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Tolkien, Fairy Stories, and Anastasia - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
Tolkien, Fairy Stories, and Anastasia
For ages, I've been bringing J.R.R. Tolkien's marvelous essay "On Fairy Stories" into every conversation I can possibly think of, because I love it, but I've never found a forum to just interact with it directly. And then I realized... hey, I have an online journal. I can talk about anything I want. :p

So, for your reading pleasure (if you find it pleasurable when I write what is essentially a fan essay instead of fanfic), I'll do a few entries on various parts of "On Fairy Stories" that I'd really like to share and analyze. I don't have any fixed schedule for doing this. The plan, such as it is, is to go through this very long essay a bit at a time and deal with certain quotes and concepts. I'll try and include a little bit of Tolkien's sense of humor, which I love, with each one. (Harry Potter friends--when I'm writing Lupin, it's Tolkien's sense of humor I picture him with, and I hear both of them speaking in the same kind of slightly injured sarcasm when commenting on something. I may have either personality wrong, but by gum, I have them wrong in the same way.)

"On Fairy Stories" has been published in a lot of places, probably most famously in Tree and Leaf, in which it was paired with the short story "Leaf By Niggle" (a weird and interesting little allegory about life, death, art, community, and salvation). Tolkien writes of "Leaf By Niggle" in the introduction to Tree and Leaf:

The story...has not been changed since it reached manuscript form, very swiftly, one day when I awoke with it already in mind. One of its sources was a great-limbed poplar tree that I could see even lying in bed. It was suddenly lopped and mutilated by its owner, I do not know why. It is cut down now, a less barbarous punishment for any crimes it may have been accused of, such as being large and alive. I do not think it had any friends, or any mourners, except myself and a pair of owls.

Okay, he'd have never been be tapped for Saturday Night Live, but I love his kind of dry humor, both self-righteous and self-deprecating, a kind of quiet voice muttering discontentedly in the shrinking wilderness. So many people follow the Great Things in Lord of the Rings, I think they miss this kind of gentle--but still cutting--sense of humor that shows in Tolkien's essays and Letters, because it only really shows up in LotR in the Shire sequences.

Tolkien compares the making of fairy stories to the making of a soup. The following blockquote is split with a rather large section about Charlemagne's mother being associated with the fairy tale "The Goosegirl" and a theoretical archbishop being associated with the slapstick convention of slipping on a banana peel.

For a moment, let us return to the 'Soup' that I meantioned above. Speaking of the history of stories and especially of fairy-stories we may say tha the Pot of Soup, the Cauldron of Story, has always been boiling, and to it have continually been added new bits, dainty and undainty...

Our business with [the banana peel] really only begins when it has been rejected by historians. It is more useful when it has been thrown away... I would say that Charlemagne's mother and the Archbishop were put into the Pot, in fact got into the Soup. They were just new bits added to the stock. A considerable honor, for in that soup were many things older, more potent, more beautiful, comic, or terrible than they were in themselves (considered simply as figures of history).

It seems plan that Arthur, once historical (but perhaps not of such great importance), was also put into the Pot. There he was boiled for a long time, together with many other older figures and devices, of mythology and Faërie, and even some other stray bones of history (such as Alfred's defence against the Danes), until he emerged as a King of Faërie.

A few years ago, I watched a tape of the movie Anastasia with my two oldest friends. One of them, like me, was fascinated. The other was slightly horrified. "But she's dead! They found her bones! People will watch this and they'll be confused! It's not the way it happened! They shouldn't pretend it was!"

It was one of the few times I've been unable to communicate with a friend--not angry, but just coming from such a different perspective on the subject that I couldn't even think where to begin, except with the simple fact that of course, factually, she was right. Anastasia Romanova, by any reliable evidence, died with her family during the Russian Revolution. I also couldn't think of any point less relevant for consideration.

What fascinated me was that I realized we are watching someone be put into Tolkien's Soup. Anastasia (whose name, as the movie points out, really does translate as "She will rise again" or "She will be reborn") in life was a rather obscure princess, a younger daughter who had no chance at the throne had her family lived. Very little is known about her, and why would it be? She died very young. She didn't have time to do much.

