Forum: Letters of JRRT

Discussing: Narrative, death and the Elves

Narrative, death and the Elves

In letter 212, which is a draft continuation of a letter 14 October 1958 to Rhona Beare [211], JRRT has some fascinating thigns to say about what it means to write from a perspective or location of comprehension. Joan, if you're hanging around on list, I'm thinking about your observation about the Lay of Leithian as an Elven Tale of Escape from Deathlessness. A long excerpt so context is understood:

"In this mythical 'prehistory' immortality, strictly longevity co-extensive with the life of Arda, was part of the given nature of the Elves; beyond the End nothing was revealed. *Mortality*, that is a short life-span having no relation to the life of Arda, is spoken of as the given nature of Men: the Elves called it the Gift of Ilúvatar (God). But it must be remembered that *mythically* these tales are Elf-centered, not anthropo-centric, and Men only appear in them, at what must be a point long after their Coming. This is therefore an 'Elvish' view,...It should be regarded as an Elvish perception of what death - not being tied to the 'circles of the world' - should now become for Men, however it arose.

In narrative, as soon as the matter becomes 'storial' and not mythical, being in fact *human* literature, the centre of interest must shift to Men (and their relations with Elves or other creatures). We cannot write stories about Elves, whom we do not know inwardly; and if we try we simply turn Elves into men."

-------------

So, what's to make of that tangle? There's a lovely meditation on the
narrative power of the concept of death, and there is also a warning
for those who would presume to write Elves. What does it do to a
teller of tales and a doer of deeds when in one case there is an
ending to the doing and telling, and in the other, there is but a
haiatus? How does one present the differences between such stances?
One of the most difficult parts of writing the ineer thoughts of my
Fellowship story was to try to understand what dangers would cause
them fear. Gimli and Legolas do not share the same concerns, and each
is far distant from Boromir or Frodo - yet all, at some point, must
face "death".

And what to make of the claim about not being able to write a
straight-forward narrative of Elves? That we "turn Elves into men"?
Only a mythic mode (Elvish myth? Human myth?) is appropriate - why?
Revolving around the experience of immortality would seem the start.

Ang

 

 

Re: Narrative, death and the Elves

And what to make of the claim about not being able to write a
straight-forward narrative of Elves? That we "turn Elves into men"?
Only a mythic mode (Elvish myth? Human myth?) is appropriate - why?
Revolving around the experience of immortality would seem the start.


Seems reasonable. There is something about Elves that almost mandates that they be seen primarily from without, as they are in the Silmarillion. The inaccessibility of Elves is in a sense their defining trait. Trying to write them from within is a chore and a half, and one soon starts casting about for mortal viewpoints to make things easier on yourself as a writer.

Which causes me to wander off into a tangential question: does anyone know who the 'author' of the Silmarillion was, within the framework of Arda and its history? If it had been written by Elves, as it were, would it be that remote? It seems as if there were a mortal narrator/listener at some point who took down the stories--the remoteness, plus all those little notes where it says things like "the Elves do not know," implying that the writer isn't an Elf. Is there anything in Letters analogous to Tolkien's "translator's" note in the Appendices of LoTR for the Silm?

 

 

Re: Narrative, death and the Elves

*Mortality*, that is a short life-span having no relation to the life of Arda, is spoken of as the given nature of Men: the Elves called it the Gift of Ilúvatar (God).

This is facinating to me - it strikes me as a sort of "I wish I knew what they had", and it's an interesting counterpart to the known desire of Men for the immortal life of the elves. It would be worthwhile to know whether Tolkien envisaged a similar kind of envy flowing between the two races in such a way, each fascinated by the lifespan of the other.

Elves I can see as living a life much more strung-out over time, very much a calm and placid one. By contrast, humans, with their short, short lifespans (100 years is eternity to most humans, even now) and quickly passing youth must have been intriguing to at least some of them. A briefer life - would the emotional highs and lows be as strong, could they be endured? (I get a strong impression from the canon that the elves tend to steer clear of strong, sudden emotions, particularly happiness - they seem to prefer quiet joy and calm mourning to extreme ecstasy and profound grieving).

