Books are better than plays

Here, Tolkien discusses plays (Drama):

Drama is, even though it uses a similar material (words, verse, plot), an art fundamentally different from narrative art. Thus, if you prefer Drama to Literature (as many literary critics plainly do), or form your critical theories primarily from dramatic critics, or even from Drama, you are apt to misunderstand pure story-making, and to constrain it to the limitations of stage-plays. You are, for instance, likely to prefer characters, even the basest and dullest, to things. Very little about trees as trees can be got into a play.

-J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy-Stories, (Fantasy)

I’ve always loved story much more than characters. Give me a plot-driven novel or adventure, not some dull epic full of nothing but sitting around talking.

My wife leans more towards enjoying interesting characters and relationships, though even she does not drift that far into drama. She still detests Jane Austin and any book made up primarily of political intrigue.

Neither of us have found much enjoyment in the theatre, with the exception of musicals.

A pastor of mine used to preach regularly that “People are more important than things!”. Oh, bother. I sure prefer things most of the time.

Tolkien on the LOTR Movies

If Tolkien had lived to be 111 and seen his masterpiece on the screen – 10+ hours of meticulous sets and costumes, elven dialog, and spectacular effects – what might he have said?

Who knows, but his attitude towards the theatre would likely carry over to the cinema as well:

A reason, more important, I think, than the inadequacy of stage-effects, is this: Drama has, of its very nature, already attempted a kind of bogus, or shall I say at least substitute, magic: the visible and audible presentation of imaginary men in a story. That is in itself an attempt to counterfeit the magician’s wand. To introduce, even with mechanical success, into this quasi-magical secondary world a further fantasy or magic is to demand, as it were, an inner or tertiary world. It is a world too much. To make such a thing may not be impossible. I have never seen it done with success. But at least it cannot be claimed as the proper mode of Drama, in which walking and talking people have been found to be the natural instruments of Art and illusion.

-J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy-Stories, (Fantasy)

The story is what is real. The words on the page are a layer over the top of that. An actor walking around pretending to be someone else is a THIRD layer. It is the nature of the art form and has it’s place and certain advantages and tools to communicate meaning. Tolkien felt that ultimately it served to obscure the “real” story even more. I think it likely he would have thought the same of the movies.

I quite enjoy the movies myself, though they aren’t perfect. I’ve often told people who are critical of the movies for not always following the book exactly that they must view the cinema as a retelling of the real story itself, not a reworking of the book. If the movie is a 2nd layer, like the literature is a 2nd layer, then it stands up much taller as a piece of art and is exempt from much of the criticism thrown at it (action-packed Warg fights not withstanding).

Do you desire justice or mercy? (Personalities)

This is interesting:

Chesterton once remarked that the children in whose company he saw Maeterlinck’s Blue Bird were dissatisfied “because it did not end with a Day of Judgment, and it was not revealed to the hero and the heroine that the Dog had been faithful and the Cat faithless.” “For children,” he says, “are innocent and love justice; while most of us are wicked and naturally prefer mercy.”

-J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy-Stories, (Children)

Early in his life, the apostle Paul was more religious and zealous for God than anyone else around him. Near the end of his life, he declared himself to be the chief of sinners. As a child, he would have enjoyed stories that ended with justice. In his old age, all he desired was mercy. I feel myself growing more toward this every day. God forbid that I should receive justice. I would be turned to a heap of ash.

There is another element here that I think is related. It has to do with psychological personality profiles. The Myers-Briggs system is popular, and, in my opinion, one of the more helpful ones. It has four axi:

  • Introversion/Extroversion
  • Sensing/Intuitive
  • Thinking/Feeling
  • Judging/Perceiving

For example. I happen to be INTJ. In regards to the test, these words all have special definitions, so if you aren’t familiar with the methodology, it’s not worth commenting on it.

Now one of the key characteristics of “Judging” people is that they desire closure. They tend to want to make plans and manage and control the world around them.

