11 June 2017

Sir Orfeo, Faërian Drama, and the Quenta Noldorinwa

Copyright Ted Nasmith

In a forthcoming article I argue that in The Hobbit we can see Tolkien using the fairies of medieval Romance, specifically in Sir Orfeo, to recreate Elves that can be taken seriously, like those in The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion, and unlike the gossamer-winged sprites of Victorian England. (I posted an earlier, much shorter incarnation of this paper here last September).  One of the fascinating points to be noted in studying these texts from this perspective is that in Sir Orfeo it is Orfeo, a mortal Man, who can summon up visions by means of song, while in The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings this power belongs exclusively to the Elves. In my article I suggest that in the transference of this ability from Men to Elves we might be seeing the birth of what Tolkien termed 'Faërian Drama', which is 'a dream that some other mind is weaving' (OFS, 63, ¶ 74).

One of the passages I cited to illustrate this Elvish art describes the first meeting of Elves and Men, as initiated by Finrod:
Long Felagund watched them, and love for them stirred in his heart; but he remained hidden in the trees until they had all fallen asleep. Then he went among the sleeping people, and sat beside their dying fire where none kept watch; and he took up a rude harp which Bëor had laid aside, and he played music upon it such as the ears of Men had not heard; for they had as yet no teachers in the art, save only the Dark Elves in the wild lands. 
Now men awoke and listened to Felagund as he harped and sang, and each thought that he was in some fair dream, until he saw that his fellows were awake also beside him; but they did not speak or stir while Felagund still played, because of the beauty of the music and the wonder of the song. Wisdom was in the words of the Elven-king, and the hearts grew wiser that hearkened to him; for the things of which he sang, of the making of Arda, and the bliss of Aman beyond the shadows of the Sea, came as clear visions before their eyes, and his Elvish speech was interpreted in each mind according to its measure. 
(S 140-41)

Yet today I discovered in the Quenta Noldorinwa, one of the predecessors of The Silmarillion, a very interesting difference in its version of the first encounter of Elves and Men:

That night Felagund went among the sleeping men of Beor's host and sat by their dying fires where none kept watch, and he took a harp which Beor had laid aside, and he played music on it such as mortal ear had never heard, having learned the strains of music from the Dark-elves alone. Then men woke and listened and marvelled, for great wisdom was in that song, as well as beauty, and the heart grew wiser that listened to it. 
(Shaping 104-05)
In the passage from the Quenta Noldorinwa, which Christopher Tolkien dates securely to no later than 1930, the visionary experience of the Men is completely absent, however much they may have profited by Finrod's singing otherwise. The version of the tale we find in The Silmarillion dates to the 1950s, after Tolkien had finished writing The Lord of the Rings (Jewels, 173, 216-17). It is also worth noting here that one of the characteristics of Faërian Drama as portrayed in The Silmarillion passage quoted above is that the listener does not need to know the language of the Elves to comprehend their song. The hobbits in The Lord of the Rings have precisely this experience when they hear Gildor and his Elves singing in the woods of the Shire (FR 1.iii.79), an episode which dates to the earliest draft of what became the chapter Three's Company (Return 58-59).

It's as if between the two versions of this scene we can see dramatized the very transference of which I spoke above, in which Tolkien shifts the power of visionary enchantment from Orfeo to the Elves,




  1. The narrator's point of view in Sir Orfeo is with a human, and the human has the power of enchantment. In the The Silmarillion, both the narrator and the power are with the Elf.

    That's curiously backwards from the usual fairy-story, where the narrator stands with the enchantee.

  2. That's a great observation, Joe. According to what Tolkien says in OFS, that fairy tales are about the adventures of humans in Faërie, not about fairies, The Silmarillion would not be a fairy tale.

  3. Take a look at The Lay of Leithian, lines 2650-2660ish -- just after the death of Finrod. It has always seemed to me that this is a description of Faërian drama through song, as there is no 'seeming' about what Beren feels, hears or sees. Lúthien's song creates a reality which he enters into, and which inspires his response.

    1. Yes, I think that's a splendid example, and it's good to be reminded of it since in The Silmarillion of course we can see that Finrod and Sauron's duel is an example, but we don't get the details given here. Thank you, Kate.