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Essay: Tolkien’s Understanding of Art’s Impact on the Human Experience

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  • Published: 24 January 2023*
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Art and literature have always been a crucial part of the human experience. Through analyzation of J.R.R Tolkien’s Leaf by Niggle and On Fairy-Stories it is clear that Tolkein believes art, in its many forms, not only provides a medium of communication for human beings but also represents and enhances the human experience.

Tolkien’s Leaf by Niggle follows a man called Niggle and his struggles to complete his art. Niggle is a painter. “Not a very successful one partly because he had many other things to do” that severely reduce the amount of time he is able to spend painting (Leaf by Niggle 100). Additionally, he exists in a country in which the strict rules deny him the ability to properly express himself as an artist. His art is viewed as useless and a waste of time he should be spending maintaining his garden or helping his neighbor. “Through Niggle, Tolkein revealed his own creative process,” and thus, provided insight into his perception of art’s impact on the human experience (A Niggling Art). Like many other authors, artists, and poets, when given the freedom to explore the role of art in the human experience, Tolkien understood that humans communicate in a large range of conscious and subconscious ways. Human beings primarily use spoken language, but also gestures, facial expressions, and even emotions conveyed through energy. Yet body language or spoken communication can only go so far in the effort to truly connect with other human beings. Words cannot completely express the full spectrum of emotions that human beings undergo. Thus, the human experience with communication has proven that as human beings we often run into the problem of not being able to express ourselves through words alone.

The struggle of human communication is undoubtedly reflected and integrated into Niggle’s character. Niggle struggles to not only communicate with the people around him, like his neighbor, but also in his own artwork, seeming paradoxically “unsatisfactory, and yet very lovely” (Leaf by Niggle 103). Niggle critically and meticulously tries to communicate a feeling or idea about the tree and his leaves. Arguably, this is the moment in which art comes in, regardless of what form it comes in- paintings, music, dance or even storytelling and in the case of Tolkien – fairy tales. Art enhances the human experience by allowing human beings to express their emotions without the traditional confines of verbal communication. Furthermore, when authors create literature, they themselves often find themselves struggling to find the right combination of words to depict an image, for Tolkien this is due largely to his “perfectionism and the increasing vision of the mythology he was creatively to inhabit” (A Niggling Art). Interestingly, literature is an art form which combines language with human beings own creative imagination.

To theorize fairy tale stories, Tolkien examines and criticizes the existing definitions of fairies and fairy tales. In addition, Tolkien looks at the history of “Faerie”. Tolkien then arrives at this own definition and defines a fairy story as: “one which touches on or uses “faerie”, whatever its own purpose may be satire, morality, fantasy, and adventure” (On Fairy Stories 4). By Faerie, Tolkien is referring to magic. He suggests that the magic which is found in fairytales is the same type of magic in which exits in the countries in which we live in, it is just simply a matter of finding that magic in your own country. Furthermore, Tolkien asserts that “most good fairy stories are about adventures of men in the perilous realm” (On Fairy Stories 4). Tolkien speaks about faerie/magic as being something that stratifies certain primordial human desires, which subsequently includes: the desire to “survey the depths of space and time” and the desire to “hold communication with other living things” (On Fairy Stories 5). Tolkien argues that as readers we shouldn’t be concerned with unraveling the history of origins of fairy stories, but rather with understanding what they mean to us now. Tolkien then goes onto to criticize the existing studies that analyze and compare fairy stories just by looking at certain elements of them, rather than understanding them as whole units or experiences. Tolkien argues that when a human being is searching for the truth in the stories in which they encounter and the truth in art or literature – “it is precisely the coloring, the unclassifiable details of the story, the atmosphere and most importantly all the general purport that informs with life that unsatisfied bones of the plot, that really count.” (On Fairy Stories 7). Tolkien claims that that the flaw of the scientific method is that it solely examines the specifics rather than the big picture.

According to Tolkien, fairy stories are not primarily or specifically intended for children. Instead Tolkien believes that “only some children and some adults, have any special taste for fairy stories as they have it, it is not exclusive not even necessarily dominant” (On Fairy Stories 12). Furthermore, Tolkien outlines and identifies the key elements that fairy stories offer to the adult reader. According to Tolkien, the four key elements are namely: fantasy, recovery, consolation, and escape. He uses the term fantasy to refer to the act of creating something new or imaginary. He calls refers to it as “sub-creation”, which is an art where humans, both readers and writers, create new worlds and objects in their minds. Tolkien asserts that this often has a quality of wonder and strangeness, suggesting freedom from reality and the dominion of the observed fact. As part of this, Tolkien highlights and talks about how the author of any fairy tale needs to create an “inner consistency of reality” (On Fairy Stories 15). In other words, fairy tales need to construct a world which still feels real and logical to the reader, as this will enable the author to communicate a message in which is easily relatable to the reader. Tolkien also asserts that well-written fairy stories renew or recover something the reader may have encountered many times and thinks they already know. It can make something – whether it is an image, object and idea – ultimately fresh again, and in this sense, will keep the reader fresh and childish in their own world.

Tolkien also acknowledges that fairy stories are also a form of escapist literature but he does not think this is something to shy away from. Tolkien argues that consolation is a crucial part of the fairy story – more specifically the consolation of a happy ending. This turning moment in the story must create joy and hope and a sense of satisfaction for the individual reader.

After exploring the Tolkein’s Leaf by Niggle and On Fairy Stories, it is clear the immense value he places on art as an aid and representation of the human experience. Art not only provides a medium of communication for human beings but also represents and enhances the human experience. It allows for human beings to express themselves outside of the confines of verbal communication and expression, while literature serves to as a middle-man between the two. Specifically, fairy stories offer human beings a multitude of means by which they can enhance their experiences.

Originally published 15.10.2019

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