Tolkien 101: On Fairy Stories

Fantasy (in this sense) is, I think, not a lower but a higher form of Art, indeed the most nearly pure form, and so (when achieved) the most potent.

I made the mistake of thinking On Fairy Stories would be a quick and easy read and would make for a quick and easy post.  It is very short—just 23 pages—but it’s crunchy.  There is just so much there there.  It is really a remarkable essay, and it is probably the ideal third thing by or about Tolkien to pick up—after The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, but before The Silmarillion or any of the nonfiction books about Tolkien.  It is quintessential Tolkien—erudite, elegantly written, humble in approach but aggressive in its thesis.

On Fairy Stories is available online for free or in bound form from Amazon and other booksellers.  I could say a lot about it—you could write a good book on just this essay—but I will try not to.  At 23 pages you should really go and read it for yourself.

Tolkien was no fan of the diminutive fairies that we all grew up with—the Tinkerbells of the world—something he pinned as a modern invention.  To him, fairy stories were not stories about diminutive fairies, or even just about fairies, “for fairy stories are not in normal English usage stories about fairies or elves, but stories about Fairy, that is Faerie, the realm or state in which fairies have their being.  Faerie 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.”

This leads naturally into Tolkien’s idea of “subcreation” (and the “Secondary World”), which gets considerable attention, and ends with his conception of eucatastrophe (something I talked about in my post on the superversiveness of Tolkien’s work).

Tolkien spends quite a bit of time policing the borders of what exactly qualifies as a fairy story in his mind, but, to me, this is the least interesting section of the essay.

Tolkien also, to use the parlance of our times, “destroys” the argument that fairy tales were created by and are primarily enjoyed by people who think they might be real.  Reason is not at odds with fantasy.  “The keener and the clearer is the reason, the better fantasy will it make.”  A tale of a princess marrying a frog is not effective because our ancestors or our children think that princesses sometimes marry frogs.  Indeed, it wouldn’t be effective if it did, because the story relies on the absurdity of the premise.  No, children do not enjoy fairy stories because they think they might be real.  Children who enjoy fairy stories—and not all do—enjoy them for the same reasons adults who enjoy fairy stories enjoy them.  He ascribes this, in part, to a misunderstanding of children, often made by people without children.

The implications for today, with falling fertility rates, especially among elites, are obvious.  For today would-be fairy stories are thick with the “deadliest of all” storytelling sins, covert sniggering “with an eye on the faces of other clever people.”

To make his point about innate desire, Tolkien tells a wonderful story of his own childhood.  Alice in Wonderland and Treasure Island left him cold (or cool).  “Red Indians” were better because they had bows.  “But the land of Merlin and Arthur was better than these, and best of all the nameless North of Sigurd of the Völsungs, and the prince of dragons.”  He didn’t like dragons because he “imagined that the dragon was of the same order as the horse.”  On the contract, he liked dragons because dragons are awesome.  And this love was something that grew, not diminished, with adulthood.  He learned to appreciate poetry studying Greek and Latin and his “real taste for fairy stories was . . . quickened to full life by war.”

Children do have some advantages in approach fairy stories.  As Tolkien notes that Chesterton noted, children “are innocent and love justice; while most of us are wicked and naturally prefer mercy.”  Mercy is fine by Tolkien, as anyone who has read The Lord of the Rings knows, but mercy must be tempered by justice.  (Prohibitions, by the way, are important to fairy stories “because of the great mythical significance of prohibition.”)

But “if a fairy story as a kind is worth reading at all it is worthy to be written for and read by adults.  They will, of course, put more in and get more out than children can.”  Something I learned rereading The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.  Tolkien also argued that fairy stories offered in particular “Fantasy, Recovery, Escape, Consolation, all things of which children have, as a rule, less need than older people.”

Fantasy is inherently derivative, and Tolkien knew it.  But he was wise enough to realize that an infinite number of stories were still there to be told, and that stories built round a general similar combination of folklore motives are not “the same stories.”  This is (one reason) why modern retellings of fairy tales so often miss the mark, especially those self-consciously framed as deconstructions.  It isn’t the plot, but “the colouring, the atmosphere, the unclassifiable individual details of a story, and above all the general purport that informs with life the undissected bones of the plot, that really count.”

Which is not to say that Tolkien approved of the “mere manipulation and over-elaboration of old material, clever and heartless” or “in making all things dark or unremittingly violent,” both of which are absolutely rife today.

Tolkien ranges far afield at times.  We get his thoughts on dramatic plays and on science fiction.  Interesting, there are references to both the Führer and “the Robot Age” in an essay written in 1939 (I couldn’t pin down exactly when Tolkien presented his essay, so I’m not sure if it predated the German invasion of Poland or not).  Tolkien’s trademark criticism of the ugliness of the modern, machine world is in full effect.

You should go read On Fairy Stories, if only to avoid embarrassing yourself by claiming that Tolkien “truncated his creative palette” because “he wanted to be taken seriously” and was “thoroughly immersed in modernism.”  No one who has read On Fairy Stories would make so wild a claim.  It is a wonderful, rich essay that I look forward to rereading, and that I will likely revisit on the pages of this blog in the future.

There is only one Tolkien 101 post left.  You can find a summer’s worth of Tolkien 101 posts here.

About H.P.

Blogs on books at Every Day Should Be Tuesday (speculative fiction) and Hillbilly Highways (country noir and nonfiction).
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11 Responses to Tolkien 101: On Fairy Stories

  1. pcbushi says:

    Great post, HP. I do need to get to reading this. I’ve come across quotations from it before, and should pair well with CS Lewis’ “On Stories,” which I have read and I think actually may be a response to Tolkien here.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Announcing Summer School: Tolkien 101 – Index | Every Day Should Be Tuesday

  3. John Boyle says:

    Thank you for posting this, H.P.; I read this one so long ago that it has faded almost completely.
    As you say, worth a reread.
    Only one post left? Oh, no!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • H.P. says:

      And that a wrap-up! You will have to settle for a mere 19 posts!

      There remains so much more to say and cover. I didn’t even finish everything I had originally planned. I am going to have to do a (shorter) Tolkien 201 series next summer.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: Summer School: Tolkien 101 Wrap-Up | Every Day Should Be Tuesday

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  6. Pingback: Pre-Tolkien Fantasy Challenge: Howard, Moore, and Dunsany | Every Day Should Be Tuesday

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