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The One Ring Forums: Tolkien Topics: Reading Room:
On Fairy-stories 2.5: "The elvish hone of antiquity" and "those who handed it down"

visualweasel
Rohan


Oct 31 2008, 2:56pm

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On Fairy-stories 2.5: "The elvish hone of antiquity" and "those who handed it down" Can't Post

Well, here we are at the conclusion of the second week of “On Fairy-stories”. Thank you to everyone who responded. The section on ORIGINS is fairly dense and theoretical (though I guess not much more so than the rest of the essay), so I appreciate those of who took on some of these abstruse ideas with me. Only one thing left before I open it up to any final thoughts, comments, or questions any of you may wish to bring up: Note B.

To refresh our memories, here’s the lead in: “The things [ancient fairy-tale elements] that are there must often have been retained (or inserted) because the oral narrators, instinctively or consciously, felt their literary ‘significance’.” This leads to a footnote, which in turn directs us finally to the Note proper:


Quote
Of course, these details, as a rule, got into the tales, even in the days when they were real practices, because they had a story-making value. If I were to write a story in which it happened that a man was hanged, that might show in later ages, if the story survived – in itself a sign that the story possessed some permanent, and more than local or temporary, value – that it was written at a period when men were really hanged, as a legal practice. Might: the inference would not, of course, in that future time be certain. For certainty on that point the future inquirer would have to know definitely when hanging was practised and when I lived. I could have borrowed the incident from other times and places, from other stories; I could simply have invented it. But even if this inference happened to be correct, the hanging-scene would only occur in the story, (a) because I was aware of the dramatic, tragic, or macabre force of this incident in my tale, and (b) because those who handed it down felt this force enough to make them keep the incident in. Distance of time, sheer antiquity and alienness, might later sharpen the edge of the tragedy or the horror; but the edge must be there even for the elvish hone of antiquity to whet it. The least useful question, therefore, for literary critics at any rate, to ask or to answer about Iphigeneia, daughter of Agamemnon, is: Does the legend of her sacrifice at Aulis come down from a time when human-sacrifice was commonly practised?



1. This rather long-winded explanation boils down to this: regardless of the “truth” of fairy-tale elements, their importance lies chiefly in their “story-making value”. Tolkien gives two prerequisites for such elements landing in the stories we still read today: 1) the original author knew their value, and 2) handers-down of the tale recognized it too. I can’t imagine anyone would care to disagree, but feel free to elaborate.

2. Do these same criteria apply to modern mythopoeia of the kind Tolkien, Lewis, and Williams were engaged in? To what extent?

3. Would the “handers-down” of Tolkien and Lewis be people like Ralph Bakshi, Rankin and Bass, Peter Jackson, and Andrew Adamson? Have they retained the proper essential elements of “story-making value”? What about comic-book adaptations? (And does anyone know whether there has ever been a film version of a Charles Williams novel?)

4. Tolkien contends that “distance of time [..] might later sharpen the edge of the tragedy,” but isn’t it just as likely to such a temporal remoteness could dull the edge? When would it do one or the other?


Quote
I say only ‘as a rule’, because it is conceivable that what is now regarded as a ‘story’ was once something different in intent: e.g. a record of fact or ritual. I mean ‘record’ strictly. A story invented to explain a ritual (a process that is sometimes supposed to have frequently occurred) remains primarily a story. It takes form as such, and will survive (long after the ritual evidently) only because of its story-values. In some cases details that now are notable merely because they are strange may have once been so everyday and unregarded that they were slipped in casually: like mentioning that a man ‘raised his hat’, or ‘caught a train’. But such casual details will not long survive change in everyday habits. Not in a period of oral transmission. In a period of writing (and of rapid changes in habits) a story may remain unchanged long enough for even its casual details to acquire the value of quaintness or queerness. Much of Dickens now has this air. One can open today an edition of a novel of his that was bought and first read when things were so in everyday life as they are in the story, though these everyday details are now already as remote from our daily habits as the Elizabethan period. But that is a special modern situation. The anthropologists and folk-lorists do not imagine any conditions of that kind. But if they are dealing with unlettered oral transmission, then they should all the more reflect that in that case they are dealing with items whose primary object was story-building, and whose primary reason for survival was the same. The Frog-King (see p. 74) is not a Credo, nor a manual of totem-law: it is a queer tale with a plain moral.



