The Faë and Faëry in Keats' Ode to a Nightingale, and in Tolkien's concept

by Turgon-(V)
November 21, 2008

Articles > Papers > Turgon's articles > Faëry in Keats and Tolkien

It is well known that among the poets who greatly influenced Tolkien Keats was one, and upon starting to closely analyse poems of his (especially the Ode to a Nightingale and Ode on a Grecian Urn), I became aware of a strong connexion between his and Tolkien’s picture of the Faë, the supernatural, of the Primary and Secondary Worlds, of Magic and Art, and of Spirituality. Search for higher but elusive truths, and a striving to express these also feature largely in their works. And, of course, the elven Nightingale Lúthien Tinúviel is one of Tolkien’s most famous and loved characters.

                    Now I shall expound and illustrate the similarities. Since it is difficult to avoid digression in flowing text form, I shall order my thoughts into points: 

          1.   “My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains /  My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk, /  Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains .” This sense of overflowing and overpowering joy expressed by Tolkien: “…their joy was like swords, and they passed in thought out to regions where pain and delight flow together and tears are the very wine of blessedness.”(RoTK, p. 280) “It denies […] universal defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief” (On Fairy-stories, p. 60).

          2. Lethe: the river of oblivion in Hades. The sinking of the Lethe-wards signifies that some sort of magic is at work, which allows mortals to enter the Secondary World by forgetfulness (or, the “willing suspension of disbelief”), or, citing Tolkien: “Faërie contains many things besides elves and fays […]: it holds […] tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, mortal men, when we are enchanted.” (On Fairy-stories, pp. 15-16). Ward is an old word (nowadays revived by devout Dungeons & Dragons players) for magical traps, or locks. The word itself is cognate with ‘guard’. “One minute past” implies to some manner of trance; and trance also transfers the mind into another Reality.

          3. “In some melodious plot  /  Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,  /   Singest of summer in full-throated ease” One cannot stress how important music and song in Tolkien’s conception are. The Worlds were created by Music in The Silmarillion. Music is the first ‘gushing forth’ of secondary creation, and the most clear one (for evil or good, too). Again in The Silmarillion, we can see that music and singing have power in a manifold sense: power to create ( Yavanna’s creation of the Two Trees), power over living things (the contest of Finrod and Sauron), power to change or unmake things (Lúthien’s song of “release” destroying Tol-inGaurhoth), or most importantly for this discussion: to bring Spring and Summer about. “Keen, heart-piercing was her song (…) and the song of Lúthien released the bonds of winter, and the frozen waters spoke, and flowers sprang from the cold earth…” (The Silmarillion, p. 193)

          4. the “Light-winged Dryad”: dryads, as spirit of the forests, belong to Faë. They gave life to the trees, and vice versa (if either died, so did the other). The similar connexion is described between Lúthien and the forests of Doriath: when she is sorrowful, the shadows lengthen in the woods (p. 203), and grief and silence comes over the forest and their dwellers when she is lost (p. 216)

          5. The praise of wine both as being the Hippocrene, fount of the Muses (as wine in small portions actually inspire thinking), and a means to escape from the Primary Reality.

          6. “And with thee fade away into the forest dim / Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget…” here Keats expresses his wish to become one with the Faëry-bird, and enter Faërie. He wants to escape this Primary World, where everything is transient, caducous, ailing and imperfect, where beauty and love is mortal. This, especially the lines concerning beauty and love, might recall the pictures painted upon Keats’s Grecian Urn; the eternal, yet never-fulfilling love for the everlasting beauty. Tolkien’s Elves are exactly the same, only the other way round: their ever-growing, yet never fulfilled love for the mortal World. Ever-growing, since every day brings something yet unseen; never fulfilled, because with every day something passes away. “For the Elves the world moves, and it moves both very swift and very slow. Swift, because they themselves change little, and all else fleets by: it is a grief to them. Slow, because they do not count the running years, not for themselves. The passing seasons are but ripples ever repeated in the long long stream. Yet beneath the sun all things must wear to an end at last.” (FoR, p. 505)  

