Books: nonfiction fairy tales

As I have mentioned before, I have taken an interest in fairy tales and, as part of a personal reading goal, set off this year to read about them including retellings and nonfiction. Nonfiction took over recently with two (very different) reads on the subject.

Book #1: Tree and Leaf, by J.R.R. Tolkien

The edition: Italian edition published by Bompiani, 231 pages. It includes the original Tree and Leaf (“On Fairy Stories”, “Tree by Niggle” and the poem “Mythopoeia”), plus Smith of Wootton Major and The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth. Translation by Francesco Saba Sardi and Fabrizio Dubosc.

My thoughts: I am completely baffled by Tolkien’s nonfiction essay. The whole thing is way too theological for me, and full of scholarly references that I didn’t get. But the thing that baffles me is another one: Tolkien never wholly makes up his mind whether to consider fairies as real or not. At the beginning, I thought his references to the fairy folk were a kind of inside joke, but they were not, and I am left wondering. Because to me religion and fairy tales belong separately, being one real an one fantasy, I cannot agree with Tolkien’s views — and really wonder how it was possible for him to mix them up. Maybe he did believe in fairies after all.
There is just one thing I save: Smith of Wootton Major is a very nice and tender fairy tale and it made me think of Stardust.


Book #2: Morphology of the Folk-Tale, by Vladimir Propp

The edition: Italian edition, as published by Einaudi in Piccola Biblioteca (softcover), edited (and translated, I think) by Gian Luigi Bravo, 124 pages. The edition also includes a comment by Claude Levi-Strauss and a reply by Propp, but I didn’t read them this time.

My thoughts: I remember studying this theory as part of one of my courses at university, but it didn’t leave much of a memory. Reading it with a different attention and a different interest was, indeed interesting. On the other hand, this too was full of references, this time to Russian tales I had never heard before, and a bit too “technical” for my liking.

These two left me wanting. Have you read any good non-fiction about fairy tales? Please share in the comments!

7 comments on “Books: nonfiction fairy tales

  1. I do think Tolkien’s attitude is difficult to grasp, especially for us modern types who like to have everything definite and clear. He seems to have believed very strongly in myth and fairy-stories as a vehicle for deep truths that could not be adequately expressed in words. I think he would consider it contrary to that belief in the importance of fairy tales to outright *say* “Of course fairies are fictional.”–even though he almost certainly didn’t actually believe in boggarts and nixies. If you tried to pin him down I bet he’d just say something like “There are more things in heaven and earth…” and refuse to answer! Then he took that belief in the power of myth a step further and thought that Jesus Christ was the real embodiment and fulfillment of myths that had been looking towards the Atonement and anticipating it. So yeah, he didn’t make a clear division between religion and fairy tales. All that is just my opinion, though, I’m not a Tolkien expert. 🙂

    I looked around my bookshelves to see if I could find anything to recommend. I also love to read about fairy tales. But while I found many books of collected tales and all sorts of things, I think I must have borrowed all the non-fiction from my mom! I’ll have a look around her shelves and see. All I have is Sir James Frazer’s “The Golden Bough,” which is very interesting and worth reading even though apparently he got a whole lot wrong (being an armchair anthropologist and all). I also have Bruno Bettleheim’s “The Uses of Enchantment,” which I have never read.

  2. I had no idea. While I have read most of Tolkien’s fiction, I expected his non fiction to be completely different. I knew he had a strong view of religion, but I expected to see the scholarly professor (of Germanic philology, which, for the little that I studied it, I loved!) at work. (I may be a bit naive in my expectations of authors. OK, strike “a bit”.) Oh well, there’s always something to learn!
    I remember reading the Golden Bough as part of a university course and not finding it extremely significant, while Bettleheim is new to me, thank you for mentioning him.
    Also, I’ll look at that link and check out Diana Wynne Jones. I’ve only read Howl’s Moving Castle, so there’s plenty for me to discover yet. Thank you!

  3. I went over to my mom’s house and looked around, and found two books of this kind by Jack Zipes. I also took Robert Graves’ “The White Goddess,” because I can’t believe I’ve never read it. And then I took a book of C. S. Lewis essays on stories called “Of This And Other Worlds.” I opened that up this afternoon and right in the introduction it talks about Tolkien: “[He] believed in the inherent truth of mythology. ‘Just as speech is invention about objects and ideas,’ he said to Lewis…’so myth is invention about truth. We have come from God, and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Indeed only by myth-making, only by becoming a “sub-creator” and inventing stories, can Man ascribe to the state of perfection that he knew before the Fall.’ – Lewis in his account of it to Greeves…[said] that the ‘story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened.'”

    So maybe that helps you? 🙂

  4. I think Zipes’ books may be what I am looking for at present, as fairy-tale-related non-fiction is concerned. What titles are you reading?
    Thanks for sharing that quote. I knew that Tolkien though highly of mythology and legend (he famously said that Esperanto is dead because its authors never invented any Esperanto legends…) but didn’t know how much truth he saw in them. Thank you!

  5. The Zipes titles are “Fairy Tale as Myth/Myth as Fairy Tale” and “Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion.” I’m looking forward to reading them. 🙂

    I had never heard that bit about Esperanto, which is very Tolkienesque. Thanks!

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