Thursday, April 7, 2011

F is for Fairy-Stories

"Faerie is a perilous land,
and in it are pitfalls for the unwary and dungeons for the over-bold."

J. R. R. Tolkien, 1892-1973

Tolkien's 1939 Lang lecture, "On Fairy-Stories," is justly popular and was revised for publication (1947) and has been reprinted many times.  In it, Tolkien defends the act of fantasy production and enjoyment against its modern despisers, and explores the nature of fantasy or fairy-stories.  Together with the earlier poem "Mythopoiea," (1931) it should be thoroughly delved, meditated upon, and inwardly digested. I returned to it for this post with profit, and recommend it to both artists and critics of all types, as well as gamers.  But for fantasists or mythopoets, failure or refusal to come to terms with it will result in a portion of dishonesty or poverty, although hopefully not always of the scale and anger of Moorcock's "Epic Pooh."*  Enough of the haters within out ranks; let us turn to the haters outside Faerie.  The professor tries to deal with the disdain that some feel for stories set in the realm of Faerie, but his attempt is more likely to inform the faithful while failing the infidel: ultimately, hate that is not based on reason cannot be answered by reason.  So while those lines of reasoning are insightful, we will set them aside for the main issue: the nature of these stories.

Clearing aside the misconception that fairy-stories have mainly to do with the fae, Tolkien locates the nature of the tales in Faerie, or more technically, in Secondary Worlds created by acts of literary subcreation which are characterized by an "inner consistency of reality" such that they command Secondary Belief.  He has suggestive lists of some of the denizens of Faerie: Elves, fays, dwarves, witches, trolls, giants, dragons, removable hearts, swan robes, magic rings, arbitrary prohibitions, wicked step-mothers, enchanted bears and bulls, cannibals, and taboos on names.  But in addition to these marvels, Faerie includes potentially everything contained in our mundane world, even and especially human beings, when we are enchanted.

"The dragon has the trademark of Faerie written plain upon him.  In whatever world he had his being, it was an Other-world.  Fantasy, the making or glimpsing of Other-worlds, was the heart of the desire of Faerie.  I desired dragons with a profound desire."

Human beings are enchanted by a play upon our most primal, marvelous desires: freedom in space and time, communion with other life forms, recovery of things lost, escape from the ugliness of a servile life and from death, and, above all, the consolation of the happy ending that turns the story, suddenly and gracefully, to piercing joy.  When the construction of an internally verisimilitudinous world in literature draws the reader in by an artful expression that causes her to seek these desires within and whose enchantment is not broken by failures in sustaining her secondary belief, then the Tolkienian vision of a fairy-story has been achieved.

*Signs are reported that my now fellow Texan has moved on somewhat.   May it be so.


  1. I had no idea there was an essay like this out there- this would be widely useful in my studies. Thanks so much- I'll look it up.

  2. Sure! Glad to hear it and you're certainly welcome.

    If you enjoy the lecture, you might be interested in some of the influences on it: See the essays linked at C is for Chesterton and this MacDonald essay that I just found today:

  3. Great post! I've read snippets from this essay, but you've inspired me to read it for real. Thanks!

    (New here, btw - hello!)

  4. I think it's safe (and probably predictable) to say I agree with every single thing Tolkien says in that essay. And I think that where fantasy moves away from his ideas is where it fails for me as a reader. Perhaps the problem is the lumping of the fantasy genre under the heading of "speculative fiction". I believe that fantasy is not inherently speculative. It is, as Tolkien said, about desires.

  5. AMAZING!!!!! I love your site and as I browsed your blog I decided to award you the Creative Blog Award.
    Go to and pick up your award.

  6. Kiernan: Great and welcome!

    Sarah: It's pretty hard for me to disagree with ol' Tollers. Although, I'm not sure about the easy way of dismissing Travel Stories. Something more needs to be done there, probably in terms of label and distinction, both.

    Deirdra: Thanks a lot! I have adorned the blog with its new trophy. :D