Furthermore, the Tsars were hardly the genteel and graceful monarchy portrayed in the movie. The Russian Revolution happened for a reason.

And yet, the story works. The story hits a huge nerve. Anna Anderson's claim to be Anastasia may have been false, but it awakened a story hunger... in anti-monarchical America as much as--or more than--anywhere else.

How does this begin to make sense?

The only way it makes sense is by realizing that this story is related to the real Anastasia and the real Romanovs in only the sketchiest of ways, and those ways are dropping away from it more and more each year. Anastasia is no longer a maybe-dead daughter of a Russian dictator. This story opens Once Upon a Time in a Far Off, Graceful Land (as the opening of the movie pointedly evokes), of which young Anastasia is the most beautiful and vibrant symbol. It is destroyed by an evil sorcerer, and Anastasia is left wandering, without her memory, searching for her home and family... for herself, ultimately.

In the course of this story, she serves as two psychological figures. The first, of course, is the Princess--the rightful heir who holds out hope for the oppressed that she will come and set a bad situation to rights. This is good old-fashioned messianism, and it always comes out when people are feeling low and misused.

The other point, to me, is more interesting, and that's her amnesia and "lost-ness." There are a lot of stories about rightful heirs being raised in humble circumstances, but most of them either know who they are or don't know. Anastasia knows, but has forgotten, and this becomes a very powerful symbol in a modern version of the tale. Progress has happened so very quickly in a hundred years. A lot of people feel lost and amnesiac. Who are we? Where did we come from? Can we get home? And into this foggy, confused world comes a new version of an old tale. In two hundred years, will it even still be associated with Anastasia Romanova? Or will it just be a fairy tale of vague origin, like "Hansel and Gretel"?

This is a question that interests me quite a lot more than "How likely is this story to be factually true of this individual?"

And of course, the deeper question is, "Is it a good story or a bad story?" Being a conservative by nature, I tend to see it as a good story (Tsar connection aside). As we rush headlong into the future, it's good to remember that there is a past, and it matters, and it's part of who we are. But I'd be a lot more apt to pay attention to an argument that said it was an unhealthy story than to one pointing out its historical inaccuracies.

All of which is more an analysis of Anastasia than of Tolkien's essay, but I think this is a big part of what he's getting at with his question of the Soup (and it's just an example; the same could be done with George Washington or Ben Franklin, but I didn't have a handy fairy tale version to work from, and the same was done with Pocohontas, but not as well).

BTW, "On Fairy Stories" is available (at least) in
Tree and Leaf
Poems and Stories
The Tolkien Reader

The last two, at least, are commonly available at public libraries, if anyone is interested in reading the essay. I recommend it highly. :)

</td><td valign="top">You are a geek liaison, which means you go both ways. You can hang out with normal people or you can hang out with geeks which means you often have geeks as friends and/or have a job where you have to mediate between geeks and normal people. This is an important role and one of which you should be proud. In fact, you can make a good deal of money as a translator.
Normal: Tell our geek we need him to work this weekend.

You [to Geek]: We need more than that, Scotty. You'll have to stay until you can squeeze more outta them engines!

Geek [to You]: I'm givin' her all she's got, Captain, but we need more dilithium crystals!

You [to Normal]: He wants to know if he gets overtime.

You are 48% geek

Take the Polygeek Quiz at Thudfactor.com

My journal says I'm 58% masculine.
What does your LJ writing style say about your gender?
LJ Gender Tool by hutta

Well, 58% masculine is better than the other results, which were something like 75% masculine. I still don't get it. Heck, I even have a girly job!

I feel a bit...: contemplative contemplative

1 comment or Leave a comment
narnian_dreamer From: narnian_dreamer Date: March 26th, 2004 11:08 am (UTC) (Link)
I have to read that Essay now. It looks very interesting. Have you read any of C. S. Lewis's essays on the subject?

On a different note, I tried that other gender-guessing-via-writing link that you posted on your journal earlier, and my fiction consistantly pegged me as female.

According to this thing, my journal is 54% masculine.

I give up.
1 comment or Leave a comment