Thursday, 15 August 2013

Both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords

I was backing up my files and found a pdf of J.R.R. Tolkien's On Fairy Stories on my external hard drive.  I didn't like The Lord of the Rings as much as I wanted to (as much as I like The Hobbit), I don't think I read it at the right age, but at its best, Tolkien's prose is lovely.  Here are some excerpts:

The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords. In that realm a man may, perhaps, count himself fortunate to have wandered, but its very richness and strangeness tie the tongue of a traveller who would report them. And while he is there it is dangerous for him to ask too many questions, lest the gates should be shut and the keys be lost.

Tolkien excludes fantastical travellers' tales, such as Gulliver's Travels, from the category of fairy-story, because "Such tales report many marvels, but they are marvels to be seen in this mortal world in some region of our own time and space; distance alone conceals them."

With respect to Tolkien, I think some of the above quote can be applied to travellers to foreign parts.  As far as our families are concerned, we peripatetics are in a perilous land.  They do not know the rules of the place, or where it's located to any degree of accuracy.  For all they know, we might be swallowed up or enchanted and never return.  We might as well be in faerie. 

We know the perils, and to us they are very ordinary - dishonest employers, landlords, corrupt officials, ever-changing immigration laws, annoyingly persistent matchmakers, stalkers in pointy boots and tight pants and too much hair oil.  No fairy lords here.  But there has been joy and sorrow as sharp as swords, and we will never be able to fully explain it to anyone who wasn't here with us. 

Tolkien wasn't fond of Shakespeare's pretty but dull fairies, or of the saccharine, moralising Victorian flower fairies.  He theorises about how this transformation from the wild fae of old happened:

Yet I suspect that this flower-and-butterfly minuteness was also a product of “rationalization,” which transformed the glamour of Elfland into mere finesse, and invisibility into a fragility that could hide in a cowslip or shrink behind a blade of grass. It seems to become fashionable soon after the great voyages had begun to make the world seem too narrow to hold both men and elves; when the magic land of Hy Breasail in the West had become the mere Brazils, the land of red-dye-wood.

And there's that thread from the LotR: the wonder that goes out of the world at the end of the age of elves and and the beginning of the age of men.

I think that's the right note to end on.  We are fortunate to have wandered, even if it won't last forever.  Nothing does.

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