Completed: “On Fairy-stories”

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

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.

Completed: “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience”

“Resistance to Civil Government” (later titled “On the Duty  of Civil Disobedience”)
Henry David Thoreau

If the injustice is part of the necessary friction of the machine of government, let it go, let it go; perchance it will wear smooth—certainly the machine will wear out. If the injustice has a spring, or a pulley, or a rope, or a crank, exclusively for itself, then perhaps you may consider whether the remedy will not be worse than the evil; but if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine.

Even had it not been for the currently on-going Transcendentalist Month, I would have likely picked up “Civil Disobedience” in light of various current events. From Tahrir Square to Occupy Wall Street, the news this year seems to be filled with modern-day acts of civil resistance (and sometimes not so civil) to established government systems, inspiring my desire to read the original source. Thoreau’s essay is curious in that it is both very much of its time—referencing numerous current events and opinions—and continuously relevant in the more than 160 years since its initial publication. Figures as various as Gandhi, Tolstoy, and Martin Luther King, Jr., were all influenced by its contents and its ideas of non-violent resistance continue to hold sway.

There are two interesting aspects to Thoreau’s line of thought. The first is that he appears to be advocating against any government at all, or at least a very limited one. His belief in the inherent goodness of men (apparently a characteristic of Transcendentalism) is one I find naively idealistic. Perhaps I am too cynical, but from what I see of human nature, we need at least a governing authority to keep us from doing harm to each other or trampling on each other’s rights—the extent and nature of which being, of course, up for debate. From Thoreau’s belief, however, sprang his view that man could eventually do without government.

The second aspect is his call for action against—or rather, separation from—the existing government as a form of protest against what he saw as the biggest injustices of his day: the Mexican-American War and slavery. Thoreau felt it wasn’t enough to merely say “I am opposed to slavery” but that the moral man must take action against it. He rejected change by way of established methods, that is the constitutional process, in part because of the slowness of this path, in part because of the extent of the injustice, and instead advocated for actively withholding a tax (in this case, the poll tax) as a means of protest. If enough men would participate in this protest, he felt that the government would have no choice but to change the laws.

Unjust laws exist; shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once? Men generally, under such a government as this, think that they ought to wait until they have persuaded the majority to alter them. They think that, if they should resist, the remedy would be worse than the evil. But it is the fault of the government itself that the remedy is worse than the evil. It makes it worse. Why is it not more apt to anticipate and provide for reform? Why does it not cherish its wise minority?  Why does it cry and resist before it is hurt? Why does it not encourage its citizens to be on the alert to point out its faults and do better than it would have them? Why does it always crucify Christ, and excommunicate Copernicus and Luther, and pronounce Washington and Franklin rebels?

It is this second aspect that seems the more applicable to our society. We may look at his essay and think that we are doing so much better now: we no longer have institutionalized slavery—but slavery, even in the US, still exists, most commonly in the sex trade, and there are many other social injustices still present across the world, from unfair labor practices to human rights violations. I’m sure at least some of the Occupy protestors are arguing about injustices inherent in our political-economic system, not to mention the protests themselves are acts of civil disobedience.

It is easy to read “Civil Disobedience” as advocating for anti-government action in all (any) cases of perceived injustice or violations of our conscience, but this, I think, is a misinterpretation of Thoreau’s essay, and is rather, what one of my professors referred to as taking an argument to its “illogical conclusion.” Thoreau is not speaking of the everyday injustice—and most certainly not mere dissatisfaction with government policies—but the more harmful, broader injustices. In his essay, Thoreau makes clear that he would not have protested the British tax on goods which precipitated the Boston Tea Party, but rather would have done without if he didn’t wish to pay the tax. In contrast, slavery impacted not just the conveniences of life but the entirety of the lives of those enslaved. It is not about individual, selfish dissatisfaction, but the broader social good.

If I have unjustly wrested a plank from a drowning man, I must restore it to him though I drown myself. This, according to Paley, would be inconvenient. But he that would save his life, in such a case, shall lose it.

It should also be noted that Thoreau understood and accepted the consequences of breaking the laws, however unjust he perceived them. In fact, he embraced the idea of imprisonment: “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.”

Most striking to me in the essay is the idea of the need for action by everyone who sees injustice or wrong. Thoreau condemns nearly all of us, for I think almost all have seen an example, large or small, corporate or individual, of an injustice that we have not acted upon. It is an uncomfortable reminder, and one which I will be ruminating over for quite some time.

Some additional quotes:

“The government itself, which is only the mode which the people have chosen to execute their will, is equally liable to be abused and perverted before the people can act through it.”

“…who are more interested in commerce and agriculture than they are in humanity and are not prepared to do justice to the slave and to Mexico…”

“It is not a man’s duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any, even the most enormous wrong; he may still properly have other concerns to engage him; but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it, and, if he gives it no thought longer, not to give it practically his support. If I devote myself to other pursuits and contemplations, I must first see, at least, that I do not pursue them sitting upon another man’s shoulders.”