Tolkien Fantasy Essay

We all know J.R.R. Tolkien wrote fantasy fiction. He was the brilliant mind behind The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, a creator of intricate and enthralling new worlds, and one of the founding fathers of the genre. You can rarely talk about fantasy fiction without mentioning Tolkien… but I think his skill in writing fantasy was not the only thing that made him the legend he is today. 

People often forget that Tolkien was also a linguist and a poet and a university professor. He invented new languages. He wrote literary essays, many of which discuss his work. He was a friend of fellow fantasy author C.S. Lewis, and the two were members of the same informal literary discussion group.

Tolkien was not only writing amazing fantasy novels, he was also reflecting on his own work and on the fantasy genre itself. One of Tolkien’s famous essays is called On Fairy Stories (Tolkien called “fairy stories” what we would today call “fantasy”) – a speech he wrote and then later published.

I read On Fairy Stories several years ago for an essay I was writing, and recently revisited it to answer a related question on Quora. When I did, I was once again astounded by the eloquence and intelligence of this man. It struck me that in its fledging years, as the fantasy genre was growing in popularity, it couldn’t have had a better champion. He was not just someone writing brilliant fantasy, but also someone analysing it, promoting it, and defending it against critics who dismissed it as useless or escapist or literature fit only for children.

There were other people that wrote fantasy fiction before Tolkien (though they didn’t, in my opinion, do it as well), but his novels created a surge in the popularity and awareness of the genre. This is undoubtedly because of the enchanting stories and characters of Middle-Earth that he brought into existence, but I think his efforts to describe and promote fantasy also helped it in its journey to becoming the force it is today.

So, in celebration of this, I wanted to share a few of my favourite quotes from Tolkien’s essay. Even though he wrote it 75 years ago, many of his words still ring true, and are inspiring to people reading and writing fantasy today.

On fairy stories (aka fantasy) in general:

“I propose to speak about fairy-stories, though I am aware that this is a rash adventure. Faërie is a perilous land, and in it are pitfalls for the unwary and dungeons for the overbold.”

“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.”

J.R.R. Tolkien illustration for The Hobbit.

“The mind that thought of light, heavy, grey, yellow, still, swift, also conceived of magic that would make heavy things light and be able to fly, turn grey lead into yellow gold, and the still rock into a swift water.”

“Such stories [fairy tales] […] open a door on Other Time, and if we pass through, though only for a moment, we stand outside our own time, outside Time itself, maybe.”

On the desires fairy stories satisfy:

“The magic of Faërie is not an end in itself, its virtue is in its operations: among these are the satisfaction of certain primordial human desires. One of these desires is to survey the depths of space and time. Another is […] to hold communion with other living things.”

On escapist literature, and why it is not something to scorn:

“Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it. In using escape in this way the critics have chosen the wrong word, and, what is more, they are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter.”

On stories needing to be understood as whole things, not as an assemblage of components to be picked apart and examined separately:

“It is precisely the colouring, the atmosphere, the unclassifiable individual details of the story, and above all the general purport that informs with life the undissected bones of the plot, that really count.”

On fantasy not being primarily or specifically for children:

“Actually, the association of children and fairy-stories is an accident of our domestic history. Fairy-stories have in the modern lettered world been relegated to the “nursery,” as shabby or old-fashioned furniture is relegated to the play-room, primarily because the adults do not want it, and do not mind if it is misused.”

The Hobbit Movie Poster.

“Among those who still have enough wisdom not to think fairy-stories pernicious, the common opinion seems to be that there is a natural connexion between the minds of children and fairy-stories, of the same order as the connexion between children’s bodies and milk. I think this is an error; at best an error of false sentiment, and one that is therefore most often made by those who, for whatever private reason (such as childlessness), tend to think of children as a special kind of creature, almost a different race, rather than as normal, if immature, members of a particular family, and of the human family at large.”

“[…] in fact only some children, and some adults, have any special taste for them [fairy-stories]; as when they have it, it is not exclusive, not even necessarily dominant.”

And finally, here is my favourite quote from On Fairy Stories, which is actually a poem Tolkien wrote in a letter to a man that described fairy stories and myths as “lies” and their creation as “breathing lies through silver” (when he uses the word ‘sub creator’ he is talking about the fantasy author that creates an Otherworld, a new reality that is then brought to life in the minds of readers):

“Dear Sir,” I said—Although now long estranged,
Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
Dis-graced he may be, yet is not de-throned,
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned:
Man, Sub-creator, the refracted Light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.
Though all the crannies of the world we filled
with Elves and Goblins, though we dared to build
Gods and their houses out of dark and light,
and sowed the seed of dragons—’twas our right
(used or misused). That right has not decayed:
we make still by the law in which we’re made.”

____

If you’d like some more Tolkien quotes (from both his fiction and his essays), Goodreads has oodles of them, and if you’re curious about Tolkien’s assertions in On Fairy Stories you can read my summary on Quora… or have a look at the originalessay itself. As for the personal experiences and beliefs of the man himself and how they shaped his writing, this article on Mythic Scribes offers a nice summary.

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"On Fairy-Stories"
AuthorJ. R. R. Tolkien
CountryUnited Kingdom
LanguageEnglish
Genre(s)Essay
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.

History[edit]

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]

References[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", Tolkien-online.com
  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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