View Full Version : On Fairy-Stories
12-08-2003, 10:18 AM
Tolkien's definition of Fairy Stories in this excellent essay excludes many tales that are traditionally inserted into Fairy Storybooks.
JRR Tolkien:- Most good 'fairy-stories' are about adventures of men in the Perilous Realm or upon its shadowy marches. Naturally so; for if elves are true, and really exist independently of our tales about them, then this also is certainly true; elves are not primarily concerned with us nor we with them. Our fates are sundered, and our paths seldom meet. Even upon the borders of Faerie we encounter them only at some chance crossing of the ways.
The definition of a fairy-story - what it is, or what it should be - does not depend on any definition or historical account of elf or fairy, but upon the nature of Faerie: the Perilous Realm itself, and the air that blows in that country..... a fairy-story is one which touches on or uses Faerie, whatever its own main purpose may be: satire, adventure, morality, fantasy. Faerie itself may perhaps most nearly be translated by Magic - but it is magic of a peculiar mood and power, at the furthest pole from the vulgar devices of the laborious, scientific magician. There is one proviso: if there is any satire present in the tale, one thing must not be made fun of, the magic itself. That must in the story be taken seriously, neither laughed at nor explained away."
This is but a taste of the definition, which goes on to say why such things as beast-tales and dream-tales do not qualify, so reading the essay is a must - especially for those who want to write their own fairy-stories.
Here's a little challenge.
Using Tolkien's definitions, do the following more recent film productions (and others) qualify as Fairy-Stories? If not, why not?
Highlander (the first film alone, then as part of the whole trilogy)
Santa Claus the Movie
Miracle on 34th Street
Also, (in the light of Walter's post) PJ's LoTR
12-08-2003, 07:35 PM
Tolkien: ...but it is magic of a peculiar mood and power, at the furthest pole from the vulgar devices of the laborious, scientific magician.Does the film of LotR err too much towards 'vulgar devices' with Gildor Inglorion, The Old Forest and the Barrow Downs absent? In the original story they provided the 'margins' of faerie for the down-to-earth, practical hobbits: mysterious elves, malevolent forest, jolly, indomitable Tom with his riverdaughter, and the sinister, deadly wight.
Labyrinth had a definite introduction. An incantation gave the goblins the right to take the child, and the heroine had to then contest with the goblin king, solving his labyrinth which mysteriously appeared where her own world had been. In the end it looked like it might have been a dream, but the creatures of the magical land returned. The underlying truth that is glimpsed through this story is that life is not fair. When the heroine gets to grips with this truth, she becomes an overcomer "You have no power over me". Faerie? - I think so.
I will mention the two Christmas ones (as it's December).
Santa Claus the movie (with the Dudley Moore Elf) used the classic Father Christmas fable and added a machine-loving Elf. The failure of his mini industrial revolution made him feel ostracised and he got into a deal with a 'Dark Lord' in the form of an evil toy manufacturer to make a magical sweet. For me, this failed as a fairy-story because it lacked wonder and joy, and supplied a 'magic' that was plainly just a plot device. Technically, it could probably pass, as it is a story about Father Christmas, but for me it was just too ordinary.
Miracle on 34th street was much cleverer. The watcher has to decide whether the man in the dock is Father Christmas (sorry - Santa Claus); but no unexplainable magic is offered. However, the story is so well crafted that, as well as disbelief being suspended for the storyline itself, there is a secondary 'belief' that is asked of the audience within the story, and by proxy - those who are watching too; and that is to believe that the man in the dock for his sanity is the real Santa. This film left you wondering (mode = disbelief still suspended). Is he from faerie (Santa Claus), or a very clever but very kind conman, or hopelessly deluded? Faerie is kept at a tantalising distance in this film.
Jumanji anyone? I'll throw first!
12-16-2003, 06:10 AM
I think Miracle on 34th Street is an example of Faerie coming into our world (same as in Smith of Wooten Major). We are led to believe in something outside of the rational world. Santa Claus is never explained away.
Personal note: I'm dying to see the original version again. Anyone know when it will be shown on TV in the Chicago area?
