On Fairy-Stories

"On Fairy-Stories" is an essay by J. R. R. Tolkien which discusses the fairy-story as a literary form. It was initially written (and entitled simply "Fairy Stories") for presentation by Tolkien as the Andrew Lang lecture at the University of St Andrews, Scotland, on 8 March 1939.[2]

On Fairy-Stories
by J. R. R. Tolkien
CountryUnited Kingdom
Published inEssays Presented to Charles Williams
PublisherOxford University Press
Publication date4 December 1947[1]
Preceded by"Leaf by Niggle"
Followed by"Farmer Giles of Ham"


In the lecture, Tolkien chose to focus on Andrew Lang’s work as a folklorist and collector of fairy tales. He disagreed with Lang's broad inclusion in his Fairy Books collection (1889–1910), of traveller's tales, beast fables, and other types of stories. Tolkien held a narrower perspective, viewing fairy stories as those that took place in Faerie, an enchanted realm, with or without fairies as characters. He disagreed with both Lang and Max Müller in their respective theories of the development of fairy stories, which he viewed as the natural development of the interaction of human imagination and human language.[3]

The essay first appeared in print, with some enhancement, in 1947, in a festschrift volume, Essays Presented to Charles Williams, compiled by C. S. Lewis. Charles Williams, a friend of Lewis's, had been relocated with the Oxford University Press staff from London to Oxford during the London blitz in World War II. This allowed him to participate in gatherings of the Inklings with Lewis and Tolkien. The volume of essays was intended to be presented to Williams upon the return of the Oxford University Press staff to London with the ending of the war. However, Williams died suddenly on 15 May 1945, and the book was published as a memorial volume.[4] Essays Presented to Charles Williams received little attention,[5] and was out of print by 1955.[6]

"On Fairy-Stories" began to receive much more attention in 1964, when it was published in Tree and Leaf.[5] Since then Tree and Leaf has been reprinted several times, and "On Fairy-Stories" itself has been reprinted in other compilations of Tolkien's works, such as The Tolkien Reader in 1966[7] and The Monsters and the Critics, and Other Essays in 1983. "On Fairy Stories" was published on its own in an expanded edition in 2008. The length of the essay, as it appears in Tree and Leaf, is 60 pages, including about ten pages of notes.

The essay is significant because it contains Tolkien's explanation of his philosophy on fantasy and thoughts on mythopoiesis. Moreover, the essay is an early analysis of speculative fiction by one of the most important authors in the genre.

Literary contextEdit

Tolkien had not intended to write a sequel to The Hobbit. The Lang lecture was important as it brought him to clarify for himself his view of fairy stories as a legitimate literary genre, and one not intended exclusively for children.[8] Verlyn Flieger wrote that "It is a deeply perceptive commentary on the interdependence of language and human consciousness."[3]

Tolkien was among the pioneers of the genre that we would now call fantasy writing. In particular, his stories – together with those of C. S. Lewis – were among the first to establish the convention of an alternative world or universe as the setting for speculative fiction. Most earlier works with styles similar to Tolkien's, such as the science fiction of H. G. Wells or the Gothic romances of Mary Shelley, were set in a world that is recognisably that of the author and introduced only a single fantastic element—or at most a fantastic milieu within the author's world, as with H. P. Lovecraft or Robert E. Howard. Tolkien departed from this; his work was nominally part of the history of our own world,[9] but did not have the close linkage to history or contemporary times that his precursors had.

The essay "On Fairy-Stories" is an attempt to explain and defend the genre of fairy tales or Märchen. It distinguishes Märchen from "traveller's tales" (such as Gulliver's Travels), science fiction (such as H. G. Wells's The Time Machine), beast tales (such as Aesop's Fables and Peter Rabbit), and dream stories (such as Alice in Wonderland). In the essay, Tolkien claims that one touchstone of the authentic fairy tale is that it is presented as wholly credible: "It is at any rate essential to a genuine fairy-story, as distinct from the employment of this form for lesser or debased purposes, that it should be presented as 'true'. ... But since the fairy-story deals with 'marvels', it cannot tolerate any frame or machinery suggesting that the whole framework in which they occur is a figment or illusion."[10]

Tolkien emphasises that through the use of fantasy, which he equates with imagination, the author can bring the reader to experience a world which is consistent and rational, under rules other than those of the normal world.[11] He calls this "a rare achievement of Art," and notes that it was important to him as a reader: "It was in fairy-stories that I first divined the potency of the words, and the wonder of things, such as stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine."

