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  • Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner:An Encounter with Faerie
  • Jeanie Watson (bio)

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Samuel Taylor Coleridge was a firm believer in the value of fairy tales: he once wrote,

Should children be permitted to read Romances, & Relations of Giants & Magicians, & Genii?—I know all that has been said against it; but I have formed my faith in the affirmative.—I know no other way of giving the mind a love of 'the Great', & 'the Whole'.—Those who have been led to the same truths step by step thro' the constant testimony of their senses, seem to me to want a sense which I possess—They contemplate nothing but parts and all parts are necessarily little—and the Universe to them is but a mass of little things.

(Letters 1:210)

The value of fairy tales, Coleridge is saying, is that they teach children the essential unity of the Universe. They provide an imaginative encounter with the reality of Wholeness, that reality which may also be called Spirit or Faerie. Significantly, a later advocate of fairy tales, J. R. R. Tolkien, agrees with Coleridge that the strong and persistent appeal of fairy tales is closely related to the fact that the stories present the truth of reality.

Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner is not usually considered in any extensive way at all as fairy tale; nor is its place in the canon of children's literature by any means a firm one, despite the fact that the poem was read and enjoyed by generations of children. Yet I believe it deserves a place in that canon for, in terms of both Coleridge's and Tolkien's ideas about the function and value of fairy tales, the Rime does have much to offer to both children and to scholars of children's literature. Because it does provide the values Tolkien outlines in his essay "On Fairy Stories"—Fantasy, Recovery, Escape and Consolation—it can legitimately be considered both as a fairy tale and as itself a theoretical discussion of Faerie.


Tolkien uses the term "Fantasy" to "embrace both the Sub-creative Art in itself and a quality of strangeness and wonder in the Expression, derived from the Image: a quality essential to fairy-story." He argues that Fantasy is the "most nearly pure form" of Art "and so (when achieved) the most potent" (47). At the heart of fantasy is the creative desire, and fantasy (when achieved) is so potent because "we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of the Maker" (55). As Coleridge explains, that which is made by the human maker also partakes of the Maker, i.e., the Creator or Spirit that is One; the imagination—and by extension, the form it creates—is the "representation in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM (Biographia 1:202). The Fantasy that is created, then, is a true representation of Reality.

Tolkien continues: "Fantasy, of course, starts out with an advantage: arresting strangeness. But that advantage has been turned against it, and has contributed to its disrepute. Many people dislike being 'arrested.' They dislike any meddling with the Primary World, or such small glimpses of it as are familiar to them. They, therefore, stupidly and even maliciously confound Fantasy with Dreaming, in which there is no art; and with mental disorders, in which there is not even control: with delusion and hallucination" (47-48). The quality of "strangeness and wonder" which is the "quality essential to fairy-story" is the exact quality that pervades The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. In fact, Coleridge deliberately set out to produce this quality. In the Biographia Literaria, he explains that in the plan for Lyrical Ballads, he and Wordsworth were agreed that Coleridge should write poems in which "the incidents and agents were to be, in part at least, supernatural; and the excellence aimed at was to consist in the interesting of the affections by the dramatic truth of such emotions, as would naturally accompany such situations, supposing them real...


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pp. 165-170
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