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.

Apples and Oranges or Gala and McIntosh?

Apples & Oranges - They Don't Compare

Image by Mike Johnson –

In my reflections on Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, I found myself repeatedly comparing it to Anne of Green Gables, primarily due to the marked similarities between the two books. Which made me wonder, when is it actually fair to compare two books? That is, are there instances when doing so is an injustice to one or the other?

I think in the case of these two, it is fair to make a comparison—not merely because of the many similarities in plot, but more importantly, because they are of the same era and addressed to the same audience; they have the same goal. I am not comparing a contemporary thriller to classic epic. The playing field seems level. The question is, does it always have to be as level as it is in this instance? And for that matter, what do I mean when I say “comparison”?

To keep us all on the same terms here (as best as possible), I’m thinking of a really wide definition of “comparison.” I’m not simply referring to “which is better, A or B,” but to the whole range of possible evaluations: Which does C better? How do these different works treat D differently and how the same? Which is more effective? Etc. It seems that it is always possible to take two disparate books and say “X is better than Y” (and the subjective “I like E better than F”) but is it necessarily fair to both books to make such comparisons?

Perhaps comparison is always fair when there is a valid topic as the point of comparison. It may not be fair, say, to compare Dan Brown to William Shakespeare when the topic is “who is the better writer,” (not least because of the weight of acclaim already assigned to Shakespeare), but when the question is which of two similar books told their story better, such as the case of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm or Anne of Green Gables, it seems valid. In this way I see it not as whether the mere act of comparing is fair or legitimate, but whether the topic is fair. Although the weight of reputation for Shakespeare makes him seem intimidating, I can easily think of several topics which would allow comparison (although involving much work) to his works. For example, for a student of the authorship question, comparing the known works of one of the candidates to the works attributed to Shakespeare, or a comparison of the techniques used in his plays vs. those of a different playwright.

Using Shakespeare as an example is a bit of an extreme, of course. For a less weighty example I could look at Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm vs. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Would it be fair to compare these two books as to which is more relevant to today’s reader? On the one hand, it seems as if the contemporary book would have a natural advantage, therefore making this a slanted question. Chances are the majority of children reading the two would pick Harry Potter over Rebecca. But at the same time, both stories deal with children who occasionally get in to trouble, have their share of adventures (although less “exciting” in Rebecca’s case), and both have at least one adult in their life whom they can never seem to please. So this seems to me less clear-cut.

It does seem to me that comparisons between books or works with completely different objectives are more likely to be unfair. For instance, I can say that I found The Firm more accessible and gripping than Inferno, but I can also say without hesitation that Inferno has more literary merit in its little pinkie than The Firm in its entirety. But they are not trying to be the same book. Dante had political and theological objectives in his epic poem; Grisham was writing to entertain. If perhaps The Firm was in some way inspired by or alluded to Dante, then I could see a comparison, but without this textual relation, it is apples to oranges. In other words, by making a direct comparison between the two works without any plane of similarity between them, I am doing one or both books an injustice by not acknowledging that their ends (and means) are completely different.

Subjectivity is also another matter, and a sticky one at that, because it is so personal.  When it comes to comparisons, I think subjective comparison—as in “I like A better than B” or “C is a better book than D”—are only useful in so far as they are supported. For example, I can say “I love Anne of Green Gables more than Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm,” and when I offer no reasons why (either personal, such as “I related to Anne more than Rebecca,” or more objective, such as “Anne is a better book because of x, y, z”) it really doesn’t mean much to you. Sure, if you’ve read and have an opinion of Anne, you may have a beginning of a basis to understand my comparison, but my reasons for liking one may be different than yours should you read both. If I don’t provide my reasons, my comparison becomes ineffectual.

Of course, does any of this discussion really matter? Probably not. If I am reading the latest Brad Meltzer, I’m probably going to be comparing it to his previous book or Dan Brown, not Charles Dickens. Or if I am reading Victor Hugo, I’m more likely to be looking at his contemporaries than Nicholas Sparks. On the other hand, I have seen more than one review that suggests (directly or indirectly) comparisons have been made—and usually the book in question isn’t as well received as the book it is being compared to. Sometimes I have to wonder if the wrong comparison is being made, if it is our natural tendency to hold all books against only those that appeal to our particular tastes without making allowance for differences in nature of the books in question. (Whether or not the reviewed book is actually better or worse than the preferred book is irrelevant to my interests here.)

So, what do you think? Agree? Disagree? Am I completely of base? Or is this simply an irrelevant question because, really, someone could always be found to argue that a given comparison is valid? I mean, it’s all subjective anyway…

Completed: Reading Like a Writer

During the weeks I spend reading Beowulf on the Beach, I was also, much more slowly, making my way through Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them by Francis Prose. (I actually picked them both up in the same library trip.) While not as entertaining as Beowulf on the Beach, it was informative and very readable. Despite the title, you do not need to be an aspiring writer to find it worthwhile; the early chapters especially I found useful as a reader.

