In J.R.R. Tolkien’s seminal essay, “On Fairy Stories,” Tolkien works to define and codify the fairy-story. The fairy-story is defined by its allusions to “Faërie: the Perilous Realm itself,” a task which must be approached with all seriousness (OFS 114). They may pertain to fairies, but the import lies more in the revelation of the lands and their wonders themselves.
Tolkien rejects the notion of the use of dreams as a mechanism “to explain the apparent occurrence of [the fairy-story’s] marvels,” as such disavowals steal the reader of the satisfaction of the truth found in the imagined world (OSF 116). “Flies and Spiders” raises this question, and defiantly answers it, confirming the existing of Faërie.
The original lecture was given in 1939, almost two years following the publicaton of The Hobbit. It may seem odd then to look back on The Hobbit, through its frame of reference. However, this chapter in particular appears to play quite vigorously with the core theme of truth Tolkien finds at the heart of an authentic fairy-story. It may be such experimentation is nothing more; but it may also show signs of Tolkien testing and building his grand theory.
Crossing the enchanted stream, Bombur inadvertently falls in and when pulled ashore has fallen into a sleep from which none of the company can wake him. He sleeps a fey sleep for days, if not weeks, “with a smile on his fat face” (Hobbit 170). He finally wakes, having lost all memory of their quest, but left with the memories of his vivid dreams. He dreams of fairies, or to be accurate elves, feasting in the wood. It is a powerful dream, like to real life, which persistently tempts return. Waking up to little or no food and the prospect of long travel on short commons ahead, Bombur bemoans his fate, exclaiming “Why ever did I wake up!” (Hobbit 174).
In what can only seem a jibe at the dream motif, in place of waking to discover the illusion of the dream, the company actually literally stumbles into it in waking life!
Desperate for food and the comfort of light, the company pursues the firelight in the distance. They see the elves “eating and drinking and laughing merrily” as if Bombur’s “dreams [are] coming true” (Hobbit 176). Filled with desire, the dwarves and Bilbo rush forward, and all falls into darkness. Despair sets in, and the reader may begin to wonder if this is an illusion like the dream, when the lights reappear in the distance.
This time, Bilbo only moves into the light. Immediately darkness falls and the hobbit is lost. He is found by luck “curled up fast asleep…having a lovely dream…[of] a most gorgeous dinner” (Hobbit 178). Again, this would seem to refute the reality of the feasting, when more light blazes more brightly than ever before nearby.
This time the dream appears fulfilled in full, “very much as Bombur had described,” and Thorin steps into the light. For a third time the company is plunged in darkness (Hobbit 179). Other than the smoke and ash of the extinguished fires, the feast seems little more than illusion.
The repetition of dream and apparent waking dream substantiate each other. They are reflections of both illusion/enchantment and reality. The dream recalls the unsubstantiated fairy-tale where all returns to reality upon waking. The three encounters with the elves reflect the true encounters with Faërie, the perilous realm. It is dangerous and unpredictable. Rather than feast and song, the company is confronted with the reality of distrust and wariness.
Even so, the reality of the elves may still seem a questionable subject. Their almost immediate disappearance, the ensuing darkness and enchanted sleep call into question the elves’ existance to begin with; they could be nothing more than illusion.
However, the truth is unequivocally found when the elves return and capture Thorin. The elven king interrogates him, asking “Why did you and your folk three times try to attack my people at merrymaking?” (Hobbit 198). This single question cements the prior stumbles into Faërie in reality. It does happen; it is not mere illusion or dream. The Perilous realm does exist, and it is truly perilous.
Again, in this instance, one can only feel Tolkien is playing with his own growing theory of the nature of the fairy-story. The fairy story must deal in marvels as truth, and “since [it] deals with ‘marvels’, it cannot tolerate any frame or machinery suggesting that the whole story in which they occur is a figment or illusion (OFS 117). Through the use of Bombur & Bilbo’s enchanted sleep, as well as the three encounters which follow, Tolkien has it both ways. He leads the reader back and forth, through dream and illusion, into physical light and darkness, but finally ends by establishing truth.
In these scenes, Tolkien restates the dream frame-work not only as an explanation of marvels, but as the precursor to those marvels. He plays with the motif, demonstrating (as he did with the Ents) its true potential. It is the foil by which the marvels are to be seen and interpreted: not as the realm of fairies and good fortune and feasting, but the land of fey.
It is a gentle reproach for the typical children’s fairy-story. In place of the dream full of wonderful adventure, the dwarves are confronted by the grim truth. Tolkien demonstrates the frivolous and carefree nature of the dream motif: even if said dreams are dire, no harm comes to the dreamer, only waking. True encounters with the perilous realm are very different. One may enter, and maybe return, but he or she may not leave unchanged.