Completed: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

Book cover - The Adventures of Sherlock HolmesThe Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
1892

For some reason I seem to be avoiding a post about my latest Sherlock Holmes read, albeit subconsciously. Really, I liked it! But I thought, with  R.I.P. VII starting tomorrow I’d better finally post today lest it be mistaken for an R.I.P. read, when I actually completed this selection of short stories earlier this summer.

This is the first set of Holmes short stories I’ve read, and although many seem to prefer the shorter tales to the novels, I find myself unconvinced. I think there are two reasons: 1) they’re so short there’s just not enough of Holmes and Watson  and 2) I’m pretty sure my dad read some of the stories to my brother and me when we were little—and it took away a bit of the excitement when I knew what was coming. True too in some instances, I knew enough of the conventions of mysteries that I could anticipate what was coming, but that’s not quite the same as knowing in advance that the bank’s going to be robbed when a bank hasn’t even been mentioned yet. I believe the received wisdom is that a well-written story—short or long—can be read again and again even though the ending may already be known, even if it is in fact a mystery. I confess myself dubious of this assertion when it comes to a mystery in short story format. There is so much that must be included—the introduction of wronged party, the statement of  the mystery at hand, and the final explanation and resolution—and in such a short space, that there is little room for anything but the mystery itself, and thus my gripe that we don’t see enough of Holmes and Watson. Perhaps I am wrong, and in the hands of a master of the short story a mystery could be created that rewards many readings. In Doyle’s hands, however, the pattern seems to overwhelm the story.

Perhaps this is why one of my favorite of the stories included in this collection is “The Man With the Twisted Lip.” Here we are introduced to the mystery mid-stride, when Watson stumbles across Holmes in the middle of an opium den, in pursuit of information. The investigation underway, we follow along with Holmes. And I find this much more fun than the standard recitation of Watson’s bewilderment. I am spoiled here too by the recent BBC TV adaptation—set in contemporary London, I find that Sherlock gives us a preferable Watson, one who is intelligent, just not in the sphere of Holmes. Doyle’s original seems at times downright dim-witted. Has he not been around Holmes long enough to begin to understand his methods? In the TV series too, we have better opportunity to see the relationship between the character—there is a clear strengthening in the Holmes-Watson friendship over the course of two seasons—which again, I miss in the short stories.

Despite my disappointments, I found the stories perfect for dipping in and out of in spare moments. Some stories contained the element of adventure I enjoyed so much in The Sign of Four. And I should say I didn’t always know the ending! I am still looking forward to the later stories/novels (The Hound of the Baskervilles especially).The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes are the earliest stories, so perhaps Doyle develops as a writer sufficiently that I will enjoy the later stories better, or maybe (fingers crossed), they’ll just be a tad longer. After all, my biggest complaint really boils down to “there’s not enough!”

Read as part of The Classics Club and for my Mysteries and Detective Fiction project.

In Progress: Bible at the Half

Glancing down my feed reader today, I noticed that this week’s Top Ten Tuesday topic was “Top 10 Books Since I Started Blogging.” I’m not going to post on that today, but it did cause me to glance over my list of books read since I started here, and I was vaguely surprised to notice that 2011 was a lousy reading year (relatively speaking)—but that, despite feeling like I’ve been forcing myself through my books this year, it’s been a pretty phenomenal year. Even books that felt like a lot of work at the time I find myself looking back on fondly. (The Silmarillion, anyone?) Even though I’m still on my “read whatever I feel like” binge, I know I’ll return to my “forced” reads someday. (Speaking of which, the binge is going so spectacularly, I’m starting to build up a backlog of books I need to review. A good problem.)

An On-going Project

One reading project I haven’t temporarily abandoned is an ongoing, year+ long reading project. If you’ve been reading around here long enough—closely—and have a good enough memory, you might recall (and you probably don’t) that on my Original Classics list I included the Old and New Testaments. I’ve read it through once before—eons ago. It took me nearly two years and I remembered it well enough to know that good chunks of the Old Testament really drag. So I decided to change it up this time and read it chronologically. Approximately.

A quick search reveals several variations of chronological Bible Reading plans. I’m using THIS one, the first I found when I was beginning the project, although it has a number of typos. (THIS plan appears similar, but without the errors?)

