Skip to content

Tolkien Essay On Fairy Stories

In J.R.R Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy Stories” he argues that it is not necessary to be a child to enjoy and read fairy-tales, he states (while making a reference to the races found in H.G Wells novel, The Time Machine), “Let us not divide the human race into Eloi and Morlocks: pretty children—“elves” as the eighteenth century often idiotically called them—with their fairytales (carefully pruned), and dark Morlocks tending their machines. If fairy-story as a kind is worth reading at all it is worthy to be written for and read by adults”. However, it should not be seen in such an extreme manner and that by their very nature, fairy-tales are primarily for children and that it loses its power of escape, recovery or even fantasy when read by an adult.

Children are naïve and prone to believing whatever they are told, thus their imagination is much better than an adult’s and is capable of seeing things that others would not see when presented with a fairy-tale. As adults we read fantasy and write creative literature to recapture some of that magic lost when we grew up, and the magic and stories contained in fairy-tales are not for us. When reading these stories we must ignore reality and places ourselves in the “Secondary World” created by the story. Adults are in capable of fully immersing themselves, they are preoccupied with the ideas and knowledge they have learned as they’ve grown up, with life experiences and responsibilities. Only children have the true power to immerse themselves in these tales and therefore understand the mystical world presented to them. While adults have the intelligence and the vocabulary to tell these fairy-tales, only children have the ability to fully imagine and understand them.

“I do not deny that there is a truth in Andrew Lang’s words (sentimental though they may sound): “He who would enter into the Kingdom of Faerie should have the heart of a little child.” For that possession is necessary to all high adventure, into kingdoms both less and far greater than Faerie.” While Tolkein states that Lang’s words are sentimental, they should be seen as fact. Fairy-tales, while a form of literature, should not be dissected and looked at critically like with novels or essays. He says that adults “…of course, put more in and get more out than children can.” It should not be seen in this fashion. You do not “put more into” a fairy-tale; you can only get a story and a sense of wonder out of it. It should not be said that adults are too close-minded for this, but that they have seen the world and learned about and so the sense of wonder is gone which is required for a fairy-tale.

Works Cited

Tolkein, J.R.R. “On Fairy Stories.” WebCT. University of Western Ontario, 23 Jan. 2011. Web

Tolkien's essay "On Fairy-stories," which most of us know from its 1964 publication together with the story "Leaf by Niggle" in Tree and Leaf, had been through two public appearances and several versions before that date. In 1938 Tolkien was asked if he would give the annual Andrew Lang Lecture at the University of St Andrews, Scotland, and chose the topic of fairy tales, which had been very much a concern of Lang's. Tolkien had already been thinking about the association of fairy tales with children, and the lecture gave him the chance to argue that this association was in fact an accident. He was intending to write a major fairy tale, and wanted to argue that such writing was and always had been matter for adults. A public platform on which to demonstrate this came at just the right time. Immediately after the lecture he resumed the writing of The Lord of the Rings, which he had begun in December 1937.

Though we have what is probably a draft of the lecture, we do not have a copy of the lecture itself, only commentaries on it in two newspaper reports that are given here. In the chaos of the war beginning it never saw print. However in 1943, Tolkien was invited to contribute to a festschrift for Charles Williams, and began revising and enlarging the lecture on fairy tales for this. Possibly he felt this piece was most appropriate for Williams, who, like himself, wrote in the fantasy mode; and perhaps the Christian character of Williams's work also made Tolkien begin stressing the potentially Christian happy ending of fairy tale. Tolkien's work on the essay exists in manuscript in the Bodleian, and Verlyn Flieger and Douglas Anderson have here done admirable work in transcribing it through all its vagaries. The collection, Essays Presented to Charles Williams, was not published until 1947, by which time Williams's death in 1945 had turned it from festschrift to memorial.

For the next years Tolkien was continually absorbed in The Lord of the Rings, but in 1955, with the completion and early success of that work, he complained that the essay was long out of print. However it was not till 1959 that his publishers Allen and Unwin agreed to a contract for it, and then only if he included an illustrative fairy-story to pad out what otherwise would have been too thin a volume. Tolkien made a few revisions to the essay as it had appeared in the Williams volume, but it was a further [End Page 241] five years until the essay actually appeared in Tree and Leaf.

Tolkien On Fairy-stories gives us a very full picture of the changing content of Tolkien's essay, which was revised during the composition of The Lord of the Rings. Flieger and Anderson first reprint the final version of 1964 in its entirety, adding their own notes and commentary. Then they summarise the entire manuscript and publication history behind this final version, noting and commenting on all the changes made by Tolkien. This summary is followed by two contemporary newspaper reviews of the original Lang lecture, one of these taken from the other: but the main one, from the St Andrews Citizen, and evidently using shorthand, summarises the content of the lecture in great detail. The remainder of the book transcribes two manuscripts, called "A" and "B," the one purportedly a draft of the Lang lecture, and the other both a second draft of the lecture and a series of interpolated observations and notes Tolkien made over the years prior to the Williams collection. These manuscripts are annotated.

Astonishingly, these two manuscripts, from the Bodleian Library in Oxford, have never previously been published. "A," which is numbered consecutively, only starts at page 5, and ends at page 28 in the midst of discussing "escape" in fairy stories. The editors believe that these missing pages were recycled in Manuscript "B," "whose...