Tolkien suggests that fairy stories allow the reader to review his own world from the "perspective" of a different world. Tolkien calls this "recovery", in the sense that one's unquestioned assumptions might be recovered and changed by an outside perspective. Second, he defends fairy stories as offering escapist pleasure to the reader, justifying this analogy: a prisoner is not obliged to think of nothing but cells and wardens. And third, Tolkien suggests that fairy stories can provide moral or emotional consolation, through their happy ending, which he terms a "eucatastrophe".

In conclusion and as expanded upon in an epilogue, Tolkien asserts that a truly good and representative fairy story is marked by joy: "Far more powerful and poignant is the effect [of joy] in a serious tale of Faerie. In such stories, when the sudden turn comes, we get a piercing glimpse of joy, and heart's desire, that for a moment passes outside the frame, rends indeed the very web of story, and lets a gleam come through." Tolkien sees Christianity as partaking in and fulfilling the overarching mythological nature of the cosmos: "I would venture to say that approaching the Christian story from this perspective, it has long been my feeling (a joyous feeling) that God redeemed the corrupt making-creatures, men, in a way fitting to this aspect, as to others, of their strange nature. The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. ...and among its marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe. The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man's history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation."

References to other worksEdit

In his essay, Tolkien cites a large range of works by other authors: fiction, mythology and academic works. The fiction and mythology include:

Tolkien also quotes from his own poem Mythopoeia.

Publication historyEdit

In compilationsEdit

  • Lewis, C. S., ed. (June 1966) [1947]. Essays Presented to Charles Williams. Grand Rapids: Wm. B Eerdmans. ISBN 0-8028-1117-5.
  • Tolkien, J. R. R. (5 February 2001) [1964]. Tree and Leaf. New York: HarperCollins. ISBN 0-00-710504-5. Revised from 1947 printing.[8]
  • Tolkien, J. R. R. (12 November 1986) [1966]. The Tolkien Reader (Reissue ed.). New York: Del Rey. ISBN 0-345-34506-1. Proofreading errors harm sense of text.[8]
  • J. R. R. Tolkien (1975), Tree and Leaf; Smith of Wootton Major; The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm's Son; reset edition, Unwin Paperbacks, ISBN 0 04 820015 8.
  • J. R. R. Tolkien (1980), Poems and Stories, George Allen & Unwin, ISBN 0-04-823174-6
  • J. R. R. Tolkien (1983), The Monsters and the Critics, and Other Essays, Houghton Mifflin, ISBN 0-395-35635-0 Edited by Christopher Tolkien.

Stand-alone editionEdit


  1. ^ Scull, Christina; Hammond, Wayne G. (2006). The J. R. R. Tolkien Companion and Guide. Volume 1: Chronology. London: HarperCollins. p. 326. ISBN 978-0-261-10381-8
  2. ^ "Inside Tolkien's Mind". University of St Andrews. 4 March 2004. Archived from the original on 10 March 2007. Retrieved 24 November 2018.
  3. ^ a b "Flieger, Verlyn. "On Fairy Stories" – essay, Tolkien Estate".
  4. ^ Schakel, Peter J. (2005). "The Storytelling: Fairy Tale, Fantasy, and Myth". The Way into Narnia: A Reader's Guide. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans. p. 27. ISBN 0-8028-2984-8.
  5. ^ a b Hammond, Wayne G.; Scull, Christina (2006). The J. R. R. Tolkien Companion and Guide. London: HarperCollins. p. 688. ISBN 978-0-00-714918-6. OCLC 82367707.
  6. ^ Tolkien, J. R. R. (1981). The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, London: George Allen & Unwin. p. 216. ISBN 0-04-826005-3
  7. ^ "On Fairy-Stories". Tolkien-online.com. 2007. Archived from the original on 29 October 2013. Retrieved 14 January 2022.
  8. ^ a b c d Michelson, Paul E. (2012). "The Development of J. R. R. Tolkien's Ideas on Fairy-stories" (PDF). Inklings Forever. 8. Archived from the original (PDF) on 17 June 2016.
  9. ^ Tolkien, Letters, pp. 220, 239, 244, 283, 375–6.
  10. ^ Tolkien, J. R. R. (2001). Tree and Leaf, Mythopoeia, The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm's Son. London: HarperCollins. p. 14. ISBN 978-0-007-10504-5.
  11. ^ "Stritt, J. Michael. "Tolkien's "On Fairy-Stories", UNLV".