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

The Tolkien Reader

Today’s guest post is by our frequent contributor Denise.

Take Away Lessons for the Writer

Tolkien addresses three big questions in this essay: What are fairy-stories? What are their origins? And what is the use of them? Generally speaking, many see this essay as a defense of fairy tales and the fantasy genre as a whole, and, in many ways, it is. But when I read it, I often find myself coming across little jewels of wisdom about how to write a story – fantastical or no, so I hope you won’t mind too much if I give less of a review of the essay in this post, and more of a reflection on some of those jewels. This is, by no means, an exhaustive list – and I encourage any serious writers to read through the essay on their own and share your own thoughts!

Know what you want to write – and why you want to write it.

This is probably the most general impression that I take away from this essay. He takes the time to truly reflect on the kind of writing he invests in, both in reading and in writing, and to differentiate it from other types of writing that may be ‘gray areas’ for others. How is a fairy-story not a traveler’s tale, or a dream tale, or a beast fable? Can I as a writer understand what my writing is, what I want it to be? Can I articulate why what I’m writing matters?

In writing, you become a ‘sub-creator’ building a ‘Secondary World’.

First off, I think this is true of all writers – not just the fantasy author, though the fantasy author arguably has the taller order of the two. Tolkien uses the terms Primary World to refer to the world as we know it, ‘reality’, and the Secondary World to refer to the world within the story – a world created by the author that is believable enough to seem real. The rules have been set and are consistent. If you are writing a story meant to align more closely with the Primary World, you and your readers already know many of the rules by which the world being created operates. I’m not sure Tolkien would call realistic fiction Secondary Worlds, but I think it is useful to see them that way as they are, at best, a reflection of the author’s view of the Primary World. The fantasy author, though, has to combine imagination and art to create a world that functions in a way that readers can understand and want to invest in. Which leads to the next point…

You must believe in what you are writing.

In a similar vein to the previous point, this applies to all authors, but especially fantasy authors. There are many ways that Tolkien makes this point for me throughout the essay, from the importance of not counterfeiting the fantastic to being sure to take the magic seriously and not make a joke of it or explain it away. It’s not about truly believing that what you are writing is in the Primary World. If you believe that, it’s not fantasy. Nor is it about believing in the physical existence of the Secondary World. It’s about making that Secondary World ‘real’ in a way that makes it easy for the reader to suspend their disbelief and immerse themselves into the story. If you don’t believe in it as the writer, how can you expect your audience to be willing to suspend their own disbelief for it?

Think about how what you write truly affects your audience.

Anyone who has taken any type of writing course already knows that considering audience and whom you are writing for is key to writing anything well – stories, essays, truly anything. But I think Tolkien takes the exercise a step further in this essay, when he thinks about how fairy-stories have come to be associated with children. He is not, after all, giving in to the idea that if you are writing a fairy-story, you are writing for children, as many writers – and literary critics – have. He looks at what it is about the fairy-story that makes it particularly palatable to children – what it is exactly that makes many adults shy away from the genre and relegate it to the realm of juvenile literature. All while simultaneously making the point that it does not have to be this way. There is much for the adult to take away from the well-written fairy-story.

Be careful what you take from the ‘Pot of Story’.

The concept of the ‘pot of story’ comes from the examination of the second question on the origins of fairy-story. It’s essentially the idea that story begets story – that characters and plots find themselves boiled into the same stew and authors pick their ingredients from the pot carefully as they craft their stories. Writers who choose to use other characters/plots in their own stories need to be aware of the past and use those characters and plots appropriately. That is not to say they must stay exactly the same. I think it is more to say that writers need to be aware of where the character/plot has come so that they can craft their Secondary World in a way that will still seem ‘real’ to readers who may also recognize those characters/plots from the other stories in which they may be found.

It is not enough for a story to be possible; it must also be desirable.

At one point in the essay, Tolkien talks about how fairy-stories don’t even try for possibility. They are more concerned with desirability, giving readers something for which they long – whether that’s escape, consolation, recovery of things past. (Note: Tolkien uses these words later in his essay to describe the use of fairy-stories; I think I am using them in a similar way here.) But again, this is something that can apply to stories at large as well. A story must mean something to a reader and tap into intrinsic desires, otherwise it falls flat. And readers will be able to tell the difference.

Overall, for me, it’s a message of pushing yourself. Pushing yourself to truly create something ‘real’ and to recognize the tools you are using to do so. Pushing yourself to connect with an audience, no matter what type of story you choose to present, and create a story that ultimately allows that audience to deal with something they’ve been longing to deal with. And pushing yourself to really reflect on what it means to create a story – to make all of that possible – especially if fantasy is what you choose to write.

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