“On Fairy-Stories” by J. R. R. Tolkien

On Fairy-StoriesInformation

Goodreads: “On Fairy-Stories”
Series: None
Source: Purchased
Published: 1947


In this essay, Tolkien explores the world of Faërie and the purposes of telling stories set in its realm.  He gives fairy-stories serious consideration, explaining why he feels they are even more relevant for adults than they are for children.


This essay is, essentially, Tolkien’s personal musings about fairy-tales.  He begins by explaining what, exactly, he believes the definition of a true fairy-story to be, then goes on to argue why the tales are neither childish nor insignificant in our “practical” modern world.

Tolkien is clearly a brilliant and well-read man, and parts of this essay can be difficult to fully appreciate, especially if you – like me – are not familiar with all of the tales Tolkien makes reference to.  But reading this essay is worth it, even if you were only to understand half of what Tolkien is saying.  He repeatedly makes statements that made me put the book down, laughing at how true his words were.  “A child may well believe a report that there are ogres in the next county,” he notes, “many grown-up persons find it easy to believe of another country; and as for another planet, very few adults seem able to imagine it as peopled, if at all, by anything but monsters of iniquity.”  Tolkien constantly challenges ideas of what is “real” and encourages us to think very seriously about our perceptions of what is true and where that truth can be found.

Tolkien speaks of the people of Faërie with reverence, but he focuses on men, and on what the world of Faërie means to us.  He touches on ideas of “fantasy,” “recovery,” and “escape” and essentially argues that fairy-stories, by giving us glimpses into another world, allow us to live our lives in this “primary world” more fully.  In this essay, Tolkien puts the enchantment back into fairy tales.  He left this reader convinced, anew, that they are indispensable.

Published: 1938 original version, 1947 longer version

*Posted as part of the Tolkien Reading Event to celebrate Tolkien Reading Day. Check out more Tolkien-related posts this week and next week!

10 thoughts on ““On Fairy-Stories” by J. R. R. Tolkien

  1. Urania says:

    Nicely put! I really love this essay, particularly because Tolkien, in a sense, rescues fairy stories from being mere escapism and claims they’re essential to living better in *this* world.


    • Krysta says:

      This essay is actually one of the main reasons I love Tolkien. I would still love him if hadn’t written it, of course, because he introduced me to Middle-earth. However, I’ve always seen Tolkien in “On Fairy-Stories” as standing up against all the disconnected powers that be in academia and literature and fighting for the populace, who love fantasy and fairy tales and know that both are good and relevant. It’s very daring and almost rebellious. And it makes me want to hug Tolkien and thank him, saying, “Finally, someone understands.”


  2. Rebecca says:

    I bought a really nice version of Tales of the Perilous Realm (gorgeous little sketches by Alan Lee throughout) and this essay is in the book so I think I should go and read it…
    And I agree with you Krysta. I’d love to just give him a hug of thanks, because he could have just turned his back on the fantasy and fairy tales that he adored and focused on alot more academic literature, but as a lover of all things fantasy he created the greatest fantasy story and world out there. Really looking forward to reading this essay now!


    • Krysta says:

      Alan Lee is one of my favorite Tolkien illustrators. His work on The Children of Hurin takes my breath away.

      I just never cease to marvel at Tolkien’s decision to focus on his fantasy. Even now, despite his work, fantasy isn’t accepted as a serious genre in some scholarly circles. For example, if someone’s professor were to ask them what they were reading, they’d most likely want to answer, “Oh, Crime and Punishment,” or “Hamlet, of course”–not “The Hobbit.” He was risking his credibility not only writing fantasy on the side, but also defending it as a legitimate academic pursuit. Everything he says seems so obvious now, but at the time people probably thought it was beyond ridiculous. I just can’t get over his decision to risk his reputation for something he thought was right. And the ironic thing is that, in the end, his fantasy brought much more people to those medieval texts everyone else wanted to talk about than any amount of essays would have.


      • David says:

        Sad, but true. The incomplete scholarly acceptance of fantasy, that is, not Alan Lee’s art. I mean, Alan Lee’s art is true, it’s there, but it’s not sad. (Well, I suppose when he’s drawing the tragedies of Turin Turambar it’s sad, but in a whole different way…) Gah, you know what I’m trying to say!

        I had one medieval prof who was a little on the batty side (one day she brought to class her pet duck that she’d rescued from…somewhere…which she’d named Thor, after the Norse god). Lived alone, had wild eyes, and was obsessed with Beowulf (you know the kind, right?). But whatever craziness was redeemed by her adulation of Tolkien and his defense of fantasy. It was gratifying to see her—a bit crazy, but still quite a knowledgeable scholar—recognize the importance not just of Tolkien’s academic work, but also his fiction, and of those who seek to learn from him and write great fantasy too.

        As companions to “On Fairy Stories,” I’d highly recommend George MacDonald’s The Fantastic Imagination and C.S. Lewis’ book An Experiment in Criticism. They’re must-reads!


  3. Eustacia says:

    Thanks for the review! I’ve never heard of the book until you reviewed it and it’s such an excellent book I can’t believe I didn’t read this sooner!


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