          7. “ Away! away! for I will fly to thee, /  Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,  / But on the viewless wings of Poesy,” Here the poet shall fly, but not on wine, but by poetry – the very Art through which one may enter Faërie. “The incarnate mind, the tongue, and tale are in our world coeval. The human mind, endowed with the powers of generalization and abstraction, sees not only green-grass, discriminating it from other things (and finding it fair to look upon), but sees that it is green as well as being grass. But how powerful, how stimulating to the very faculty that produced it, was the invention of adjective: no spell or incantation in Faërie is more potent.” (O F-s, p. 25) Poetry (and Music as well) is able to express things beyond the mere meaning of words: the sum is greater than the parts. Everything that poetry, Art works with is here, in our Primary World: but in the process of sub-creation, they transform into something more, a symbol (but not in the symbolistic meaning, where the symbol often stands for itself: here the symbol is a simplified [but not downgraded] picture of a higher truth, which makes it easier for us to absorb it), or a “glimpse of truth”(Leaf by Niggle, p. 62). The Secondary World, Faërie has an inner consistency on its own, but it is derived from Primary Reality or flowing into it. In Beowulf (a great source of Tolkien, and ofttimes analysed by him) the ylfe / álfar, the Elves are descended through Cain from Adam, for instance.

          8. The poet and his Faë-companion take off: they glide through the silent, enchanted forest, only the “Queen-Moon” and “her starry Fays”, that is, Faës, as their “escorts”. The forest is full of flowers, although the poet does not see them: the Primary sense, sight, is clouded, and Secondary senses, Fantasy and soul take its place. “For creative Fantasy is founded upon the hard recognition that things are so in the world as it appears under the sun”(O F-s, p. 50) , only more. They are more themselves. Suddenly ordinary flowers become the source of beauty and joy, and take a higher meaning.

          9. “I have been half in love with easeful Death,” the poet’s wish for death can be summed in one word: fey, which is etymologically and semantically related to Faë, Fay (that is, for example, why Morgan Le Fay’s name has a very nice ambiguity to it). Keats here sees Death either as a form of escape from the Primary Reality, or having experienced “such an ecstasy”, the magic of Faërie (which Tolkien calls Enchantment) the Primary Reality would now be drear and empty. It’d be best to die in this perfect moment, Keats says… albeit then he could not listen to the song of the Nightingale-Faë any more. For the bird would not pass away (or on?) with him, it is immortal: it is Elvish, and of Faërie, and Faërie has its own consistency, and that would allow it to exist as far as the Primary World exists. Here, once again, the poet faces the solid eternity of the Worlds, compared to the brief lives of men. (Although it is an interesting question whether the Worlds would exist without Men to inhabit them… Especially since Old Germanic wer means ’Mankind’ and ’world’ at the same time. But I digress.)

          10. For thousands of years, great and small have listened to the same melody – the melody, which is the key to the Truth, the Glimpse, and the Truth-Glimpse at the same time. “ The same that ofttimes hath  /  Charm'd magic casements, opening on the foam    /  Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn” “Each leaf, of oak and ash and thorn, is a unique embodiment of the pattern, […] first ever seen and recognized, though oaks have put forth leaves for countless generations of men” (O F-s, p. 51)  “No, it was only a glimpse then… but you might have caught the glimpse if you ever had thought it worth while to try.” (LN, p. 62) And this is precisely the point. Only those may enter from “emperor and clown”, great and small whom are willing to seek the Secondary Reality. It is the gift of a “select few” only to perceive the beauties and Truths hidden there, but it is their quest to “spread the word”, to tell it to everybody, to teach.

