Tolkien on Fairy-Stories

J.R.R. Tolkien presents three questions in “On Fairy-Stories:”

  1. What are fairy-stories?
  2. What is their origin?
  3. What is the use of them?

His answers not only explain a genre, but a core reality to mythopoeia and its relationship to the human condition.

What are fairy-stories?

Early on, Tolkien establishes that fairy-stories are not primarily about fairies. In fact, stories with fairies are “as a rule not very interesting.” Instead, the “aventures of men in the Perilous Realm,” such as Arthurian legends, are more compelling and better applicants to Faerie (9-10).

John Howe. “The Argonath.” 1999.

The Perilous Realm is all worlds of fantasy, far removed from our cold, mechanical cosmos. The Realm does not only concern “dwarves, witches, trolls,” but “seas, the sun, the moon, the sky… the earth, and all things that are in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, mortal men…” (9).

Nor is fairy-magic as mechanical as the rules of science (although in reaction to Tolkien, many writers today have labored to make it such—notably Patrick Rothfuss and Brandon Sanderson). Instead of “laborious” and “scientific,” the magic of fairy has a “peculiar mood and power”—its edicts are based on “primordial human desires” (10-13). One of these desires is to “survey the depths of space and time.” Another is “to hold communion with other living things,” specifically things we wouldn’t typically hold communion with, such as beavers, trees, gods, and goblins (13).

Disney’s 2008 animation Tinker Bell does not meet this criteria, but the British franchise Doctor Who and the PBS show The Magic School Bus are true Faerie.

What is their origin?

According to Tolkien, the creation of other realms is a “natural human activity.” Nor is it a problematic instinct. Fantasy doesn’t hurt our reasoning or blur the facts of science. If anything, it reinforces truth (55).

Or, as Tolkien writes:

“If men really could not distinguish between frogs and men, fairy-stories about frog-kings would not have arisen” (55).

Desirability is the origin of the fairy-story. Rationality, enslaved to possibility, is unsatisfying. The fantastic narrative, the “making or glimpsing of Other-worlds,” fulfills our primal wants (41). And through history, we have been enchanted by tales of temptation and trust, of power and prudence.

John Howe. “The End of All Things.”

What is the use of them?

Fairy-stories have utility beyond wish-fulfillment. Tolkien believes they have three uses—recovery, escape, and consolation.

They help in our recovery, or the “regaining of a clear view,” of things which have become mundane (57-58). The “queerness of things” can be regained when “seen suddenly from a new angle” (58). In this regard, fantasy is philosophical—defamiliarizing the familiar.

They help us escape. Not escape responsibility, but reality’s evils and moral failures. It’s the difference, Tolkien notes, between the “Flight of the Deserter” and the “Escape of the Prisoner” (61). The Primary World is full of blindly-accepted barbarism—”hunger, thirst, poverty, pain, sorrow, injustice, death” (66). It is also full of limitations—the bars and locks of human existence. But the Realm offers a path beyond. We can “visit, free as a fish, the deep sea” or the “flight of a bird.” We can speak to beasts and sneak through underworlds (66-68).

They offer consolation. Not only in the satisfaction of desire, but the “Consolation of the Happy Ending.” Tolkien coins a phrase here. He combines the Greek prefix “eu,” or good, to “catastrophe,” the traditional word for the final action of a tragedy. The Eucatastrophe is the “true form of the fairy-tale, and its highest function” (68). By all accounts, the fairy-tale should have a disastrous ending as evil as the events in its narrative. But the “grace” of the fairy-story “denies… universal final defeat” (69).

John Howe. “Gandalf and the Balrog.”

Tolkien completes his analysis with evangelism. He believes the birth of Christ was our reality’s eucatastrophe. In effect, the fairy-story, as sub-creation, reflects this. It offers a glimpse of Joy behind life’s apathy and cruelty (70-73).


J.R.R. Tolkien. “On Fairy-Stories,” 1964. Tree and Leaf. HarperCollins Publishers, 2001.