The dwarves, in a lot of ways, seem to have been Aule's attempt to create a middle ground. A mortal race, yet with enough time given to them that they might learn the wisdom of long life. A passionate people, yet one that have learned the hard lessons of reserve.

The sea-longing of the elves, to me, strikes to the heart of what elves are. It's a passion, and one which must be heeded.

(So, am I vaguely on track here, or am I just rambling to no good purpose?)

 

 

Re: Narrative, death and the Elves

Which causes me to wander off into a tangential question: does anyone know who the 'author' of the Silmarillion was, within the framework of Arda and its history? If it had been written by Elves, as it were, would it be that remote? It seems as if there were a mortal narrator/listener at some point who took down the stories--the remoteness, plus all those little notes where it says things like "the Elves do not know," implying that the writer isn't an Elf. Is there anything in Letters analogous to Tolkien's "translator's" note in the Appendices of LoTR for the Silm?

Based on HOME, a lot of the Silmarillion was written by a backstory elf named Pengolod/Pengolodh, who handed on his writings to either a mortal who stumbled on Tol Eressea or a mortal of Numenor. Here is a website with more information about all Tolkien's "Chronicler" characters from Rumil to Bilbo. I've checked what I can against the books and it seems 99% accurate.

http://www.tolkienonline.de/etep/Tolkien/C/Chroniclers.html

 

 

Re: Narrative, death and the Elves

I may be totally off-base here, but . . .

It sounds to me almost as if Tolkien is saying we run up against the same problem that science-fiction writers do when attempting to write from the point of view of an alien, an extraterrestrial sentient -- and that I do when writing from the point of view of an animal or a furry. Regardless of how well you might *think* you understand the other species, even if you created it yourself . . . there's still such an essential difference from Homo sapiens that there's no reason to assume *anything* would be the same.

Nearly all aliens in scifi are really just funny-speaking humans in disguise, if you get right down to it. So are my furries in "Precious Cargo", a space-opera series I'm writing. So far, the only real success I've seen in making furries really, fundamentally different from human beings has been John Crowley's "Beasts", with his leos.

I'm not sure it's even possible to write quite accurately from the point of view of a human being of a very different culture. Just reading anthropologists' descriptions of the philosophies and cultures of, say a tribe of Australian aborigines -- or of the attitudes of an African tribe toward menstruation in "Blood Magic" -- can give the impression of aliens far stranger and more different than any of the aliens I've seen in science fiction. (And it's a pity writers don't make use of anthropology resources more often!)

Perhaps this was what Tolkien meant about not being able to write about Elves? But it might be easier than writing about extraterrestrial aliens or furries, because instead of a whole different evolutionary history, there is only one really huge fundamental difference between Men and Elves: lifespan.

That alone creates a vast chasm between the two races. What's it like to be immortal *from birth* -- to *know* that, barring fatal injury or the like, you will go on living? What's it like to be one of an entire species like that? Bellatrys tried to touch upon this in "The Leithian Script": they might devote vast amounts of time to pieces of art and architecture, time that simply isn't possible for humans. But really, I think she's only scratched the surface, and I'm not convinced Tolkien ever really brought across a cultural difference at all. (YMMV, of course.)

By the same token, Elves would have great difficulty understanding Men. Men would be disturbing and liminal for them the way hares are for ancient British peoples (for example): they're mortal, and yet they're sentient and have spoken speech. (Remember that this is a world without evolution or scientific theorists such as Darwin, so creatures that disrupt your culture's neat categories aren't just intrigueing exceptions -- they actually feel quite threatening to the natural order of the cosmos.) Elves would have to find some way of explaining the contradiction to themselves, why Men can be like both *kelvar* and Elves. The "Gift of Iluvator" concept could be how they did so. Is that what Tolkien was trying to get at, I wonder?