12-31-2003, 08:13 PM
Tolkienís definition is purposely vague as he admits faŽrie cannot be defined.
Tolkien elsewhere classified The Lord of the Rings as an heroic romance which does not prevent it from also being a Fairy Story. In the essay Tolkien also classifies that Arthurian legend as a fairy story ... despite its unhappy ending it seems.
Tolkien does not define altogether clearly. The essay seems to me far more an exploratory essay than a definitive one, stabbing here and there in an attempt to make clear to himself what faŽrie and fairy stores are and what value they have.
That said, I would find it hard not to classify The Lord of the Rings as an epic romance form of what Tolkien calls a fairy story.
01-07-2004, 10:17 AM
That definition is a wonderful template for story-writing. Are these manuscripts published, or does one have to invade the Bodleian to read them?
01-09-2004, 01:43 AM
I'm not really in agreement with Tolkienís definition, in that it seems to me to stress morality overmuch. Many tales which I feel must be classed as fairy stories are amoral or even immoral.
What is distinctive about them is an atmosphere of unexplained magic and wonder but the protagonists are often not especially moral and love does not appear.
Consider for example the story of Aladdin. The full tale can be found at Aladdin; or the Wonderful Lamp (http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/burt1k1/tale30.htm) and a much shorter retelling at Andrew Lang: The Blue Fairy Book: Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp (http://www.classicreader.com/read.php/sid.1/bookid.948/sec.8). European versions of what are obviously variants of the same story can be found at The Blue Light by the brothers Grimm (http://www.literaturepage.com/read/grimms-fairy-tales-190.html) and Hans Christian Andersen: The Tinder-Box (http://hca.gilead.org.il/tinderbx.html). The protagonists in each of these use their magical servants to get exactly what they want with no hint of moral restraint. Each teller attempts to thow some semblance of morality of the protagonistís actions, but the explanations are different in each and donít actually justify. In Andersen the soldier is fulfilling a prophecy. (So was Macbeth.) The Grimm version attempts to justify the soldierís actions as rightful retribution against the king for the way the king has treated this soldier. But in fact the soldier makes a slave out of the kingís daughter not the king. In the long Aladdin version the teller simply explains that the originally worthless boy Aladdin became an exemplary person. But we donít see this in the tale.
A story that seems to be more distantly related to these is Grimmís The Knapsack, the Hat and the Horn (http://www.ucs.mun.ca/~wbarker/fairies/grimm/054.html) in which the protagonist is an unsympathetic greedy, immoral monster. (That he ends up victorious but totally alone seems right.)
These stories are not exceptions.
A reading of most old collection of fairy tales or folk tales collected from tradition shows that love or other moral virtures are often not at all evident in many of the tales. Yet many of these are, I feel, genuine fairy tales with enchanted princes and giants and mysterious little men and talismanic objects and mountains of glass and so forth.
Also, a "fairy-tale" romance is indeed almost the last thing that one finds in traditional fairy tales. The hero ends up marrying a princess or the heroine ends up marrying a prince or king for reasons of rank or wealth rather than for what might be called romantic reasons.
Traditional fairy tales are often grim reading, but wondrously colored grim reading.
01-09-2004, 01:54 AM
In the examples you give, the protagonist either has a morality change or is utterly abased by his actions - ie: retribution, a morality concept.
The fact that the Aladdin story explains the change poorly is an indicator of the storyteller's ability to construct a fairy tale, and does not alter the qualification for it.
Also, Tolkien constructed his definition of faerie because, despite his excellent research skills, he couldn't find one anywhere else that was useful.
Have you read the lecture, or are you basing your analysis on previous posts here?
01-11-2004, 05:16 PM
The definition above concerns Faery, the "Perilous Realm" as sort of an "Otherworld" which transcends our "real world", and the connection and interactions of those two worlds. "Most good Fairy-stories...", as Tolkien saw it, "...are about the aventures of men in the Perilous Realm or upon its shadowy marches." (On Fairy-Stories)I agree with the Professor. The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit have a popularity over and above the Silmarillion because, in the former, the mundane encounters the high and perillous throughout; and in the Sil. even the Men lack the ordinariness that would provide a real contrast.
