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"On Fairy-stories" and Romanticism.


Dec 4 2008, 7:23pm

Post #1 of 17 (548 views)
"On Fairy-stories" and Romanticism. Can't Post

It occurs to me that Tolkien's essay "On Fairy-stories" was heavily influenced by 18th and 19th century Romanticism, a revolutionary movement fueled by, among other things, a revival of interest in folk tales and fairy tales and other "romantic" pre-industrial literature (and a movement which had much to do with the rise of philology). In some ways the hippie movement of the 1960s, which embraced LotR, was a revival of Romanticism, at least to the extent that it rebelled against industrialization. So Tolkien was part of a romantic, anti-industrial tradition that started about the same time as the Industrial Revolution, and continues to this day. Seen in that light, suddenly it doesn't sound strange to call fantastic, escapist fairy-stories revolutionary literature!


Dec 4 2008, 10:47pm

Post #2 of 17 (441 views)
Ah yes! [In reply to] Can't Post

That explains why everybody accused me of being a hippy (often like that was a bad thing) even though I never participated in the sex or drug revolutions, and considered myself a very good girl who studiously avoided rebellion against my elders. It was because my elders were romantics! I was raised by my grandparents (not that far from Tolkien's generation) They read me romantic-era poetry for my bedtime stories, and made me wonderful, hand-crafted things, and together we loved Art Noveau much better than Art Deco, and fairies above superheroes (although as an adult I learned to love the fantasy that superhero stories weave) and protested the "progress" that despised the indigenous way of thinking that the white side of the family cherished even more than the red side, and wanted as much land kept wild as possible, and dared to have imaginations in a utilitarian world.

So by cleaving to my grandparents' world view, I only accidentally rebelled against the subsequent generation, the parents of my peers and the teachers in my schools. I flat-out did not understand what I kept doing wrong in other people's eyes, when I tried so hard to uphold the traditional values that I erroneously assumed that everyone held in common. Tolkien made sense to me. "The Great Gatsby" (assigned in high school) did not, and in fact the book shocked me horribly, seemed disturbingly out of touch with reality.

Tolkien said that "once you get past the drugs and filth" he found much in hippies that he could sympathize with. Of course--they rejected the society that had rejected him! Or at least that part of him that in most company he had to keep hidden close to his stubbornly ornate waistcoated chest.

Now I see "progress" falling on its face. Not technology or science; they're not the same thing. I love the science, for instance, by which Permaculture studies nature as a template for farms that practically take care of themselves. I love the technology that can enable a quadriplegic to take himself out for an automated wheelchair "stroll" on a bright spring day. No, it's the distortion of these, the Great God Progress, the assumption that the further you can get from the past the better, from ancestors and traditions and even the Earth herself, nay, even from God if you can get away with it, the more you can hack off your own roots the brighter the future, that's the concept that I deplore. This kind of progress has wrecked so much havoc that Galadriel could not have lifted a box large enough to bestow all of the Lorien-dust we need to set it all aright. I figured out pretty young that that "bright future" glowed with nuclear holocaust. Now that I am older I can say that we have mostly (though not certainly) sidestepped that future for the slower burn of global warming, but it's the same idea. If you lose your roots, you don't run free, you just fall over and wither. Progress had no compass to guide by beyond "away". And they called us escapist!

I feel that Tolkien, and all of the romantics, has been vindicated by history, even as it unfolds around us.

The Optimist believes that good always prevails in the end, so put on a happy face. Smile

The Pessimist believes that evil always prevails, so what are you grinning for? Frown

The Cynic believes that evil's somewhat stronger than good, but if you jump on the bandwagon you can dicker with it and at least make your own lot better. Wink

The Romantic believes that it doesn't matter which is stronger, you follow good because it's right, and even a brave last stand is no defeat, if you embrace it with good heart. Evil

I may not live up to my ideals all the time, but I'm always a Romantic.

Life is beautiful and dangerous! Beware! Enjoy!