Maureen the long-winded

 

 

Re: Narrative, death and the Elves

(Copying and pasting my mailing list response, which I think is what I'm supposed to do!)


>From: "Anglachel Gurthang "
>Reply-To: Henneth_Annun@yahoogroups.com
>To: Henneth_Annun@yahoogroups.com
>Subject: [Henneth_Annun] LJRRT - Narrative, death and the Elves
>Date: Fri, 27 Dec 2002 07:55:10 -0000
>

(snippage of letter)
>
>†In *narrative*, as soon as the matter becomes 'storial' and not
>mythical, being in fact *human* literature, the centre of interest
>*must* shift to Men (and their relations with Elves or other
>creatures). We cannot write stories *about* Elves, whom we do not
>know inwardly; and if we try we simply turn Elves into men."
>
>-------------
>
>So, what's to make of that tangle? There's a lovely meditation on the
>narrative power of the concept of death, and there is also a warning
>for those who would presume to write Elves.

And an admonition reminding us that Elves are *not* just pretty, long-lived Men, which is the trap that 99.9% of fanfics fall into when writing about Elves. I take the tack that Elves are so inhuman that it is impossible to know what they are thinking or feeling, which means any Elvish characters in my stories are presented without internal dialogs. They simply are what they are, and the Men around them have to struggle to interpret them and their motives at every step.


------------------

RiikiTikiTavi
Lemon Wing: http://www.geocities.com/riiki_tiki_tavi/front_page.html (Gundam Wing erotica)
Stardust: Book 1 http://henneth-annun.net/stories/chapter.cfm?STID=49 (LotR fanfiction)
Stardust: Book 2 http://www.fanfiction.net/read.php?storyid=1093025 (more LotR fanfiction)
The End Of All Dreams: http://www.fanfiction.net/read.php?storyid=999834 (Baldur's Gate fanfiction)

 

 

Re: Narrative, death and the Elves

It seems to me that we must keep in mind that is not a timeless statement Tolkien is making here. He wrote this letter after having dealt with Elves for more than fourty years (if I recall correctly he started in 1917). It may very well be a comment on the inadequacy he felt when taking stock of his own texts on this subject so far. In his earlier writings he does not shrink from describing Elves from the inside, and giving them concerns that we, mortals, have no difficulty understanding. Feanor is furious when his father is killed and thirsts for revenge. He wants his possessions back. Fingolfin is not going to acknowledge defeat when he sees the ships burn. Thingol does not want his daughter to marry a short-lived vagabond. There's nothing about these considerations I cannot understand.

I cannot help but thinking Tolkien wrote this at a moment when he began to despair of ever finishing his mythology, because he had mentally moved on since he started writing it and disagreed with his former self, so to speak. Considerations that had not entered his mind when the narrative cores of the Silmarillion were written now gave him serious worries. For example, death as a Gift of Men was not compatible with Christian orthodoxy, a realisation that led to a shift of perspective on mortal death in the Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth. But this could not possibly be incorporated into the existing Silmarillion without seriously damaging its whole texture.

Tolkien's first Age Elves as found in much of the material on which the Silmarillion is based, invite identification (to a certain degree). If we can follow Feanor's motivation as it is presented there, we can attempt to describe him from the inside. And if people seem to be way off when they use Elvish POVs, this can be due to the fact that they aren't elves, but also to the fact that two or three generations separate Tolkien from most writers of fanfiction, and that the second half of the 20th century has seen the most profound change in Man's perception of himself and his world that ever occured in such a short period of human history. Plus that Tolkien's texts hark back to still earlier stages of human storytelling, such as early medieval epics. I am not sure I understand Beowulf any better than I understand Feanor as Tolkien wrote him. What's more, if the statement in the letter quoted above is to be taken at face value, Tolkien should have thrown his older material into the waste paper basket, because he's doing there what he says can't be done.

But of course he couldn't part with the work of his hands. Which tells us something about the Elvishness of mortal Man.

Finch


 

 

Re: Narrative, death and the Elves

A little intimidated by all the serious scholars here...
...looks around, blushes, takes a deep breath, resolves to babble on anyway...