Of course, what do I mean when I say “chronological” in reference to the Bible? In this case, approximate order of events (as opposed to date of writing). For example, inter-textual evidence suggests to scholars that the action of Job took place before Abram/Abraham started wandering around the Middle East, so Job is read after the tower of Babel (Genesis 11) and before Abram leaves home (Genesis 12). (As a religious text, there is of course debate as to the historicity of the Bible, but the order works whether the stories are historical or not.) Some debate exists as to proper order of some of the books: did Obediah make his prophecy during Queen Athaliah’s reign over Judah as some suggest or is it from some 300 years later as others believe? Thus the “approximately.”

I see two advantages to read the Bible this way. The first is if you’ve ever tried to read Psalms straight through, you know it can be a bit of a slog—especially if you need to read about four pages worth a day to keep pace. The chronological plan divies them up according to when they were likely written/sung and places them with the appropriate story. The second advantage is the idea of context. It makes a lot more sense that so many of the psalms attributed to David are about “enemies” when you read them right after the passage about David hiding out in the cave from his…enemies.

The Project Thus Far

I’m not on track to finish this year, having just hit the halfway point Sunday. Of course, I didn’t start until February, but I’ve also missed days, which I sometimes make up and sometimes don’t. The Old Testament is much longer than the New, so I still have a good chunk of it left, but I might be able to make up for some lost time when I get to the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John)—I’ll hold out hope that I might finish the reading around February 2013.

Read so far:

  • Genesis
  • Job
  • Exodus
  • Leviticus
  • Numbers
  • Deuteronomy
  • Joshua
  • Judges
  • Ruth
  • I Samuel
  • II  Samuel
  • I Chronicles
  • I Kings
  • Song of Solomon (aka Song of Songs)
  • Proverbs
  • Ecclesiastes
  • Obadiah
  • most of Psalms

Thoughts so far:

I’m reading from the King James Version, which has long been my favorite for the poetry of the language. (Does that make me a hypocrite if I struggle with actual poetry?) It’s also the version that most of the well-known phrases from the Bible come from, archaic language and all. It’s not the easiest translation though (and some question its accuracy, as the translators didn’t have at their disposal as much scholarship as later editions did), but I’ve become used to it—and I can always grab a later translation when I get lost. (My grandpa contended that the King James wasn’t any harder than any other translation; you just have to get used to it.)

Jack Murnighan, in Beowulf on the Beach: What to Love and What to Skip in Literature’s 50 Greatest Hits, considers Job and Song of Solomon to be the most literary of the books of the Bible. He must be on to something, because so far, those are the two books I had the hardest time following. Of course they are also poetry, and I have the hardest time with poetry! I’d like to go back to Job sometime and spend more time on it. The arguments are a bit complex, and sometimes even telling who is speaking is problematic. It needs more time than just the quick read-through to say I’ve read it I gave it originally.

Although I’ve read all this before, it was at least 10, maybe 15 years ago since I’ve looked at much of the Old Testament. There’s a lot I completely forgot about! Some bizarre, or at least unexpected events. For example, after killing an Egyptian and hiding out in the wilderness for some time, Moses is ordered back to Egypt by God (to lead the Israelites). On his way back, God nearly kills Moses because Moses forgot to circumcise his son—only his wife’s quick action to circumcise the boy saves them. (And I don’t think she was too happy about it!—Exodus 4:20-26) And the violence! Murders, rapes, civil wars, wars against others, attacks, raids…this is not bedtime reading. But then I’ll come across a passage, say the book of Ruth or Psalm 42, that is peaceful and lovely and an absolute delight. The Old Testament is certainly a collection in contrasts.

I wouldn’t say I’m particularly looking forward to any of the upcoming books, at least not any more than what I’ve read already. Some will be easier, some harder; some stranger, some more expected. It will be interesting to see what else I’ve forgotten since last read—and to find out what other oddities there are to be discovered!

In Progress: Ficciones (1)

Ficciones
Jorge Luis Borges
1962

As I glance down my blog front page, I realize I’ve been absent for a while, which unfortunately is reflective of the reading in my life as well. Surely with two short story collections on tap for the month, I’d have an easier time making progress? But despite my late spring desire to sink into The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Ficciones, they seem to have spent more time languishing than anything else. True, Holmes has been picked up frequently—the ease of dipping in and out of the stories makes this possible—but often only in two or three paragraph bursts. As for Ficciones, I made the unfortunate mistake of trying to start it on a day unconducive to reading of any sort, and Borges really requires attention.

