“Faërie is a perilous land, and in it are pitfalls for the unwary and dungeons for the overbold”.

J. R. R. Tolkien (On Fairy-Stories)

When it comes to Faërie, mortals must exercise great care in dealing with it. While the land of eternal life and plenty presents a desirable destination for many, it is not fit for earthly beings, save for a temporary abode or occasional visits, most likely for a special reason and with a seal of approval from Faërie inhabitants themselves.Entering Faërie is not the same as entering another country. Even being foreign to, say, England, one can learn some basic cultural and traditional principles, rules of behaviour or cultural aspects not to be completely at a loss when visiting the country. While traditions may differ, the key similarity remains: it is still the plane we know very well  the world of mortal human beings. Faërie is different. The realm of immortality and strange peoples, dangerous creatures and different rules, it might be unsafe for humans. Other traditions, culture principles and values operate in Faërie  totally alien, unknown to mortals, or even opposing what is considered normal in our world.

J. R. R. Tolkien vastly explored the topic of mortals’ entering various realms and representations of Faërie in his work. Fascinated by the Otherworld, the Professor attempted to show the interrelationship between our world and the place where Elves dwell. Though varied in form, location and inhabitants, these realms have one thing in common: when mortals become overbold and unwary on entering Faërie, there are certain dangers in such behaviour.

One of the saddest and most desperate manifestos of a mortal failing miserably in Faërie is The Sea-Bell. What starts as a promising and interesting journey turns into a disaster.  On finding a token  a white shell  and hearing the call, the narrator of the poem jumps into a boat and sails to the land of Faërie. He beholds a marvellous country, which at first seems too good to be true.

Monet – Meadow with Poplars (c) Wikimedia Commons

On a closer examination, the poem is full of contrasts. Glittering sand and pearl dust are breathtaking, but there are also dark, gloomy caves and cold air. Delicate flowers, like stars, scattered all over meadows appear next to “gladdon-swords” that ”guarded the fords, and green spears, and arrow-reeds” (Tales from the Perilous Realm, p. 234). Clearly the land is not only about beauty and eternal life. There are also warnings that are placed here and there as reminders of darker and more sinister sides to Faërie that we must heed and not overlook.

The narrator constantly hears the sounds of music, dancing and singing. They seem to come from everywhere and yet from far away, and as he comes nearer, the Faërie dwellers flee from him. Verlyn Flieger notes how much the focus in this section of the poem is on the absence of the Faërie inhabitants (1). They are present, but they are deliberately unseen, elusive, evasive, which marks the key aspect of the scene: they do not wish to see the unwanted guest.

It is no wonder that the speaker wishes even more desperately to approach those of the fair country:

With flowers crowned I stood on a mound,

and shrill as a call at cock-crow proudly I cried:

‘Why do you hide? Why do none speak, wherever I go?

Here now I stand, king of this land,

with gladdon-sword and reed-mace.

Answer my call! Come forth all!

Speak to me words! Show me a face!’

(Tales from the Perilous Realm, p. 234-235)

This seems to be the kind of behaviour which Tolkien classified as overbold in On Fairy-Stories. While the speaker’s desire to see the dwellers of the land is clear, his appeal to them sounds haughty and reminiscent of the purely human desire: to dominate and become masters of everything they can possibly lay their hands on. It is the wrong way to behave in the land one does not belong to. For the inhabitants of Faërie the narrator is an intruder in the first place, even before he utters a word. Now, having spoken in such a manner, he seals his fate: Faërie turns its dark and unfriendly face to him. After staying there for a year and one day in a strange, gloomy place, the narrator returns to his own homeland old and broken, with no friends or relations left and with the worst experience of Faërie imaginable.

In the preface to The Tales from the Perilous Realm Tom Shippey writes:

The Sea-Bell reminds us why the Perilous Realm is perilous. Those who have travelled to it, like the speaker of the poem, know they will not be allowed to stay there, but when they come back, they are overwhelmed by a sense of loss. As Sam Gamgee says of Galadriel, the inhabitants of Faërie may mean no harm, but they are still dangerous for ordinary mortals. Those who encounter them may never be the same again.

(Tales from the Perilous Realm, p. xxii)

Other realms of Faërie are more reachable and more easily entered, but no less perilous. The fate similar to the narrator’s of The Sea-Bell befalls Bilbo and the Dwarves in The Hobbit as they go through Mirkwood and encounter the Wood-elves. First it is only their distant voices that are heard, and they seem eerie and strange to the weary travellers. However, in this case the Elves do not avoid the company intentionally as the ones in The Sea-Bell seem to do: they are just unseen. Still, the same sense of the Wood-elves’ simultaneous presence and absence is sensed strongly throughout most of the Mirkwood journey.