Some fell on rocky ground, and when it came up, the plants withered because they had no moisture (Luke 8:6).

Some men rejoice in skill of hand,
And some in cultivating land,
But there are others who maintain
The right to cultivate the brain.
(Dudley Randall, “Booker T. and W.E.B.”)

The word “culture” is derived from the Latin cultura meaning the “tilling or tending to land.” When culture is applied to people, the metaphor suggests the mind is like a field that must be tilled, fertilized, planted, and cultivated (Witt).

One such method is through education—teachers, parents, and other guardians are farmers responsible for the growth of children. Growth, too, has obvious agricultural roots.

Thomas Cole. The Oxbow. 1836, oil on canvas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Many describe this process with sinister connotations: indoctrination, brainwashing, conditioning. But every human being receives cultivation, even those who choose wilderness.

American sociologist Talcott Parsons describes new generations of children as a “barbarian invasion”—they possess no language, no morality, no culture. Through enculturation, or the transmission of necessary and appropriate skills, values, and norms, these ‘invaders’ develop into successful members of society. This occurs because society, according to the great anthropologist Adamson Hoebel, “does whatever is necessary to aid any one of its members in learning proper and appropriate behavior,” (Grunland). The goal is competence, not control.

What’s important is form. Sow the field with rocks and a society will grow nothing but weeds and whatever smattering of seeds the wind and animals carry. Burn the weeds, flatten the ground, pack the best mulch and top soil, plant carefully, and society creates the perfect conditions for vitality, efficiency, and coherence. The best fruits of science and learning are grown in these conditions.

Thomas Cole. The Architect’s Dream. 1840, oil on canvas, Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo.

The farmer must understand the science of agriculture, the language of the land, the nature of the field’s properties and accidents, and the importance of passing on the craft to the farmers who will supplant him. This replacement does not occur by material greed for power, or survival of the fittest, but for the unfortunate necessity of entropy—that Great Dispersal which drowns every person beneath the rivers of time.


It’s not humankind after all
nor is it culture
that limits us.
It is the vastness
we do not enter.
It is the stars
we do not let own us.
(Simon Ortiz, “Culture and the Universe”)


Grunland, Stephen A. and Marvin K. Mayers. “Enculturation and Acculturation.” Cultural Anthropology, 1988.

Witt, Brown, et al. The Humanities, seventh edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005.

Chimamanda Adichie on Feminism

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. Maecenas Presenting the Liberal Arts to Emperor Augustus. 1743, oil on canvas, The Hermitage, St. Petersburg.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, bestselling author of Americanah and Half of a Yellow Sun, printed her December 2012 Ted Talk in a novelet entitled We Should All Be Feminists. In a defining paragraph, she answers the sensitive question, ‘Why use the label feminist at all, especially since it has become so controversial? Why not humanist? Or human rights advocate?’

Some people ask, ‘Why the word feminist? Why not just say you are a believer in human rights, or something like that?’ Because that would be dishonest. Feminism is, of course, part of human rights in general – but to choose to use the vague expression human rights is to deny the specific and particular problem of gender. It would be a way of pretending that it was not women who have, for centuries, been excluded. It would be a way of denying that the problem of gender targets women. That the problem was not about being human, but specifically about being a female human. For centuries, the world divided human beings into two groups and then proceeded to exclude and oppress one group. It is only fair that the solution to the problem should acknowledge that.”

Adichie provides a textbook definition for feminism:

Feminist: a person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes. 

And then her own:

…a feminist is a man or a woman who says, ‘Yes, there’s a problem with gender as it is today and we must fix it, we must do better.’ All of us, women and men, must do better.


Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. We Should All Be Feminists. 2012. Anchor Books, 2014.

Wiesel on Memory, Silence, and Night

Felix Nussbaum. Prisoner. 1940, oil on canvas.

A survivor of Auschwitz, Elie Wiesel, while accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986:

On Night—

I remember: it happened yesterday, or eternities ago. A young Jewish boy discovered the Kingdom of Night. I remember his bewilderment, I remember his anguish. It all happened so fast. The ghetto. The deportation. The sealed cattle car. The fiery altar upon which the history of our people and the future of mankind were meant to be sacrificed.

