On Fairy Stories Essay

Reading Fairy Stories with J. R. Tolkien

In “On Fairy Stories,” J. R. R. Tolkien explores the realm of Faerie, and considers “What are fairy-stories? What is their origin? What is the use of them?” As you might expect, the essay is packed with deep thought illustrated with examples from the best of fantasy literature, from Norse mythology to A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Lest a reader be deceived into thinking that fairy tales and fantasy are simply entertainment and unworthy of study, Tolkien begins by reminding us that

“The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords.” 

Tolkien crafts a beautiful and compelling argument in “On Fairy Stories,” and it is worth close study, especially for budding writers and students of literature.


Where to find “On Fairy Tales”

“On Fairy Tales” was originally a talk Tolkien delivered for the Andrew Lang Lecture Series at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, but was later published as an essay. It has appeared in compilations including Tree and Leaf and The Tolkien Reader, and in The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays, edited by Christopher Tolkien (affiliate link at left). It has also appeared as a standalone text with additional study material. A PDF copy is available to students at the link below (28 pages).

Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy Stories” (PDF)

The Tolkien Estate website provides a brief overview of “On Fairy Stories,” summarizing the origin and content of the essay. There is also a paragraph on “eucatastrophe,” Tolkien’s word for a “good catastrophe” such as the sudden and favorable resolution of a conflict in a story.

You may also want to read a related essay, “Sub-Creation or Smuggled Theology: Tolkien contra Lewis on Christian Fantasy” by David C. Downing, published at the C. S. Lewis Institute. It’s an interesting comparison of how C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien viewed the role of an author and the purpose of literature, with a focus on fairy tales or fantasy literature.


This commentary and excerpt of the essay by J. R. R. Tolkien is provided here for educational purposes only. Thanks to Stacy Esch, English professor at West Chester University, for sharing this resource with us; it was originally published on her website. Related material referenced by Excellence in Literature.

Stacy Esch teaches composition and literature at West Chester University in West Chester, Pennsylvania. She is an avid supporter of the liberal arts tradition in higher education.

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"On Fairy-Stories"
AuthorJ. R. R. Tolkien
CountryUnited Kingdom
LanguageEnglish
Genre(s)Essay
Published inEssays Presented to Charles Williams
PublisherOxford University Press
Publication date4 December 1947[1]
Preceded by"Leaf by Niggle"
Followed by"Farmer Giles of Ham"

"On Fairy-Stories" is an essay by J. R. R. Tolkien which discusses the fairy-story as a literary form. It was initially written (and entitled simply "Fairy Stories") for presentation by Tolkien as the Andrew Lang lecture at the University of St Andrews, Scotland, in 1939.

History[edit]

In the lecture, Tolkien chose to focus on Andrew Lang’s work as a folklorist and collector of fairy tales. He disagreed with Lang's broad inclusion in his Fairy Books collection (1889–1910), of traveller's tales, beast fables, and other types of stories. Tolkien held a narrower perspective, viewing fairy stories as those that took place in Faerie, an enchanted realm, with or without fairies as characters. He disagreed with both Max Müller and Andrew Lang in their respective theories of the development of fairy stories, which he viewed as the natural development of the interaction of human imagination and human language.[2]

The essay first appeared in print, with some enhancement, in 1947, in a festschrift volume, Essays Presented to Charles Williams, compiled by C. S. Lewis. Charles Williams, a friend of Lewis's, had been relocated with the Oxford University Press staff from London to Oxford during the London blitz in World War II. This allowed him to participate in gatherings of the Inklings with Lewis and Tolkien. The volume of essays was intended to be presented to Williams upon the return of the OUP staff to London with the ending of the war. However, Williams died suddenly on 15 May 1945, and the book was published as a memorial volume.[3]Essays Presented to Charles Williams received little attention,[4] and was out of print by 1955.[5]

"On Fairy-Stories" received much more attention beginning in 1964 when it was published in Tree and Leaf.[4] Since then Tree and Leaf has been reprinted several times, and "On Fairy-Stories" itself has been reprinted in other compilations of Tolkien's works, such as The Tolkien Reader in 1966[6] and The Monsters and the Critics, and Other Essays in 1983 (see #Publication history below). "On Fairy Stories" was published on its own in an expanded edition in 2008. The length of the essay, as it appears in Tree and Leaf, is 60 pages, including about ten pages of notes.

The essay is significant because it contains Tolkien's explanation of his philosophy on fantasy and thoughts on mythopoiesis. Moreover, the essay is an early analysis of speculative fiction by one of the most important authors in the genre.

Literary context[edit]

Tolkien had not intended to write a sequel to The Hobbit. The Lang lecture was important as it brought him to clarify for himself his view of fairy stories as a legitimate literary genre, and one not intended exclusively for children.[7] "It is a deeply perceptive commentary on the interdependence of language and human consciousness."[2]

Tolkien was among the pioneers of the genre that we would now call fantasy writing. In particular, his stories—together with those of C. S. Lewis—were among the first to establish the convention of an alternative world or universe as the setting for speculative fiction. Most earlier works with styles similar to Tolkien's, such as the science fiction of H. G. Wells or the Gothic romances of Mary Shelley, were set in a world that is recognisably that of the author and introduced only a single fantastic element—or at most a fantastic milieu within the author's world, as with Lovecraft or Howard. Tolkien departed from this; his work was nominally part of the history of our own world,[8] but did not have the close linkage to history or contemporary times that his precursors had.

