Completed: “On Fairy-stories”

“On Fairy-stories”
J.R.R. Tolkien
Tolkien On Fairy-stories: Expanded Edition, with Commentary and Notes
Verlyn Flieger & Douglas A. Anderson, Editors

I have known the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien for many years, ever since my brother and I were little, slowly following the journeys of first Bilbo then Frodo, as my dad read to us from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. My dad’s editions—old Ballantine Books paperbacks, covers taped on, spines thoroughly cracked, pages falling out—feature a picture of the author on the back cover, gray-haired, pipe-smoking, wrapped in a scarf and what just might be tweed: the perfect image of an Oxford don.

Yet, despite knowing of Tolkien’s position at Oxford (and for that matter of his great influence on 20th century fantasy literature), it wasn’t until recently that I learned of two lectures he presented in the late 1930s which would go on to become highly influential in the sphere of  academic literary criticism.

The first of these, “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” was presented and first published in 1936 and argued in favor of reading the poem for its literary qualities and fantastic elements rather than solely studying it for any Anglo-Saxon history which might be gleaned from its lines. The second lecture, presented as the 1939 Andrew Lang lecture at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, would eventually be developed into “On Fairy-stories” in 1947 and revised in 1964 (included in Tree and Leaf). Although somewhat less significant than the Beowulf essay, “On Fairy-stories” is important, not just as a defense of the reading of fairy-stories—and by extension, fantasy stories—but as a examination of the theories Tolkien would apply to his later works. (Notably, The Hobbit, an earlier work, does not align completely with his essay—something Tolkien would come to regret.)

I took two trips through Tolkien’s essay, which almost seems a necessity, as densely packed as it is with ideas and references. This is not an essay which provides a nice neat thesis in the opening paragraph which it then endeavors to prove in the larger body of the writing. Rather, it is a more complex work. Fortunately, Tolkien provides three major questions which he then meditates on, providing a framework for the reader and a focus for himself:

  1. What are fairy-stories?
  2. What is their origin?
  3. What is the use of them?

The first of these is perhaps the mostly light touched, with the answer deviating briefly to discuss the definition of “fairy,” dismissing the 18th-19th century English concept of a fairy as a miniscule creature capable of hiding in a flower petal. But his primary focus is not the beings, rather the stories, and so he returns to the proper question. His definition is almost one of subtraction, for in contrast to fairy-stories, Tolkien removes travelers’ tales, tales framed by dreams, and beast-fables—those stories in which animals speak and behave as humans (human stand-ins) with no human involvement—from being considered as proper fairy-stories. Rather, fairy-stories are indicated more by a particular location or state:

…for fairy-stories are not in normal English usage stories about fairies or elves, but stories about Fairy, that is Faërie, the realm or state in which fairies have their being. Faërie contains many things besides elves and fays, and besides dwarfs, witches, trolls, giants, or dragons: it holds the seas, the sun, the moon, the sky; and the earth, and all things that are in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, mortal men, when we are enchanted. (paragraph 10)

“Faërie” is an important concept throughout the essay: a variant on the conventional spelling, Tolkien uses it as the “Perilous Realm,” a sort of parallel reality beyond our human senses but into which humans may accidentally stumble.

Perhaps even more important is Tolkien’s concept of “sub-creation.” First hinted at here, made more explicit in the Epilogue, Tolkien’s essay is best understood in light of his Christian faith—as God is the Creator, so Man, created in God’s image, becomes sub-creator via the power of words.

But language cannot, all the same, be dismissed. The incarnate mind, the tongue, and the tale are in our world coeval. The human mind, endowed with the powers of generalisation and abstraction, sees not only green-grass, discriminating it from other things (and finding it fair to look upon), but sees that it is green as well as being grass. But how powerful, how stimulating to the very faculty that produced it, was the invention of the adjective: no spell or incantation in Faërie is more potent.… When we can take green from grass, blue from heaven, and red from blood, we have already and enchanter’s power – upon one plane; and the desire to wield that power in the world external to our minds awakes.… But in such ‘fantasy’, as it is called, new form is made; Faërie begins; Man becomes a sub-creator. (paragraph 27)

It is this sub-creation that Tolkien finds most interesting regarding origins; he summarizes then-current areas of origin research and theories but doesn’t dwell. His interest is not origins, it is the “use” of fairy-stories. Although for many decades, perhaps centuries, fairy-stories have been relegated to children, Tolkien staunchly counters this, arguing as much based on his own experience as a child and with children, that a child is no more nor less inclined to like fairy-stories than an adult. If anything, children have a vaster appetite for stories in general, but a more limited vocabulary and experience to articulate why they might like or dislike any given tale. Tolkien does not say we should take fairy-stories away from children, only that we should not consider them as belonging solely to children. (Any reader of The Hobbit might be surprised at this belief, for it at times The Hobbit seems geared precisely to children, but the introduction to the edition of “On Fairy-stories” which I read quotes a letter from Tolkien in which he regrets that tone of his earlier book.)

The value, or “use” Tolkien sees in fairy-stories is five-fold:

  1. As literature on its own merits (when well-written)
  2. As Fantasy
  3. For Recovery
  4. For Escape
  5. For Consolation

The first is self-explanatory, but the others are perhaps more easily dismissed by literary critics, and so Tolkien addresses them more thoroughly.

Fantasy: Tolkien praises it as a highly sub-creative act, but holds it to a high standard of “inner consistency of reality,” that is a world in which the reader can immerse themselves without being startled out by inconsistency or the presence of something “false” to that world. Fantasy is about desires, for communication with animals, to escape death—and in all these we are aided by our sub-creation of Secondary Worlds. Tolkien further considers Fantasy both natural and dismisses the idea that engaging in fantasy is a result of an inability to distinguish reality from make-believe, for if we cannot make that distinction, Fantasy cannot exist:

For creative Fantasy is founded upon the hard recognition that things are so in the world as it appears under the sun; on a recognition of fact by not a slavery to it. (paragraph 79)

Recovery: seen by Tolkien as a renewing , a seeing of things anew—made possible in fairy-story by the flipping of expectations or altering the rules from our world in that of Faërie.