I remember he asked his father, ‘Can this be true? This is the twentieth century, not the Middle Ages. Who would allow such crimes to be committed? How could the world remain silent?’

On Memory—

And now the boy is turning to me.

‘Tell me,’ he asks, ‘what have you done with my future, what have you done with your life?’

And I tell him that I have tried.

That I have tried to keep memory alive, that I have tried to fight those who would forget. Because if we forget, we are guilty, we are accomplices.

On Silence—

And then I explain to him how naive we were, that the world did know and remained silent. And that is why I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere.

On the same note, Desmond Tutu writes:

If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.

Wiesel, again. On Suffering—

Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must at that moment become the center of the universe. …

Human rights are being violated on every continent. More people are oppressed than free. How can one not be sensitive to their plight? Human suffering anywhere concerns men and women anywhere. …

Our lives no longer belong to us alone; they belong to all those who need us desperately.


Brown, Robert McAfee. Unexpected New: Reading the Bible with Third World Eyes. Westminster John Knox Press, 1984.

Wiesel, Elie. Night. 1958. Translated by Marion Wiesel, Hill and Wang, 2006.

Van Norden on the Right to an Audience

Ilya Repin. Portrait of Professor Ivanov. 1882, oil on canvas, Ateneum Art Museum.

Bryan W. Van Norden, professor of philosophy at Vassar College, writes that:

We are seeing the worsening of a trend that the 20th century German-American philosopher Herbert Marcuse warned of back in 1965: “In endlessly dragging debates over the media, the stupid opinion is treated with the same respect as the intelligent one, the misinformed may talk as long as the informed, and propaganda rides along with education, truth with falsehood.”

His solution? Not denying freedom of speech, but limiting access.

There is a clear line between censoring someone and refusing to provide them with institutional resources for disseminating their ideas.

Van Norden goes on:

What just access means in terms of positive policy is that institutions that are the gatekeepers to the public have a fiduciary responsibility to award access based on the merit of ideas and thinkers. To award space in a campus lecture hall to someone like [Jordan] Peterson who says that feminists “have an unconscious wish for brutal male domination,” or to give time on a television news show to someone like [Ann] Coulter who asserts that in an ideal world all Americans would convert to Christianity, or to interview a D-list actor like Jenny McCarthy about her view that actual scientists are wrong about the public health benefits of vaccines is not to display admirable intellectual open-mindedness. It is to take a positive stand that these views are within the realm of defensible rational discourse, and that these people are worth taking seriously as thinkers.”

In conclusion:

The invincibly ignorant and the intellectual huckster have every right to express their opinions, but their right to free speech is not the right to an audience.”


Van Norden, Bryan W. “The Ignorant Do Not Have a Right to an Audience.” The New York Times, 25 June 2018. Accessed 25 June 2018.

Perrine on Escape and Interpretation

rembrandt scholar in study
Rembrandt van Rijn. Scholar in His Study. 1634, oil on canvas, National Gallery in Prague, Czech Republic.

The first question to ask about fiction is, Why bother to read it?

Laurence Perrine, an English professor whose Sound and Sense textbook series was immensely popular, splits literature between escape, which helps us “pass the time agreeably,” and interpretive, “written to broaden and deepen and sharpen our awareness of life” (3). Escape and interpretation are not “two great bins, into… which we can toss any given story” but a scale with each inhabiting opposite ends (4).

Likewise, there are two readers. The escapist is an immature reader who wants a familiar, superficial light show. This reader desires a sympathetic protagonist, an exciting plot, a happy outcome, and a theme that “confirms the reader’s already-held opinions” (6). A genre that caters to this mentality is the fairy-tale.