“Perceiving” individuals are more open-ended, flexible, and can tolerate a lack of closure. On the flip-side, they may be poor planners and can sometimes lack assertiveness.

Now, I’ve been taught that no personality is sinful, it’s what you do with it. But I will make this statement nonetheless:

The older and wiser (and by wiser I mean that in the best sense of the word) a person becomes, the more their personality will tend away from “J” and toward “P”. Their desire for closure and justice will ebb and the desire for mercy and the acceptance of circumstances and people as they are will increase.

Now, I know if you’re really into the personality profile scene, things are more nuanced than this. I’m not being fair. But I think I’ll hold by my hypothesis anyway.

I tested a strong “J” my freshman year of college, 10 years ago. I know that in my personal experience, if God has permitted me to grow in any wisdom (and becoming a husband and father might have something to do with this), it has correlated clearly with a move away from closure and justice and accepting more open-ended circumstance and a greater variety of people.

The other primary reinforcement to this idea is reading the accounts of the spiritual journeys of others. Just like Tolkien says here, people often move from desiring justice to desiring mercy – not just for themselves, but for others too. This naturally correlates to a change in personality.

Is “P” more mature than “J”? In some ways, I believe so.

How we grow up, how we grow wise

This is a marvelous passage. I don’t have any other comments.

The process of growing older is not necessarily allied to growing wickeder, though the two do often happen together. Children are meant to grow up, and not to become Peter Pans. Not to lose innocence and wonder, but to proceed on the appointed journey: that journey upon which it is certainly not better to travel hopefully than to arrive, though we must travel hopefully if we are to arrive. But it is one of the lessons of fairy-stories (if we can speak of the lessons of things that do not lecture) that on callow, lumpish, and selfish youth peril, sorrow, and the shadow of death can bestow dignity, and even sometimes wisdom.

-J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy-Stories, (Children)

Fairy stories, awakened desire, and Joy

Here, Tolkien gets to the root of why fairy stories are compelling:

…at no time can I remember that the enjoyment of a story was dependent on belief that such things could happen, or had happened, in “real life.” Fairy-stories were plainly not primarily concerned with possibility, but with desirability. If they awakened desire, satisfying it while often whetting it unbearably, they succeeded.

-J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy-Stories, (Children)

This is in line with C.S. Lewis’s assertion that Joy = desire. These “true” mythologies give us a glimpse of something deeper and greater. As revealed at the end of Lewis’s autobiography, they are signposts to our creator. A good fairy-story is chock-full of these signs.

Obviously, cavemen liked fairy-stories. Now we like science. Go us!?

Having just read it, I think it without a doubt that this next passage of Tolkien’s is echoing G.K. Chesterton’s first chapter of The Everlasting Man, where he derides the modern idea of the “cave man” and all the silly conjecture surrounding him.

It’s no surprise that Tolkien was annoyed when critics appealed to the cave man image as a reason for why fiction like his should not be taken seriously.

“Their taste remains like the taste of their naked ancestors thousands of years ago; and they seem to like fairy-tales better than history, poetry, geography, or arithmetic.” But do we really know much about these “naked ancestors,” except that they were certainly not naked? Our fairy-stories, however old certain elements in them may be, are certainly not the same as theirs. Yet if it is assumed that we have fairy-stories because they did, then probably we have history, geography, poetry, and arithmetic because they liked these things too, as far as they could get them, and in so far as they had yet separated the many branches of their general interest in everything.

-J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy-Stories, (Children)

Enchantment not blunted by use

Back to children again and whether they find it easier to suspend disbelief for the story-teller.

Tolkien’s answer is “perhaps”, but that the “potion” of excellent story-telling is not less potent to adults.

It may be argued that it is easier to work the spell with children. Perhaps it is, though I am not sure of this. The appearance that it is so is often, I think, an adult illusion produced by children’s humility, their lack of critical experience and vocabulary, and their voracity (proper to their rapid growth). They like or try to like what is given to them: if they do not like it, they cannot well express their dislike or give reasons for it (and so may conceal it); and they like a great mass of different things indiscriminately, without troubling to analyse the planes of their belief. In any case I doubt if this potion—the enchantment of the effective fairy-story— is really one of the kind that becomes “blunted” by use, less potent after repeated draughts.

