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The Making Of A Myth, Part 1

Tolkien is specific. Fairy stories are certain things and definitely not others. First they are stories about Faerie, “the realm or state in which fairies have their being,” though this realm contains much more than elves or fairies

Speculative writers are familiar with J. R. R. Tolkien’s long essay “On Fairy Stories” and with some frequency may even quote from it. I know I have. And yet I’ve never read it. But that is changing.

With little effort, I located a copy on line, available for free download, and I’ve begun to make my way through the twenty-seven pages discussing a fairly narrow segment of speculative fiction.

illustration for the Brother's Grimm story "The Elves and the Shoemaker"

Tolkien is specific. Fairy stories are certain things and definitely not others.

First they are stories about Faerie, “the realm or state in which fairies have their being,” though this realm contains much more than elves or fairies, even more than “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.”

Though Tolkien obviously has in mind what he believes constitutes a fairy story, he ultimately declines to define them:

The definition of a fairy-story—what it is, or what it should be—does not, then, depend on any definition or historical account of elf or fairy, but upon the nature of Faërie: the Perilous Realm itself, and the air that blows in that country. I will not attempt to define that, nor to describe it directly. It cannot be done. Faërie cannot be caught in a net of words; for it is one of its qualities to be indescribable, though not imperceptible. It has many ingredients, but analysis will not necessarily discover the secret of the whole. . . I will say only this: a “fairy-story” is one which touches on or uses Faerie.

Instead, he elaborates on what fairy stories are not. They are not dream experiences such as The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland. They are not journey tales such as “The Voyage to Lilliput,” a rendering of an excerpt of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. They are not beast fables such as “Brer Rabbit” or “The Three Little Pigs.”

At one point, however, Tolkien hints at what he believes to be key to fairy stories: “the primal desire at the heart of Faerie [is] the realization, independent of the conceiving mind, of imagined wonder.”

Imagined wonder.

I have to let that one sink in. The idea brings to mind Narnia, further up and further in, or Perelandra or Middle Earth itself. It’s beauty and awe made alive. It’s longing and hope and expectation and joy, all textured and in living color.

As to the origin of the stories themselves, Tolkien says they come from invention, inheritance, or “diffusion,” the latter two both being forms of borrowing. In the end, of course, the borrowed must of necessity spring from an original invention. But as Tolkien sees it, dissecting the origin isn’t critical. The stories themselves, even if taken from the identical original invention, will be distinct.

Hence, critiquing a work must not be based on its parts but on its whole:

In Dasent’s words I would say: “We must be satisfied with the soup that is set before us, and not desire to see the bones of the ox out of which it has been boiled.” . . . By “the soup” I mean the story as it is served up by its author or teller, and by “the bones” its sources or material—even when (by rare luck) those can be with certainty discovered. But I do not, of course, forbid criticism of the soup as soup.

So what are your thoughts? Is Tolkien too narrow in his understanding of what constitutes a fairy story? Are myths better if they are invented instead of borrowed? Do you grow weary of stories that grow out of the most common myths such as King Arthur or the Biblical (and real) Nephilim? Do you think we readers spend too much time trying to look at the “bones” instead of contenting ourselves with the “soup”?

Best known for her aspirations as an epic fantasy author, Becky is the sole remaining founding member of Speculative Faith. Besides contributing weekly articles here, she blogs Monday through Friday at A Christian Worldview of Fiction. She works as a freelance writer and editor and posts writing tips as well as information about her editing services at Rewrite, Reword, Rework.

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Sherwood Smith
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Sherwood Smith

If you enjoy the essay, I recommend Tolkien’s letters. Though many of them are of ephemeral interest, he wrote some very long, deeply reasoned and detailed letters about mythopoesis and fantasy and eucatastrophe.
I also highly recommend for any fantasy writers Diana Glyer’s The Company They Keep, which is about Tolkien, Lewis, the Inklings, their writing and their process as individuals and in community. Her bibliography alone is a diamond mine.

Ally
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Ally

link? I’ve read it before (out of a library book) but I’d love to be able to send the web version to my Kindle to read it again in more depth…

Kessie Carroll
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Kessie Carroll

I found it here:
 
http://bjorn.kiev.ua/librae/Tolkien/Tolkien_On_Fairy_Stories.htm
 
Still chewing through it, myself. There’s so much here!

Fred Warren
Member

…and here’s a PDF version, including a very nice cover image:

http://brainstorm-services.com/wcu-2004/fairystories-tolkien.pdf

Maria Tatham
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Thank you, Fred!