The discriminating reader, in contrast, doesn’t reject escapism but has a “steady diet.” This reader understands how junk food fiction can only deliver “superficial attitudes toward life” and might “actually distort… reality and give us false… expectations” (7). Instead, the discriminator reads a variety of fiction and nonfiction, sampling the greats alongside the less-thans.

rembrandt scholar in study 2

J.R.R. Tolkien is more sympathetic to the escaping reader. He describes their activity as “the Escape of the Prisoner” rather than “the Flight of the Deserter” (61). He would have disagreed expressly with Perrine’s denigration of fairy-stories as a literature for children (the immature reader) or those fantasizing about petty successes. The “association of children and fairy-stories,” Tolkien writes, “is an accident of our domestic history” (34). Fantasy might be re-adapted for kids, but ultimately it is the creation of a “Secondary World” which the mind can enter, explore, and enjoy (37).

No matter your opinion on the matter, Perrine ends on a universal sentiment about the importance of reading (7):

When we enter a library and glance at the books on the shelves, we are at first likely to be bewildered by their variety and profusion. Thousands of books sit there, each making its claim on us, each seeming to cry out “Read me! Read me! Read me!” or “No, read me!” We have time to read only a fraction of them. If we are wise, we shall read as many as we can without neglecting the other claims of life. Our problem is how to get the most out of what time we have. To make the richest use of our portion, we need to know two things: (1) how to get the most out of any book we read and (2) how to choose the books that will best repay this time and attention we devote to them.


Perrine, Laurence & Thomas R. Arp. “Escape and Interpretation.” Literature: Structure, Sound, and Sense, sixth edition. Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1993.

J.R.R. Tolkien. “On Fairy-Stories,” 1964. Tree and Leaf. HarperCollins Publishers, 2001.

Carl Sagan on Books

François Boucher. Madame de Pompadour. 1756, oil on canvas, Alte Pinakothek, Munich.

Literacy is one of the great tools of civilization. Etymology is one aspect of this tool. Your ability to read this text is another. The moral imagination invoked is a third. Unfortunately, writing is a recent invention—we’re still getting used to it. As Sagan, in The Demon-Haunted World, notes (335): 

For 99 percent of the tenure of humans on earth, nobody could read or write. The great invention had not yet been made. Except for firsthand experience, almost everything we knew was passed on by word of mouth. As in the children’s game “Telephone,” over tens and hundreds of generations, information would slowly be distorted and lost.

Carl Sagan was an advocate for the importance of literacy in science, math, history, English, and other disciplines. Although he was more impressive in defending scientific literacy, his arguments often incorporated the best of the Humanities, from Hippocrates to Epictetus, Samuel Butler to Frederick Douglass. Sagan understood the importance of wise words—spoken or written. The key was books.

John Lavery. Miss Auras . 1900, oil on canvas.

From Cosmos: Episode 11, “The Persistence of Memory:”

What an astonishing thing a book is. It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.

Sagan examines the utility of books further in Demon-Haunted World (p. 335-336):

Books, purchasable at low cost, permit us to interrogate the past with high accuracy; to tap the wisdom of our species; to understand the point of view of others, and not just those in power; to contemplate – with the best teachers – the insights, painfully extracted from Nature, of the greatest minds that ever were, drawn from the entire planet and from all of our history. They allow people long dead to talk inside our heads. Books can accompany us everywhere. Books are patient where we are slow to understand, allow us to go over the hard parts as many times as we wish, and are never critical of our lapses. Books are key to understanding the world and participating in a democratic society.  

According to Sagan, the love for books is created by a society (or family) that already loves books (337):

If you grow up in a household where there are books, where you are read to, where parents, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins read for their own pleasure, naturally you learn to read. If no one close to you takes joy in reading, where is the evidence that it’s worth the effort? If the quality of education available to you is inadequate, if you’re taught rote memorization rather than how to think, if the content of what you’re first given to read comes from a nearly alien culture, literacy can be a rocky road.

