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The One Ring Forums: Tolkien Topics: Reading Room:
On Fairy-stories 2.1: "I shall therefore pass lightly over the question of origins."


Oct 27 2008, 2:27pm

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On Fairy-stories 2.1: "I shall therefore pass lightly over the question of origins." Can't Post

Welcome to the second week of “On Fairy-stories”. In this week’s discussion, we’ll be looking at the section called ORIGINS, plus the accompanying Note B. Many thanks to Curious for getting us off to a great start last week. And so with no more ado, let’s dig right in ...

Actually the question: What is the origin of the fairy element? lands us ultimately in the same fundamental inquiry; but there are many elements in fairy-stories (such as this detachable heart, or swan-robes, magic rings, arbitrary prohibitions, wicked stepmothers, and even fairies themselves) that can be studied without tackling this main question. Such studies are, however, scientific (at least in intent); they are the pursuit of folklorists or anthropologists: that is of people using the stories not as they were meant to be used, but as a quarry from which to dig evidence, or information, about matters in which they are interested. A perfectly legitimate procedure in itself – but ignorance or forgetfulness of the nature of a story (as a thing told in its entirety) has often led such inquirers into strange judgments. To investigators of this sort recurring similarities (such as this matter of the heart) seem specially important. So much so that students of folk-lore are apt to get off their own proper track, or to express themselves in a misleading ‘shorthand’: misleading in particular, if it gets out of their monographs into books about literature. They are inclined to say that any two stories that are built round the same folk-lore motive, or are made up of a generally similar combination of such motives, are ‘the same stories.’ [..]

1. Tolkien’s mention of “magic rings” is quite suggestive, given that he had just finished writing The Hobbit. Is Tolkien thinking of his own magic ring here, and therefore including his just-completed work already among canonical fairy-stories? If not, can you think of any traditional fairy-tales containing magic rings about which Tolkien might have been thinking?

2. Considering Tolkien’s mention of the quarry here, from which folklorists or anthropologists dig evidence — is he thinking back to his own lecture/essay on Beowulf two years earlier? (There, he wrote that “Beowulf has been used as a quarry of fact and fancy far more assiduously than it has been studied as a work of art.”) If anyone cares to take a closer look at the earlier essay, please feel free to share any thoughts with us on how “B:M&C” and “OFS” intersect. Caveat lector: this could easily be the jumping-off point for a major discussion — or a huge digression! ;)

3. Can this opening paragraph be read as a comment on source-study in general, and/or of Tolkien’s attitude toward the source-study of his own work more particularly? By the time Tolkien was drafting the lecture, readers had already begun attempting to ferret out sources and analogues in The Hobbit. (Refer back the letter to The Observer from the beginning of 1938, for example. This is letter #25 in Carpenter’s collection.) Tolkien was not yet as inimical to readers’ digging at his sources as he would come to be later in life (but of course, The Lord of the Rings compounds the number of possible sources and analogues many times over).

Statements of that kind may express (in undue abbreviation) some element of truth; but they are not true in a fairy-story sense, they are not true in art or literature. [..]

4. Is Tolkien right that such statements are not true in the “fairy-story sense”? What makes him sufficiently expert that we should take this assertion at face value, when Tolkien was at pains to point out how inexpert he considers himself (cf., at the outset of the essay, “overbold I may be accounted, for [..] I have not studied them professionally.”). If he is correct, then In what way are such statement true? Or are they not true at all?

Of course, I do not deny, for I feel strongly, the fascination of the desire to unravel the intricately knotted and ramified history of the branches on the Tree of Tales. It is closely connected with the philologists’ study of the tangled skein of Language, of which I know some small pieces. [..] So with regard to fairy-stories, I feel that it is more interesting, and also in its way more difficult, to consider what they are, what they have become for us, and what values the long alchemic processes of time have produced in them. 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’. Though, oddly enough, Dasent by ‘the soup’ meant a mishmash [..]. 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.

5. This opening sentence is a bit convoluted. What is it, exactly, that Tolkien is trying to tell us he feels? The desire to unravel a knot? The fascination of that desire? Is it the history of the branches, or the branches of themselves? Tolkien does not deny he feels ... whatever it is — does this imply he feels defensive about it? What does this sentence really mean? And why is the sentence itself so “intricately knotted”?

