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The One Ring Forums: Tolkien Topics: Reading Room:
On Fairy-stories 2.3: "But what of the banana skin?"


Oct 29 2008, 2:34pm

Views: 973
On Fairy-stories 2.3: "But what of the banana skin?" Can't Post

Something really ‘higher’ is occasionally glimpsed in mythology: Divinity, [..] Yet these things [mythology and religion] have in fact become entangled – or maybe they were sundered long ago and have since groped slowly, through a labyrinth of error, through confusion, back towards re-fusion. Even fairy-stories as a whole have three faces: the Mystical towards the Supernatural; the Magical towards Nature; and the Mirror of scorn and pity towards Man. The essential face of Faërie is the middle one, the Magical. But the degree in which the others appear (if at all) is variable, and may be decided by the individual story-teller. The Magical, the fairy-story, may be used as a Mirour de l’Omme; and it may (but not so easily) be made a vehicle of Mystery. This at least is what George MacDonald attempted, achieving stories of power and beauty when he succeeded, as in The Golden Key (which he called a fairy-tale); and even when he partly failed, as in Lilith (which he called a romance).

1. At this point in his life, Tolkien still calls MacDonald’s The Golden Key successful, a “story of power and beauty,” but by the middle 1960’s, Tolkien had changed his mind about its author. Invited to write an introduction to a new edition of The Golden Key, Tolkien embarked on the project but quickly found the story no longer to his liking. He wrote in a note to Clyde Kilby: “If I had gone on I should only have written a severely critical or ‘anti’ essay on G. M[acDonald].” Why the change of heart? The Golden Key, and indeed most of MacDonald’s work, seems to fit Tolkien’s theories of fairy-story as expounded here in “OFS”, no?

2. What’s the difference between the Mystical and the Supernatural? With “Mystery”, does Tolkien have the religious sense in mind, or a more conventional meaning?


No one, I fancy, would discredit a story that the Archbishop of Canterbury slipped on a banana skin merely because he found that a similar comic mishap had been reported of many people, and especially of elderly gentlemen of dignity. He might disbelieve the story, if he discovered that in it an angel (or even a fairy) had warned the Archbishop that he would slip if he wore gaiters on a Friday. He might also disbelieve the story, if it was stated to have occurred in the period between, say, 1940 and 1945. So much for that. It is an obvious point, and it has been made before; but I venture to make it again (although it is a little beside my present purpose), for it is constantly neglected by those who concern themselves with the origins of tales.

But what of the banana skin? Our business with it really only begins when it has been rejected by historians. It is more useful when it has been thrown away. The historian would be likely to say that the banana-skin story ‘became attached to the Archbishop’, [..]. That way of putting it is harmless enough, in what is commonly known as ‘history’. But is it really a good description of what is going on and has gone on in the history of story-making? I do not think so. I think it would be nearer the truth to say that the Archbishop became attached to the banana skin [..]. Better still: I would say that [..] the Archbishop [was] put into the Pot, in fact got into the Soup. [..]

3. What do you think of the banana skin story? Does it seem a suitable illustration, or out of place? Is Tolkien’s tone mocking or sarcastic? But he is trying to make a serious point that historical figures (or even nameless, i.e., unremembered and unremarkable, people) end up in the Pot of Soup, along with more important people (e.g., Arthur) and fairy-tale motifs. How effective is Tolkien’s argument, for you?

It seems fairly plain that Arthur, once historical (but perhaps as such not of great importance), was also put into the Pot. There he was boiled for a long time, together with many other older figures and devices, of mythology and Faërie, and even some other stray bones of history (such as Alfred’s defence against the Danes), until he emerged as a King of Faërie. The situation is similar in the great Northern ‘Arthurian’ court of the Shield-Kings of Denmark, the Scyldingas of ancient English tradition. King Hrothgar and his family have many manifest marks of true history, far more than Arthur; yet even in the older (English) accounts of them they are associated with many figures and events of fairy-story: they have been in the Pot. But I refer now to the remnants of the oldest recorded English tales of Faërie (or its borders), in spite of the fact that they are little known in England, not to discuss the turning of the bear-boy into the knight Beowulf, or to explain the intrusion of the ogre Grendel into the royal hall of Hrothgar. I wish to point to something else that these traditions contain: a singularly suggestive example of the relation of the ‘fairy-tale element’ to gods and kings and nameless men, illustrating (I believe) the view that this element does not rise or fall, but is there, in the Cauldron of Story, waiting for the great figures of Myth and History, and for the yet nameless He or She, waiting for the moment when they are cast into the simmering stew, one by one or all together, without consideration of rank or precedence.

