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Monday, January 09, 2006

Thoughts On Fairy Tales (by others)

A fairytale, like a butterfly or a bee, helps itself on all sides, sips at every wholesome flower, and spoils not one. The true fairytale is, to my mind, very like the sonata. We all know that a sonata means something; and where there is the faculty of talking with suitable vagueness, and choosing metaphor sufficiently loose, mind may approach mind, in the interpretation of a sonata, with the result of a more or less contenting consciousness of sympathy. But if two or three men sat down to write each what the sonata meant to him, what approximation to definite idea would be the result? Little enough--and that little more than needful. We should find it had roused related, if not identical, feelings, but probably not one common thought. Has the sonata therefore failed? Had it undertaken to convey, or ought it to be expected to impart anything defined, anything notionally recognizable? George MacDonald, "The Fantastic Imagination," in his A Dish of Orts, 1893

The definition of a fairy-story -- what it is, or what it should be -- does not, then, depend on any definition or historical account of elf or fairy, but upon the nature of Faërie: the Perilous Realm itself, and the air that blows in that country. I will not attempt to define that, nor to describe it directly. It cannot be done. Faërie cannot be caught in a net of words; for it is one of its qualities to be indescribable, though not imperceptible. It has many ingredients, but analysis will not necessarily discover the secret of the whole. J. R. R. Tolkien, "On Fairy-stories," in Tree and Leaf. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965, pp. 3 - 73. Quote is from p. 10.

C. S. Lewis made a literary distinction between fantasy as magical happenings and fantasy as wish fulfillment. ''Lay the fairy tale side by side with the school story. . . . We long to go through the looking glass, to reach fairyland. We also long to be the immensely popular and successful schoolboy or schoolgirl.'' Lewis concludes that stories that satisfy the desire for magic are healthy for the imagination and the spirit, while stories that pander to the desire to be Head Boy or sports star are dangerous ''flattery to the ego'' and leave readers ''undivinely discontented.'' Gregory Maguire, review of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, by J. K. Rowling. New York Times, September 5, 1999. The quote of Lewis is from his "On Three Ways of Writing For Children."


phantasamagoric said...

I'm working on a fairytale site and would really appreciate any suggestions.

Martin LaBar said...

Sorry. There doesn't seem to be any way to contact you except through AIM, which I don't use, or by posting this comment on my own site.

I'm not sure how much help I can be, but do have some questions:
1) What is the intended audience?
2) Is this going to be a compilation of links to fairytales available on the web, lists of books, your own fairytales, or something else?
3) The essay referred to in this post, by J. R. R. Tolkien, is one of the best on the subject.

Thanks for reading and commenting.