          11. “Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn” interesting to note that Tolkien uses the term ‘Perilous Realm’ often when talking about Faërie. Also in a great many of myths, and in Tolkien’s legendarium, too, the Elves, the Faë dwelt beyond the Seas… But now their old homes are forsaken, forlorn (cf. Kortirion among the Trees)

          12. Forlorn – the world that pulls the poet back from the Secondary World into the Primary, to his “sole self”. This “sole self” signifies that he is no longer possessed by Faërie, that now he is – compared to his “Elf-ridden” existence – something less, perchance. Already he is yearning to experience it again (“You must not go to the Havens, Legolas. There will always be some folk big or little, and even a few wise dwarves like Gimli, who need you.”(RoTK, p. 178), but he knows that there is no return: Elvendom fades (Kortirion again, and The Little House of Lost Play), just as the song of the bird-Faë fades. Tolkien often warns, in the On Fairy-stories, in the Silmarillion and in The Lord of the Rings: it is dangerous for mortals to become enmeshed in Faërie (“Men now fear and misdoubt the Elves, yet know little of them. […] Ever and anon one will in secret to Lórien, seldom to return. Not I. For I deem it perilous now for mortal man wilfully to seek out the Elder Race.” (TTT, p. 356). Becoming entangled in the Secondary Reality can lead to disappointment, misjudgement of the Primary World, or total (“morbid”) delusion. This is exactly why (for being disappointed) Keats names the Nightingale a “deceiving elf” and Tolkien uses the adjective perilous. This whole statement, in fact, can be applied to the relationship between Art and the ‘real’ world. Artists are oft considered (or not just considered) to be insane, extremely out of touch with reality. This is most true with the Romantics (Blake, for example: “It is very true what you’ve said for these thirty years: I am Mad or Else you are so; both of us cannot be in our right senses. Posterity will judge by our Works”)


                    This is a brief sketch of the similarities between Tolkien’s and Keats’s Elvendom. Doubtless, upon analysing more of the latter’s poems more and more would be revealed. By no means do I claim that Tolkien was explicitly and exclusively inspired by this: simply that for attaining parallel goals akin ideas might serve. Both poets’ main intention with poesy was to teach and please at the same time. Beauty is truth, truth Beauty, as Keats aptly summed it up. One being a Neoplatonist, the other a devout Christian, they both strove to catch those fleeting glimpses of the World beyond,  and to use their Art to impart it to their fellow humans. A respectable and beauteous goal, certainly; and all the more respectable for both of them achieving it. 


Primary World/Reality: the very physical world we dwell in.

Secondary World/Reality: the world that is beyond the Primary. It is created and sustained by our minds – Fantasy, that is. It is “indescribable, but not imperceptible” (O F-s, p. 50)

Fantasy: the process of sub-creation. Tolkien claims that our purpose in Creation is to enrich it with our gifts and talents – imagination, sense of beauty, morals, creativity, &c.

Faërie, Faëry, Elvendom: the name of the Secondary Reality

Faë: originally meant a great number of supernatural beings, but nowadays it is only used to denote Elves and Fairies. 



        Ode to a Nightingale

        Ode on a Grecian Urn


        The Silmarillion (HarperCollinsPublishers, 1999)

        Fellowship of the Ring (George Allen & Unwin, 1981)

        The Two Towers (Harper-Collins, 1966)

        The Return of the King (George Allen & Unwin, 1981)

        Tree and Leaf [consisting of ‘On Fairy-stories’ and ‘Leaf by Niggle’](Unwin Books, 1964)

        Kortirion among the Trees

        The Little House of Lost Play (Mar Vanwa Tyalieva)

        Morgoth’s Ring (in the series History of Middle-earth, Vol. 10) (HarperCollinsPublishers, 2002) 

 Paul Kocher

        Master of Middle-earth: the Achievement of J.R.R. Tolkien (Penguin Books, 1974),  

All bolds in the quotations are mine. 

Tarcsay Tibor, 

Budapest, 2008-11-21