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).
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.