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On Fairy-stories 2.4: "Distance and a great abyss of time"

visualweasel
Rohan


Oct 30 2008, 2:49pm


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On Fairy-stories 2.4: "Distance and a great abyss of time" Can't Post

Apart from Note B and Open Discussion (tomorrow), the following questions should wrap up our conversation on the text of this section of the essay.


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But when we have done all that research – collection and comparison of the tales of many lands – can do; when we have explained many of the elements commonly found embedded in fairy-stories (such as stepmothers, enchanted bears and bulls, cannibal witches, taboos on names, and the like) as relics of ancient customs once practised in daily life, or of beliefs once held as beliefs and not as ‘fancies’ – there remains still a point too often forgotten: that is the effect produced now by these old things in the stories as they are.



1. This seems to be a critical point, which some of you have hinted at already: that whatever the original meaning of a fairy-tale element might have been, it is its effect on us, reading today, that Tolkien says is important. Why is this point too often forgotten? Is Tolkien addressing academics alone, or is he admonishing “pleasure-readers” too?


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For one thing they are now old, and antiquity has an appeal in itself. The beauty and horror of The Juniper Tree (Von dem Machandelboom), with its exquisite and tragic beginning, the abominable cannibal stew, the gruesome bones, the gay and vengeful bird-spirit coming out of a mist that rose from the tree, has remained with me since childhood; and yet always the chief flavour of that tale lingering in the memory was not beauty or horror, but distance and a great abyss of time, not measurable even by twe tusend Johr. Without the stew and the bones – which children are now too often spared in mollified versions of Grimm – that vision would largely have been lost. I do not think I was harmed by the horror in the fairytale setting, out of whatever dark beliefs and practices of the past it may have come. Such stories have now a mythical or total (unanalysable) effect, an effect quite independent of the findings of Comparative Folk-lore, and one which it cannot spoil or explain; they open a door on Other Time, and if we pass through, though only for a moment, we stand outside our own time, outside Time itself, maybe.



2. This may be a bit of a tangent, but Tolkien’s point that “antiquity has an appeal in itself” makes me wonder: what about science-fiction? Not all mythopoeia is backward-looking, is it? Can “fairy-stories” be set in the future, or be part of the genre we would normally call science-fiction? What about even in the present?

3. Tolkien is talking about existing fairy-tale canon, which generally is rooted in the old, the past, but can anybody think of any traditional folktales or fairy-stories set in the future? Or did that only emerge with “modern” writers?

4. Tolkien’s comment about The Juniper Tree — “and yet always the chief flavour of that tale lingering in the memory was not beauty or horror, but distance and a great abyss of time, not measurable even by twe tusend Johr” — is strongly redolent of The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion too. Comments?
5. Why are children too often spared the more gruesome elements, and why does Tolkien say they should not be? Parents, I suppose, would fall back on calling such stories “inappropriate” for children, but what does that really mean? Were traditional fairy-tales ever meant (or meant not) for children in the first place?

6. “Such stories have now a mythical or total (unanalysable) effect.” Is it really “unanalysable”, as Tolkien says? But Tolkien’s essay is a kind of attempt at analysis, isn’t it? Can “Comparative Folk-lore” really offer nothing to explain it? If so, what is the point of an academic lecture addressed to an audience of comparative folklorists? :)


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If we pause, not merely to note that such old elements have been preserved, but to think how they have been preserved, we must conclude, I think, that it has happened, often if not always, precisely because of this literary effect. It cannot have been we, or even the brothers Grimm, that first felt it. Fairy-stories are by no means rocky matrices out of which the fossils cannot be prised except by an expert geologist. The ancient elements can be knocked out, or forgotten and dropped out, or replaced by other ingredients with the greatest ease: as any comparison of a story with closely related variants will show. The things that are there must often have been retained (or inserted) because the oral narrators, instinctively or consciously, felt their literary ‘significance’.7 Even where a prohibition in a fairy-story is guessed to be derived from some taboo once practised long ago, it has probably been preserved in the later stages of the tale’s history because of the great mythical significance of prohibition. A sense of that significance may indeed have lain behind some of the taboos themselves. Thou shalt not – or else thou shall depart beggared into endless regret. The gentlest ‘nursery-tales’ know it. Even Peter Rabbit was forbidden a garden, lost his blue coat, and took sick. The Locked Door stands as an eternal Temptation.



7. So fairy-tale elements are not “fossils” — are they rather a renewable resource?

8. What is this “great mythical significance of prohibition” of which Tolkien speaks? Why would prohibition, as a general concept, convey or contain mythic significance? Are fairy-tales more often about resistance, in some fundamental way, than acceptance?

9. Anything else you’d like to bring up from this section (not including Note B)?


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, 3

Subject User Time
On Fairy-stories 2.4: "Distance and a great abyss of time" visualweasel Send a private message to visualweasel Oct 30 2008, 2:49pm
    "Well, I've wrestled with reality for 35 years, Doctor, and I'm happy to state I finally won out over it." Darkstone Send a private message to Darkstone Oct 30 2008, 5:12pm
        I thought of those, but ... visualweasel Send a private message to visualweasel Oct 30 2008, 6:03pm
            What if the myths are no longer considered sacred and true? Curious Send a private message to Curious Oct 30 2008, 6:17pm
                Point(s) taken. // visualweasel Send a private message to visualweasel Oct 30 2008, 6:19pm
            Well Darkstone Send a private message to Darkstone Oct 30 2008, 6:38pm
        "How are you, Mr. Wilson? Who in the encyclopedia wants to know?" // N.E. Brigand Send a private message to N.E. Brigand Oct 30 2008, 7:01pm
        *raises hand* Aunt Dora Baggins Send a private message to Aunt Dora Baggins Oct 30 2008, 8:40pm
            Good point! Whenever Tolkien speaks of the wonder Curious Send a private message to Curious Oct 30 2008, 10:21pm
    Thoughts. Curious Send a private message to Curious Oct 30 2008, 5:34pm
    Jumping on your tangent Aunt Dora Baggins Send a private message to Aunt Dora Baggins Oct 30 2008, 8:52pm
        "Where did you dig up that old fossil?" visualweasel Send a private message to visualweasel Oct 30 2008, 9:17pm
    At the risk of offending, Aunt Dora Baggins Send a private message to Aunt Dora Baggins Oct 30 2008, 10:06pm
        Interesting point of view visualweasel Send a private message to visualweasel Oct 30 2008, 10:27pm
            Watching violence and having it read to you Curious Send a private message to Curious Oct 31 2008, 12:17am
            I'm with you on that. Aunt Dora Baggins Send a private message to Aunt Dora Baggins Oct 31 2008, 4:09am
    Begging to differ sador Send a private message to sador Nov 2 2008, 10:24am

 
 
 

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