5. Are such “stories” – i.e., those that were originally “something different in intent” (e.g., The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle) – still worth reading as stories? It strikes me that the eschatological “stories” we were talking about yesterday might fall into this category too. Thoughts?

6. So, is it better to see those “casual elements” fall away from a story, as in an oral culture, or is it better for them to persist, as in a culture of writing? Tolkien seems to make no value judgment either way, but what do you think?

7. How different from the original we know today might Dickens have become had his novels been transmitted orally? Is “Dickens” even possible in an oral culture? Does a culture of writing offer anything to fairy-tales that oral transmission cannot? What about the reverse question?

8. Is there a middle ground (a middle-earth, as it were :) between oral and written transmission? The latter seems to assume a perfect preservation, which we know in almost never the case. What about bowdlerizations, abridgements, serialization, publishers’ errors, and even the kind of persistent revision Tolkien practiced himself — do these elements of written culture mimic the ways in which oral transmission works? (Even the very essay we’re discussion exists in several different versions, just as an oral lecture, delivered on several successive occasions, would do.)

9. And finally ... Open Discussion. This is my final post of the week, but anything you care to bring up or return to, please feel free. And thank you all again.


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, 4


Curious
Half-elven


Oct 31 2008, 5:04pm

Post #2 of 10 (216 views)
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Thoughts. [In reply to] Can't Post

Tolkien emphasizes the primacy of the story as a story, as opposed to an anthropological resource. He warns of the danger of assuming that elements of the story tell us anything definite about the time in which it was composed, or the people who composed it.

1. This rather long-winded explanation boils down to this: regardless of the “truth” of fairy-tale elements, their importance lies chiefly in their “story-making value”. Tolkien gives two prerequisites for such elements landing in the stories we still read today: 1) the original author knew their value, and 2) handers-down of the tale recognized it too. I can’t imagine anyone would care to disagree, but feel free to elaborate.

Correct, and because of that Tolkien warns us not to assume that an old story tells us anything definite about the people who composed it.

2. Do these same criteria apply to modern mythopoeia of the kind Tolkien, Lewis, and Williams were engaged in? To what extent?

As Tolkien notes with Dickens, even recent literature can take on this air of strangeness, but ancient literature, or recent literature composed of ancient elements, dependent upon an oral tradition, is far less trustworthy as an anthropological resource. Modern mythopoeia, because it incorporates these ancient elements, is subject to the same problem. Those who know nothing about the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War are unlikely to learn much about those times by reading LotR, even though LotR was composed during those times. It is precisely because fairy-stories are not topical that they do not tell us much about the times in which they were written, at least not unless we become intimately familiar with those times from other sources, and then speculate about the resonance of such a story in such a time.

3. Would the “handers-down” of Tolkien and Lewis be people like Ralph Bakshi, Rankin and Bass, Peter Jackson, and Andrew Adamson? Have they retained the proper essential elements of “story-making value”? What about comic-book adaptations? (And does anyone know whether there has ever been a film version of a Charles Williams novel?)

Tolkien influenced a whole fantasy genre, not just those people who had the authority to adapt his works. But many of the best followers of Tolkien emulated him not by setting stories in a slightly-altered version of Middle-earth, but by drawing upon the same sources that inspired Tolkien, or entirely different sources from other cultures, and writing more fairy-stories for adults. Thus one of the best hand downs from Tolkien came from Ursula Le Guin, even though her Earthsea tales differ in many respects from LotR.

4. Tolkien contends that “distance of time [.] might later sharpen the edge of the tragedy,” but isn’t it just as likely to such a temporal remoteness could dull the edge? When would it do one or the other?

