A lecture and essay by J.R.R. Tolkien in which he discusses the nature, origin, audience, and purpose of the fairy-story.
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 sharp as swords. In that realm a man may, perhaps, count himself fortunate to have wandered, but its very richness and strangeness tie the tongue of a traveller who would report them. And while he is there it is dangerous for him to ask too many questions, lest the gates should be shut and the keys be lost.

Nature

Tolkien says the fairy-story is that which touches upon the realm of Faërie, the otherworldly and indescribable setting where primordial human desires (to fly, to understand the animals, to win through adversity) can be achieved.

It is not often about fairies - whether they be named fairy or elf or goblin or sprite - nor about their peculiar beasts, dragon and unicorn and pegasus: they often do not appear at all in the fairy-story. But it contains enchantments from their air and water and light and trees, at least.

It is not mere distance in space or time, or unfamiliarity, that makes it enchantment. Travellers' tales, like Mandeville and Gulliver and science fiction, present strange things, but they are in our own kind of world and reachable by traversing enough distance.

It is not unfamiliarity of shape of the actors: in beast-fable the actions are essentially those of humans in the everyday world, but in the form of bears or rabbits.

Origin

Story-telling is as old as humanity, if by humanity we mean the Speakers, those whose thought is bound in language. Tolkien rejects some of the accounts of mythology, in which the stories of gods are merely personifications of natural processes. He says this does not take into account the strong story nature some of them have, such as the irascibility of Thor.

He also denies they come from a time when the world was confused in primitive heads: the tale of the Frog-King does not indicate there was once a time when people thought frogs could marry queens; rather, it has always taken its frisson from the knowledge that they cannot, that nature is violated in the events within the story.

Audience

These days fairy-stories are supposed to be for children. The old terrors of the Brothers Grimm, the monsters and wild creatures that once haunted the savage woods, are consigned to the lumber-room of literature, and only read by or to children. Either that, or they are studied by scholars for clues to anthropology or philology.

There is no original connexion between children and the tales of Faërie, any more than fairies are essentially diminutive. This is a recent accident of culture. Children don't even have a special predilection for them: they enjoy many kinds of marvellous tale, of science and of history too, and want to understand the difference.

Purpose

Tolkien sees a number of things strongly present in our fairy-stories: Escape, Recovery, Fantasy, and Consolation.

Escape is a flight into freedom, or a yearning for a vision of what is outside one's mental or physical straits.

Recovery is being able to look again at the world around us, the Primary World, and see and taste and hear it freshly, with a new or renewed wonder. Enchanted bread and wine call us back to the enchantment in our own.

Fantasy is the imagination of new, strange things: things that are new-created. The weaver of fantasy is one who creates, with a secondary world, in which the things in the tale are true. Tolkien calls this sub-creation, and asserts that it is one of the most primal of human powers.

Consolation is the fulfilment of the human yearning to succeed, even in the depth of tragedy. It is the happy ending, the sudden turn in the tale that lets the fabric of the story be pierced and the great truth beyond be glimpsed. This turn, this catch, this tear-bringing victory over despair or death or defeat, Tolkien calls the eucatastrophe.


On Fairy-Stories was delivered as the Andrew Lang Lecture at the University of St Andrews in 1938. With minor revision it was published in Essays Presented to Charles Williams in 1947. It was republished in 1964 in the volume Tree and Leaf, which also included Tolkien's only allegorical story, Leaf by Niggle.

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