Belief of readers is twofold. Firstly, like Beowulf, we are aware of a complex
'history' that lies behind the main action of the story which gives the
reader the impression of 'depth'. Secondly, we are made aware that this
'history' is in fact living; it has noticeable consequences on the
events in the present and this adds the most essential element -
'realism'. In both works, these techniques serve to heighten the
'illusion of historical truth' that is essential to inducing Secondary
Having noted a number of similarities between The Lord of the Rings and Beowulf, it is important to be
aware of some significant differences that are inherent through their
different modes of composition. The most important difference in
relation to the use of the Secondary World in both works arises from
the fact that Beowulf's
pseudo history derives its power from actual
history whereas the 'illusory history' that lies behind Lord of the Rings is entirely the
product of invention, and
derives its power from imitating actual
history. This important difference is seen most particularly in the
case of geography. In Beowulf the
place names correspond directly with the Dark Age Scandinavia that it
was set in. Denmark, Geatland and Sweden are real places which may be
visited today. While the story does not revolve around geography a
great deal, these names naturally add realism to the Secondary World
that is created in Beowulf.
Middle-earth in Lord
of the Rings on the other hand does not have this advantage, and
Tolkien was thus obliged to create place names which resembled names of
actual history. Tolkien's
philological background placed him in the ideal position to do this.
Tom Shippey stated that
he wrote Appendix F to The Lord of the Rings...(he) declared that he
had used names like Bree, Combe, Archet and Chetwood because they
contained non English elements and he needed words to sound 'queer' to
imitate a 'style that we should perhaps vaguely feel to be "Celtic".
This was Tolkien's major linguistic heresy. He thought that people
could feel history in words, could recognise language 'styles', could
extract sense (of sorts) from sound alone...
Key to Shippey's observation is the assertion that Tolkien believed one
could "feel history in words". This conviction lies behind the complex
geographical naming that is lies at the foundation of Tolkien's
creation. As Shippey points out, Tolkien was able to manipulate
language so that names could reflect a particular atmosphere he wished
to create. 'Michel Delving, Buckland and Crickhollow are familiar
sounding names since they closely resembled names of English towns,
while names such as 'Gondor' and 'Minas Tirith' sound entirely foreign
but nevertheless give the impression (quite fittingly) of grandeur and
power. Geographical naming forms one part of a wider linguistic
philosophy that provides an essential basis for the Secondary World of Lord of the Rings and it is a major
component in achieving 'the illusion of historical reality'. Thus both
the Secondary Worlds of Beowulf and
Lord of the Rings achieve a
sense of realism but by different methods. Beowulf uses aspects of actual
history while Lord of the Rings
relies on invention which resembles actual history to produce this
In the previous discussion, we have explored a term
often unacknowledged in modern definitions of the Secondary World. This
has been the concept of "the illusion of historical truth" which serves
to create "depth" and consequently to assist in inducing Secondary
Belief (the primary purpose of the Secondary World). In particular, we
have viewed this notion in relation to the comparison of two texts
which have employed this literary technique to the utmost effect: Beowulf and Lord of the Rings. In the first
instance we have seen that both works use this device to create a
distinct sense of temporal distance between the audience and time of
the narrative. In Beowulf's
case this is instinctive, while in Tolkien's case this is created by
setting the story of Lord of the
Rings in this world, but in an imaginary past. By doing this he
was able to feign an entire history which may theoretically be traced
to the present day. In both cases, this temporal distance adds to the
realism of the Secondary World and enhances Secondary Belief.
The second crucial aspect we have seen is the use of
an elaborate 'mythic history' that lies behind the main action of the
story. Through frequent allusions to a body of interconnected tales of
the past, Beowulf and Lord of the Rings create a profound
sense of depth that provides one of the foundations for inducing
Secondary Belief. In Beowulf we
have seen allusions used to parallel the main action of the plot and to
provide 'perspective'. In the case of the Lord of the Rings, the
juxtaposition of Lothlorien as a symbol of the past within the time of
the narrative serves to increase the readers awareness of this mythic
history but also to emphasize the effect of this history on the
present. The resemblance this has to actual history is crucial to
producing "the illusion of historical truth" that Tolkien's Secondary
World relies on.