Human sacrifice might seem more horrible now than it did at the time; so might being drawn and quartered; so might a relatively simple hanging to people in certain countries -- although Saddam Hussein was executed by hanging quite recently. Temporal remoteness might dull the edge of such horrors if we read about them in a history book, but would increase the horror in a well-composed story which places us in a time and place where such things happen and the horror feels immediate.

5. Are such “stories” – i.e., those that were originally “something different in intent” (e.g., The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle) – still worth reading as stories? It strikes me that the eschatological “stories” we were talking about yesterday might fall into this category too. Thoughts?

Some histories are quite exciting and worth reading as stories; others not so much. Some religious myths also retain their value as stories long after people no longer hold them to be sacred or true. Again, others not so much.

Tolkien's point, I believe, is that some of what we now read as stories were written as historical records, and so have more value to anthropologists and historians than pure stories. The same is not true of eschatological stories, although they may not have been originally written as fiction, but instead recorded a believer's vision or prophecy. That vision or prophecy is unlikely to give us a trustworthy picture of the times in which the visionary lived.

6. So, is it better to see those “casual elements” fall away from a story, as in an oral culture, or is it better for them to persist, as in a culture of writing? Tolkien seems to make no value judgment either way, but what do you think?

I think Tolkien liked and respected the pre-literary oral tradition, but we do not live in that kind of society any more. Furthermore Tolkien must have been grateful to those who chose to record stories from oral traditions, otherwise he would have had little to study. Personally, I would rather live in a literate society, although I recognize that we often underestimate the sophistication of illiterate societies with strong oral traditions.

7. How different from the original we know today might Dickens have become had his novels been transmitted orally? Is “Dickens” even possible in an oral culture? Does a culture of writing offer anything to fairy-tales that oral transmission cannot? What about the reverse question?

Dickens would have been more likely to compose poems in an oral culture, because poems are an aid to memory. But Dickens was very fond of telling stories orally, and unlike some novelists Dickens translates quite well to the spoken word.

A culture of writing preserves fairy-stories that might otherwise be lost, and particularly the work of individual, gifted authors. A culture of writing allows one generation to learn from previous generations much more easily than in a culture of speaking.

An oral tradition teaches storytellers to have a good memory and stage presence, leads to memorable songs and poems, and causes less-memorable works to quickly become a lost memory. An oral tradition also enriches the spoken language generally, since speaking well becomes extremely important. An oral tradition also encourages creativity, rather than freezing words in time.

8. Is there a middle ground (a middle-earth, as it were :) between oral and written transmission? The latter seems to assume a perfect preservation, which we know in almost never the case. What about bowdlerizations, abridgements, serialization, publishers’ errors, and even the kind of persistent revision Tolkien practiced himself — do these elements of written culture mimic the ways in which oral transmission works? (Even the very essay we’re discussion exists in several different versions, just as an oral lecture, delivered on several successive occasions, would do.)

In my Irish Literature course in college I may have encountered that middle ground. At one time, at least, Ireland was a land with a rich oral tradition, but also with some of the most gifted writers in the English language. The oral tradition greatly enriched the writing. The average Irishman had far more words in his vocabulary than the average literate American. From those times and places where a rich oral tradition exists side by side with a rich written tradition come some of the greatest writing in history -- Homer, Virgil, Shakespeare, Yeats. As the oral tradition dies, a great well of inspiration for writers dries up for ever. I would rather have a world with universal literacy, don't get me wrong -- and yet much is lost when that happens.

Altered written documents generally do not improve upon the original, although there are some exceptions when a story is judiciously edited by a gifted editor, or by the author himself. The problem is that the changes are often not made in order to improve the story, but by mistake. In an oral tradition, only the most memorable changes survive. In a written tradition changes survive whether they are memorable or not.


9. And finally ... Open Discussion. This is my final post of the week, but anything you care to bring up or return to, please feel free. And thank you all again.

Nothing further, except to thank you for leading the discussion.



