Saturday, March 15, 2014


Continuing with Tolkien:

In the pages following his remarks on magic and enchantment, Tolkien, having already disagreed with the characterization of fairies themselves as darling little peewees, takes similar issue with how many people define "fairy stories."

He remarks, a little dismissively, of the disproportionate influence of French folktales (my word) on the concept of the fairy tale:

The number of collections of fairy-stories is now very great. In English none probably rival either the popularity, or the inclusiveness, or the general merits of the twelve books of twelve colours which we owe to Andrew Lang and to his wife. The first of these appeared more than seventy years ago (1889), and is still in print. Most of its contents pass the test, more or less clearly. I will not analyse them, though an analysis might be interesting, but I note in passing that of the stories in this Blue Fairy Book none are primarily about “fairies,” few refer to them. Most of the tales are taken from French sources: a just choice in some ways at that time, as perhaps it would be still (though not to my taste, now or in childhood). At any rate, so powerful has been the influence of Charles Perrault, since his Contes de ma Mère l'Oye were first Englished in the eighteenth century, and of such other excerpts from the vast storehouse of the Cabinet des Fées as have become well known, that still, I suppose, if you asked a man to name at random a typical “fairy-story,” he would be most likely to name one of these French things: such as Puss-in-Boots, Cinderella, or Little Red Riding Hood. With some people Grimm's Fairy Tales might come first to mind.
It's a shame that Tolkien did not take a stab at generalizing what sorts of "magic" and "enchantment" might appear in these dominantly French tales, even though they did not usually contain fairies as Tolkien perceived them.  What would he have made of the archetypal "fairy godmother" of CINDERELLA, for example, given that he preferred to view his world of faerie as much less predictable in its effects:

In that [faerie] realm a man may, perhaps, count himself fortunate to have wandered, but its very richness and strangeness tie the tongue of a traveller who would report them. And while he is there it is dangerous for him to ask too many questions, lest the gates should be shut and the keys be lost.

Also lacking in Tolkien's essay is a definition of the folktale as such, which would take in some though not all of the tales he refers to.

Instead, Tolkien takes something of a digression by taking issue with the incorrect labeling of various stories with marvelous content as "fairy stories."

Such tales report many marvels, but they are marvels to be seen in this mortal world in some region of our own time and space; distance alone conceals them. The tales of Gulliver have no more right of entry than the yarns of Baron Munchausen; or than, say, The First Men in the Moon or The Time-Machine.
Unquestionably Tolkien is right that some modern children's tales-- or stories that are deemed as children's tales-- have been lumped in with fairy tales.  Tolkien cites a particular Andrew Lang collection that includes Swift's voyage to Lilliput, and in this century television watchers have been treated to the dubious teleseries ONCE UPON A TIME, which flings together folktale characters like Rumplestiltskin and the Beanstalk-giant with literary creations like Pinocchio and Captain Hook. The tales of Munchausen would in my opinion also belong to the category of literary creations.

His point about two Wellsian science-fiction novels is harder to follow.  I doubt that Tolkien had ever heard such technological marvel-stories referred to as "fairy stories," so it follows that his main point is that these items, that are never referred to as fairytales, are closer in spirit to faerie than the work of Jonathan Swift, since Swift's Lilliputians only resemble the smaller breed of fairies in terms of size, and not in terms of content.  He then makes an odd digression.

Indeed, for the Eloi and the Morlocks there would be a better claim than for the Lilliputians. Lilliputians are merely men peered down at, sardonically, from just above the house-tops. Eloi and Morlocks live far away in an abyss of time so deep as to work an enchantment upon them; and if they are descended from ourselves, it may be remembered that an ancient English thinker once derived the ylfe, the very elves, through Cain from Adam.
Is Tolkien stating that such technological marvels participate in the same "enchantment" as his concept of faerie?  In all likelihood Tolkien did not pursue this thought with any rigor, for then he abandons it to speak of his central theme again.

The magic of Faerie is not an end in itself, its virtue is in its operations: among these are the satisfaction of certain primordial human desires. One of these desires is to survey the depths of space and time. Another is (as will be seen) to hold communion with other living things. A story may thus deal with the satisfaction of these desires, with or without the operation of either machine or magic, and in proportion as it succeeds it will approach the quality and have the flavour of fairy-story.

More discriminations to come in Part 5.

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