J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1947 essay “On Fairy Stories” explores the nature of fairy-stories as a genre. Tolkien is best known for his fantasy novel (published as a trilogy), The Lord of the Rings, but he wrote “On Fairy Stories,” first delivered as a lecture in 1939, several years earlier as part of the Andrew Lang lecture series. In typical philological fashion, Tolkien discusses the definition of fairy-stories, their origins, and their purpose in order to capture their true value. Ultimately, his essay is an argument that fairy-stories should be appreciated as serious, valuable works of art rather than children’s stories.
Although Tolkien admits that the genre of fairy-stories cannot be captured in words, he describes qualities that are at their core. These stories consist of more than magical elves, he explains; they focus on the world of “Faerie” itself, a “Perilous Realm” containing all kinds of magical and non-magical beings (4). True fairy-stories, in his view, capture the essence of Faerie and satisfy two essential human desires: to explore the universe and connect with other beings (5). Thus, since travellers’ tales, dream stories, and beast fables all fail to embody these desires, Tolkien argues that none of them should be included in the fairy-story genre. By his definition, only tales that represent the exploratory nature of Faerie in a way that is believable and relatable to human desires can truly be called a fairy-story.
Tolkien points out that, despite their complex meanings, fairy-stories are often considered simple tales made for the entertainment of children. Tolkien argues vehemently against this notion, insisting that the genre has great value and serves an important purpose in the adult world. He considers fantasy to be a high form of art involving “Sub-Creation,” or the invention of a “Secondary World” that is so believable it feels real within the story (15-16). According to
Tolkien, Sub-Creation is at the heart of human nature; he compares it to divine Creation and reasons that because men are made in the image of God, they are meant to be creators. In Tolkien’s mind, fairy-stories are the realization of one of man’s existential purposes.
Fairy-stories allow readers to return to reality with a fresh, clear perspective. Tolkien calls this concept “Recovery” because it helps readers recover a view of their own world that too often has been dulled by familiarity (19). Tolkien recognizes that reading provides an escape from the sorrows of life and serves as a much-needed departure from the prison of modern society (20). Tolkien concludes his defense of fairy stories by focusing on a trait shared by all fairy stories: a happy ending. . The reason why happy endings are so essential for fairy stories, in Tolkien’s opinion, is that they lead to “consolation,” the intense joy that is felt when the plot turns to its ultimate happy conclusion or “good catastrophe” (22).
Throughout his argument, Tolkien aims to change society’s view on fairy-stories. He hopes that, rather than relegating fairy-stories to the shelves of nurseries, adults appreciate their value as serious literature. To Tolkien, the land of Faerie holds much more than fairies; it is both a repository and a means of sub-creation, recovery, escape, and consolation, one of the highest genres to which an author can contribute.