-J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy-Stories, (Children)

Suspending disbelief

This is one of the keys to Tolkien’s literary philosophy. If you have to “throw the camera a wink” while getting the audience to buy into your fiction, then you’ve broken the spell and are operating on a much lower level.

Here he quotes Andrew Lang, who compiled several large collections of fairy-tale literature. In it, Lang expresses the common belief that only children can appreciate a lot of these stores because they are too gullible and inexperienced to know better. (They haven’t read Richard Dawkins so they don’t know that God, or any other sorts of gods don’t actually exist. Too bad for them, right?)

Tolkien argues that children are a lot smarter than we think and that being able to clearly understand what is “real” (part of the primary world) and what is only “real” in the story (the secondary world) is actually key to them enjoying the story in the first place.

The introduction to the first of the series speaks of “children to whom and for whom they are told.” “They represent,” he says, “the young age of man true to his early loves, and have his unblunted edge of belief, a fresh appetite for marvels.” ” ‘Is it true?’ ” he says, “is the great question children ask.”

I suspect that belief and appetite for marvels are here regarded as identical or as closely related. They are radically different, though the appetite for marvels is not at once or at first differentiated by a growing human mind from its general appetite. It seems fairly clear that Lang was using belief in its ordinary sense: belief that a thing exists or can happen in the real (primary) world. If so, then I fear that Lang’s words, stripped of sentiment, can only imply that the teller of marvellous tales to children must, or may, or at any rate does trade on their credulity, on the lack of experience which makes it less easy for children to distinguish fact from fiction in particular cases, though the distinction in itself is fundamental to the sane human mind, and to fairy-stories.

Children are capable, of course, of literary belief, when the story-maker’s art is good enough to produce it. That state of mind has been called “willing suspension of disbelief.” But this does not seem to me a good description of what happens. What really happens is that the story-maker proves a successful “sub-creator.” He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is “true”: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside. The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed. You are then out in the Primary World again, looking at the little abortive Secondary World from outside.

-J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy-Stories, (Children)

You’ll find this idea mentioned often in the ~15 hour making-of commentary to the Lord of the Rings movies. It was a guiding principal in the direction of the entire film: Everything MUST look like it’s real – a piece out of history. We can’t say to the audience, “OK, this next part is kind of silly/fantastic/whatever, just bear with us, OK?” That would break the spell and ruin everything.

Now, obviously they didn’t always accomplish this, but they still managed too remarkably often I think.

Cliche reviews

In describing a fairy-story which they think adults might possibly read for their own entertainment, reviewers frequently indulge in such waggeries as: “this book is for children from the ages of six to sixty.” But I have never yet seen the puff of a new motor-model that began thus: “this toy will amuse infants from seventeen to seventy”; though that to my mind would be much more appropriate.

-J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy-Stories, (Children)

On Fairy-Stories

I’ve been trying to dig a bit deeper into Tolkien lately. It seems that every mention of him I find in books and blogs finds him quoting material from a lecture he gave in 1939 titled “On Fairy-Stories”. The outline goes something like:

  • What are fairy stories? How are they different from other sorts of stories, drama, and literature? (Hint: It doesn’t have anything to do with whether they have fairies in them or not)
  • What is their origin? Where did they come from? How have they evolved? What is the connectio to myth?
  • Why are they especially associated with Children? Perhaps they should not be.
  • In what ways to they differ and overlap with elements of “Fantasy” literature?
  • Are they escapism? Yes, but that’s not actually a bad thing.
  • There is joy to be found in them. Joy of the same sort C.S. Lewis speaks of in Surprised by Joy. Why is that? It is tied to Tolkien’s theology of God the creator, mankind his image bearers, and his philosophy of creation and “sub-creation” as he calls it.

Good stuff. I have a lot of passages bookmarked for blogging in the next couple of days.