Faërie is a perilous land, and in it are pitfalls for the unwary and dungeons for the overbold.
I’ve been reading The Monsters and the Critics and On Fairy-stories again. One of the things I do is neglect the library I have, and I have a good library. So in the afternoons when I’ve written and done Latin, I return to it nowadays. It is a good time for dipping, though I’m not much of a hand at dipping yet. So I look for smaller complete things to read through, though Tolkien’s essays are surprisingly long.
We are fortunate to have these essays in which he works out a complete theory of what he actually achieved. This is astonishingly neglected, or not put into practise, or perhaps best: hard to put into practice. You’ll still notice, when you think of all the good fantastic literature you know, that he isn’t wrong.
I was reading The Elfin Ship, because I don’t usually give up on books even when I’m re-reading them–not much of a dipper, you see–and it was a bit tedious (and I squirm because it makes me aware of silly things I’ve written). There are things at which he succeeds, and more things at which he doesn’t. And when I think about it I see that Tolkien was right.
For all that it is wandery and even random, Blaylock’s view of magic, at least in this book, is not altogether wrong. Lots of things are silly, too much of it is incoherent and flimsy, but he appeals to the desire for an interesting place (Seaside and specially the book store) and maintains a sufficient seriousness about magic, as can be seen by the failed Professor Wurzle’s experiences and vain speculations.
Of course, what Tolkien writes doesn’t explain all the failures a contemporary writer of Fantasy may make. You can get the generally literary part of the craft wrong and so fail. But if you can do at least that much–and it is much–you still need to know about the special criteria that a fairy story has in order to succeed at that.
Fantasy … is difficult to achieve . . . and will certainly demand a special skill, a kind of elvish craft. Few attempt such difficult tasks. But when they are attempted and in any degree accomplished then we have a rare achievement of Art: indeed narrative art, story-making in its primary and most potent mode.
Which, I think, is why we read and re-read his success. Potent story, and there are not enough stories in the world, and the sense of elvish craft.
Do you know he’d even thought of the perils of drawing fantastic subjects?