It seems to me that writing about Elves - or aliens - or Greek gods - is going to be inevitably writing about ourselves. A truly alien speices would think in a fundamentally non-human way, which means that we fundamentally can't think that way. Period. And Maureen's point about anthropologists is very well taken.

But then, why is so much of human mythology - and fiction - about nonhuman characters? Why do ancient mythologists write about gods and heroes - who are obviously unlike us - and yet give them completely human emotions and motivations?

I think nonhuman characters take an aspect of human experience and magnify it, twist it, make us think about it in different ways. Writing about immortal Elves helps us imagine what we might be if we weren't limited by mortality, for good and for ill. Elves have fewer limits on the good they can do, and on the crafts they can make, but also fewer limits on the evil they can do, and much less possibility of a fresh start for their race. Or, in a way, for themselves.

(Something that occurs to me about Elven immortality - the Elves don't live forever, but only until the end of Arda. In other words, they live exactly as long as their world does. When their lives end, so does their world. Is that so different from our experience?)

I understand the Silmarillion as a mythological text rather than a historical text. In other words, it's a text which may have had some Elvish origin, but was transmitted by Men (and Hobbits) who told stories about Elves as a way of understanding themselves - even after the Elves themselves had passed from Middle-earth. I don't know what the Elves would make of the text we have, if they were to see it. They'd probably be horrified at how humanized it's become. But, on the other hand, they probably have much stranger mortal tales, in which these strange, exotic humans (who are all, of course, indescribably beautiful because of their youth) have wild adventures, filling every moment of their short lives with meaning, as mortals, of course, must.

Deborah

 

 

Re: Narrative, death and the Elves

I think Maureen Lycaon's post brings up something that many writers forget - how Elves view themselves will differ over time. Their longevity, their (relatively) unchanging bodies, their "magical" abilities are merely normal to them, natural things that they take completely for granted; it isn't until they meet other species (like Dwarves and Humans) that they'd see these traits as in any way unusual. So an Elf in Aman who unlocked a door by singing to it (for example) would merely say "I unlocked the door". "I spoke with my brother" might refer as easily to mental speech as to verbal speech (just as we might use that phase to refer to either a face-to-face conversation or to a telephone conversation); in how many situations would making a clear distinction between those two forms of communication matter?

And Elves are individuals, and each will react differently when they discover the traits that separate their own people and the mortal races. Some (like Finrod), who have a philosophical bent, might pay great attention to these differences, and indulge in a great deal of speculation trying to reconcile WHY the different species have such different fates. Other Elves, though, might be less fascinated by mortals - "Talking kelvar. Hmm, that's interesting" - and return to their own business relatively unshaken by what they've learned. You have to think about WHO you're writing about, as well as WHEN you're setting the story, when you write about Elves, just as you do when writing about Mortal Men.

 

 

Re: Narrative, death and the Elves

From HA Yahoo - copy of Dwim's remarks


----------------------


I sometimes wonder if we aren't all a little too Vulcan in our usual
conception of Elves. Granted the Silm was probably written by someone
not an Elf, but the events recorded are not those of a dispassionate
people. "Rage, O Muse" as it were might not be all that inappropriate
a line for an elven minstrel singing the songs of his/her people.

I get the impression that if there's a sense of inertia with Elves, it
comes from two sources:

1) Elves are connected with Arda--their immortality isn't the same
kind of immortality that we understand when we say the human soul is
immortal. It is the kind of immortality that = "a very long time." So
perhaps Elves are closer to Ents emotionally *so long as* nothing
happens to disturb them. But let something touch them personally, and
the emotions are every bit as strong (if not stronger--look at Fëanor
and his brood, and even Thingol) as those we mere mortals experience.
I mean, look at Fëanor: he was in the Blessed Realm; by all rights,
being on sacred ground ought to be very grounding, don't you think?
Yet once the seed of evil had worked its way into his heart, he felt
rage and grief great enough to tear him from that place and drive him
to Middle-earth, and others followed for other less burning reasons.
Nevertheless, none of the Noldor who followed Fëanor were remotely
peaceful or calm, nor did they properly desire such for many years.