Dec 4 2008, 10:51pm

Post #3 of 17 (436 views)
Wouldn't 'reactionary' be a better term? [In reply to] Can't Post

I'm sure good ole' Marx would call fantasy fiction: "an opiate for the elite"

Anyway, in Germany at least, the Romanticism inspired Nationalist feelings, and so did philology - consider Herder, the Grimm brothers, Schlegel, even Nietzsche. One wonders, whether the lack of interest in philology as a humanist branch of learning, had to do with the resentment towards German Culture because of the crimes comitted in WWII. Did the lack of critical regard of Tolkien, stem from sources similar to Karl Popper's denouncing of Hegel and even Plato?

"It is a long way, is it not, from Bree, where you did not like the look of me?" - Aragorn


Dec 5 2008, 12:04am

Post #4 of 17 (431 views)
Better than revolutionary? [In reply to] Can't Post

Sometimes it is hard to tell the difference between reactionary and revolutionary. Both want to change the present. Both may idealize the past. In Letter 52 Tolkien said he was either an unconstitutional monarchist or a philosophical, non-bomb-toting anarchist, implying that there wasn't much difference between the two: "My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs) -- or to 'unconstitutional' Monarchy."

Marx was no Romantic. Marx did not idealize the past. He did not consider feudalism any better than capitalism. In some ways, Marx welcomed the Industrial Revolution, because he thought it would lead to a classless society. He always thought communism would start in England, at the heart of industry, not agrarian Russia or China.

Romanticism did inspire nationalism, but at a time when nationalism meant rebellion against imperialism. Hitler gave nationalism a bad name, but during the 18th and 19th century the romantic nationalists were the underdogs. Even after World War I, President Wilson argued for the creation of self-determined states in the name of romantic nationalism.

The hippies were not national chauvinists, but like Tolkien and the original Romantic Nationalists they were anti-imperialist.

It's hard to keep all these "-isms" straight, but I do think Tolkien is part of a long tradition of push back against industrialization and modernization by romantics on both the right and left sides of the political spectrum. Ironically, labor and capitalists both support industrialization and modernization, although they fight over who should control the resulting wealth. So its not really a matter of left and right, revolutionary and reactionary, but more about pro- and anti-industrialization.


Dec 5 2008, 12:21am

Post #5 of 17 (429 views)
Unfortunately, sometimes [In reply to] Can't Post

Romantics do come off sounding as if all science and industry is bad or evil, and thereby marginalize themselves, rather than arguing for balance. I think we have to rely on science and technology to get us out of the predicaments industry has created; it is not science or technology or industry as such that is evil, but greed and anger and lust for power. But I'm not sure Tolkien believed anyone could resist temptation, and use the "Ring" for good rather than evil, or wisely rather than foolishly. Instead Tolkien found hope in his faith, hope that Someone would save us from ourselves.


Dec 5 2008, 6:22am

Post #6 of 17 (426 views)
Ahhh, yes, liberal revolutionary, but tempered somewhat ... [In reply to] Can't Post

..by a conservative, Catholic world view.

When I consider it in these terms, it seems either ambivalent or conflicted. But I think the catalyst behind this seeming duality is his strong personal humanity*. While expounding on the joys of romantic ideals, within the natural bounds of that framework they are also socially conservative. The difference between the rebellion of romanticism and that of the social revolution(s) of the '60's is that the former was trying to recapture an idealized past in response to the changes brought on by what was then considered "progressive" advancement - industrialization; whereas in the latter case industrialization was the established norm of the human condition (as we would consider it), and the romanticism of the "hippie"** movement was part of a broader set of progressive social changes. In this comparison, the situation is flipped on it's head, a bit.

* Please note I said "humanity", and not "humanitarianism".
** The latter movement, it might be said, gave the idea an entirely different expression - in a literal sense, as well as figurative one. ;)

The Black Knight Always Triumphs!!

-mwirkk :)

(This post was edited by mwirkk on Dec 5 2008, 6:32am)


Dec 5 2008, 2:50pm

Post #7 of 17 (414 views)
Wow, footnotes! [In reply to] Can't Post

Cool! Smile

I agree that the hippies of the 1960s differ in many respects from the 18th and 19th century Romanticists, but then so does Tolkien, who, after all, published LotR in 1955, not 1855. But they all share disillusionment with industrialization. Labor leaders, on the other hand, want to redistribute the benefits of industrialization to the workers, or as Obama famously put it, "spread the wealth around a little."

