Originally written for presentation at the 1939 Andrew Lang Lecture and later published in 1947, this essay describes J. R. R. Tolkien’s views on what makes a fairy tale distinct from other literary forms and explains his artistic philosophy, arguing that fairy tales are unique in their ability to offer readers the consolation and joy of the happy ending–an effect he calls “eucatastophe”.
“On Fairy-Stories” will prove a treasure mine for any serious fan of Tolkien as it illuminates his views on the genre of the fairy story and details his understanding not only of what makes a fairy tale work (that is, what makes it believable and a work of Art) but also of what makes fairy stories valuable. However, his words, coming as they do from one of the fantasy genre’s most influential writers, will also hold weight for anyone interested in fairy stories either as a reader or as a writer. Though written over 70 years ago, they remain timely and pertinent as fantasy and fairy stories continue to struggle to be recognized as legitimate literary forms in certain circles, being labelled derisively as “escapist” or “not real.” But as Tolkien reminds us, it is fantasy above all that calls attention to our true reality, giving us a glimpse of things beyond our seeing and fulfilling our heart’s desire for joy.
The beginning of the essay may strike some as a little dull, necessarily having to lay the groundwork for the essay as a whole and thus dealing in such matters such as Tolkien’s fitness to speak on the topic (not having studied fairy stories), the definition of a fairy story, etc. These concerns may seem silly to some–after all, if Tolkien the great writer of fantasy cannot speak on what makes a good fairy story, who can? And again, do we really need to differentiate among the dream story, the folk tale, the beast fable, and the fairy story? Indeed we do, for, as Tolkien points out, these genres often get thrown together indiscriminately in anthologies as if they were all the same. But if we do not exclude genres like the beast fable, then Tolkien’s vision of what makes fairy stories unique falls apart.
His vision is rooted in his Catholic Christian faith, arguing that fairy stories provide a certain kind of “joy” that gives readers a glimpse of “the underlying reality or truth”. He points to the Birth of Christ and the Resurrection as real-life examples of the sudden turn in a story such as we sometimes glimpse in Faerie, the turn that turns sorrow into gladness against all the odds. This joy, he says, is special because it does not diminish the sorrow or explain it away or promise that sorrow will all cease. It is, essentially, a miracle, a moment of grace. A happy ending that did not have to be, but was.
However, even those who do not follow the Christian faith will, I think, find much of value in Tolkien’s words. His joy can be recognized by all readers, even if they do not admit the same source. And his defense of fantasy will resound, I suspect, with all lovers of that genre. For he takes the main criticisms levelled at Faerie and claims them as positives, arguing that “escape” is not an evil but a sanity and that it is ludicrous to suggest that factories and bombs are more “real” than horses and castles. Tolkien powerfully asserts that when one sees the evil in this world, it is no wonder that he or she might wish to escape–and that “the Escape of the Prisoner” is not to be confused with “the Flight of the Deserter.” Indeed, he goes so far as to suggest that critics of fantasy might actually be fearful that readers of fairy stories might get dangerous ideas from their tales–the idea that things could be different and that they can enact change.
Tolkien’s defense of fairy stories is by turns rousing, inspiring, reflective, and moving. Reading his words is like meeting a kindred spirit, for he touches upon the reasons I love fairy stories and manages to express them in just the way I wish I would be able to express them myself. Even in his nonfiction, Tolkien somehow weaves an enchantment.