6. In what way(s) is language a “tangled skein”? Is Tolkien being serious, modest, or falsely modest when he says he only “knows some small pieces” of it?

7. Again, in the Bones of the Ox metaphor, is Tolkien telling us we shouldn’t be looking behind the curtain for the “sources or material” of his own fiction? Why not? Should we take him seriously? And whether he wants us to or not, shouldn’t we reserve the right to do so if we wish? If he doesn’t wish it, then why have so many scholars desired to see the Bones?

I shall therefore pass lightly over the question of origins. I am too unlearned to deal with it in any other way; but it is the least important of the three questions for my purpose, and a few remarks will suffice. [..] We are therefore obviously confronted with a variant of the problem that the archaeologist encounters, or the comparative philologist: with the debate between independent evolution (or rather invention) of the similar; inheritance from a common ancestry; and diffusion at various times from one or more centres. [..] The history of fairy-stories is probably more complex than the physical history of the human race, and as complex as the history of human language. All three things: independent invention, inheritance, and diffusion, have evidently played their part in producing the intricate web of Story. It is now beyond all skill but that of the elves to unravel it. [..]

8. If Tolkien intends to pass lightly over the question, then why is this fairly lengthy section titled ORIGINS?! And is such a passing-over a cop-out? Or a further admission of inexpertise? In the original lecture, there would certainly have been constraints of time of attention span to concern Tolkien, but in revising it for print, he could (and did) lengthen it. Why not refrain from passing lightly over, and take the time to explore the question more thoroughly? After all, Tolkien implies right from the outset that asking what is the origin of fairy-stories and their constituent elements is, in part, asking what is the origin of language. One would think Tolkien should have a lot to say about that!

9. Tolkien gives us three choices to explain the development of analogous fairy-stories throughout the ancient world: invention, inheritance, and diffusion. But Tolkien seems to find weaknesses in all three. What do you make of the choices? Which one or ones do you think best explain the situation? Does invention, to which Tolkien gives primacy, remind you of theological arguments regarding First Cause (as it does me)? Does it say anything larger about Tolkien’s philosophy of mythopoeia that he gives invention the pride of place in his own (unscientific) theories of folklore?

10. Tolkien then asserts that “the history of fairy-stories is probably more complex than the physical history of the human race, and as complex as the history of human language.” That seems a pretty bold claim. Do you think he’s right?

11. Why does Tolkien shift from his “Tree of Tales” metaphor to the “web of Story” — is it only so that he can postulate unraveling it? After all, you can’t unravel a tree. But taking his mixed metaphors for granted, why does he imply the elves (but not man) are capable of unraveling it? Would they want to?

12. Any further comments on anything up through this point (i.e., through the first four paragraphs)?

Jason Fisher
Lingwë - Musings of a Fish

The Lord of the Rings discussion 2007-2008 – The Two Towers – III.4 “Treebeard” – Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

Subject User Time
On Fairy-stories 2.1: "I shall therefore pass lightly over the question of origins." visualweasel Send a private message to visualweasel Oct 27 2008, 2:27pm
    Thoughts. Curious Send a private message to Curious Oct 27 2008, 4:48pm
        A very through reply. Thanks! :) visualweasel Send a private message to visualweasel Oct 27 2008, 5:14pm
            You did say through the first four Curious Send a private message to Curious Oct 27 2008, 5:38pm
                Right, the first four. visualweasel Send a private message to visualweasel Oct 27 2008, 5:45pm
                    Sorry, both of the versions I found online Curious Send a private message to Curious Oct 27 2008, 5:53pm
                        Yes, true. visualweasel Send a private message to visualweasel Oct 27 2008, 6:24pm
                            We didn't specify. N.E. Brigand Send a private message to N.E. Brigand Oct 27 2008, 7:58pm
    The Soup as soup a.s. Send a private message to a.s. Oct 27 2008, 11:07pm
        "The long alchemic processes of time" visualweasel Send a private message to visualweasel Oct 28 2008, 3:17pm
            You want my (pure nerd) opinion? a.s. Send a private message to a.s. Oct 28 2008, 11:25pm
            It depends on what you call a source. Curious Send a private message to Curious Oct 31 2008, 6:21pm
    The bones of the ox. Kimi Send a private message to Kimi Oct 28 2008, 9:49pm
        Excellent! :) // visualweasel Send a private message to visualweasel Oct 28 2008, 10:01pm


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