J.R.R. Tolkien presents three questions in “On Fairy-Stories:”
- What are fairy-stories?
- What is their origin?
- 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).
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.
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).
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.