4. Having elements of fairy-story become attached to a historical figure is evidence of that figure’s having been boiled in the Pot of Soup. How does one get into the Pot in the first place? Does an inventor, a sub-creator, at some point make a conscious decision to do this? Or does it “just happen” to some figures, but not to others? Why?

The great enemy of King Hrothgar was Froda, King of the Heathobards. Yet of Hrothgar’s daughter Freawaru we hear echoes of a strange tale – not a usual one in Northern heroic legend: the son of the enemy of her house, Ingeld son of Froda, fell in love with her and wedded her, disastrously. But that is extremely interesting and significant. [..] History often resembles ‘Myth’, because they are both ultimately of the same stuff. If indeed Ingeld and Freawaru never lived, or at least never loved, then it is ultimately from nameless man and woman that they get their tale, or rather into whose tale they have entered. They have been put into the Cauldron, where so many potent things lie simmering agelong on the fire, among them Love-at-first-sight. So too of the god. If no young man had ever fallen in love by chance meeting with a maiden, and found old enmities to stand between him and his love, then the god Frey would never have seen Gerdr the giant’s daughter from the high-seat of Odin. But if we speak of a Cauldron, we must not wholly forget the Cooks. There are many things in the Cauldron, but the Cooks do not dip in the ladle quite blindly. Their selection is important. The gods are after all gods, and it is a matter of some moment what stories are told of them. So we must freely admit that a tale of love is more likely to be told of a prince in history, indeed is more likely actually to happen in an historical family whose traditions are those of golden Frey and the Vanir, rather than those of Odin the Goth, the Necromancer, glutter of the crows, Lord of the Slain. Small wonder that spell means both a story told, and a formula of power over living men.

5. Is the allusion to Froda of any larger significance here, or is it mere coincidence? Frodo was still Bingo in the inchoate Lord of the Rings at the time Tolkien first delivered the lecture (though there was another incidental Frodo), but The Lord of the Rings was nearing completion by the time Tolkien revised “OFS” for Essays Presented to Charles Williams.

6. Likewise, does Tolkien have Necromancers on his mind because he just finished The Hobbit, which happens to have one of them at its margins?

7. “History often resembles ‘Myth’, because they are both ultimately of the same stuff.” Where does Faërie fit into that? Faërie isn’t quite the same as Myth, is it? Is it “of the same stuff”, or not?

8. Anything else you would like to discuss up to this point? (That is, through “Small wonder that spell means both a story told, and a formula of power over living men.”)

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, 2

Subject User Time
On Fairy-stories 2.3: "But what of the banana skin?" visualweasel Send a private message to visualweasel Oct 29 2008, 2:34pm
    More like flypaper than banana skin Darkstone Send a private message to Darkstone Oct 29 2008, 9:33pm
    Bananas were quite scarce in England during WWII. N.E. Brigand Send a private message to N.E. Brigand Oct 29 2008, 11:33pm
        Yes, and ... visualweasel Send a private message to visualweasel Oct 30 2008, 3:16pm
    Regarding The Golden Key FarFromHome Send a private message to FarFromHome Oct 30 2008, 9:31am
        I just read it online, where it is readily available. Curious Send a private message to Curious Oct 30 2008, 2:04pm
            Correct; it's not copyrighted. visualweasel Send a private message to visualweasel Oct 30 2008, 3:05pm
    Thoughts. Curious Send a private message to Curious Oct 30 2008, 11:17am
        Not in the original lecture visualweasel Send a private message to visualweasel Oct 30 2008, 3:04pm
            I think he was hesitant to bring up the Gospels, but Curious Send a private message to Curious Oct 30 2008, 6:21pm
    Did Tolkien believe that, deep down, all peoples are monotheistic? N.E. Brigand Send a private message to N.E. Brigand Oct 31 2008, 3:53am
        I don't see the monotheism FarFromHome Send a private message to FarFromHome Oct 31 2008, 6:16pm
        What did Lévi-Strauss Curious Send a private message to Curious Oct 31 2008, 6:34pm
            Lévi-Strauss is a structuralist FarFromHome Send a private message to FarFromHome Nov 4 2008, 5:46pm
    mystical perception of the supernatural a.s. Send a private message to a.s. Nov 2 2008, 10:29pm


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