That point of view can encompass everything from Teddy Roosevelt's and Obama's mildly progressive income tax to Marx's dictatorship of the proletariat, and in its extreme forms can be revolutionary. But it is not anti-industrialization; on the contrary, it eagerly anticipates the benefits of industrialization. Thus Capitalists and Marxists and optimistic science fiction writers may, in their attitude towards industrialization, have more in common with each other than with Romanticists, Tolkien, the hippies, and other writers of pre-industrial fantasies and fairy-tales.


Dec 5 2008, 5:18pm

Post #8 of 17 (413 views)
"Do Nations Have Navels?" [In reply to] Can't Post

Nationalism was emerging about the same time. So how about "On Fairy-stories" and Romantic Nationalism? Especially as regards Ethnosymbolism. For example see Anthony D. Smith's "Myth and Memories of a Nation". The Grimm fairy tales are seen as an essential jump start to the German völkisch movement which helped create the German state, inspired Wagner, and, unfortunately, led to Nazism.

Wagner and Tolkien could both be seen as Romantic Nationalists, but there are significant differences. Wagner was optimistic about Man's future, Tolkien saw the Long Decline. Wagner viewed industry favorably, Tolkien did not. Wagner was building a German Myth to unite Germany, Tolkien was building an English Myth to distinguish England from its diverse Empire.

It was not just the past both were looking to (Romanticism), but to how that past related to their respective nations (thus Romantic Nationalism).

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.”


Dec 5 2008, 6:00pm

Post #9 of 17 (408 views)
Tolkien had great national pride. [In reply to] Can't Post

At least when it came to rural England, he did. And he originally proposed to write a mythology for England. But there's a difference between Romantic Nationalism and Nationalist Chauvinism.

Did Wagner view industry favorably? I'm surprised to hear that. It seems to me that he worried about the corrupting influence of industrialization.


Dec 5 2008, 6:06pm

Post #10 of 17 (413 views)
I wouldn't say reactionary [In reply to] Can't Post

A reactionary reacts rather than innovates. Although going back to older motifs, Tolkien built on that foundation quite a bit of innovation indeed, changing the face of fantasy forever. In some ways he approached the literary past in the same way that Art Noveau (a movement contemporary with Tolkien's heyday) approached art and artifacts. The expressed purpose of Art Noveau was to present what modern handicraft would look like if hand-crafting had continued uninterrupted by the industrial revolution--not so much a going backwards as taking off on a different split in the road.

As for "opiate for the elite"--I don't understand! Crazy This notion keeps coming up that somehow fantasy belongs to the elite, but I can't make heads or tails out of how anybody could come to that conclusion. Is this some academic theory that I don't know about? Academics are always good at theorizing about people that they don't actually socialize with and don't understand worth diddly-squat. Fantasy comes from folk culture, and folk culture is what we peasants cling to despite the elite constantly trying to pry us loose from it.

You don't find sophisticated designers for the rich and famous decorating on a unicorn theme, or catching back silk velvet drapes with fairy sculptures, or laying out dragon mosaics, or requesting mermaids in a custom-print. If you want all those motifs and other features of fantasy decor, you find it in the Dollar Store.

Remember, it was the elite intelligentsia who panned Tolkien's work when it first came out. Average Joes and Janes made it popular--the people who don't read book reviews. Or. let's take other fantasies. Would you expect to hear Conan the Barbarian discussed at a cocktail party? Would you see Elric of Melnibone prominently displayed in a mansion's book-case. Can you honestly picture the Queen of England reading about Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser? When the elite indulge in anything approaching fantasy at all, it's usually some parody of the genre, like Don Quixote or the works of James Branch Caball.

The people on top of the world don't need escape, consolation, and recovery the way that we do. Granted there are some very dedicated Tolkien fans of affluent means right here in TORn, but the ones I know about have individually confronted the darker side of reality in some way or another, and differ significantly from their demographic. Tolkien himself differed from his demographic, in that his class did not insulate him from poverty and orphanage in his youth, and that therefore he had more need of escape than his peers.

I submit that sheltered, privileged people have far less interest in true fantasy than those of us more knocked about by life. When the sheltered encounter it at all, they deligate it to the nursery and expect their young to outgrow it, or else they parody and prettify it past all recognition. (In saying so I do acknowledge that some rich and/or upper-class folk have in fact, like Tolkien, lead far from sheltered lives, and do have need of escape.)