I don’t often read short stories—in part because I never think of it, and in part because of my notions about their difficulty. Rather than difficult, the Sherlock Holmes stories represent the short story for Everyman–ready entertainment easy to dip in and out of as time allows—while Borges fulfills my preconceptions about short stories, only trebled in magnitude—that short stories are more difficult than novels, requiring more concentration and alertness of the reader, packed as they are with meaning and density.

In fact, finally returning to Borges yesterday, it occurred to me that 1) I think I’m making a poor job of reading these—I almost feel that they are over my head and 2) I think it will be easier to write multiple posts over groups of four or five stories rather than one big post when I’m finished with the set.

Ficciones is an anthology of seventeen short stories by Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986). The first eight were published together in 1941 as El Jardín de senderos que se bifurcan (The Garden of Forking Paths), to these were eventually added another nine and published under the title Ficciones (1944, 1956, English translation in 1962). The volume is said to be a good starting place for reading Borges, and is in fact my introduction to his work.

“Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”

1940
Alastair Reid, translator

Contact with Tlön and the ways of Tlön have disintegrated this world. … Now, in all memories, a fictitious past occupies the place of any other. We know nothing about it with any certainty, not even that it is false.

The longest of the four stories I’ve read so far, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertuis” is divided into two parts. The first relates of a group of men hearing of the mysterious Uqbar and their search to learn more of this unknown land; in the second the narrator discovers an encyclopedia volume from Tlön, an hitherto unknown planet. But are these lands real or the products of the imagination of a group of eccentric scholars?

The most striking element of this story to me is the idea of history rewritten, modified—not just reinterpreted, but past itself changed. This perhaps not the major theme in the story—there are many philosophical discussions, none of which I am familiar with—but it seems to be a theme I have seen over and over again in Latin American literature. Mid-20th century Latin American literature has become known for “magical realism,” or the treating of fantastic as real; perhaps the real question is how can we know the difference, especially when those in control are the ones telling the story.

“The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim”

“El acercamiento a Almotásim”
1936
Anthony Kerrigan, translator

A short piece, this is a book review of The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim. Only The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim doesn’t actually exist. Borges’ “review” however, of a novel set in India and featuring a character in search for the mysterious Al-Mu’tasim, a man from whom clarity must emanate, does succeed in creating within the reader the wish that The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim actually existed.

“Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote”

“Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote”
1939
Anthony Bonner, translator

This is my favorite so far, and the story I found most humorous. The conceit is preposterous: the narrator sets out to defend his late friend Pierre Menard who wrote the 9th, 38th, and part of the 22nd chapters of Part I of Don Quixote, not by copying or memorizing, but completely by hard work and concentration. It is an idea almost impossible to wrap one’s head around, that someone by sheer force of will could write the exact same words as another centuries previous but independently, not as a copy. Even more ridiculous, that this “new” work could be “better” or “worse” than the original, even though all the words are exactly the same.

The text of Cervantes and that of Menard are verbally identical, but the second is almost infinitely richer.

It is absurd that something “identical” could be “richer”—is this Borges’ criticism of criticism? Or is it a commentary on the nature of the written word, that all work extends from previous works, that all writers are indebted to another?

Several nights ago, while leafing through Chapter XXVI–which he had never attempted–I recognized our friend’s style and, as it were, his voice in this exceptional phrase: the nymphs of the rivers, mournful and humid Echo.

I am reminded of J.R.R. Tolkien’s discussion on the impossibility of knowing the origins of fairy-tales (in his essay “On Fairy-stories”). Here there is almost a suggestion that it is impossible to know the origins of any story. A delight to read.

“The Circular Ruins”

“Las Ruinas Circulares”
1940
Anthony Bonner, translator

I have seen Borges described as a “fantasy” writer, and this is the first of the stories which I would come close to calling fantasy. (Although, I suppose truth be known, I’m a little vague on the boundaries of the concept. If I take Tolkien’s definition of “fairy-story,” I’m not sure any of the four stories I’ve read thus far would qualify in Tolkien’s view, as any fantastic elements seem to be ultimately explained away.) “The Circular Ruins” tells of a man who arrives at  a ruined temple and proceeds to spend many nights and days dreaming, trying to create a man “to impose him on reality” and of what happens when he succeeds.

