J.R.R. Tolkien, ‘On Fairy-Stories’

 

‘Fantasy is a natural human activity. It certainly does not destroy or even insult Reason; and it does not either blunt the appetite for, nor obscure the perception of, scientific verity. On the contrary. The keener and the clearer is the reason, the better fantasy will it make. If men were ever in a state in which they did not want to know or could not perceive truth (facts or evidence), then Fantasy would languish until they were cured. If they ever get into that state (it would not seem at all impossible), Fantasy will perish, and become Morbid Delusion. For creative Fantasy is founded upon the hard recognition that things are so in the world as it appears under the sun; on a recognition of fact, but not a slavery to it. So upon logic was founded the nonsense that displays itself in the tales and rhymes of Lewis Carroll. If men really could not distinguish between frogs and men, fairy-stories about frog-kings would not have arisen.

Fantasy can, of course, be carried to excess. It can be ill done. It can be put to evil uses. It may even delude the minds out of which it came. But of what human thing in this fallen world is that not true? Men have conceived not only of elves, but they have imagined gods, and worshipped them, even worshipped those most deformed by their authors’ own evil. But they have made false gods out of other materials: their notions, their banners, their monies;even their sciences and their social and economic theories have demanded human sacrifice. Abusus non tollit usum. Fantasy remains a human right: we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.

This ”joy” which I have selected as the mark of the true fairy-story (or romance), or as the seal upon it, merits more consideration. Probably every writer making a secondary world, a fantasy, every sub-creator, wishes in some measure to be a real maker, or hopes that he is drawing on reality: hopes that the peculiar quality of this secondary world (if not all the details) are derived from Reality, or are flowing into it. If he indeed achieves a quality that can fairly be described by the dictionary definition: “inner consistency of reality,” it is difficult to conceive how this can be, if the work does not in some way partake of reality. The peculiar quality of the ”joy” in successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth. It is not only a “consolation” for the sorrow of this world, but a satisfaction, and an answer to that question, “Is it true?” The answer to this question that I gave at first was (quite rightly): “If you have built your little world well, yes: it is true in that world.” That is enough for the artist (or the artist part of the artist). But in the “eucatastrophe” we see in a brief vision that the answer may be greater—it may be a far-off gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world. The use of this word gives a hint of my epilogue. It is a serious and dangerous matter. It is presumptuous of me to touch upon such a theme; but if by grace what I say has in any respect any validity, it is, of course, only one facet of a truth incalculably rich: finite only because the capacity of Man for whom this was done is finite.

I would venture to say that approaching the Christian Story from this direction, it has long been my feeling (a joyous feeling) that God redeemed the corrupt making-creatures, men, in a way fitting to this aspect, as to others, of their strange nature. The Gospels contain a fairystory, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels—peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: “mythical” in their perfect, selfcontained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe. But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation. The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of
the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the “inner consistency of reality.” There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath.

It is not difficult to imagine the peculiar excitement and joy that one would feel, if any specially beautiful fairy-story were found to be “primarily” true, its narrative to be history, without thereby necessarily losing the mythical or allegorical significance that it had possessed. It is not difficult, for one is not called upon to try and conceive anything of a quality unknown. The joy would have exactly the same quality, if not the same degree, as the joy which the “turn” in a fairy-story gives: such joy has the very taste of primary truth. (Otherwise its name would not be joy.) It looks forward (or backward: the direction in this regard is unimportant) to the Great Eucatastrophe. The Christian joy, the Gloria, is of the same kind; but it is preeminently (infinitely, if our capacity were not finite) high and joyous. But this story is supreme; and it is true. Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men—and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused.

But in God’s kingdom the presence of the greatest does not depress the small. Redeemed Man is still man. Story, fantasy, still go on, and should go on. The Evangelium has not abrogated legends; it has hallowed them, especially the “happy ending.” The Christian has still to work, with mind as well as body, to suffer, hope, and die; but he may now perceive that all his bents and faculties have a purpose, which can be redeemed. So great is the bounty with which he has been treated that he may now, perhaps, fairly dare to guess that in Fantasy he may actually assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation. All tales may come true; and yet, at the last, redeemed, they may be as like and as unlike the forms that we give them as Man, finally redeemed, will be like and unlike the fallen that we know. (J.R.R. Tolkien, ‘On Fairy-Stories,’ pp. 144-145, 155-157)

Musings on Language and Style in Literature

Cormac McCarthy

J.R.R. Tolkien

 

The two literary styles represented above could hardly be more different – one is the sparse, terse and brutal prose that brings to mind Hemingway – the other is the lush, majestic and illuminating mythologizing of a both master scholar and a master linguist. But I’m hard pressed to come to a conclusion of which is more powerful.