Unfortunately, the art of reading is less valued in American society today. According to the Pew Research Center, “About a quarter of American adults (24%) say they haven’t read a book in whole or in part in the past year [2017], whether in print, electronic or audio form.” Adults with a high school degree or less are five times more likely to report not reading books than college graduates. Adults with an income of $30,000 or less are three times less likely to be non-book readers. According to the National Endowment for the Arts, the reading of literature (poetry, plays, short stories, and novels) has been in decline since the program began collecting data. In 1982, the literature reading rate was 57%. By 2015, the rate had dropped to 43.1%. (In counterpoint, this study doesn’t count reading required for work or school, nonfiction is totally absent, and the survey is conducted every five years so we’ll have to wait to view the next data point.) Then there’s this.

Both the Pew Center and NEA found that the higher the level of education, the more likely the reader.

Claude Raguret Hirst. A Book of Letters (Newcastle Letters). 1897, oil on canvas.

Sagan provides several factors for this decline (337):

You have to internalize, so they’re second nature, dozens of upper- and lower-case letters, symbols and punctuation marks; memorize thousands of dumb spellings on a word-by-word basis; and conform to a range of rigid and arbitrary rules of grammar. If you’re preoccupied by the absence of basic family support or dropped into a roiling sea of anger, neglect, exploitation, danger and self-hatred, you might well conclude that reading takes too much work and just isn’t worth the trouble. If you’re repeatedly given the message that you’re too stupid to learn (or, the functional equivalent, too cool to learn), and if there’s no one there to contradict it, you might very well buy this pernicious advice. There are always some children – like Frederick Bailey [i.e. Frederick Douglas] – who beat the odds. Too many don’t.  

Malnourishment is a factor, too (338):

Recent research shows that many children without enough to eat wind up with diminished capacity to understand and learn (‘cognitive impairment’). Children don’t have to be starving for this to happen. Even mild undernourishment, the kind most common among poor people in America, can do it. This can happen before the baby is born (if the mother isn’t eating enough), in infancy or in childhood. When there isn’t enough food, the body has to decide how to invest the limited foodstuffs available. Survival comes first. Growth comes second. In this nutritional triage, the body seems obliged to rank learning last. Better to be stupid and alive, it judges, than smart and dead.

This impairment leads to disinterest (338):

Instead of showing an enthusiasm, a zest for learning as most healthy youngsters do, the undernourished child becomes bored, apathetic, unresponsive.

But Sagan’s is not a hopeless world of constricting opportunity. He reminds us that he, too, grew up in poverty. What set his cultivation apart were the values imposed by family—not only for reading, but for wonder, curiosity, and rationality.

Finally, Sagan delivers us a passionate plea for literacy (341-342):

The gears of poverty, ignorance, hopelessness and low self-esteem mesh to create a kind of perpetual failure machine that grinds down dreams from generation to generation. We all bear the cost of keeping it running. Illiteracy is its linchpin.  

Even if we hardened our hearts to the shame and misery experienced by the victims, the cost of illiteracy to everyone else is severe – the cost in medical expenses and hospitalization, the cost in crime and prisons, the cost in special education, the cost in lost productivity and in potentially brilliant minds who could help solve the dilemmas besetting us.

Sagan makes it very clear. Not only should we read, we must. Literacy is not only an entertaining exercise—it’s education. Through reading, we can acquire the laws of the cosmos and nature—at least, what we theorize those laws to be. We also acquire moral laws by which we must abide, laws regarding charity and community. In other words, literacy is the key to cultivating beautiful minds, and from there a beautiful world.


Ingraham, Christopher. “The long, steady decline of literary reading.” The Washington Post, 7 Sept. 2016. Accessed 20 May 2018.

Perrin, Andrew. “Who doesn’t read books in America?” Fact Tank. Pew Research Center, 23 Mar. 2018. Accessed 20 May 2018.

Sagan, Carl. The Demon-Haunted World. 1995. Ballantine Books, 1997.

Sagan, Carl, Ann Druyan, el al. “The Persistence of Time.”  Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, season 1, episode 11. Public Broadcasting Service, 1980.

Witt, Ann Frese, et al. The Humanities, edition 7, volume I. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005.