The essay "On Fairy-Stories" is an attempt to explain and defend the genre of fairy tales or Märchen. It distinguishes Märchen from "traveller's tales" (such as Gulliver's Travels), science fiction (such as H. G. Wells's The Time Machine), beast tales (such as Aesop's Fables and Peter Rabbit), and dream stories (such as Alice in Wonderland). One touchstone of the authentic fairy tale is that it is presented as wholly credible. "It is at any rate essential to a genuine fairy-story, as distinct from the employment of this form for lesser or debased purposes, that it should be presented as 'true.' ...But since the fairy-story deals with 'marvels,' it cannot tolerate any frame or machinery suggesting that the whole framework in which they occur is a figment or illusion."[citation needed]

Tolkien emphasises that through the use of fantasy, which he equates with imagination, the author can bring the reader to experience a world which is consistent and rational, under rules other than those of the normal world.[9] He calls this "a rare achievement of Art," and notes that it was important to him as a reader: "It was in fairy-stories that I first divined the potency of the words, and the wonder of things, such as stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine."

Tolkien suggests that fairy stories allow the reader to review his own world from the "perspective" of a different world. Tolkien calls this "recovery", in the sense that one's unquestioned assumptions might be recovered and changed by an outside perspective. Second, he defends fairy stories as offering escapist pleasure to the reader, justifying this analogy: a prisoner is not obliged to think of nothing but cells and wardens. And third, Tolkien suggests that fairy stories can provide moral or emotional consolation, through their happy ending, which he terms a "eucatastrophe".

In conclusion and as expanded upon in an epilogue, Tolkien asserts that a truly good and representative fairy story is marked by joy: "Far more powerful and poignant is the effect [of joy] in a serious tale of Faerie. In such stories, when the sudden turn comes, we get a piercing glimpse of joy, and heart's desire, that for a moment passes outside the frame, rends indeed the very web of story, and lets a gleam come through." Tolkien sees Christianity as partaking in and fulfilling the overarching mythological nature of the cosmos: "I would venture to say that approaching the Christian story from this perspective, it has long been my feeling (a joyous feeling) that God redeemed the corrupt making-creatures, men, in a way fitting to this aspect, as to others, of their strange nature. The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. ...and among its marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe. The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man's history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation."

Publication history[edit]

"On Fairy-Stories" in compilations[edit]

  • Ed. by C. S. Lewis, ed. (June 1966) [1947]. Essays Presented to Charles Williams. Grand Rapids: Wm. B Eerdmans. ISBN 0-8028-1117-5. 
  • Tolkien, J. R. R. (5 February 2001) [1964]. Tree and Leaf. New York: HarperCollins. ISBN 0-00-710504-5. 
  • Tolkien, J. R. R. (12 November 1986) [1966]. The Tolkien Reader (Reissue ed.). New York: Del Rey. ISBN 0-345-34506-1. 
  • J. R. R. Tolkien (1975), Tree and Leaf; Smith of Wootton Major; The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm's Son; reset edition, Unwin Paperbacks, ISBN 0 04 820015 8
  • J. R. R. Tolkien (1980), Poems and Stories, George Allen & Unwin, ISBN 0-04-823174-6
  • J. R. R. Tolkien (1983), The Monsters and the Critics, and Other Essays, Houghton Mifflin, ISBN 0-395-35635-0
  • J. R. R. Tolkien (1997), Tales from the Perilous Realm.

Stand-alone edition[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^Scull, Christina; Hammond, Wayne G. (2006). The J. R. R. Tolkien Companion and Guide. Volume 1: Chronology. London: HarperCollins. p. 326. ISBN 978-0-261-10381-8
  2. ^ abFlieger, Verlyn. "On Fairy Stories" – essay, Tolkien Estate
  3. ^Schakel, Peter J. (15 July 2005). "The Storytelling: Fairy Tale, Fantasy, and Myth". The Way into Narnia: A Reader's Guide. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdman's. p. 27. ISBN 0-8028-2984-8. 
  4. ^ abScull & Hammond, Companion and Guide, Volume 2: Reader's Guide, p. 688. ISBN 978-0-007-14918-6
  5. ^Tolkien, J. R. R. (1981). The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, London: George Allen & Unwin. p. 216. ISBN 0-04-826005-3
  6. ^Overview of "On Fairy-Stories", Tolkien-online.com
  7. ^Michelson, Paul E., “The Development of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Ideas on Fairy-stories.” Inklings Forever 8 (2012)
  8. ^Tolkien, Letters, pp. 220, 239, 244, 283, 375–6.
  9. ^Stritt, J. Michael. "Tolkien's "On Fairy-Stories", UNLV
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