If this notion of fantasy's elitism comes from Marxist theory, that's a mark against it right there. Marx had little respect for the likes of us. He thought that more privileged revolutionaries had to come to our rescue, that we were too stupid to take care of ourselves. His pitying contempt is all over everything he wrote. And if it's based on Maslow, he's an idiot. His theories about human motivation are so far off-base when it comes to poor people that I hardly know where to begin with him. Mind you, these armchair philosophers came up with a number of nifty ideas, but they didn't understand us, and they made fools of themselves pretending that they did.

That's another reason I'm an anarchist. Because the people on top, no matter how well meaning, haven't the foggiest idea of what we need or how to help us. This is one more example--they seem to think that we don't need or want fantasy! The streets fill up with drunks and druggies desperate for some vision beyond the here and now and they think we don't need fantasy?

(Fantasy differs from the drugs and drink because when you return from your vacation from reality, it leaves you stronger rather than weaker, more able to confront your problems rather than less. Boy do we ever need fantasy!)

Sure, fantasy stars princes and princesses, because those of us without any titles fantasize about role-reversals, about what we might do if we had the privileges But notice how often the princes and princesses start out blocked from their supposed heritages--all of those younger sons, those daughters raised by wicked stepmothers, lost children adopted by wolves or dwarves or strange old ladies in the forest. The tellers of fairytales have no more real idea of what it means to be noble-born than the elite have about peasant tastes.

Fantasy belongs to us, Sador. The elite cannot take it away from us. They have tried for centuries to educate it out of us, and always fail. We change its nature to elude them, we re-cast it in comic-book superheroes or modern urban legends, or things that we don't talk about unless we're really sure of the folks that we talk to, but it's ours and we aren't letting go.

Life is beautiful and dangerous! Beware! Enjoy!


Dec 5 2008, 6:56pm

Post #11 of 17 (405 views)
It is called folklore, after all. [In reply to] Can't Post

As in lore by the folk, for the folk.

But I'm not sure Tolkien was "folk." He had some folk-like characteristics -- grew up poor, earned his own living, never was rich until late in life due to LotR. But he also has some elite characteristics -- officer in the war, Oxford Don, proud of his Sutecliffe bloodlines. He was poor because his mother's religion left her without support, not because he was born to the servant or laborer class.

In LotR Tolkien does have a tendency to write about elites, with the exception of Sam, who rises into an elite station as a reward for his incredibly-faithful service to Frodo. But, as you note, Tolkien's readership is wide and popular, not elite.

And I think that is the key point. LotR is not written for the elite, and for the most part it is not read by the elite. It is written for and read by the folk. So let's go back to Marx. I think Marx would have dismissed fantasy, like religion, as an opiate for the masses, not the elite. And I'm sure Tolkien would have been happy to be dismissed by Marx.


Dec 5 2008, 8:30pm

Post #12 of 17 (400 views)
Agreed! [In reply to] Can't Post

Thank you, Curious! As for Tolkien not being folk, the fact that he drew on folklore informs his writing more than the speculations of someone who theorizes about what moves the proletariat without actually consulting our songs and stories. Hey, I'll gladly talk to anybody, of any strata of society, who makes an honest effort to understand me!

Life is beautiful and dangerous! Beware! Enjoy!


Dec 6 2008, 4:40pm

Post #13 of 17 (397 views)
Romanticism and industrialization [In reply to] Can't Post

I'm not sure Romanticism and industrialization are opposites in quite the way you describe. Maybe they are really just symptoms of bigger differences in the way people view the world - whether they prioritize the ordinary, daily life of the body, or whether they put greater focus on the interior life of the mind.

I think we had a discussion long, long ago on the old boards in which I argued that intellectual fashion tends to switch between each of these extremes from time to time, and that Romantic/idealistic thinking alternates with practical/realistic thinking turn and turn about. The Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, for example, was very practical, focused on the scientific revolution and also on theories of government which led to both the American and French revolutions. In reaction to that, the Romantic movement put all its energy into the interior life of the imagination - I wouldn't say it was anti-industrial, since it really wasn't a "practical" movement at all - rather than being against industrialization, the Romantics just ignored it and focused on the grandeur of nature as it affected human hearts and souls. 'Realism' as an intellectual movement in the later 19th century and on into the 20th, turned the tables again and put the focus back onto ordinary, physical life. And so it goes... Tolkien could be seen as a reactionary looking back to 19th century Romanticism, but equally he may end up looking more like the precursor of the next great romantic/idealistic movement. We just don't know yet what's going to inspire the next iteration!

