Tolkien Essay On Fantasy

In J.R.R Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy Stories” he argues that it is not necessary to be a child to enjoy and read fairy-tales, he states (while making a reference to the races found in H.G Wells novel, The Time Machine), “Let us not divide the human race into Eloi and Morlocks: pretty children—“elves” as the eighteenth century often idiotically called them—with their fairytales (carefully pruned), and dark Morlocks tending their machines. If fairy-story as a kind is worth reading at all it is worthy to be written for and read by adults”. However, it should not be seen in such an extreme manner and that by their very nature, fairy-tales are primarily for children and that it loses its power of escape, recovery or even fantasy when read by an adult.

Children are naïve and prone to believing whatever they are told, thus their imagination is much better than an adult’s and is capable of seeing things that others would not see when presented with a fairy-tale. As adults we read fantasy and write creative literature to recapture some of that magic lost when we grew up, and the magic and stories contained in fairy-tales are not for us. When reading these stories we must ignore reality and places ourselves in the “Secondary World” created by the story. Adults are in capable of fully immersing themselves, they are preoccupied with the ideas and knowledge they have learned as they’ve grown up, with life experiences and responsibilities. Only children have the true power to immerse themselves in these tales and therefore understand the mystical world presented to them. While adults have the intelligence and the vocabulary to tell these fairy-tales, only children have the ability to fully imagine and understand them.

“I do not deny that there is a truth in Andrew Lang’s words (sentimental though they may sound): “He who would enter into the Kingdom of Faerie should have the heart of a little child.” For that possession is necessary to all high adventure, into kingdoms both less and far greater than Faerie.” While Tolkein states that Lang’s words are sentimental, they should be seen as fact. Fairy-tales, while a form of literature, should not be dissected and looked at critically like with novels or essays. He says that adults “…of course, put more in and get more out than children can.” It should not be seen in this fashion. You do not “put more into” a fairy-tale; you can only get a story and a sense of wonder out of it. It should not be said that adults are too close-minded for this, but that they have seen the world and learned about and so the sense of wonder is gone which is required for a fairy-tale.

Works Cited

Tolkein, J.R.R. “On Fairy Stories.” WebCT. University of Western Ontario, 23 Jan. 2011. Web

"On Fairy-Stories"
AuthorJ. R. R. Tolkien
CountryUnited Kingdom
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.


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]


  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",
  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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