Galadriel
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I’ve read this several times, and each time I get more out of it. It sounds like you haven’t gotten to the part about the use of fairy tales yet, which is a frequently quoted section, deliciously good. And he points out that adults need “recovery” far more then youth.

Sherwood Smith
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Sherwood Smith

Rebecca: Tolkien couldn’t stand whimsy. I think you might enjoy Glyer’s book, which gets into the men’s reactions to various famous works, and their idiosyncrasies.
But some of Tolkien’s letters? Brilliant.

Andrew Winch
Guest

Personally, I love Tolkien’s definition, but I think it’s just that: TOLKIEN’S definition. In the world of fiction, boundaries aren’t made to restrict, but to define. I love that he protects his idea of what a fairy-story is by defining what it isn’t, so when he talks about the fae, his fans know exactly where he is coming from. His own Perilous Realm was very dear to him (as are the world’s we create to us), and I can see why he would want to protect it. 

With that said, I don’t think he was doing it to limit the creativity of others, as his own story, Roverandom, plays with the idea of approaching the edges of (and possibly entering) the Perilous Realm from our natural world. 

Great start to a series, though. I’ll be following along for the adventure! 

Galadriel
Guest

It’s really important to get a good defination when discussing anything like that, whether it’s fantasy or faith…I’m thinking of a small group discussion we recently had about what was faith, and the way of getting closer to God…

DD
Guest

“Do you grow weary of stories that grow out of the most common myths such as King Arthur or the Biblical (and real) Nephilim?”

All subjects get run into the ground. Then, every so often, someone comes along with a new, fantastic take on them.  Both Tolkien and Lewis pulled various elements from myth and legend.  They were similar in their thoughts on fantasy, yet Tolkien wrote the epic-style fantasy whereas Lewis more the fairy tale-style. I seem to remember Tolkien writing somewhere he didn’t like the latter. Though, honestly, it can be hard to draw a distinct line between the two types as the share so much.

Are there any fantasies or myths so original that they borrow nothing?  Perhaps it is those common elements that help make fantasy what it is and make it so compelling.

Maria Tatham
Guest

Becky, I enjoyed this post!

To answer your questions: 
Is Tolkien too narrow in his understanding of what constitutes a fairy story?

I don’t believe he is too narrow. I really feal that most definitions have to be because definitions contain distinctives; they eliminate other things, by their nature. And he is simply having his say. Being such a belove master of fantasy, we pay close attention to him and should. But it is simply his educated view.  

Are myths better if they are invented instead of borrowed?

Is it possible to create a myth. I don’t think it is. A myth is something that comes down to us in oral or written form. Some writers approximate myth-making because their work is so outstanding, but their work still isn’t the real thing.

Do you grow weary of stories that grow out of the most common myths such as King Arthur or the Biblical (and real) Nephilim? 

The only thing I weary of is retakes on Robin Hood. Because of most retakes, and because he is really an anti-hero, I grit my teeth when I have to endure one. 

Do you think we readers spend too much time trying to look at the “bones” instead of contenting ourselves with the “soup”? 

I don’t know. We do look at the bones with things that are in our face, I believe, such as the new ABC series, ONCE UPON A TIME. There it is important to know that the soup came from the ox. Is it good ox soup, we ask. Some aspects of this series have made me applaud, such as, repeated statements that all magic has unforseen, unhappy consequences.

Maria   

Galadriel
Guest

Maria, I started watching Once Upon a Time in search of an American suppliment to my British favorites.  I really like it so far, from Henry’s cute outfits to the shifts between modern and fairy-tale world.

Maria Tatham
Guest

Galadriel, I’m enjoying it too. The shifts between modern world and fairytale world are well done, believable. All the rules of the story my mind is willing to go along with. The characterizations/actors’ portrayals, too, of Snow White’s Stepmother and Rumplestiltskin are especially … wicked. They descend to new levels of villainy. The ‘good guys’ are also great and worth watching. Glad you’re watching too!
Maria

Bob Menees
Guest
Bob Menees

Enjoying the Once Upon A Time series too. Quite creative.
 
and by “the bones” its sources or material—even when (by rare luck) those can be with certainty discovered.
A question about bones: Does this too refer to the story behind the story? I’m writing a second novel now. It, as well as my first, expresses a personal conflict in me that no one reading it would detect (or at least, I don’t think they would). That conflict is the primary resource. So when I read the stories, I have an emotional response to both plot and characters that others wouldn’t experience. I think that must be true with a lot of novels.