This seems again to be questioning reality or at least the power of dreams.

I am curious as I read the next set of stories, if I will continue to see the same ideas of memory and history and reality or if every story will touch on something different. For that matter, will I begin to understand them any better?

I am reading Ficciones for Spanish Lit Month hosted by Stu and Richard, as one of my Classics Club Selections, and for my Libros españoles project list.

Completed: The Silmarillion

The Silmarillion
J.R.R. Tolkien
Christopher Tolkien, ed.
1977 (Posthumous)

Moreover, my father came to conceive The Silmarillion as a compilation, a compendious narrative, made long afterwards from sources of great diversity (poems, and annals, and oral tales) that had survived in agelong tradition; and this conception has indeed its parallel in the actual history of the book, for a great deal of earlier prose and poetry does underlie it, and it is to some extent a compendium in fact and not only in theory. (Forward by Christopher Tolkien, xii)

I have long been a fan of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, ever since my dad read them to my brother and me when we were little. He didn’t actually like the books when he picked them up to read—he has a dislike for all things fantasy or mythology—but there were four books and he could be sure he wouldn’t need to make a choice on another book for quite some time. My brother and I fell in love with the tales of Middle-earth; our dad discovered he liked them after all.

I’ve read these more famous works of Tolkien several times since, most recently in late 2002 (Oh. That’s been 10 years. How time does fly…), but I had never managed to make it past the first part of The Silmarillion. It is a more difficult work compared to the other two, lacking a single linear narrative while being populated by dozens, perhaps over 100 characters, not few of whom have multiple names, and stylistically more reminiscent of the Bible than popular fiction.* But reading it now, with a greater understanding of the wider context of literature, I’m inclined to believe it is actually the strongest of the three works, both for its achievements and its language. It reminded me at times of the Bible and of Ovid’s Metamorphosis, and I am sure that had I familiarity with his Nordic sources, I would see those too. It is frustrating at times—when I say reminded me of the Bible, I include those chapters of Chronicles full of unrecognizable, near unpronounceable names (Christopher Tolkien helpfully includes both an index of name and a pronunciation guide)—but at others I couldn’t help but be transfixed by the text, nearly convinced that I was reading a narrative passed down through the ages, not one conceived of less than a mere 100 years ago.

When considering Tolkien’s achievement, I am stunned. Not only did he conceive of an invented mythology spanning thousands of years—I would consider The Silmarillion closer to mythology than fantasy—but he created several languages for this world, even to the point of working out how they would have evolved over time. All those “unpronounceable” names? Not just random strings of letters, but names with careful meaning and origin in his invented languages. An appendix at the back provides “elements” of the names, so that I can see that the alqua in Alqualondë is “swan” and derives from the root alak-. Not necessary for the casual reader, but all this background informs the larger works with a depth rarely encountered. As Tolkien actually began writing the stories that would make up The Silmarillion around 1917 (and continued working on it until his death in 1973), the languages and mythology are also present in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, but to a lesser extant than in The Silmarillion.

It was interesting reading The Silmarillion in light of just recently reading “On Fairy-tales.” The Silmarillion is the most developed of Tolkien’s books and well-aligns with the ideas he developed there. Notably, eucatastrophe is on full display, but Tolkien is sure to allow enough heartache that we don’t always feel certain of the turn for better. As for his concern with “inner consistency of reality,” I find something very “real” about Tolkien’s stories; I always feel somehow that they are history, not legend.

The structure of The Silmarillion is divided into five parts, with the lengthy story surrounding the Silmarils (Quenta Silmarillion) framed by the creation history of Middle-earth (Ainulindalë and Valaquenta) and the histories which will more directly inform The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (Akallabêth and Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age).

Ainulindalë

     Then the voices of the Ainur, like unto harps and lutes, and pipes and trumpets, and viols and organs, and like unto countless choirs singing with words, began to fashion the theme of Ilúvatar to a great music; and a sound arose of endless interchanging melodies woven in harmony that passed beyond hearing into the depths and into the heights, and the places of the dwelling of Ilúvatar were filled to overflowing, and the music and the echo of the music went out into the Void, and it was not void. Never since have the Ainur made any music like to this music, though it has been said that a greater still shall be made before Ilúvatar by the choirs of the Ainur and the Children of Ilúvatar after the end of days. Then the themes of Ilúvatar shall be played aright, and take Being in the moment of their utterance, for all shall then understand fully his intent in their part, and each shall know the comprehension of each, and Ilúvatar shall give to their thoughts the secret fire, being well pleased. (3-4)