So I guess my point would be that ideas are always "reacting" against some earlier thinking, but they are always also "revolutionary" since at each iteration the old ideas take off in new directions.

And I also agree with Dreamdeer that these fashions mostly happen in elite intellectual circles. Regular folk have to deal with the real world all the time anyway, and always seem to love stories that give them a chance to escape it for a while. The best of those stories allow us to come back to the physical world emotionally refreshed and ready to tackle our challenges. (But I think there are other, less wholesome "stories" - for example, the fantasies of beauty and popularity peddled by advertisers to make us buy things we don't need just because they speak to some emotional need within us - that we should be aware of too.)

Farewell, friends! I hear the call.
The ship’s beside the stony wall.
Foam is white and waves are grey;
beyond the sunset leads my way.
Bilbo's Last Song

(This post was edited by FarFromHome on Dec 6 2008, 4:48pm)


Dec 6 2008, 7:32pm

Post #14 of 17 (463 views)
I think you agree with [In reply to] Can't Post

the main points I was trying to make -- that Tolkien was part of a long Romantic tradition and that LotR is popular among the masses, not the elite.

Now I suppose that I did characterize Romanticism as anti-Industrialization. Perhaps that is not quite correct, although I'm really not sure, but if so I don't think it changes anything about Tolkien's participation in the Romantic tradition.

As for your characterization of Practical Realism and Idealistic Romanticism as fashions among the elite, I wasn't really arguing that point one way or the other, but I do dispute any notion that LotR is fashionable among the elite. LotR is a mass phenomenon, not an elite phenomenon. Industrialization may be a product of Practical Realism, and it certainly has affected the masses. Tolkien might argue that World War I and II were products of Practical Realism, and they certainly affected the masses. So although the elite may have more leisure for philosophical disputes, those disputes can affect the masses in a powerful way, for better or for worse.

N.E. Brigand

Dec 8 2008, 4:07am

Post #15 of 17 (398 views)
Tolkien, hippies, filth, and drugs. [In reply to] Can't Post

Tolkien said that "once you get past the drugs and filth" he found much in hippies that he could sympathize with.

For further reference, that comment appears in Letter #306, in a discussion of the state of the church:

There are, of course, various elements in the present situation, which are confused, though in fact distinct (as indeed in the behaviour of modern youth, part of which is inspired by admirable motives such as anti-regimentation, and anti-drabness, a sort of romantic longing for 'cavaliers', and is not necessarily allied to the drugs or the cults of fainéance and filth.

We're discussing The Lord of the Rings in the Reading Room, Oct. 15, 2007 - Mar. 22, 2009!

Join us Dec. 1-7 for "The Field of Cormallen".

How to find old Reading Room discussions.

N.E. Brigand

Dec 8 2008, 4:15am

Post #16 of 17 (416 views)
Tolkien once referred to himself as "reactionary". [In reply to] Can't Post

Besides the reference to "reaction" in "On Fairy-stories", there is Letter #53 to Christopher Tolkien, where having written that Churchill "looked like the biggest ruffian present" even next to "that bloodthirsty old murderer Josef Stalin" at the Tehran conference, Tolkien goes on: "I wonder (if we survive the war) if there will be any niche, even of sufferance, left for reactionary back numbers like me (and you)."

We're discussing The Lord of the Rings in the Reading Room, Oct. 15, 2007 - Mar. 22, 2009!

Join us Dec. 1-7 for "The Field of Cormallen".

How to find old Reading Room discussions.


Dec 8 2008, 2:57pm

Post #17 of 17 (397 views)
He might have meant that sarcastically... [In reply to] Can't Post

...because Soviets routinely referred, in propaganda, to anyone who opposed them as "reactionary'.

Life is beautiful and dangerous! Beware! Enjoy!


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