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On Fairy-stories 2.2: "A part of speech in a mythical grammar"


Oct 28 2008, 2:08pm

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On Fairy-stories 2.2: "A part of speech in a mythical grammar" Can't Post

Philology has been dethroned from the high place it once had in this court of inquiry. Max Müller’s view of mythology as a ‘disease of language’ can be abandoned without regret. Mythology is not a disease at all, though it may like all human things become diseased. You might as well say that thinking is a disease of the mind. It would be more near the truth to say that languages, especially modern European languages, are a disease of mythology. 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. And that is not surprising: such incantations might indeed be said to be only another view of adjectives, a part of speech in a mythical grammar. The mind that thought of light, heavy, grey, yellow, still, swift, also conceived of magic that would make heavy things light and able to fly, turn grey lead into yellow gold, and the still rock into a swift water. If it could do the one, it could do the other; it inevitably did both. When we can take green from grass, blue from heaven, and red from blood, we have already an enchanter’s power – upon one plane; and the desire to wield that power in the world external to our minds awakes. It does not follow that we shall use that power well upon any plane. We may put a deadly green upon a man’s face and produce a horror; we may make the rare and terrible blue moon to shine; or we may cause woods to spring with silver leaves and rams to wear fleeces of gold, and put hot fire into the belly of the cold worm. But in such ‘fantasy’, as it is called, new form is made; Faërie begins; Man becomes a sub-creator.

1. How and why has philology been dethroned? Any thoughts on the competing theories of mythology as a disease of language (Müller) or vice versa (Tolkien)?

2. Is Tolkien right to give the Adjective supremacy among the parts of speech? Might one make an equally strong case for the Verb or the Noun? If not, why not? Or is the proper level of “mythical granularity” yet larger than a single part of speech (e.g., Barfield gives the primacy to metaphor)?

3. Speaking of green-grass, I can’t help but wonder whether Tolkien is recalling his “green great dragon” (see Letters #163; appropriately enough, the letter was written to a poet). Could this childhood fuss over adjectives have elevated their later role in Tolkien’s imagination?

4. Tolkien seems to say that it is in the novel application of adjectives (that is to say, in ways different and unexpected from reality) that Faërie begins. How do we reconcile this with the attitude Tolkien has adopted throughout the essay, that Faërie may actually be real. How can it be if one of its fundamental characteristics is that it is not like reality?

5. Man, in Tolkien’s view, becomes a sub-creator in this very act of using language novelly. That is, Man’s sub-creation seems to be defined here specifically as different from God’s creation (i.e., reality). Would Tolkien call the writer of a realistic novel of manners (say, Henry James) a sub-creator? Or are sub-creators in Tolkien’s philosophy confined to “fantastic” literature?

An essential power of Faërie is thus the power of making immediately effective by the will the visions of ‘fantasy.’ Not all are beautiful or even wholesome, not at any rate the fantasies of fallen Man. And he has stained the elves who have this power (in verity or fable) with his own stain. This aspect of ‘mythology’ – sub-creation, rather than either representation or symbolic interpretation of the beauties and terrors of the world – is, I think, too little considered. Is that because it is seen rather in Faërie than upon Olympus? Because it is thought to belong to the ‘lower mythology’ rather than to the ‘higher’? There has been much debate concerning the relations of these things, of folk-tale and myth; but, even if there had been no debate, the question would require some notice in any consideration of origins, however brief.

6. A power of Faërie (i.e., a consequence), or a characteristic of it (e.g., precipitating it)? Taking this first sentence with the last paragraph, Tolkien seems to be saying that Faërie confers the power to describe fantasy, which in turn is the beginning of Faërie. Is this a circular argument? Again, their seems to be a dissonance between the assumption on the one hand that Faërie is real, and on the other that it is a created fantasy (“in verity or fable”). Can it or can’t it be both?