The creation myth of Middle-earth, Ainulindalë most directly reminded me of specific Biblical accounts, not just in the idea of creation by a Supreme Being (Eru or Ilúvatar here), but the fall of Melkor (Morgoth) through his own pride and desire for dominion echoes the fall of Satan (Lucifer) through his “I will” (as recounted in Is. 14:12-15). Tolkien discouraged the picking apart of his works for his sources, desiring that the reader might enjoy the story for itself, rather than feeling the need to divide it into its base elements; however, here I could not help but noticing similarities with stories I already knew. And this is without knowing any of his Nordic sources!

I actually read Ainulindalë twice, so enchanted was I by the beauty of the passage, not just by the poetic language, but the idea of creation through music. (This is also a concept shared in C.S. Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew. The two were close friends and discussed their work together—I don’t know if one influenced the other on this, or if they arrived at the idea separately.) The idea of the “music of the spheres” is ancient—here it turns song into form most beautifully, a chorus of voices creating image of all that will be. For a time, I thought this would be my favorite section of The Silmarillion.

Valaquenta

Without a doubt, Valaquenta is the driest section of The Silmarillion. It is the listing of the Valar and Maiar—the intermediate beings between Ilúvatar (godlike figure) and “the Children of Ilúvatar” (elves and men)—and their responsibilities in Middle-earth. They are somewhat equivalent to the gods and goddesses of ancient mythologies, but in Tolkien’s world they are not deities, rather beings with powers greater than those of the primary inhabitants of the stories. (With one exception, they play no obvious role in The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings, but are important to The Silmarillion.)

Quenta Silmarillion: The History of the Silmarils

And as they watched, upon the mound there came forth two slender shoots; and silence was over all the world in that hour, nor was there any other sound save the chanting of Yavanna. Under her song the saplings grew and became fair and tall, and came to flower; and thus there awoke in the world the Two Trees of Valinor. Of all things which Yavanna made they have most renown, and about their fate all the tales of the Elder Days are woven.

The one had leaves of dark green that beneath were as shining silver, and from each of his countless flowers a dew of silver light was ever falling, and the earth beneath was dappled with the shadows of his fluttering leaves. The other bore leaves of a young green like the new-opened beech; their edges were of glittering gold. (Chapter 1, 33)

Far and away the bulk of The Silmarillion lies in the Quenta Silmarillion. Although it describes itself as the history of the Silmarils, three jewels containing the light of the Two Trees of Valinor, it encompasses much more, relating the history from the time of the first Elves and the second rebellion of Melkor to his final defeat, spanning hundreds of years. There are side stories and a constantly changing cast of characters, although the most important names reappear often. Motifs common to mythology and legend recur throughout: curses, Golden Ages, quests, noble deeds. Those familiar with The Lord of the Rings know that Tolkien places it in the “Third Age”; the Quenta Silmarillion is the story of the First Age.

The chapters in Quenta Silmarillion are varied, some focused on battles, others on kingdoms, even one just describing the lands in which Elves and Men have settled. My favorite section of The Silmarillion is here, Chapter 19 “Of Beren and Lúthien,” a tale of a man, Beren, who loves elf-maiden Lúthien, and his quest to win her father’s blessing and hers to save him. It is a lovely tale, reminiscent of the quest stories of fairy-tale, or of the paintings of the pre-Raphaelites. Tolkien wrote portions of the story in poetic form (published in the posthumous Lays of Beleriand), and I would love to read them at some point.

Akallabêth & Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age

These last two sections pertain most closely to The Lord of the Rings, providing background details only lightly touched upon in the other book, those of the history of Númenor and the rings of power. It is not essential reading for The Lord of the Rings (I’d made it until now without reading it!), but it deepens the experience—somewhat akin to recognizing references in a novel to another work. For those hesitant to read the entirety of The Silmarillion, but wanting to more background to The Lord of the Rings, these could be read on their own. I read through them quickly, eager to learn more. The first, Akallabêth is fascinating on its own, however, for it relates the history of a city that will sink beneath the waves, Tolkien’s Atlantis.

It shouldn’t have taken me as long as it did to finish The Silmarillion, but I let myself be interrupted by other books. Which is a shame, because this really is an excellent book, and I don’t know why it took me so long to discover that!