01-18-2004, 06:16 PM
I have found an online copy of the lecture on Fairy Stories.
Read it here (http://ebbs.english.vt.edu/cf/locked/tolkien.html).
01-19-2004, 04:03 AM
In the examples you give, the protagonist either has a morality change or is utterly abased by his actions - ie: retribution, a morality concept.Not really. The protagonists are after wealth and status and are not particular about how they obtain it. All the protagonists win out in the end. That’s more common in traditional folktakes than otherwise. Check the Brothers Grimm fairy tale collection or any collection of traditional fairy stories. For example, Cindarella is interested in going to the ball and meeting the prince because he is a prince. Fairy tales don’ have much to say about poor stepdaughters who have to deal with the world without a fairy godmother who can work miracles and arrange the necessary marriage for a life of ease and luxury. The magic in a tale normally benefits mostly the protagonist and often doesn’t depend on any moral worth of the protagonist.[/quote]The fact that the Aladdin story explains the change poorly is an indicator of the storyteller's ability to construct a fairy tale, and does not alter the qualification for it.
That the teller bothers to bring in a moral change at all is the oddity. But the full version of the Aladdin story is in novelistic in form with many delightful touches of character (and some gratuitous anti-Jewish feeling). But in that version it is clear that, crass wealth and status are the goals to strive for. The king gives his daughter to Aladdin purely and solely and only because of Aladdin’s wealth and this is emphasized again and again.
Only the single passage about Aladdin’s improvement (after he has married) indicates any moral concerns.
The vizier who attempts to have her married to his son is presented as a villain, but it’s not shown that either he or his son are in any way inferior as persons to Aladdin. They just don’t have access to unlimited wealth or a genie.
Also, Tolkien constructed his definition of faerie because, despite his excellent research skills, he couldn't find one anywhere else that was useful.Tolkien’s defintion, if you mean the one that Walter cited, is probably as good as you are going to get in defining something that is not really definable. But it doesn’t mention morality.Have you read the lecture, or are you basing your analysis on previous posts here?[/QUOTE]I have read it many times but only gradually came close to completely understanding what he is talking about. It is a somewhat confusing and rambling essay.
I think this is so because it is a probing essay and a personal essay. It contains Tolkien’s thoughts on what to Tolkien were partial answers and possible answers to questions which arose as he was beginnng The Lord of the Rings as to what he was really doing and what kind of thing fantasy tales and tales of FaŽrie really are. It contains various observations not all connected with one another. Like many initial exploratory essays it sometimes skirts problems and sometimes accepts solutions too enthusiastically.
But Tolkien’s insights are none the worse for that. His discussion of motifs in the soup is especially incisive.
The eucastrophe is important in many fairy tales. The concept was Tolkien’s discovery or invention, and it is such a good one that it is hard to imagine now doing without it. But catastrophe or at least return to the beginning state appears instead in some of best tales, for example The Fisherman and his Wife (http://www.bartleby.com/17/2/10.html) which is, perhaps not coincidentally, moral to the point that it might be classed also as a moral fable.
But Tolkien, considering what he was pondering, was perhaps more concerned with what good came from fantasy than in the actual use made of faŽrie in most traditional tales. His insistance on the importance of a happy ending, for example, is in conflict with an earlier identification of the Arthurian legend as a fairy story and the mention of the story of Sigurd. The Story of Sigurd (http://www.classicreader.com/read.php/sid.1/bookid.924/sec.37) was included by Andrew Lang in The Red Fairy Book but ends in catastrophe rather than eucatastrophe. Yet it is filled with the elements of fairy and certainly complies with Tolkien’s explanation of fairy as quoted by Walter.
I go into this because there is a tendency for people to read Tolkien’s essay because of an interest in Tolkien rather than because of a particular interest or knowledge in the subject matter of the essay.
Morality in fairy tales (other than the importance of keeping promises) is a subject that Tolkien skirts in the essay. (Folk tales which are not fairy stories are equally likely to be amoral: not immoral but amoral).
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