(This post was edited by Curious on Oct 31 2008, 5:10pm)


sador
Half-elven

Nov 2 2008, 11:12am

Post #3 of 10 (198 views)
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A few thoughts, some to the point [In reply to] Can't Post

1. This rather long-winded explanation boils down to this: regardless of the “truth” of fairy-tale elements, their importance lies chiefly in their “story-making value”. Tolkien gives two prerequisites for such elements landing in the stories we still read today: 1) the original author knew their value, and 2) handers-down of the tale recognized it too. I can’t imagine anyone would care to disagree, but feel free to elaborate.
'The original author' is quite different from the original storyteller. Someone must recognise the fairy-tale value of the story, but not necessarily by the first to hand it down.

3. Would the “handers-down” of Tolkien and Lewis be people like Ralph Bakshi, Rankin and Bass, Peter Jackson, and Andrew Adamson? Have they retained the proper essential elements of “story-making value”? What about comic-book adaptations? (And does anyone know whether there has ever been a film version of a Charles Williams novel?)
Yes, of course. And judging by the success of Jackson's adaption (even among lifelong LotR fans), he was far more successful in the handing-down than Bakshi was, despite (because) the liberties he took with the storyline.

4. Tolkien contends that “distance of time [.] might later sharpen the edge of the tragedy,” but isn’t it just as likely to such a temporal remoteness could dull the edge? When would it do one or the other?
Curious is right; and I suspect Tolkien took hanging as an example because Captal Punishment seemed likely to be abolished. The edge of tragedy is sharpened for someone who recoils in horror at the thought of hanging an adulterer, as opposed to someone who believes this is a just and proper punishment.
And the distance of time usually makes the tragedy less natural to the reader.

7. How different from the original we know today might Dickens have become had his novels been transmitted orally? Is “Dickens” even possible in an oral culture? Does a culture of writing offer anything to fairy-tales that oral transmission cannot? What about the reverse question?
Dickens is, but mainly because he tells us fairy-tales; Miss Havisham does not properly belong in any other genre, and neither does Heathcliff (taking Bronte). Thackeray might barely have survived (though probably not), but Trollope, Jane Austin and George Eliott wouldn't. Hardy could have. Quite a few others didn't, even in our culture.
Oral transmission depends very much on the transmittor himself - which might be both an advantage and a disadvantage.

9. And finally ... Open Discussion. This is my final post of the week, but anything you care to bring up or return to, please feel free. And thank you all again.
As you've written the 'thank you' before I posted a single answer to any of your threads, I don't acknowledge your thanks.
But I do offer you mine.

"If this be jest, then it is too bitter for laughter" - Aragorn


weaver
Half-elven

Nov 4 2008, 4:21am

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wading in to say thanks and attempt a few answers... [In reply to] Can't Post

 
I really enjoyed reading through your discussions this week, though I could not contribute until now. Here's a few thoughts on two of your final questions, for what it's worth...

3. Would the “handers-down” of Tolkien and Lewis be people like Ralph Bakshi, Rankin and Bass, Peter Jackson, and Andrew Adamson? Have they retained the proper essential elements of “story-making value”? What about comic-book adaptations? (And does anyone know whether there has ever been a film version of a Charles Williams novel?)

It seems to me that each adaptation is like a translation -- the nuance is lost in some cases, or filtered through the eyes/culture of the translator. In the case of Jackson, the whole concept of kingship as Tolkien conceived of it really is not part of his films. The focus is more on "leadership", without the kingly trappings/context. There's still value in a story that explores the qualities of leadership, to be sure, but it's not the same as the rightful, healing King that Tolkien wrote of, who could bridge Faerie and the real world as Darkstone put it. The essential element of the right kind of leader coming into power is still there, but how he gets there, and what makes him worthy of it isn't entirely the same. Tolkien might have thought something essential lost in the translation, to be sure, though it works pretty well (IMHO) in terms of presenting the story in these times.

4. Tolkien contends that “distance of time [.] might later sharpen the edge of the tragedy,” but isn’t it just as likely to such a temporal remoteness could dull the edge? When would it do one or the other?