The disaster happens when Bilbo and the Dwarves find the Wood-elves feasting. Hungry and desperate, they are drawn by the lights and smells of the Elvish feast so they boldly step into their circle. It causes the feasters’ instant disappearance several times running on each Dwarvish intrusion into their merrymaking. What poor travellers do out of sheer hunger and instinct of self-preservation is viewed by the Elves as aggression and rude interference, thus leading to the Dwarves’ being later captured by them.

Pierre Auguste Renoir – In the Woods (c) Wikimedia Commons

Such behaviour is not acceptable in Faërie. The Dwarves interrupt their normal course of life rudely, without knowing it. Though done not out of malice, it is still not tolerated by the Elves: when in Faërie one should not meddle in the affairs of its locals  if a special invitation or permission is not granted to the outsiders. As we have seen in the two aforementioned cases, such intrusion, even unwittingly, gives rise to serious problems.

Aragorn expresses a very similar idea, though in other terms, in his confrontation with Boromir, who is reluctant to journey through Lothlórien:

‘…. And now we must enter the Golden Wood, you say. But of that perilous land we have heard in Gondor, and it is said that few come out who once go in; and of that few none have escaped unscathed.’

‘Say not unscathed, but if you say unchanged, then maybe you will speak the truth,’ said Aragorn. […]

‘Then lead on!’ said Boromir. ‘But it is perilous.’

‘Perilous indeed,’ said Aragorn, ‘fair and perilous; but only evil need fear it, or those who bring some evil with them. Follow me!’

(Fellowhsip of the Ring, p. 443; emphasis mine)

Boromir is suspicious of Galadriel and her realm, he fears anything unusual, different from the ways of mortals and, thus, considered magical. However, there seems to be a deeper reason for this than mere practicality.

As Aragorn says, “only evil need fear it, or those who bring some evil with them”. After the company’s meeting with Galadriel and Celeborn, he repeats the idea in response to Boromir’s doubts concerning the Lady: only those who have evil in them should beware of the Golden Wood and its rulers. With Boromir’s nursing a secret desire to possess the One Ring to aid Gondor in its need and be the one to deliver his home land, he is the one to carry evil inside, and, thus, has something to fear, though he might not be fully aware of it.

These are the kinds of attitude that can bring evil upon those who misbehave in Faërie. One must not toy with it. In On Fairy-Stories Tolkien stated that one should be very careful when it comes to the Otherworld. Its credibility and magic must be taken seriously: one cannot make fun of them. Once the rules of Faërie are accepted and followed properly, mortals can have a very delightful experience in it. One of such positive examples is Smith from The Smith of Wootton Major, who I am going to speak about in details in my next essay.

Further reading:

On the significance of the dark forests in Tolkien

On the significance of the white deer in The Hobbit

On the role of the Enchanted Stream in The Hobbit



(1) Verlyn Flieger – A Question of Time

Works consulted:

  1. J. R. R. Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2001.
  2. J. R. R. Tolkien – Tales From the Perilous Realm; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2008.

Featured image – Creative Commons found at Pixabay

15 thoughts on “On the perils of Faërie.

    1. I think coming close to humans is always highly unsafe 😀
      On a serious note, fairies seem to me to be more adaptable to our world than we to theirs. Alf in The Smith of Wootton Major is quite alright living among humans for a long time.
      Still there are certain dangers for fairies, too, I’m sure.

  1. I particularly liked your thoughts on human arrogance here. The king who demands that the Fairies appear and his sad fate. Fairy tales put great emphasis on the need for humility in approaching that which is strange. And yet, as in the case of the coming of the Fellowship to Lothlórien, it is also necessary to do so without fear. Aragorn is both humble and fearless. Boromir, sadly, is neither in his behaviour in Faerie. I have often wondered if his sojourn there brings his desire for the Ring into his conscious mind. Faerie is perilous indeed!

    1. This humility and total absence of arrogance are so well seen in The Smith of Wootton Major, as if Tolkien put a special emphasis on the importance of these qualities when it comes to Faërie. Being humble shows the strength of character, the ability to cope with challenges.
      I agree with you about Boromir. It seems that being in Lothlórien intensified his desire for the Ring, hence its danger for him. Aragorn felt comfortable and safe as he had no dark thoughts or desires. He was pure in many respects, crucial to Faërie, and could thus feel at ease there.

  2. That is an interesting reading of that poem, The Sea-Bell. When I read it, it had the subtitle “Frodo’s Dreme” and I saw it as transcription of Frodo’s nightmares, which were a metaphor for his guilt for wanting the Ring (the haughty King who wants to Rule) and his trauma.
    Thanks for making me look at the poem in a new light!

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