7. Man has stained the elves? How exactly?


At one time it was a dominant view that all such matter was derived from ‘nature-myths.’ The Olympians were personifications of the sun, of dawn, of night, and so on, and all the stories told about them were originally myths (allegories would have been a better word) of the greater elemental changes and processes of nature. Epic, heroic legend, saga, then localised these stories in real places and humanised them by attributing them to ancestral heroes, mightier than men and yet already men. And finally these legends, dwindling down, became folk-tales, Märchen, fairy-stories – nursery-tales.

That would seem to be the truth almost upside down. [..]

8. Doesn’t this “dominant view” apply to Tolkien’s pantheon in the Valaquenta? If not, why not? If so, then what do you make of Tolkien’s statement that this “seems to be the truth almost upside down”?

Let us take what looks like a clear case of Olympian nature-myth: the Norse god Thórr. His name is Thunder, of which Thórr is the Norse form; and it is not difficult to interpret his hammer, Miöllnir, as lightning. Yet Thórr has (as far as our late records go) a very marked character, or personality, which cannot be found in thunder or in lightning, even though some details can, as it were, be related to these natural phenomena: for instance, his red beard, his loud voice and violent temper, his blundering and smashing strength. None the less it is asking a question without much meaning, if we inquire: Which came first, nature-allegories about personalized thunder in the mountains, splitting rocks and trees; or stories about an irascible, not very clever, red-beard farmer, of a strength beyond common measure, a person (in all but mere stature) very like the Northern farmers, the bœndr by whom Thórr was chiefly beloved? To a picture of such a man Thórr may be held to have ‘dwindled’, or from it the god may be held to have been enlarged. But I doubt whether either view is right – not by itself, not if you insist that one of these things must precede the other. It is more reasonable to suppose that the farmer popped up in the very moment when Thunder got a voice and face; that there was a distant growl of thunder in the hills every time a story-teller heard a farmer in a rage.

9. So, the question of the origins of gods such as Thórr is sort of like the case of the chicken or the egg, is it? Can this be squared with Tolkien’s earlier view that invention, at some definite point and by some definite hand (even if we can no longer pinpoint it or him), is the most fundamental method by which fairy-stories arise?

10. Any further thoughts up to this point? (That is, through the sentence, “When the fairy-tale ceased, there would be just thunder, which no human ear had yet heard.”)

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
“On Fairy-stories” discussion 2008 – “Origins” – Part 1

Subject User Time
On Fairy-stories 2.2: "A part of speech in a mythical grammar" visualweasel Send a private message to visualweasel Oct 28 2008, 2:08pm
    Thoughts. Curious Send a private message to Curious Oct 28 2008, 3:56pm
    Well Darkstone Send a private message to Darkstone Oct 28 2008, 6:22pm
        Euhemerus visualweasel Send a private message to visualweasel Oct 28 2008, 7:00pm
    Some answers FarFromHome Send a private message to FarFromHome Oct 28 2008, 6:32pm
        A personal apologia visualweasel Send a private message to visualweasel Oct 28 2008, 7:17pm
            A personal apologia, but also a self-critique and a blueprint. Curious Send a private message to Curious Oct 28 2008, 9:23pm
                Yes, but ... visualweasel Send a private message to visualweasel Oct 28 2008, 9:57pm
                    In Letter 34 from 1938 Tolkien is already Curious Send a private message to Curious Oct 29 2008, 12:56am
                        Good point (and further digression) visualweasel Send a private message to visualweasel Oct 29 2008, 2:10pm
                            It seems to me Curious Send a private message to Curious Oct 29 2008, 3:41pm
                            And Curious Send a private message to Curious Oct 29 2008, 6:25pm
    Answers Curious Send a private message to Curious Oct 29 2008, 4:13pm
    A few thoughts, some to the point sador Send a private message to sador Nov 2 2008, 8:24am
    The name creates the thing. a.s. Send a private message to a.s. Nov 2 2008, 9:57pm
        A most beautiful misspelling! sador Send a private message to sador Nov 3 2008, 7:43am
            heh. Well, cough, I just wanted to see if anyone was reading... a.s. Send a private message to a.s. Nov 3 2008, 9:49am


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