Doesn't it depend on your point of view or the times you live in or the age you are? Looking at things on the level of one's "personal story", some things I thought to be big tragedies in my past no longer seem that way when I look back on them now. On the other hand, other experiences I had at a young age had a profound effect on me that has only increased over time, because they set a certain pattern in motion that has become a bigger and bigger part of my life as I've repeated it. In one case, temporal remoteness dulled an experience, in the other, it sharpened it.

There's a lot in this essay but I understand it better thanks to you and our other leaders so far. Your efforts are much appreciated!



Weaver



visualweasel
Rohan


Nov 4 2008, 3:16pm

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Thank you! :) // [In reply to] Can't Post

 

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, 4, 5


Darkstone
Immortal


Nov 5 2008, 8:36pm

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Well [In reply to] Can't Post

In grave Quintilian’s copious works we find
The justest rules and clearest method join’d.

-Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism


1. This rather long-winded explanation boils down to this: regardless of the “truth” of fairy-tale elements, their importance lies chiefly in their “story-making value”. Tolkien gives two prerequisites for such elements landing in the stories we still read today: 1) the original author knew their value, and 2) handers-down of the tale recognized it too. I can’t imagine anyone would care to disagree, but feel free to elaborate.

Sounds like Tolkien has been reading the works of Quintilianus. (Oddly enough the favorite writer of Martin Luther.) Anyway, yeah, fairy-tale elements are important. But they can become clichés. Orcs, Elves, Dwarves. Kings, Princesses, peasant lads. But at some point they lose their meaning and thus lose their value by over-use. Then you go through stages of subversion, deconstruction, and then reconstruction and the elements become meaningful again. Look at Batman, from the Golden Age comic, to the Silver Age, to the campy 1960s TV series, to Burton’s 1989 version, to the 1990s Cartoon Network version, and finally Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins (2005).


2. Do these same criteria apply to modern mythopoeia of the kind Tolkien, Lewis, and Williams were engaged in?

Absolutely.


To what extent?

To the same extent.


3. Would the “handers-down” of Tolkien and Lewis be people like Ralph Bakshi, Rankin and Bass, Peter Jackson, and Andrew Adamson?

And Terry Brooks and Gary Gygax and Robert Aspirin and JK Rowling. Note the subversion, deconstruction, and reconstruction.


Have they retained the proper essential elements of “story-making value”?

They touch an audience, don’t they?


What about comic-book adaptations?

Yep.


(And does anyone know whether there has ever been a film version of a Charles Williams novel?)

Not specifically, but compare Spielberg’s serial inspired Indian Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) with William’s very 1930s pulpish War in Heaven. (“The telephone bell was ringing wildly, but without result, since there was no-one in the room but the corpse...")


4. Tolkien contends that “distance of time [.] might later sharpen the edge of the tragedy,” but isn’t it just as likely to such a temporal remoteness could dull the edge?

Nah.


When would it do one or the other?

The sharp edge would be caused by the extra tension of the remoteness, the unfamiliar time and place providing an uneasy setting for a familiar human drama. On the other hand a tragedy in an overly familiar setting and time could come off as more banal than tragic. For example, the title of Theodore Dreiser’s novel “An American Tragedy” is often seen as an intentional oxymoron.


5. Are such “stories” – i.e., those that were originally “something different in intent” (e.g., The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle) – still worth reading as stories?

Sure. Cervante’s Don Quixote, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, More’s Utopia, Huxley’s Brave New World, and, by Tolkien’s letters, even Lord of the Rings were written for a different intent other than just telling a story.


It strikes me that the eschatological “stories” we were talking about yesterday might fall into this category too. Thoughts?

Yep.


6. So, is it better to see those “casual elements” fall away from a story, as in an oral culture, or is it better for them to persist, as in a culture of writing?

Often the casual elements are what make the story rich and intriguing.


Tolkien seems to make no value judgment either way, but what do you think?

