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).
Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy Stories” (PDF)
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.
This entry was posted in Classics-Based Writing Resource, Reading, Resources for Teaching and tagged article, eil, essay, faerie, fairytale, fantasy, j r r tolkien, myth, on fairy stories, tolkien. Bookmark the permalink.
I completed this analysis in my Selected Authors: J.R.R.Tolkien class where we read the magical and adventurous works of author of the popular series, The Lord of the Rings. For this assignment, we were to compose an essay using Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy-stories,” and reflect on his claims made about true fairy tales by relating it to our text, The Hobbit.
The term fairy-tale, or fairy-story, conjures a variety of images of stories found in both literature and film in society. Some may imagine princess tales such as Cinderella or Beauty and the Beast. Others may envision other classic stories for instance, Little Red Riding Hood or The Three Little Pigs. Throughout time, many fairy-tale authors have composed their own versions of what are referred to as fairy-tales. One of these authors, J.R.R. Tolkien, transformed the vision of fairy-stories with his own works. The Hobbit, one of his most famous pieces of literature, includes adventure, satire, and fantasy with creatures such as hobbits, trolls, elves, dwarves, goblins, orcs, and wizards, as well as mankind. This secondary world all began with the phrase, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” (Tolkien, The Hobbit 3). This line began a tale unlike any other, but by J.R.R Tolkien’s rules for such stories, The Hobbit is a true fairy-story. Such rules are described in Tolkien’s essay, “On Fairy-Stories”, which lists certain requirements, as well as origins, of fairy-stories. J.R.R Tolkien’s The Hobbit portrays an example of a true fairy-story, according to the author’s essay “On Fairy-Stories”.
In J.R.R. Tolkien’s, “On Fairy Stories,” Tolkien discusses the definition of the word “fairy-story.” He references the Supplement of the Oxford English Dictionary on the term “fairy-tale” as “(a) a tale about fairies, or generally a fairy legend; with developed senses, (b) an unreal or incredible story, and (c) a falsehood” (Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories” 34). Tolkien dismisses all three of these definitions and continues to describe his own definition of fairy-stories. Tolkien claims that the word “Faërie,” cannot be defined. Tolkien goes on to say that “Faërie cannot be caught in a net of words;[ . . . ] It has many ingredients, but analysis will not necessarily discover the secret of the whole” (“On Fairy-Stories” 38-39). This being said, Tolkien carries on by describing, in his terms, what exactly a fairy-story entails.
Aspects of fairy-stories are found in the plot of Tolkien’s The Hobbit. According to Tolkien’s “On Fairy-Stories”, “Faërie contains many things besides elves and fays, and besides dwarfs, witches, trolls, giants, or dragons: it holds the seas, the sun, the moon, the sky; and the earth, and all things that are in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, mortal men, when we are enchanted” (38). Throughout the story of The Hobbit, remarkable imagery of nature, as well as the characters and creatures who dwell in it, are described in detail. It is part of what “entrances” readers about the fantasy world. For example, in the beginning chapter, the dwarves poetically sing about “places of their ancient homes” (Tolkien, The Hobbit 14). The story’s protagonist, a hobbit named Bilbo Baggins, was captivated by the dwarves’ lyrical descriptions and felt a strong desire to explore the places described. According to the Tolkien-Online website, “Tolkien’s love of nature shines through on every page – his lush descriptions, environmental involvement, his characters. One cannot enter Middle-earth without becoming overawed by the utter “greenness” of it all” (“Tolkien & Nature”). The beauty and serenity of nature enchants many readers into the magical secondary world of The Hobbit.
One of the many features that attract readers to fantasy is the satisfaction of human desires. According to Tolkien’s “On Fairy-Stories,” fantasy acts as an “escape” from the real world (83). In a secondary world, practically anything is possible, but the characters still need to connect with the reader by portraying human-like desires. Tolkien states that one of these desires is “the desire of men to hold communion with other living things” (“On Fairy-Stories” 43). The characters communicate with eagles that help them escape the wrath of the goblins and Wargs. In The Hobbit, it seems most of the characters desire something or are tempted by something particular. Bilbo Baggins continuously longs to return to his home at the Shire where he is safe, warm, and well fed, “‘I wish I was at home in my nice hole by the fire, with the kettle just beginning to sing!’ It was not the last time that he wished that!” (Tolkien, The Hobbit 30). Readers can relate to Bilbo’s feelings of homesickness. When one is taken from what he or she is familiar with, there is a presence of wanting to depart from the unknown to one’s familiar haven. The dwarves, especially their leader Thorin Oakenshield, desire to reclaim the treasure of their ancestors. When the dwarves sing of this, they express this wish by singing, “We must away, ere break of day, /To find our long-forgotten gold.” (Tolkien, The Hobbit 26). The entire plot of The Hobbit is based around this desire; to claim what was taken from the dwarves. Humans mimic this wanting as well by claiming what is rightfully theirs such as wealth. One of the most significant desires in the tale is the desire for power. This is portrayed by the effects of the ring that comes into Bilbo’s possession. The ring was previously owned by a creature named Gollum, who grew mad with his attachment to the ring and its overwhelming power. The ring not only represents power, but temptation as well. After Gollum discovers that Bilbo has the ring, he is outraged, “‘Curse the Baggins! It’s gone! What has it got in its pocketses? Oh we guess, we guess, my precious.” (Tolkien, The Hobbit 77). Mankind is also tempted by power whether it is for a higher career position or to fit in with a higher social class.
One common aspect of fairy tales that society is well aware of is the “happily ever after” conclusion. Tolkien agrees with this notion as he states, “Far more important is the Consolation of the Happy Ending. Almost I would venture to assert that all complete fairy-stories must have it” (“On Fairy-Stories” 85). After the many trials and triumphs in the tale of The Hobbit, the outcome provides a conclusion that readers can be satisfied with. Tolkien also, however, states that “there is no true end to any fairy-tale” (“On Fairy-Stories” 86). Each chapter in The Hobbit is one adventure that the characters complete on their quest. The conclusion in The Hobbit provides a satisfying ending, but leaves room for further composition as well. For instance, what becomes of the ring that Bilbo Baggins discovers? The fact that The Hobbit is the story that began the trilogy of J.R.R. Tolkien’s famous works, The Lord of the Rings proves that the fairy-tale does not end. There is always room for more fantasy and adventure.
A fairy-tale is described in a variety of ways by society. Literature, drama, and film all have the potential to portray this concept. Each author or director has his or her own definition of what depicts a true fairy-tale. J.R.R. Tolkien is no exception with his specific guidelines on fairy-stories in his essay “On Fairy-Stories.” He used these guidelines in his compositions, one being The Hobbit. The Hobbit follows the rules of fairy-stories by its use of imagery in nature, relating to human desires, and a satisfactory conclusion. Tolkien’s tales of unusual creatures, satire, and adventure provide a unique experience for the reader in the genre of fantasy.
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Hobbit: Or, There and Back Again. United States: Houghton Mifflin Co. (MA), 1996. Print.
“Tolkien & Nature.” JRR Tolkien. Tolkien-Online.com, 2007. Web. 15 Feb. 2012. <http://www.tolkien-online.com/tolkien-nature.html>.
Tolkien, J. R. R. “On Fairy-Stories.” The Tolkien Reader,. New York: Ballantine, 1966. 33-99. Print.