This is my second book completed for The Classics Club, third for the 2012 TBR Pile Challenge (whoops, better get moving!) and first for the Books I Started but Never Finished reading challenge.

*Tolkien contributed a translation of Jonah to the Jerusalem Bible.

Completed: “On Fairy-stories”

“On Fairy-stories”
J.R.R. Tolkien
1964
Tolkien On Fairy-stories: Expanded Edition, with Commentary and Notes
Verlyn Flieger & Douglas A. Anderson, Editors
2008

I have known the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien for many years, ever since my brother and I were little, slowly following the journeys of first Bilbo then Frodo, as my dad read to us from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. My dad’s editions—old Ballantine Books paperbacks, covers taped on, spines thoroughly cracked, pages falling out—feature a picture of the author on the back cover, gray-haired, pipe-smoking, wrapped in a scarf and what just might be tweed: the perfect image of an Oxford don.

Yet, despite knowing of Tolkien’s position at Oxford (and for that matter of his great influence on 20th century fantasy literature), it wasn’t until recently that I learned of two lectures he presented in the late 1930s which would go on to become highly influential in the sphere of  academic literary criticism.

The first of these, “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” was presented and first published in 1936 and argued in favor of reading the poem for its literary qualities and fantastic elements rather than solely studying it for any Anglo-Saxon history which might be gleaned from its lines. The second lecture, presented as the 1939 Andrew Lang lecture at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, would eventually be developed into “On Fairy-stories” in 1947 and revised in 1964 (included in Tree and Leaf). Although somewhat less significant than the Beowulf essay, “On Fairy-stories” is important, not just as a defense of the reading of fairy-stories—and by extension, fantasy stories—but as a examination of the theories Tolkien would apply to his later works. (Notably, The Hobbit, an earlier work, does not align completely with his essay—something Tolkien would come to regret.)

I took two trips through Tolkien’s essay, which almost seems a necessity, as densely packed as it is with ideas and references. This is not an essay which provides a nice neat thesis in the opening paragraph which it then endeavors to prove in the larger body of the writing. Rather, it is a more complex work. Fortunately, Tolkien provides three major questions which he then meditates on, providing a framework for the reader and a focus for himself:

  1. What are fairy-stories?
  2. What is their origin?
  3. What is the use of them?

The first of these is perhaps the mostly light touched, with the answer deviating briefly to discuss the definition of “fairy,” dismissing the 18th-19th century English concept of a fairy as a miniscule creature capable of hiding in a flower petal. But his primary focus is not the beings, rather the stories, and so he returns to the proper question. His definition is almost one of subtraction, for in contrast to fairy-stories, Tolkien removes travelers’ tales, tales framed by dreams, and beast-fables—those stories in which animals speak and behave as humans (human stand-ins) with no human involvement—from being considered as proper fairy-stories. Rather, fairy-stories are indicated more by a particular location or state:

…for fairy-stories are not in normal English usage stories about fairies or elves, but stories about Fairy, that is Faërie, the realm or state in which fairies have their being. Faërie contains many things besides elves and fays, and besides dwarfs, witches, trolls, giants, or dragons: it holds the seas, the sun, the moon, the sky; and the earth, and all things that are in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, mortal men, when we are enchanted. (paragraph 10)

“Faërie” is an important concept throughout the essay: a variant on the conventional spelling, Tolkien uses it as the “Perilous Realm,” a sort of parallel reality beyond our human senses but into which humans may accidentally stumble.

Perhaps even more important is Tolkien’s concept of “sub-creation.” First hinted at here, made more explicit in the Epilogue, Tolkien’s essay is best understood in light of his Christian faith—as God is the Creator, so Man, created in God’s image, becomes sub-creator via the power of words.