Escape: perhaps the most interesting to read about. How often do some (readers) dismiss (certain) books as merely “escapist” literature? Tolkien bashes this viewpoint, arguing that we would not fault the prisoner for daydreaming about the world beyond his cell walls; we recognize that the prisoner still understands the reality of the prison. Rather, by condemning Escape, we “…are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter” (paragraph 88).

Consolation, that is Consolation of the Happy Ending: Here Tolkien introduces a term he has coined, eucatastrophe*, as the exact opposite of catastrophe, that is, the sudden unexpected turn to the joy of the happy ending, which he calls the “highest function” of a fairy-story. (Note, Tolkien does not dismiss Tragedy as a valid vehicle for expression—he calls it the “true form of Drama.”) It is here, and in the following Epilogue, that Tolkien becomes most explicit regarding his faith, stating that the Gospels contain the “greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe” (paragraph 104).

I found this a very interesting read, especially in light of the “genre vs. literary wars” that seem to pop up periodically. It is even more interesting in light of Tolkien’s own works: his later works reflect the ideas articulated in this essay. Also interesting to note, Tolkien considered The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings fairy-stories. This essay does suggest a possible interchangeable use of “fairy-story” with “fantasy,” although I can’t recall ever seeing any contemporary example of such usage.

This is my first (!) completed read for Carl’s Once Upon a Time VI, and a most interesting read, if a bit academic. I might have had it (and this post) finished earlier, but I was a bit distracted by Kent State’s (my alma mater) baseball program: after last night’s exciting win, they’re headed to their first ever College World Series in Omaha! Go Flashes!

*(Greek eu = “good” + catastrophe> Greek kata = “down” + strephein = “to turn”)

A note on the text: “On Fairy-stories” is available in the collections Tree and Leaf (1964, 1988) and The Monsters and the Critics (1983). The edition I read, Tolkien On Fairy-stories: Expanded Edition, with Commentary and Notes (2008), contains the essay with editors’ commentary, as well as additional items of more scholarly interest. It’s more difficult to find (I was able to request my copy through my local library’s participation in a state-wide network), but the editors’ commentary is highly valuable in clarifying unfamiliar references.


10 thoughts on “Completed: “On Fairy-stories””

  1. Really interesting post, Amanda! I might want to read these essays eventually, since I’m trying to (hoping to) change my prejudice against fantasy literature, and will likely be reading Tolkien pretty soon.

    I think we should bring back the term “fairy stories.”

    Also, I feel that all literature is and should be “escapist.” What differs between different literary mediums is not whether or NOT we escape, but where we go when we do.

    1. Thanks! I’d like to read the Beowulf essay when eventually read Beowulf. Supposedly, there’s a Tolkien translation of Beowulf that’s never been published. (It might be unfinished?) I don’t know if this essay might change your ideas about fantasy, but it’s certainly interesting to think about fantasy in terms of “fairy story.” It’s also an interesting essay in its own right. (Also, The Monsters and the Critics contains both essays if you’re interested.)

      I agree with you and I think Tolkien might agree with you about “escapist.” (See, you’re already half-way to enjoying his work. 😉 ) So the question is where do we want to go? Why should it only ever be serious and/or “real” places? And why can only “serious” things be accepted critically? (Okay, that’s three questions. I can do upper-level math; I can’t count.) I’m sure these questions are an entire wormhole of a mess…but given the trends in fiction right now, it seems like they’re going to be addressed more and more. Maybe even by going back to Tolkien. He certainly saw no reason not to take the fantastic seriously.

  2. Great post! It’s been ages since I’ve read this, so it was a nice refresher for me.

    Was Tolkien the first to comment on the inner consistency of reality (since he more or less ‘invented’ the fantastic as we know it today, I wouldn’t be surprised of he had)? This seems to be a major factor for me in whether or not I enjoy YA fantasy. Maybe I’ve just made some unlucky choices, but a lot of the YA fantasy I’ve read gets so weighted down by abstract/poorly explained elements that it completely loses its inner consistency of reality — and that’s when the author loses me as a reader. I wonder what Tolkien would make of the fantasy genre today?

    And on a totally unrelated note, I visited his grave in Oxford. Such a good day. I love paying my respects to a cherished author.

    1. Thanks! I don’t know if he was the first to discuss “inner consistence of reality” or not. (And of course, I’ve returned the book to the library already, so I can’t see if the editors say anything.) I wouldn’t be surprised if he was, or at least one of the earliest, though, as any sort of fairy-story/fantastical tale wasn’t really taken seriously in a literary context at that time.

      That’s an interesting question about Tolkien’s though on today’s fantasy. I wondered reading the essay what he would make of the movie adaptations of his works. He certainly didn’t think much of any visual representations of fantasy, yet the recent technology advances in movie-making really made the movie adaptations seem “real.”

      That’s really neat that you visited his grave. I don’t know if I’d think to do that, but I would love to visit Oxford.

  3. What a great first read for the challenge: perfect choice! I have a copy of The Tolkien Reader around here somewhere, and I remember enjoying some of the essays therein, but I’m not sure if these were amongst them…I’ll have to take a peek.

    1. It was a good first read! I find myself reading Tolkien’s fiction a little differently now, paying attention to how he does things and how this aligns with his theories. I believe “On Fairy-stories” is included The Tolkien Reader; hopefully you enjoy it!

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