2) Exhaustion, and the natural fading of Elves in M-e. I read the
Third Age Elves of Lórien and Rivendell in particular as being quite
simply exhausted. If they don't have to fight, they won't, and they
won't go beyond their own borders. They've been dealing with Sauron
and Morgoth for millennia, and in helping to destroy him, they are in
a sense destroying themselves (Saruman may have been a liar, but he's
a liar who tells truth to serve his purposes, cf. RoTK). Their numbers
are down, the very earth to which they are so attached is being rended
and abused, they're isolated, their bodies, even, are changing as M-e
changes and ages. They are 'inert' or remote or preternaturally calm
in part because they've paid for their wisdom.

Dwim

 

 

Re: Narrative, death and the Elves

Copy of Marnie's comments from HA Yahoo
-----------------------------------
I guess that using a mythic mode - like the Silmarillion - allows you to make
broad stabs in the direction of understanding the elves without giving too
much away. The mythic mode allows you to show their passionate and doomed
nature, but does not allow you to get so close that you lose the sense that
you're dealing with alien beings. The minute you start using elves as
viewpoint characters in a normal story-mode you have to get close enough to
them to understand their motivations and emotions etc, and if you can
understand them at all then the chances are you've made them too human. (For
example the whole 'Something-or-other of Shannara' series)

It's like the difficulty of getting proper aliens in Science Fiction - you
can do it only if you don't get too close to them. Like Kosh in Babylon 5
(the only really alien alien I can think of) keeping them intelligable but
also mysterious is only possible if you don't try to get to know them.

A human drawing characters who are not human is doomed from the start because
we only have human understanding to work on. But that doesn't mean it's not
possible to make a good stab of occasional wierdness which manages to keep
the reader entirely from thinking of them as men-with-pointy-ears. For
example Philosopher at Large does a great job of reminding you her elves are
not human in the Leithien Script by use of some very alien metaphors
('gorgeous as water') not explaining too much (putting Beren at the
'primaries' of the cavalry formation) and having her elves grope their way
towards understanding what's going on in the human's head.

So I think he's right - you can't ever write a fully elvish elf, because even
if we met one we wouldn't understand them from their own POV. On the other
hand the better a writer you are and the more you try to remember you're
dealing with something non-human, and make sure you try to show that, the
closer you will get to at least achieving *something* of an elvishness.

It's like elvish gold, isn't it - if you try to grasp and hold it you end up
just with a handful of yellow leaves... but aren't the leaves better than
nothing?

Marnie :-)
---------------------------------

"dwimmer_laik " wrote:

> I sometimes wonder if we aren't all a little too Vulcan in our usual
> conception of Elves.

I agree. The Silmarillion is not a tale about a calm people! I too take it
that by the Third Age many of their leaders are simply worn out and fed up of
fighting, and just want a rest. But there are still flashes of the old pride
and prickly temper to be seen - as in Celeborn's greeting to Gimli in LotR,
or Thranduil's treatment of Thorin and co. Indeed, Thranduil in the Hobbit,
with his arrogance and his love of gems but his still unshakable goodness, is
a study in minature of one of those Silmarillion elves. *He* doesn't seem to
have changed much.

I actually see the elves as being *more* passionate than humans, but by the
Third Age they have learned to be wary of letting those passions get aroused
- because they know what they're capable of when they get mad - so what
you've got in LotR is a thin veneer of civilization on top of a still smoking
volcano.

Marnie :-)

 

 

Re: Narrative, death and the Elves

Copied from the HA Yahoo list...

So, what's to make of that tangle? And what to make of the claim about not being able to write a straight-forward narrative of Elves? That we "turn Elves into men"? Only a mythic mode (Elvish myth? Human myth?) is appropriate - why? Revolving around the experience of immortality would seem the start.

