On Fairy-Stories

On Fairy-Stories‘ is an essay by J. R. R. Tolkien which discusses the fairy-tale 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.

It first appeared in print, with some enhancement, in 1947, in a festschrift volume (a book honoring a respected person), ‘Essays Presented to Charles Williams,’ compiled by C. S. Lewis. British poet 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 (an informal literary discussion group) 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 May 15, 1945, and the book was published as a memorial volume. The essay is significant because it contains Tolkien’s explanation of his philosophy on fantasy and thoughts on mythopoiesis (the creation of myth). Moreover, the essay is an early analysis of speculative fiction by one of the most important authors in the genre.

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 recognizably 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 pattern; his work was nominally part of the history of our own world, but did not have the close linkage to history or contemporary times that his precursors had.

‘On Fairy-Stories’ is an attempt to explain and defend the genre of fairy tales or Märchen (fables). It distinguishes Märchen from ‘traveller’s tales’ (such as ‘Gulliver’s Travels’), science fiction (such as H.G. Wells’ ‘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.’

Tolkien emphasizes that through the use of fantasy, which he equates with fancy and 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. 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. This concept, which shares much in common with phenomenology, Tolkien calls ‘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.’

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