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Verlyn Flieger, ‘On Fairy Stories’

Verlyn Flieger, academic and author, explores Tolkien’s seminal essay which crystallized his views on the nature and purpose of fairy stories and fantasy in general.

If it were nothing else, On Fairy-stories would have a primary place in Tolkien scholarship as Tolkien’s definitive statement about his art – which he called ‘Sub-creation’ – and the concept that lies behind it – the power of words to create a Secondary World.

However, On Fairy-stories has a good deal more to offer, and to a wider audience, than a simple artistic declaration, however important, to a fellowship of scholars. It is also a wide-ranging discussion aimed at anyone interested in the subject of fairy tales. It is a deeply perceptive commentary on the interdependence of language and human consciousness. For historians and folklorists, it is a capsule history of the British Folklore Movement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. For mythographers it is a cogent and concise discussion of the nature of myth and fairy story. Beyond these, it is an analysis of the poet’s craft that ranks with Aristotle’s Poetics, Sidney’s ‘Defense of Poesy’ (1595), and Coleridge’s work on Imagination as among the major critical texts on that subject.

And finally and above all, it is essential reading for anyone seeking a deeper understanding of the multivalent myth, epic and fairy tale romance that is The Lord of the Rings.

Origin of the essay

On Fairy-stories had its genesis in March of 1939 at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. The time is worth noting, for it places the lecture (which will become an essay) at a particular conjunction of elements in the development of Tolkien’s fiction. By March of 1939 The Hobbit, published in September of 1937, had been for a year and a half an immensely popular children’s book. Also by that time Tolkien was well into writing the early episodes of its sequel, the ‘new Hobbit’ that became The Lord of the Rings.

Fairy tale and fantasy were in the forefront of his mind when, invited to give the twelfth annual Andrew Lang Lecture at St. Andrews, he chose to focus on Lang’s work as a folklorist and collector of fairy tales. Remarkably, he was the first speaker in the series to do so. His choice of subject, then, could very well have been related, consciously or unconsciously, to his own work. With a modest disclaimer that he knew little about the subject except as a reader and lover, Tolkien chose to speak ‘On Fairy-stories’. The lecture subsequently became the foundation for what is, with his Beowulf essay, probably his most studied, and most quoted critical work. 

Content of the essay

Readers encountering On Fairy-stories for the first time may feel overwhelmed by the breadth of knowledge displayed therein, by the invocation of once famous but now unfamiliar names, and by allusions to apparently esoteric theories of myth. Once unpacked, however, the essay reveals a solid, if digressive, structure built around three questions – what are fairy stories? what are their origins? what is the use of them? 

Tolkien used the first question to dismiss previously held assumptions that the genre could be stretched to include dream visions, beast fables and travellers’ tales, to demolish the notion that fairies themselves are diminutive and pretty, and that fairy stories are stories about fairies. In the process he roundly rebuked Andrew Lang for his too wide-ranging collection of Fairy Books (1889-1910), which included many of the above examples. This accomplished, Tolkien proceeded to replace this loose conception of fairy story with his own stricter, narrower notion that fairy stories must be stories about Faërie, ‘the realm or state in which Fairies have their being’, and that while they may display what seems to the untrained eye magic, they also have much that is ordinary, seas, stars, sun and moon, ‘and ourselves, mortal men, when we are enchanted’.

The second question, ‘what are their origins?’, led Tolkien to examination of then-current theories about folk and fairy tales, and a lengthy consideration of what was at one time a hotly debated topic, how stories with such unpalatable subjects as cannibalism, child abuse, incest, murder and rape ever came to be told, let alone become literature for children.

A leading debater was Max Müller, comparative philologist and proponent of ‘solar mythology’, the theory that all myths and mythic figures were originally names for celestial phenomena, that over the centuries the concepts behind the names dwindled first into gods, then into heroes, and finally into the personnel of folk and fairy tales. Müller’s opponent was Andrew Lang, who espoused the ‘anthropological’ counter-theory that the stories derived from savage rituals and were best understood by studying the practices of contemporary ‘primitive’ (read ‘childlike’) cultures.

Tolkien agreed with neither camp, and his discussion – and rebuttal – of their opposing positions gave an abbreviated account of both arguments and a cogent analysis of where and how they were wrong. Unsurprisingly, Tolkien then proposed his own theory instead, that the stories were the inevitable product of the interaction of human imagination and human language. We make, he said, ‘because we are made’, and made in the image and likeness of a Maker. The Primary Creation, the Primary World is God’s, hence Tolkien’s addition of the prefix ‘sub-‘ to the human creation of a fictive or Secondary World. We are God’s creation, and our story-telling faculty was developed in conjunction with our consciousness and our language/s. ‘The incarnate mind, the tongue, and the tale, are in our world coeval’.

With his third question, ‘what is the use of them?’ Tolkien came to what was for him the heart of the matter, the necessity of fantasy in a world given almost wholly to ‘reality’. His defense of fantasy rested on the three essential things that it gives to its readers through fairy stories – Recovery, Escape, and Consolation. Recovery is the getting back of a clear view of things too long taken for granted; by seeing them through the lens of fantasy, we see them freshly as if for the first time. Escape is precisely that, retreat from the mundane world into a secondary world where the impossible is possible, where humans can fly, change their shape, converse with beasts, and fight with dragons. Best of all is the Great Escape, the Escape from Death that is possible only in fairy stories. This is directly related to the last of Tolkien’s three terms, Consolation, the righting of the injustice, the return from death to life, the winning of the prince or princess that consoles the reader and brings about the Happy Ending which is the hallmark of a fairy tale, the most important element in a fairy story.


To explore the effect of the Happy Ending and its place in the story, Tolkien coined a new word, eucatastrophe, the ‘good catastrophe’.

If tragedy is the hallmark of drama, he declared, eucatastrophe is the hallmark of fairy story. He meant the word to refer to the sudden, unexpected upward ‘turn’ in the plot that reverses the downward turn that is the catastrophe in Greek drama. Eucatastrophe turns sorrow to joy and it replaces the tragic catharsis with Consolation and the Happy Ending. Eucatastrophe does not deny the possibility of ‘dyscatastrophe’. Indeed, this is a necessary prerequisite for the ‘turn’, since there must be an imminent and believable likelihood of sorrow or disaster in order for the reversal to have its full effect.

The emotional outcome and importance of this unexpected reversal led Tolkien to add an ‘Epilogue’ to the essay on what he called the best fairy story of all, the Christian Story contained in the Gospels of the New Testament. Of all fairy stories, he maintained, this one is the greatest because not only has it all necessary ingredients, but also it is true. ‘The Birth of Christ’, he said, ‘is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation’. The final paragraph of the essay connects the two with Tolkien’s conclusion that the larger fairy story has hallowed the smaller, and that Fantasy may ‘assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation’ so that at last ‘all tales may come true’.

Publication history

Tolkien extensively revised and expanded the original Andrew Lang lecture for publication in Essays Presented to Charles Williams in 1947.

It was republished together with Tolkien’s short story Leaf, by Niggle in a small volume called Tree and Leaf in 1964, and Tree and Leaf was later included in an anthology of shorter Tolkien works published as The Tolkien Reader in 1968. Both volumes have been republished many times, and The Tolkien Reader is still in print.

On Fairy-stories underwent further minor revisions for Christopher Tolkien’s collection of his father’s essays, The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays, published in 1983.

In 2008, HarperCollins released On Fairy-stories in a stand-alone ‘expanded edition’, with commentary, notes and previously unseen material, edited by Verlyn Flieger and Douglas A. Anderson.