Happy New Year to all my followers! Today, I continue my series on J.R.R. Tolkien with a tribute to Tree and Leaf, one of his lesser known works–a book that contains an implicit New Year’s message.
What’s your New Year’s resolution? Chances are, if you’ve made one at all, you’ve made a decision regarding finances, health, personal addiction, or a general commitment to becoming a better person. But we all know how difficult resolutions are to keep. Often we ask ourselves to end an entrenched habit or develop a new, more constructive one. But has anyone ever adopted a resolution to commit to do one thing only, in a one-shot deal? Maybe for you it’s “I swear that I will visit my parents at Easter” or “I swear to get through the latest season of How I Met Your Mother.” Why not make it “I swear to read an obscure work by J.R.R. Tolkien?” Specifically, make it Tree and Leaf.
There are actually two texts in this slim book. One, which refers to the “Tree,” is Tolkien’s famous essay “On Fairy Stories,” in which he lays out his theory of fantasy literature. The second is “Leaf by Niggle,” a short story about a painter who must suffer for his art at the hands of his utilitarian neighbours and gets sent on a journey through purgatory. Both essay and story comment on each other, illuminating the themes they hold in common.
I discuss “On Fairy Stories” a little bit in my Honours thesis on Guy Gavriel Kay here, but let me explain in particular the significance of the “Tree of Tales” and the idea of renewal.
The image of this Tree unites Tree and Leaf. Tolkien views every story in the world as belonging to one immense “Tree of Tales.” Storytellers do not draw from their own lives or from history so much as they “take” stories down from this tree, rather like Plato draws his ideas down from the higher, ideal realm. There is one Tree with a unified trunk that exists for all humanity and the roots of those branches stretch down into the earth and depths of human (un)consciousness.
The Tree of Tales recalls the two Trees in The Silmarillion which casts brilliant light of supreme beauty in the land of Valinor, before Morgoth’s corruption necessitates their preservation in the form of the silmarils. Just as no object can become as beautiful as the Trees ever again, no single story can encompass the entire Tree of Tales.
This metaphor describes how Tolkien conceived of mythology and fairy stories. Each leaf, or story, can be told in such a way that it calls to mind the larger Tree. By imagining this unifying image, reader and teller become aware of the universality of narrative, renewing their perceptions of the world.
Renewal not only comes as a result of seeing the universal connection that draws all the nations together into one mythic reality. It is also, in Tolkien’s words, a cleaning of our windows, a refusal to accept the “reality” of everyday ennui as inexorable. Furthermore, it is one of the chief functions of fairy stories, or fantasy literature. Every fantacist, whether a reader or storyteller, is engaged in a mission to make the world a better place by showing others how to see the world differently. Yes, I mean you too, readers: you may see that you have a responsibility to recommend your favourite books to those you love or care about, in the interest of sharing your new visions with others.
We all seek renewal in the New Year. Do we not also make resolutions precisely to change ourselves, our habits, and our perspective on our lives? Tolkien hints that one way to do this is by reading, writing, telling, or even listening to the tales of the Tree. So this New Year, before holidays end, why not pick up a work by Tolkien or a fantasy novel–or practically any other piece of literature–and get in contact with the mythic reality of your unconscious.
We can all build a better world, one story at a time.