I don’t think there really is a better-or-worse to be found here, to be honest. The styles are so different that comparisons are almost impossible. But what they have in common is absolute precision – neither man wastes a single syllable. Every word and letter is precisely where it’s supposed to be, and it’s obvious that both McCarthy and Tolkien are true masters of their craft. For example:

‘Gods voice is not to be mistaken. When men hear it they fall to their knees and their souls are riven and they cry out to Him and there is no fear in them but only that wildness of heart that springs from such longing and they cry out to stay his presence for they know at once that while godless men may live well enough in their exile those to whom He has spoken can contemplate no life without Him but only darkness and despair.
-Cormac McCarthy (The Crossing)

“Then the voices of the Ainur, like unto harps and lutes, and pipes and trumpets, and viols and organs, and like unto countless choirs singing with words, began to fashipn the theme of Iluvatar to a great music; and a sound arose of endless interchanging melodies woven in harmony that passed beyond hearing into the depths and into the heights, and the places of the dwelling of Iluvatar were filled to overflowing, and the music and the echo of the music went out into the Void, and it was not void.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien,(The Silmarillion)

You really couldn’t get much much more different styles of writing – but each is powerful in its own way and the subject matter of each is more or less the same. McCarthy uses long sentences and simple wording to convey a very plain, but very sublime sense of the power and majesty of God. This is the similar to the picture of God in the Old Testament – the God you meet in the wilderness and fall down in terror of. Tolkien uses the same longer sentence but very elegant wording to convey a much more grand, cosmic picture of the Divine – this resembles the New Testament picture of Jesus Christ as that through whom the universe is created. Both men have as their subject the Divine – but both use language to convey two completely different pictures.

Northern Mythology in Comparison to Greek Mythology

 

Northern mythologies are the stories, sagas and epics of Northern Europe; from Icelandto Scandinavia. Notable works would be Snorri Sturlusons Prose Edda, the Yngling Saga, and Beowulf. It is superior to the Greek styles of mythology for one main reason: Ragnarok, or the Day of Doom. In Tom Shippey’s The Road to Middle-Earth, Ragnarok is:

“…the day when gods and men fight evil and the giants, and inevitably be defeated. Its great statement was that defeat is no refutation. The right side remains right even if it has no hope at all. In a sense Northern mythology asks more of men, even makes more of them, than does Christianity, for it offers them no heaven, no salvation, no reward except the somber satisfaction of having done what’s right.” (156)

Compare that above statement with the Iliad, which while a historically important piece of literature, is not much more than a high-school drama, in which gods and warriors feud over women and wealth. Eventually the plot escalates to a full blown war between Troyand Greeceover the decision of a young Paris, who lures Helen to Troysimply because he cannot control his lust for her. In a marked contrast, in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, part 7, line 32 the hero, Sigurd, is forced to sleep in the same bed as his soon-to-be wife and lays down his sword in between them so as not to touch her while they are so close; a noticeable difference in conduct on the parts of the two characters in the stories. This single comparison shows what I believe to be the most dramatic differences between the two styles of mythologies, and why Northern is the superior form.

Essentially, the differing views on morality and conduct are what really make these two modes of storytelling so distinct from each other. The deities are more or less structured the same, with supreme god-like figures such as Zeus and Odin, and lesser characters like Loki. In both mythologies there are men who confront either deities or deity-like figures and come out victorious, and both have men who often face insurmountable tasks in order to free a loved one from some kind of bondage. It’s the manner in which the deities and mortals achieve such ends that shows the superiority of Northern to Greek mythology. Instead of an arrogant and egocentric Achilles, who ends up not being able to fulfill his boasting because of his heel, the Northern tales have Beowulf, who although proud and boastful, is 100% able to back up what he says, and does, freeing an entire kingdom from the oppression of the monster Grendel by doing so.

Morality and conduct then is the key to determining which style of mythology is better. The fact that beneath the surface of every Northern story lurks the inevitability of Ragnarok is something that really influences how I read Northern poetry; that no matter what good deed or heroic rescue is accomplished, it does not really matter because the good guys are doomed to be defeated by evil at Ragnarok. And yet, in spite of that, they continue to trudge on, doing the right thing for the sole reason that it is the right thing to do. To me, that is what ultimately makes the Northern mythology better than Greek. An unshakeable code of conduct, even in the face of ultimate defeat, as oppose to the Greek way of simply not caring and taking what you want regardless of the consequences; in the case of the Iliad the consequence was a devastating war.

One of the most notable differences between the two mythologies is their different stances on love and romance. For example, Sigurd refuses to touch his bride to be, Brynhild before marriage. Brynhild refuses to wed any man but Sigurd, and after Sigurd is killed, she kills herself rather than go with another man. That’s a far cry from the sexual politics employed by the Greek gods and mortals in order to get what they want.

As I stated above, it’s the conduct and morality that proves Northern mythology to be better than Greek. It’s not the stories themselves so much, it’s the morality and the ways of achieving the goals of the stories that separate the two. I simply do not think that god-and-men soap operas ofGreececan compete with the somber, sullen but morally upright stories of the North.

Now some might disagree with me on this issue, and a common claim is that Greek poetry so influenced writing of fiction as a whole (particularly tragedies) and that since it contains some of the first epics (Iliad, Aeneid) it is by default the ultimate form of mythology/storytelling. While it’s a good argument, I still disagree. Northern poetry, especially Norse, skaldic, eddaic, etc. is written to have an impact of the moment; that is, to paint a precise and powerful picture of an event, rather than drawing it out to extreme lengths like the Iliad or other Greek epics tend to do. This makes much easier to read and understand, as the reader doesn’t have to muddle through enormous numbers of words to get to a certain event.

While Northern mythology and poetry may not be superior in terms of impact on writing as the Greek style is, it is certainly the more noble and high minded of the two. With iron-clad devotion to doing the right thing even in the face of defeat by evil and a firm code of conduct regarding love and romance, Northern mythology wins out as the most noble and in my mind superior form of mythology. Perhaps it’s not as widespread as the Greek tales are, but when read, a Northern epic will undoubtedly have a much greater impact on the reader than a Greek tale.

Works Cited

Shippey, Tom. The Road to Middle-Earth. Houghton Mifflin.  Orig. 1980, revised 2003. Print.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun. Houghton Mifflin. 2009. Print.