“On Fairy Stories” is one of JRR Tolkien’s most well-known essays, tackling the question “What is a fairy story?” and forming a persuasive study and defense of the genre.
“On Fairy Stories” was written in 1938 as an Andrew Lang Lecture, and, as Tolkien notes in his introductory note to the essay, “was in shorter form delivered in the University of St. Andrews in 1938” (The Tolkien Reader pg 31).
It was originally published in 1947, in a slightly longer form, in Essays presented to Charles Williams (a memorial volume collected by CS Lewis and published after Williams’ death in 1945).
Later, it was published in hardcover, in tandem with the related short story, “Leaf by Niggle”, as Tree and Leaf, and in paperback as part of The Tolkien Reader in 1966. All page references below refer to The Tolkien Reader.
Tolkien, for all that he was one of the most respected scholars of his time, wrote and published very few “scholarly” essays in his lifetime, especially by modern standards.
“On Fairy Stories” and Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics are his most widely-known essays, and of those only Beowulf has its roots deeply into Tolkien’s core studies of Anglo-Saxon language and literature.
“On Fairy Stories” was something of a side-venture into a field in which, as Tolkien himself notes in the opening paragraph, “I have not studied…professionally (TR pg 33). “On Fairy Stories”, however, would leave a lasting impact on the study and discussion of “fairy-stories”.
Tolkien may not have been “professionally” acquainted with fairy-stories, but he was certainly intimate with them on a personal level.
He had been writing his own tales, set within Middle Earth (his own version of Faërie), since 1915. The Hobbit, published in 1937, was also set in a Faërie-like region (not originally Middle Earth), and established Tolkien as a master of the genre.
“On Fairy Stories” explores many questions that Tolkien poses at the beginning of the essay:
- “What are fairy-stories? What are their origins? What is the use of them?” (TR pg 33).
Tolkien makes some very specific distinctions, outlining what he feels fits into the category of “fairy-story”. Beast-fable, dream-stories, and traveler’s tales he rules out.
To Tolkien, fairy-stories touch specifically upon the world of “Faërie”, and involve not merely “fairies” but the interaction of humans with Faërie itself.
Tolkien also sojourns into the origins of fairy-stories, touching lightly on the “intricately knotted…history of the branches on the Tree of Tales”, going back into mythology, folk-tales, religion, and their derivatives. “The Cauldron of Story,” Tolkien says, “has always been boiling, and to it have continually been added new bits, dainty and undainty” (TR pg 52).
The elements of Faërie which constantly resurface, over and over again throughout the years, “have been retained (or inserted) because the oral narrators, instinctively or consciously, felt their literary ‘significance’” (TR pg 57).
One of the more noteworthy passages in “On Fairy Stories” concerns Tolkien’s discussion of fairy-stories as “stories for children”. They are not, he argues, essentially for children, nor do they immediately appeal more to children than to adults.
Here Tolkien coins one of his more well-known terms, defining the writing of fairy-stories as “sub-creation”, the creation of a secondary world with its own rules and laws. If an author can create a full-realized and consistent secondary world, that exists within its own laws, the reader’s disbelief can be suspended, whether they be adult or child. It has, as Tolkien calls it, the “inner consistency of reality” (TR pg 88).
The final element of successful fairy-stories that Tolkien discusses concerns what he termed “eucatastrophe”, which he called the fairy-story’s “highest function” (TR pg 86). Eucatastrophe is the fairy-story’s “happily ever after”, the consolation, the “sudden joyous turn” (TR pg 87).
But it is also more than that. Many commentators have described “eucatastrophe” as the story’s “happy ending”, but that is both overly simplistic and incomplete.
I would argue that “eucatastrophe” pertains not just to the happy ending, but to the redemption of morality in the tale. Evil falls, but because of its own greed, its hatred, its fatal character flaw.
Good triumphs, and triumphs in some way because of its inherent good.
The Lord of the Rings contains a great example of eucatastrophe. The ending is not entirely “happy”. Frodo is forever scarred and broken by his quest and struggle with the power of the Ring. The elves are leaving Middle Earth…so are Bilbo, Frodo, and Gandalf.
The true eucatastrophe of the novel is not the “happily ever after” but the downfall of Sauron and Gollum’s role as the destroyer of the Ring. Sauron’s fall came about because of his attempts at domination, which led him to invest his power in a single object (the Ring). Gollum, whose fatal flaw was his lust for the Ring, contributed directly to its destruction.
Frodo and Samwise succeed because of both their unselfish bravery (undertaking the quest to Mt Doom) and their pity (in sparing Gollum). These ideas, while beneath the surface of the writing, were central to Tolkien’s themes.
This was Tolkien’s “eucatrastrophe”, a sort of “poetic justice” and redemption that Tolkien believed was essential to a fairy-story.
“On Fairy Stories” remains one of the most eloquent and comprehensive studies of fairy-stories and their relevance in the modern world. It is at once a study and a defense of fairy-stories, which were seen as a lesser branch of storytelling for mere children.