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).

Attributions

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

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.

Attributions

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.