For all that my post here is less intellectual than some others, I think this discussion is very timely, considering how Elves and
immortality versus mortal death are handled in the TTT film. Film-
Elrond seems to consider Arwen's potential mortal death a horrible
fate in and of itself...it's all very simplified compared to the view
in Tolkien's own Letters. Book-Elrond is more focused on the long-
term "sundering" of Arwen's fate if she undergoes mortal death, not
on death itself being an unpleasant thing.

Based on Tolkien's statements above, any attempt at writing his
(imaginary!) immortal beings is an impossible task and such stories
are inevitably about mortal Men. Which I find odd considering how
much Tolkien himself wrote about the Elves. Was he invalidating his
own imagination as a writer, or recognizing his creative limits? A poster above commented on Tolkien being overwhelmed by his own writing at the point when he made that comment.

One of the points I've taken from canon is that Elves and Men had
more in common earlier in their history. The Elves of the
Silmarillion seem "human" in many ways to me with their passions and actions, so "turning Elves into Men" is to me acceptable in some
ways. There was even a brief time in the First Age, a window of
about 300 years - when Elves and Men were co-existing and even
sharing government, with mortal Men as rulers subsidiary to Elves.
Thus, I see First Age elves as fully involved with the world, but
getting more and more burned out as the First Age progresses; Second Age Elves as feeling the strain of time and reacting in various ways (either leaving or making some Rings); Third/Fourth Age elves (LOTR time period) as a lot more withdrawn, absorbed in purely Elvish affairs, nurturing ideas and ideals of the past. An earlier poster noted how TIRED the Third/Fourth Age Elves were...

My most recent story was an attempt to deal with the theme of Elves
longing for mortal death. "The burden of the Eldar we take onto us:
the loss and endless memory..." I included some serious mythic
elements in the tone, and some of the everyday clunkiness and
backtalk of life framing the mythic elements. Humanizing? Maybe. But Tolkien's elves, for all that they have a different life than Men, are
still alive, and I see a certain sense of humor and joy in life as
something all Tolkien's Free Peoples share. Thus, I don't think that
all stories with Elves need to be in an endlessly serious or
remote "mythic" mode.

A question for some of the writers responding here; considering the comments that started this discussion, what gives you the chutzpah to write fanfiction about Tolkien's Elves?

Tyellas

 

 

Re: Narrative, death and the Elves

I am obliged to say, "Not so, but far otherwise" in this regard, on several counts.

The rationalist arguments for the necessity of the immortality of the soul derive from *Socrates* via the Dialogues. Plato influenced not the idea, to be sure, but the understanding of the notion in the Early Church. (An acquaintance of mine once had to explain to the administration of the university where she taught that she couldn't censor Socrates even if his words uncomfortably reminded students of Christian teachings.)

The notion of "soulless Elves" is a "metaChristian" idea -- it has nothing to correspond with it in Scripture or doctrine, but is a popular notion/superstition, a pop attempt to reconcile folk beliefs and theology, if you will. It is very strong in the Scandinavian lands - I first encountered it via the Norse myths and Hans Christian Andersen. The idea of the Old Ones, of various races, all being immortal, but having no life after death if killed, is to be found in many stories. Most notable is the (original) Little Mermaid, where the idea of winning eternity through love, (and also liebestod) is the theme of the story, overriding even romantic love.

But there are more comic versions, such as the stories of the Huldafolk of the mountains, who look like us but have tails, and if a Hulda chooses to marry a human, and enters the church at the wedding, the tail drops off, and the Hulda becomes human as well. If the mortal is lured into the Hulda's mountain, however, they will live forever happy, but in illusory splendor, and forfeit their eternity.

The situation of the Elves as portrayed in the Arda mythos is more tragic and heroic, however, and extraordinarily troubling. The redemptive notion of Arda Envinyanta is not a late addition, or attempt at forcing a reconciliation, however -- and I finally have the hard proof of it. I have been working under an assumption of this from certain textual hints, but as of last month it too can go from the list of conjectures to be justified to the some three-dozen validated conjectures.

