Posted by: Billy Marsh | December 4, 2009

Reflections “On Fairy-Stories”: What is a Fairy-Story?

Having read so much of J. R. R. Tolkien’s fiction, and having built a semi-substantial secondary source library on Tolkien, I felt it was time to dive into the key piece of work for anyone who is interested in knowing more about Tolkien’s literary and theological rationale for story-making. “On Fairy-Stories” is the fundamental source for understanding the logic behind anything that Tolkien has written. His essay has since served as the authoritative text on what is essential to fantasy literature. I think what’s most revealing and helpful in “On Fairy-Stories” is that you realize that Tolkien didn’t simply spend his whole life creating MiddleEarth just because he had a love for fiction. Only to see a work like The Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles of Narnia per se as merely fiction, and thus, all they have to offer and intend to offer is a “story” for pleasure and entertainment falls terribly short of the impetus for their creation and the philosophy of fiction held by their authors.

Tolkien delivered this essay in 1938 at the University of St. Andrews as the keynote speaker for the Andrew Lang Lecture series. He wrote it near the beginning of his creation of The Lord of the Rings, particularly The Fellowship of the Ring. Tolkien reflects that the precise timing was “[a]t about the time we had reached Bree, and I had then no more notion than they had of what had become of Gandalf or who Strider was; and I had begun to despair of surviving to find out (31).” In this lecture, he sets out to define what a “fairy-story” is but refuses to try and sum it up in only a matter of one or two sentences. In reality, the entire essay could be considered his definition of what a “fairy-story” is. This is something that he is aware of and hints at when he states, “Faërie cannot be caught in a net of words; for it is one of its qualities to be indescribable, though not imperceptible. It has many ingredients, but analysis will not necessarily discover the secret of the whole. Yet I hope that what I have later to say about the other questions will give some glimpses of my own imperfect vision of it (39).”

The elusiveness of the “fairy-story” for Tolkien is not due to its usage as a broad category in which many sub-genres find their origin. Tolkien shows that any good and true “fairy-story” is one that finds itself in “the Perilous Realm itself, and the air that blows in that country (38).” I will explain what Tolkien means by this statement in subsequent posts on this essay, but for the moment, the basic idea is that a “fairy-story” is one where its adventure occurs in a world of real struggle. A setting that is not only prime for danger and bleakness of hope, but one where the human condition is allowed to be stripped down to its bone and marrow, revealing in vivid scenes and detail what does it mean to live this life, and for Tolkien, it is the human condition set in the context of his Christianity that he portrays in the LOTR. And let me just say, for those who object to the explicit Christian element present in the LOTR, then it is clear those responders have either not read this essay, or have read it, and totally disregarded the framework for his entire philosophy of myth presented in this writing.

“The Perilous Realm” is typically what we regard as the fantastical element to a story such as the LOTR. However, a true “fairy-story” for Tolkien is not defined by whether or not it has “fantasy” type characters such as dragons, hobbits, orcs, and elves. It is the grandness of the scale in which the story takes place. Perhaps this is why in a fantasy novel the conflict is usually centered on things such as the end of the world, the reign of darkness/evil, genocide, and so forth. It is these “Perilous Realms” that provide the receptacle for the creation of a story that has the opportunity to portray elements of the human condition and reality with monumental scope. The fact that the “fantasy” genre is naturally conducive to this type of drama reveals why it is so often the form of a true “fairy-story”.

When I hear people say they don’t like movies and books like the LOTR or The Chronicles of Narnia because they think that all of the creatures, characters, and lands are silly, it is clear that they have missed the mark completely. Not that you can’t have a personal preference concerning literary genres, however, to reduce the quality of fantasy simply to its “fantastical” features such as those mentioned completely misunderstands how these “extreme” characteristics of the genre serve the story-telling by creating a context for watchers and readers to have some of the deepest experiences available through literature because of the magnanimity of the world in which it takes place and the struggles therein which we identify with in our own lives.  What we tend to fail to recognize is that the “real world” that we believe is so distant from the fantasy world really isn’t that foreign at all. We often regard fantasy literature as escapist reading. However I would contend that it is in fact more real in terms of all of reality than we give it credit. Just think about it for a moment. Dwell upon the grandness of the universe in which our story is set. What about the long list of epic battles and wars that have occurred in world history? Or the attempts at genocide? We’ve succeeded in sending people to outer space. On the spiritual side, we affirm the reality of angels, demons, Satan, the after life, and God, who by the way, are at war with one another which we are a part of as well. We confess that God became man, God died, and God rose again. Pretty fantastical if you ask me?



  1. “On fairy stories” is a great resource. I have it in a book that also contains “Leaf by Niggle,” an amazingly wonderful story that depicts Tolkien’s struggle in writing the LOTR and his hope that what God had given him to do was worth it all in the end. That story really tells Tolkien’s story, and ours as well.

  2. caljohnson,

    Thanks for your comments. You are right to bring up “Leaf by Niggle”. It follows “On Fariy-Stories” on purpose both as an autobiographical sketch and as a demonstration of what Tolkien was trying to communicate in his essay. They are meant to be read together.

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