Perhaps the most important topic in Prose’s book is the concept of “close reading,” that is, slowing down and paying careful attention to what you are reading, taking in each and every word, not skipping over anything. This is too often directly opposite of the way I read—I am afraid my habit of online skimming has translated over to my book reading—and I find her reminder to slow down important. It is easy to miss important context or hints in the rush to the next scene. This is the one important concept I wish to take from Prose’s book and employ in my reading, even if I manage to forget everything else she says.

The book itself is divided into chapters by topic: “Close Reading,” “Words,” “Sentences,” “Paragraphs,” “Narration,” and so on. Although directed more towards writers than those who are solely readers, Prose’s careful exploration of each topic brought an appreciation to me of the various techniques employed by a capable writer. Interestingly, she never gave a hard set of rules as to how something should be written—for every example she gave, she provided an equally effective counter-example showcasing an opposite technique or philosophy.

Certainly, Reading Like a Writer was not short of examples, from classic novels to modern short stories. In some ways it was fascinating to see the many different approaches to any given topic, for example, the vast array of decisions on where a paragraph should be divided and how that in turn influenced the tone or mood of the story. On the other hand, sometimes I felt a bit as if I was forcing myself through the chapter, as if there was perhaps just one example too many. For a student of writing, however, I could see that this could be a valuable starting point to begin to see displayed the infinite variety of the written language. (This would of course, only be a teaser for reading the actual works themselves.)

The biggest negative I have towards the book was Prose’s list of suggested reading at the end, not because it was there, but because she chose to title it “Books to be Read Immediately.” This, to me, feels presumptuous, especially as there is no explicit acknowledgement, that, as with all other such lists, it can never be more than the opinion of (in this case) one person. True, most, if not all, of the books are generally considered valuable reading. It is the presumption of the tone that I should immediately drop all other plans and pick these up immediately that rankles. Otherwise, I found it a valuable and informative book, one that has already begun to make an impact on the way I approach my reading.

Completed: Beowulf on the Beach

My reading seems to be outpacing my ability to post about it, a problem I am grateful to have! Some weeks ago I finished Beowulf on the Beach: What to Love and What to Skip in Literature’s 50 Greatest Hits by Jack Murnighan. I originally picked it up at the library, merely hoping that it would encourage me to get back to the classics, to read more. It did so, and then some. (Indeed, this book is in part responsible for my recent reflections on what books I wish to read.) I didn’t except to so thoroughly enjoy reading about other books, however, but I found this book every bit as engaging as a good suspense novel.

Murnighan writes in a slightly informal, sometimes irreverent style, and isn’t afraid to use humor or pop culture to grab our attention. For example, when discussing Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, he states, “What you’re after is a feeling of communion, a little Vulcan mind-meld, as it were.”

He’s not afraid to tell the reader to skip parts of books—often substantial portions—although, I confess that I would feel slightly underhanded if I told someone that I had read a book, when really, I had skipped over entire pages of it. On the other hand, by his definition/instructions I could say I’ve actually read Don Quixote, as I managed to read the entirety of Part One and portions of Part Two (primarily the opening and ending chapters). Hmmm…maybe I like this philosophy!

There were a number of books I had never heard of, mostly of a more recent vintage. For example, The Man without Qualities by Robert Musil or Blood Meridian and Suttree by Cormac McCarthy—these last two despite the fact that I have read All the Pretty Horses. Most, however, were familiar titles; some I’ve read, others are on my “to-be-read” list.

As with any list, the titles chosen are somewhat subjective, as Murnighan acknowledges in “A Note on the Selections” at the end of the book. Reading through the book, I’m not sure that I would wish to read all of them, but there are some I was unfamiliar with or only vaguely aware of that I now wish to try. After Murnighan’s enthusiams over One Hundred Years of Solitude, which I loved, I am strongly inclined to try some of the others he lists as his personal favorites: The Autumn of the Patriarch (García Márquez) and Suttree (McCarthy) most specifically. I am also strongly intrigued by Native Son, which I’d heard of, but didn’t really know anything about.

Other than the pure enjoyment, I also gained from this book a slight sense of my own inadequacy as a reader (mentioned previously). Murnighan clearly loves the great books, both antique and new, and enjoys them not merely for story or characters, but for the very words which compose the works. In the discussion of each selection, he quotes the “best lines” as well as other passages or phrases that he considers great. I especially noticed in the reviews of the poetic works (Shakespeare, Milton, Dante, etc.) that he dwelled on the words and the depths beyond them. I am afraid I tend only to be a surface reader. This perhaps is why I do not have the appreciation for poetry that many others have. I lack the patience to sit with a work and dig into its depths. I would like to work on this aspect of my reading; if I have gained nothing else from reading Beowulf on the Beach, I hope to learn to be a better reader.

Since there’s nothing like starting out in the deep end (which seems often to be the way I do things), I’ll be starting out with Inferno (Dante): epic poetry, from the early 14th century (with the added challenge of the Italian original to ignore on the facing pages of my copy). This will definitely be a pay-attention-to-the-words sort of book. I have to admit, I’m really looking forward to the challenge.