Tolkien’s “On Fairy-Stories”

One of the most quoted and celebrated critical pieces of Tolkien’s is his apologia for the fantastical fiction, “On Fairy-Stories.” Here, Tolkien clarifies what it is about Marchen that draws the reader out of their normal reality to “recover” more their own reality than they would have ever dreamed. He explains several of his most important compositional tools – such as eucatastrophe and mythopoiesis – and brings critical scholarly work and discussions of trolls together in a way that can hold the attention of even this reader.

Originally a contribution to a fetschrift for a colleague (which was edited by C.S. Lewis), the article appeared in various formats, including The Tolkien Reader (1966). It is now republished in a (critical) edition by Flieger and Anderson.

On a not wholly related note, but nevertheless still within the Faerie!, is the intriguing article by Jeffrey Mallinson in the Journal Of Religion and Popular Culture: “A Potion too Strong?: Challenges in Translating the Religious Significance of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings to Film.” Now that we are somewhat sufficiently chronologically removed from the films, I’ve enjoyed looking back at some of Mallinson’s arguments. You can read his article here.

On Fairy-Stories

I propose to speak about fairy-stories, though I am aware that this is a rash adventure. Faerie is a perilous land, and in it are pitfalls for the unwary and dungeons for the overbold. And overbold I may be accounted, for though I have been a lover of fairy-stories since I learned to read, and have at times thought about them, I have not studied them professionally. I have been hardly more than a wandering explorer (or trespasser) in the land, full of wonder but not of information.

The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords. In that realm a man may, perhaps, count himself fortunate to have wandered, but its very richness and strangeness tie the tongue of a traveller who would report them. And while he is there it is dangerous for him to ask too many questions, lest the gates should be shut and the keys be lost.

There are, however, some questions that one who is to speak about fairy-stories must expect to answer, or attempt to answer, whatever the folk of Faërie may think of his impertinence. For instance: What are fairy-stories? What is their origin? What is the use of them? I will try to give answers to these questions, or such hints of answers to them as I have gleaned—primarily from the stories themselves, the few of all their multitude that I know. Continue Reading On Fairy-Stories…

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