Monday, May 27, 2013

The Horns of Elfland

Following up on Masha's excellent guest post of the experience of unnamed beauty as a strange country:

In speaking of this desire for our own faroff country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness.  I am almost committing an indecency.  I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both.  We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience.  We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name.  Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter. Wordsworth’s expedient was to identify it with certain moments in his own past.  But all this is a cheat.  If Wordsworth had gone back to those moments in the past, he would not have found the thing itself, but only the reminder of it; what he remembered would turn out to be itself a remembering.  The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing.  These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers.  For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”--C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory

This thin, clear note is a common thread running through all fairy tales.  It's the shudder felt when a poet mentions "the horns of Elfland," or the familiar longing--what a conundrum! how can you so know something you've never possessed--that rises like smoke and freezes at the mention of "glass mountain," or  "seven miles of steel thistles."

Pawel Matys, New Day, source

It's what makes them resonate with us and pause and say, "I've heard of you before . . . but where?"  It exists not in three dimensions, but in loose ties to this mortal realm, with overlapping every now and then, which we label beauty and magic and enlightenment.  But, I think, it is truer to call it Faerie.  Faerie does not disclose itself.  Fairy tales recognize its amorphous nature; they make it almost a living thing, with fickle whims, extreme devotions, a fast temper, and unspeakable benevolence.  It's what makes Faerie, in so many traditions, a blessed isle.  A place so near yet separated from us by a brooding, impenetrable mystery.

We cannot go to that land together.  At least not in this life.  But we can find consolation in meeting the traveler on the road, making a friend of a stranger, and saying, "I, too, have heard them sound the horns of Elfland."



  1. "We cannot go to that land together. At least not in this life. But we can find consolation in meeting the traveler on the road, making a friend of a stranger, and saying, "I, too, have heard them sound the horns of Elfland." "

    I kind of want this framed on my wall..someplace I can see it again and again and again..Saying 'Exactly' after this seems like too much of an understatement!

    1. It's true, blog comments often fail in that way!

  2. I'm wondering if you know any texts (not Hobbit or TLR) where Tolkien talks about these elf horns passing in a dark wood? Years ago I read either an essay or biography about him that made mention of them, but my memory is playing hard to get. All I know is I found the passage haunting. I've thought of it often, wondering where it was I read it, and this article got me thinking about it again.


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