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Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Fairy stories

Adrienne Ségur illustration for "Prince Ivan, the Infant
Ogres, and the Little Sister of the Sun,"
from The Snow Queen and Other Stories, 
an over-sized Golden Book I loved as a child.
Still do!
I've neglected the blog because I was busy polishing a novel--and still am neglecting it because I am cutting (ouch!) a certain long manuscript of poems for publication later this year. (It will be announced this spring.) So far I have cut 33 poems. It gets harder as I go on, as I do not want to destroy either the sense of another world that is central to the poems, the variety of forms, or the narrative arc of the Fool among his curious friends.

In lieu of sharing more, I'm just going to toss out a recommendation and say that I enjoyed this interesting translation of Russian-born Ivan Ilyin's 1934 lecture, "The Spiritual Meaning of Stories." If you like Tolkien's "On Fairy Stories," you might like this piece. The philosopher's words have been translated by Nicholas Kotar, a young writer, translator, and conductor of the men's choir at the Jordanville Monastery and Seminary, just a snowy skip and slide away from me. Evidently he writes fantasy inspired by Russian fairy tales.

Side note: The Russian Orthodox stauropegic monastery in Jordanville is well worth a visit if you're ever in the hinterlands of central New York. The first time I was there, I was with my husband, who wanted to visit the grave of a priest he met while a medical student, but I've been back since. A lovely thing about a monastery and church planted nowhere is the magical coming-upon those golden domes in the wilds, and discovering frescoes and icons, color and gold.

Here's a clip from Ivan Ilyin's talk:  So, don’t listen to a fairy tale in the bright light of day or with your prosaic and wing-less consciousness. Listen to a fairy tale in the evening or at light, in the magical darkness that removes familiarity from things and gives them a new, unexpected, mysterious form. You should listen to fairy tales with the dusky consciousness between sleeping and waking. Listen from the depth of your unconscious mind, where your soul lives like a child, where it’s childishly “stupid” and isn’t ashamed of its stupidity, where it enters into the story with complete seriousness and a passion of hope and despair, not even remembering that it’s all make believe.


  1. Just gave that essay a quick skim and it looks right up my alley. Thanks for bringing it to your readers' attention! I've bookmarked it (is that something only old people do now?) so I can read it more closely tonight, after I pull a few muscles putting down 200 pounds of salt on our driveway.

    I've also been neglecting my blog. I've been too busy writing snippets of new poems and taking art classes. But the blog-post ideas are piling up in my cranium, so I'm expecting a flurry of activity soon....

    1. Yes, I thought it would please you. Bookmarks? Yeah, probably. I'm definitely over the hill.

      Evidently we're getting yet another bout of snow, now that the sidewalks are almost clear from the last. But people up here are used to it. Enjoy salting the earth!

      Poems and art classes sound more fun. Besides, let the well fill!

    2. I don't think it by any means beats Tolkien's "On Fairy-stories" (in long or short versions), but I liked it, and the lovely sense of a piece written in its time, almost a century ago now.

      Was just thinking about Tolkien's ideas of "arresting strangeness" and "enchantment" and how that can work in books that are not, technically speaking, fantasy. Because there is, ultimately, no such thing as full realism, as that would simply replace the world (if it could exist.)

  2. That does sound interesting. I've been thinking a lot over the last few months about the considerable influence fairy tales and myths have had (and continue to have) on my writing.

    Unlike Jeff, my head is not filling up with ideas for blog posts. I can't blame art classes or writing for that cranial emptiness, either.

    1. You and Jeff are both people I thought would like it.

      Myths, archetypal dreams, fairy stories, and folk tales have such a rich vein of life. I definitely have been influenced by all of them.

      I am sure you can find something to blame--it's one of the easiest and most common human impulses... XD Or maybe just post some more of those small stories! But I probably already am behind on them.

      I expect you don't feel like it because you're working on something else. Shall go look and see.