In sum, the *matter* of the Athrabeth was extant at least as early as the first prose versions of the Geste in the 1930s, and possibly at the writing of the first Lay fragment. Whether the historical circumstances were conceived of as being the same then I do not know, but the important part, the core of it which might be termed "the Heresy of Felegund", was very definitely there - and the line which explicitly mentions this was *excised* from the published Silmarillion, as was the line which states, "and it has not ended" of the story.

(Since the line is virtually the same as the line which raised chills when first read, before I even knew of the existence of the Athrabeth, in LL1, I really incline more towards "probably" than "possibly.")

As far as Elves -- there is a problem for all theorists of Tolkien in the simple fact that *every human culture* has the conviction of such immortal, powerful, "magical" beings, of various types and natures and characters, not simply European, nor even Indo-European -- tree-women and transforming animal-lords are as common in Japanese lore as in Greek or Irish stories -- and the task, which is in a sense "impossible" but nevertheless must be attempted by any fantasy writer, is to form some sort of understanding of all these Peoples who have inhabited the landscape of the world, based on the stories and tales that have come down to us of messengers and changelings, Selkies and Dragons, Kingdoms Under Hill and Kingdoms Under Wave, peri and fay and djinniyeh and kitsune, ogre and vampire, dragon and salmon and wise eagle and old geezers who turn out to be gods in disguise.

These are the givens -- messy and inchoate, but definitely "out there" in the ancestral culture (whatever their "objective" reality). What makes Middle-earth different is the effort at making a coherent narrative to explain where all these various people and things came from, and why the stories are as they are, then and now.

 

 

Re: Narrative, death and the Elves

That line about the tales told by the Elves undoubtedly being concerned not with the quest for immortal life, as many human tales are, (eg Gilgamesh, The Water of Life) but with the escape from deathlessness, is taken right from the essay On Fairy-stories, which was first done up as a lecture during the time that JRRT was working up the Lays and their surrounding mythos. When I hit that, I instantly thought -- *this* is what he's trying to get at by titling the story 'Leithian' -- "release from bondage." And that unlocked a heck of a lot for me in understanding Silm.

The problem in trying to write the straight-forward narrative is harder to theorize but easier to point to examples of - Feist's Riftwar is one example: he has pretty people, but they're not Elves, even if he calls them Elves. And most of the fantasy novels which try to focus on the Fay, of any cultural inspiration/derivation, fail, in that their charcters could have walked off any soap opera. Elsewhere in On Fairy-stories JRRT talks about how the original Arthurian stories are far more "Elvish" in quality - and he seems to be using "Elvish" as I have heard the classical term "xenicos" used -- to mean the quality of the innately foreign & mysterious -- than any of those cutesy stories about flower-fairies. Feist et al may not be "cutesy" but there's nothing xenicos, alien-born, about them.

One problem with dealing with any cultural artifact is trying to figure out what assumptions are or must be so basic, that they're not even noticed by the author, and what is therefore being taken for granted and unmentioned. I find it a fun challenge, either for my stories or historical studies, if a bit jarring at times.

But I think it is also extremely dangerous to assume that *no* comprehension of another culture is possible - it tends to become a self-fulfilling prophecy, for one thing, and for another - it's predicated on the false postulate that everyone from one group is in fact mutually comprehensible to *each other.* I frequently find that I do not speak the same language as others of my "peer group" and background, and that I am frequently told that I cannot understand what it is to have had the experiences I have lived, as the author is assuming that such things do not happen nowadays, or are not believed, or at least not among civilized first world people, and thus inadvertently dismisses me along with medieval or colonial or classical folk.

There are also some great examples of how illusory such alienness and *misunderstanding* can be in the book "The Shaman's Apprentice", where it becomes obvious that the original anthropologists didn't understand enough of what they were talking about to get meaningful answers, and when a humbler and better informed visitor able to ask meaningful questions and pay attention to the nuances showed up, the answers weren't so different at all.


 

 

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