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On Fairy-stories 2.5: "The elvish hone of antiquity" and "those who handed it down"


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:

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?

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

Subject User Time
On Fairy-stories 2.5: "The elvish hone of antiquity" and "those who handed it down" visualweasel Send a private message to visualweasel Oct 31 2008, 2:56pm
    Thoughts. Curious Send a private message to Curious Oct 31 2008, 5:04pm
    A few thoughts, some to the point sador Send a private message to sador Nov 2 2008, 11:12am
    wading in to say thanks and attempt a few answers... weaver Send a private message to weaver Nov 4 2008, 4:21am
        Thank you! :) // visualweasel Send a private message to visualweasel Nov 4 2008, 3:16pm
    Well Darkstone Send a private message to Darkstone Nov 5 2008, 8:36pm
        I disagree vehemently a.s. Send a private message to a.s. Nov 9 2008, 11:11pm
    Thanks for the discussion a.s. Send a private message to a.s. Nov 9 2008, 11:15pm
        My pleasure. :) // visualweasel Send a private message to visualweasel Nov 10 2008, 3:32pm
    Thanks for another fine week, wease. // N.E. Brigand Send a private message to N.E. Brigand Mar 22 2009, 4:49am


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