On Fairy-Stories

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"On Fairy-Stories" is an essay by J. R. R. Tolkien which discusses the fairy-story as a literary form. It was initially written for presentation by Tolkien as the Andrew Lang lecture at the University of St Andrews, Scotland, in 1939. It 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 OUP staff to London with the ending of the war. However, Williams died suddenly on May 15, 1945, and the book was published as a memorial volume.[1]

On Fairy-Stories was subsequently published with Leaf by Niggle in Tree and Leaf, as well as in The Tolkien Reader, published in 1966. 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 context

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 recognizably that of the author and introduced only a single fantastic element—or at most a fantastic milieu within the author's world, as with Lovecraft or Howard. Tolkien departed from this; his work was nominally part of the history of our own world[2], 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' The Time Machine), beast tales (such as Aesop's Fables and Peter Rabbit), and dream stories (such as Alice in Wonderland). 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."

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