Finally we have noted one crucial difference between
Beowulf and Lord of the Rings in respect to the
manner in which the "illusion of historical truth" is created. Through
examining the use of geographical names we have seen that Beowulf uses elements of actual
history which naturally increases the realism of its Secondary World
while in The Lord of the Rings,
Tolkien imitates actual history in order to produce the same effect.
These aspects that have been discussed are
fundamental to the creation of this "illusion of historical truth"
which both works rely upon for the creation of an internally consistent
Secondary World. The implications of this necessitate a
re-consideration of the relationship between Fantasy and reality, a
crucial question which needs to be explored further by scholars in this
 In fact the question reaches much further back than this; it
is a variant of the question which Plato first raised concerning the
relationship between poetry and truth.
 J.R.R. Tolkien, "On Fairy-Stories" in Tree and Leaf, (London, 1964, 2001)
 J. Clute, "Secondary Worlds" in The
Encyclopedia of Fantasy Ed. John Clute and John Grant, (London,
 This is a term that Tolkien himself used. See J.R.R. Tolkien,
"Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics", in Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics and
Other Essays, Ed. Christopher Tolkien, (London, 1997), p.27
 Tolkien, "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics", p.27
 As Tolkien points out, this effect would have been the same for the
original audience of the poem as it does on modern readers.
 Tolkien, "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics", p.7
 See Peter Hunt, "Introduction: Fantasy and Alternative Worlds" in Alternative Worlds in Fantasy Fiction,
Ed. Peter Hunt and Millicent Lenz, (London, 2001), p.15
 Such a temporal effect is made more potent, as Tolkien pointed out,
by the fact that Beowulf to
the modern reader is ancient when the poet himself was writing about
events in the dim past.
 J.R.R. Tolkien, The
Fellowship of the Ring, (London, 1954), 1993, p.19
 Humphrey Carpenter notes that "As the years went by he came
more and more to regard his invented languages and stories as 'real'
languages and historical chronicles that needed to be elucidated. In
other words, when in this mood he did not say of an apparent
contradiction in the narrative or an unsatisfactory name: 'This is not
as I wish it to be; I must change it.' Instead he would approach the
problem with the attitude; 'What does this mean? I must find out.' See Humphrey Carpenter, J.R.R. Tolkien - A Biography,
(London, 1977), p.102
 Tolkien, The Fellowship of the
 J.R.R. Tolkien, The Letters of
J.R.R. Tolkien, Ed. Humphrey Carpenter, (London, 1995), p.283
 In the sense that it is set so long ago that the events in the
story cannot be disproved by empirical investigation. In Beowulf's case
this is a time period which is vague and undefined (and thus impossible
to pinpoint), while in the case of Middle-earth, six thousand years is
so long ago that virtually no evidence from the period exists.
 Tolkien, "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics", p.27
 Tolkien, "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics", p.37
 Beowulf, (translated by
David Wright), (Suffolk, 1957), p.47
 That is, the main mythology Tolkien conceived - The Silmarillion, which lies behind
The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, and predates both
works. This is one of the distinguishing features of Lord of the Rings compared to other
 See T.A. Shippey, The Road to
Middle-Earth, (New York, 2003) p.321
 Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R.
Tolkien, p. 333
 Tolkien, The Fellowship of the
 Tolkien, The Fellowship of the
 It is possible that the gold hair of the Lady and the silver hair
of the Lord are a subtle reference to the Two Trees, Laurelin and
Telperion, that grew in Valinor and shed light on the world before the
making of the Sun and Moon. Laurelin shed a golden light while
Telperion shone silver. If this reference is true as seems likely,
Galadriel and Celeborn act specifically as powerful symbols of the
bliss of the Elder Days, before the coming of Morgoth.
 Tolkien, The Fellowship of the
 See for example Galadriel's words to Frodo; "Yet if you succeed,
then our power is diminished, and Lothlorien will fade, and the tides
of Time will sweep it away. Tolkien, The
Fellowship of the Ring, p.474
 Though this term is problematic. See Shippey, The Road to Middle-Earth, p.25
 Shippey, The Road to
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