But language cannot, all the same, be dismissed. The incarnate mind, the tongue, and the tale are in our world coeval. The human mind, endowed with the powers of generalisation and abstraction, sees not only green-grass, discriminating it from other things (and finding it fair to look upon), but sees that it is green as well as being grass. But how powerful, how stimulating to the very faculty that produced it, was the invention of the adjective: no spell or incantation in Faërie is more potent.… When we can take green from grass, blue from heaven, and red from blood, we have already and enchanter’s power – upon one plane; and the desire to wield that power in the world external to our minds awakes.… But in such ‘fantasy’, as it is called, new form is made; Faërie begins; Man becomes a sub-creator. (paragraph 27)

It is this sub-creation that Tolkien finds most interesting regarding origins; he summarizes then-current areas of origin research and theories but doesn’t dwell. His interest is not origins, it is the “use” of fairy-stories. Although for many decades, perhaps centuries, fairy-stories have been relegated to children, Tolkien staunchly counters this, arguing as much based on his own experience as a child and with children, that a child is no more nor less inclined to like fairy-stories than an adult. If anything, children have a vaster appetite for stories in general, but a more limited vocabulary and experience to articulate why they might like or dislike any given tale. Tolkien does not say we should take fairy-stories away from children, only that we should not consider them as belonging solely to children. (Any reader of The Hobbit might be surprised at this belief, for it at times The Hobbit seems geared precisely to children, but the introduction to the edition of “On Fairy-stories” which I read quotes a letter from Tolkien in which he regrets that tone of his earlier book.)

The value, or “use” Tolkien sees in fairy-stories is five-fold:

  1. As literature on its own merits (when well-written)
  2. As Fantasy
  3. For Recovery
  4. For Escape
  5. For Consolation

The first is self-explanatory, but the others are perhaps more easily dismissed by literary critics, and so Tolkien addresses them more thoroughly.

Fantasy: Tolkien praises it as a highly sub-creative act, but holds it to a high standard of “inner consistency of reality,” that is a world in which the reader can immerse themselves without being startled out by inconsistency or the presence of something “false” to that world. Fantasy is about desires, for communication with animals, to escape death—and in all these we are aided by our sub-creation of Secondary Worlds. Tolkien further considers Fantasy both natural and dismisses the idea that engaging in fantasy is a result of an inability to distinguish reality from make-believe, for if we cannot make that distinction, Fantasy cannot exist:

For creative Fantasy is founded upon the hard recognition that things are so in the world as it appears under the sun; on a recognition of fact by not a slavery to it. (paragraph 79)

Recovery: seen by Tolkien as a renewing , a seeing of things anew—made possible in fairy-story by the flipping of expectations or altering the rules from our world in that of Faërie.

Escape: perhaps the most interesting to read about. How often do some (readers) dismiss (certain) books as merely “escapist” literature? Tolkien bashes this viewpoint, arguing that we would not fault the prisoner for daydreaming about the world beyond his cell walls; we recognize that the prisoner still understands the reality of the prison. Rather, by condemning Escape, we “…are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter” (paragraph 88).

Consolation, that is Consolation of the Happy Ending: Here Tolkien introduces a term he has coined, eucatastrophe*, as the exact opposite of catastrophe, that is, the sudden unexpected turn to the joy of the happy ending, which he calls the “highest function” of a fairy-story. (Note, Tolkien does not dismiss Tragedy as a valid vehicle for expression—he calls it the “true form of Drama.”) It is here, and in the following Epilogue, that Tolkien becomes most explicit regarding his faith, stating that the Gospels contain the “greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe” (paragraph 104).

I found this a very interesting read, especially in light of the “genre vs. literary wars” that seem to pop up periodically. It is even more interesting in light of Tolkien’s own works: his later works reflect the ideas articulated in this essay. Also interesting to note, Tolkien considered The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings fairy-stories. This essay does suggest a possible interchangeable use of “fairy-story” with “fantasy,” although I can’t recall ever seeing any contemporary example of such usage.

This is my first (!) completed read for Carl’s Once Upon a Time VI, and a most interesting read, if a bit academic. I might have had it (and this post) finished earlier, but I was a bit distracted by Kent State’s (my alma mater) baseball program: after last night’s exciting win, they’re headed to their first ever College World Series in Omaha! Go Flashes!

*(Greek eu = “good” + catastrophe> Greek kata = “down” + strephein = “to turn”)

A note on the text: “On Fairy-stories” is available in the collections Tree and Leaf (1964, 1988) and The Monsters and the Critics (1983). The edition I read, Tolkien On Fairy-stories: Expanded Edition, with Commentary and Notes (2008), contains the essay with editors’ commentary, as well as additional items of more scholarly interest. It’s more difficult to find (I was able to request my copy through my local library’s participation in a state-wide network), but the editors’ commentary is highly valuable in clarifying unfamiliar references.