But Tolkien uses those casual elements in his own story, like the Lay of Luthien and the “the crowns of the seven kings and the rods of the five wizards”. These are elements meaningless to the reader, but they enrich the story and hint of the deep background behind it. And I think that mystery is a very large attraction of LOTR and other such stories. Stories which explain all with endless exposition are tedious.


7. How different from the original we know today might Dickens have become had his novels been transmitted orally?

Some of his chapters would be shorter and the last paragraphs a lot less verbose.


Is “Dickens” even possible in an oral culture?

Sure.


Does a culture of writing offer anything to fairy-tales that oral transmission cannot?

Message board discussion. And we can see the evolution of the composition of the tale.


What about the reverse question?

Mistakes.


8. Is there a middle ground (a middle-earth, as it were :) between oral and written transmission?

Text speak?


The latter seems to assume a perfect preservation, which we know in almost never the case. What about bowdlerizations, abridgements, serialization, publishers’ errors, and even the kind of persistent revision Tolkien practiced himself — do these elements of written culture mimic the ways in which oral transmission works?

We usually still have the original text. The original orator is usually long dead.


(Even the very essay we’re discussion exists in several different versions, just as an oral lecture, delivered on several successive occasions, would do.)

Revision leads to the final insight.


9. And finally ... Open Discussion. This is my final post of the week, but anything you care to bring up or return to, please feel free. And thank you all again.

Taco Bell has great burritos.

******************************************
The audacious proposal stirred his heart. And the stirring became a song, and it mingled with the songs of Gil-galad and Celebrian, and with those of Feanor and Fingon. The song-weaving created a larger song, and then another, until suddenly it was as if a long forgotten memory woke and for one breathtaking moment the Music of the Ainur revealed itself in all glory. He opened his lips to sing and share this song. Then he realized that the others would not understand. Not even Mithrandir given his current state of mind. So he smiled and simply said "A diversion.”



a.s.
Valinor


Nov 9 2008, 11:11pm

Post #7 of 10 (136 views)
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I disagree vehemently [In reply to] Can't Post


Quote
Taco Bell has great burritos.





At best, Taco Bell has mediocre burritos.

But we are all entitled to our individual gastronomical tastes, of course.

Angelic

a.s.

"an seileachan"

"If any one had begun to rehearse a History, say not I know it well; and if he relate it not right and fully, shake not thine head, twinkle not thine eyes, and snigger not thereat; much less maist thou say, 'It is not so; you deceive yourself.'"

From: Youth's Behaviour, or, Decency in Conversation amongst Men, composed in French by Grave Persons, for the use and benefit of their Youth. The tenth impression. London, 1672


Call Her Emily


a.s.
Valinor


Nov 9 2008, 11:15pm

Post #8 of 10 (136 views)
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Thanks for the discussion [In reply to] Can't Post

Boy, this is just what I like, a whole bunch of interesting and erudite conversations going on in the RR all at the same time.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending upon your point of view) I have been unable to keep up this week and am now spending some time on catch up, although I'm not going to be able to contribute much of substance.

So I have nothing to add but thanks for the thoughtful questions. It is helpful when trying to catch hold of thoughts and concepts and points in this interesting--but at times elusive--essay.

a.s.

"an seileachan"

"If any one had begun to rehearse a History, say not I know it well; and if he relate it not right and fully, shake not thine head, twinkle not thine eyes, and snigger not thereat; much less maist thou say, 'It is not so; you deceive yourself.'"

From: Youth's Behaviour, or, Decency in Conversation amongst Men, composed in French by Grave Persons, for the use and benefit of their Youth. The tenth impression. London, 1672


Call Her Emily


visualweasel
Rohan


Nov 10 2008, 3:32pm

Post #9 of 10 (108 views)
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My pleasure. :) // [In reply to] Can't Post

 

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, 4, 5


N.E. Brigand
Half-elven


Mar 22 2009, 4:49am

Post #10 of 10 (103 views)
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Thanks for another fine week, wease. // [In reply to] Can't Post

 

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