      I seem to be spending (wasting?) astonishing amounts of time trying to figure out the right order for what's left of this poetry sequence after cuts. And I'm feeling a load of guilt over a promised blurb that I should have done already and the pounds of paper waiting for me. So I'm not feeling energetic in a bloggy way either. Auto-correct doesn't believe in bloggy and tells me it should be bloody.

  3. Although I'd say it was a defect of the genre that one should have to read fairy stories under very special circumstances, I am cast down that this post is in effect denied me and that I must enter it by the back door. I'm not sure why I am repelled by fairy stories and can only offer one sadly incomplete explanation: the passage of time. In my teens I read the Gormenghast trilogy unselfconsciously and absorbed enough of it to file certain passages (notably the Seven Grey Sleepers) in the family pantheon of literary references. Now the three paperbacks rest distantly on my shelves and the likelihood of my re-reading them is remote.

    Early in our marriage VR read Lord of the Rings with enthusiasm and I felt I should try it. Not a hope. Same with Pullman and the rest. Something between mid-adolescence and early adulthood (always assuming I've reached that stage) had snapped. It sounds pretentious, but I must risk this if I'm to be a neigh-sayer among yea-sayers, that National Service broke the thread. Being forced to understand electronics, especially the point where physical phenomena become mathematical statements, led me into a different world, with its own excitements and - yes! - its own poetry. I love its hardness, its attraction to indomitable intellect, its unbelievable feats of imagination, and its objective integrity.

    When good friends say they cannot face up to physics (and especially mathematics) I find myself saying helplessly, "But... but... " then lapsing into silence.

    I have no right to be here, of course. Came in by the back door and should be distrusted as with the Greeks. Perhaps you should have a barrel installed (horizontally) at the front door of your blog, which I could harmlessly inhabit for a while.

  4. I find in myself a veritable desert of concern about whether you like a certain sort of book--you like plenty of them! I have a complete lack of interest in reading certain types of story--thrillers, particularly, and I've read very little in certain genres, even genres that I have supposedly (genres are slippery things) written in. On the other hand, I do find physics interesting and often poetic, so I guess we're not totally apart here. I've definitely neglected math. Life is short.

    And I would say there is very little first-rate fantasy. But I would also say that there is little first-rate in the way of books, just as there are few first-rate thrown pots, microwaves (especially microwaves), pizza sauce, or anything else made by human beings.

    You do bring out the guns on fantasy as chlldish, but I won't try and argue with you there. After all, I still get a lot a pleasure out of reading Sendak's picture books! Better people than I have made the argument already, anyway. "Auden repeatedly challenged the idea that Tolkien’s work was only suitable for children. Tolkien’s world may not be the same as our own, Auden wrote in a 1956 review of the author’s work for the New York Times, but it’s a world 'of intelligible law, not mere wish,' that represents our own reality" -Erin Overbey, "The New Yorker."

    I have not read the Gormenghast books in a long time... I did read the Pullmann trilogy but thought the third volume should have been two books and was rather a mess. One thing I find fascinating about LOTR is that it is, I suppose, almost the only (aside from the Silmarillion) the only story generated by philology and a desire to create languages. It has excesses; it lacks certain elements. I still like it. And I feel that way about a good many books. Moby Dick, for example.

    I suppose that a difference between us that I am drawn by myth and archetypes, and so I love (among many other pieces of literature) the Odyssey, Beowulf, Gawain and the Green Knight, Shakespeare's more fantastical dramas (as well as some not at all so), Hawthorne, etc. There's a strong thread of continuity that goes back to and through what we call fairy stories--though they often have nothing at all to do with fairies (who aren't what we think they are today.)

    All that to say, why not say what you think? You do, anyway! And I like that. I like people. And I don't have some odd view of myself as special, and my opinions and likings being especially worthy. Not at all. I'm always interested in what other people think. Why else write a novel?


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.