On Fairy-Stories by J R R Tolkien

“On Fairy-Stories” is one of those rare windows — along with Lovecraft’s “Supernatural Horror in Literature”, Moorcock’s Wizardry and Wild Romance, and Le Guin’s key essays in The Language of the Night — into the thinking of a major fantasy writer about fantasy itself. They’re often as much (if not more) about what the writer thinks others are doing wrong than how to do it right, and usually end up having to be mined for a few insightful gems — which, though rare, are always well worth the mining. Tolkien’s idea of the Eucatastrophe, the “sudden, joyous ‘turn’” which he believes ends the truly effective fairy-story, doesn’t appear till about a page before the end of his essay, but it’s certainly worth everything that comes before.

He first presented this piece as “On Fairy Tales”, delivered on 8th March 1939 as an Andrew Lang Lecture at the University of St Andrews. (Other Andrew Lang Lecturers include John Buchan, the Scottish Symbolist painter John Duncan, and, much more recently, fantasy writer Jane Yolen.) It was then published as “On Fairy-Stories” in Essays Presented to Charles Williams in 1947, alongside C S Lewis’s “On Stories”, and others. It would only have reached a wider public in 1964, when it was collected in Tree and Leaf.

Tolkien starts by asking, “What are fairy-stories? What is their origin? What is the use of them?” Much of what he says might sound commonplace today, certainly among people who read — definitely among those who read about — fantasy, but even when I first read it in the late 80s, it was the first time I’d encountered such positive statements about fantasy as a literary form. Perhaps the only thing that seemed off at the time was that Tolkien was using the term “fairy-stories” for what by the 1980s was firmly called “fantasy”, but his definition certainly fit:

“…fairy-stories are not in normal English usage stories about fairies or elves, but stories about Fairy, that is Faërie, the realm or state in which fairies have their being.”

A lot of what Tolkien says in his essay serves to defend fantasy against what was then the generally held view, that it was basically for children, and wasn’t worth taking seriously once you’d grown out of it. Fantasy was seen, at the time, purely as an exercise in “the willing suspension of disbelief” (Coleridge’s phrase), and thus an indulgence, a temporary dip out of the real world. Tolkien instead puts forward the idea of fantasy being an exercise in Sub-creation, in which the writer “makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is ‘true’: it accords with the laws of that world.” This might at first sound basically the same as “the willing suspension of disbelief”, aside from its being presented from the creator’s, rather than the reader’s, point of view, but Tolkien’s language is already hinting at the conclusion of his essay. “Sub-creation”, and “Secondary Worlds” are secondary to “Primary Creation” and “the Primary World”, which were, to the Catholic Tolkien, the works of God. Human beings couldn’t create as God did, but also couldn’t help imitating their creator by some act of creation. (Which recalls George MacDonald’s idea that “The imagination of man is made in the image of the imagination of God”, and thus is a route to knowing God.) Fairy-stories, then, aren’t an indulgence, but a fulfilment of all that makes you human.

Tolkien goes on to present four terms for what he believes are the function of fairy-stories: Fantasy, Recovery, Escape, and Consolation. Of these, Fantasy is the vaguest, perhaps because this is the sense in which we now use the word (of literature, films, and so on, anyway). For Tolkien, “Fantasy” is:

“a word which shall embrace both the Sub-creative Art in itself, and a quality of strangeness and wonder in the Expression, derived from image… the power of giving to ideal creations the inner consistency of reality.”

Though perhaps he puts this best by saying:

“To the elvish craft, Enchantment, Fantasy aspires…”

“Recovery” is a more useful idea, though one that can, really, be applied to all creative art. By “Recovery”, Tolkien means a “regaining of a clear view”:

“We need, in any case, to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity — from possessiveness.”

Reading a poem about a cat, you might see all cats in a wholly new light; but having seen a dragon (even in your imagination), you’ll find all of reality renewed. One thing that’s interesting in the above quote is how Tolkien links the “drab blur of triteness” by which we can come to see the world when tired or jaded or cynical, with “possessiveness” — which recalls Gollum’s possessiveness of his Precious, and the One Ring’s even greater possessiveness of him.

As to “Escape”, it seems fantasy is less and less dismissed as pure escapism these days, but certainly it felt like the biggest criticism applied to it when I was growing up. Tolkien, though, ties Escape with Recovery in a neat comparison. Fantasy is not “the Flight of the Deserter” but “the Escape of the Prisoner” — the prison, in this case, being that “drab blur of triteness”. (Though in some cases it’s an actual prison, as with Malory or Bunyan.)

Tolkien’s final factor, “Consolation”, is perhaps the one that’s still easiest to dismiss, though it’s the one that, being tied to his idea of Eucatastrophe, is the key idea (for me) of this essay. Consolation is “the Consolation of the Happy Ending”, and is embodied in Eucatastrophe, “a sudden and miraculous grace” that provides “a piercing glimpse of joy, and heart’s desire”. It’s this point, probably, that most critics would say is the essentially escapist (as in “Flight of the Deserter” escapism) aspect of fantasy, because “real life” doesn’t have happy endings. But Tolkien’s point could be taken as saying that it’s to return to the belief in the possibility of happy endings, or at least happy turns, that leads to the strongest sense of Recovery. But Tolkien’s actual point was that there is a happy ending to life, only it’s not in life, but after it. For him, the “Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of the story of Man’s history”, and Heaven is the happy ending. But I don’t think you have to believe as he believed to accept the psychological benefits of experiencing a happy ending, however artfully (sub)created, every now and then.

Tolkien, Machen, Lovecraft

It’s interesting to compare Tolkien’s ideas to those of other creators in a fantastic vein. Just as “joy” is, for Tolkien, the true function of a fairy-story, Arthur Machen, in Hieroglyphics (1902), puts forward “ecstasy” as the only mark of “fine literature”. And even though Machen allows other words to stand in for “ecstasy”, it’s obvious he means something darker, perhaps wilder, and certainly more troubling than Tolkien’s “joy”:

“Substitute, if you like, rapture, beauty, adoration, wonder, awe, mystery, sense of the unknown, desire for the unknown. All and each will convey what I mean; for some particular case one term may be more appropriate than another, but in every case there will be that withdrawal from the common life and the common consciousness which justifies my choice of ‘ecstasy’ as the best symbol of my meaning.”

Machen’s is a mystic’s joy.

There’s even more of a contrast with Lovecraft, particularly over Tolkien’s idea that the “joy” he finds in fairy-stories is “a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality of truth”. For Tolkien, this is a glimpse of the underlying reality of Christian truth, but for Lovecraft, whose tales also sought to attain “a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality of truth”, that truth was the antithesis of anything remotely Christian. Nevertheless, for each author, it was the truth — the truth of how they felt about the world, anyway.

Both Tolkien and Lovecraft saw their chosen literary form — fairy-stories and weird fiction — as existing to convey a single feeling, the essence of the world they felt they lived in. And this seems true of many writers, and artists generally, that they have a single essential thing — that might be named by a single word, but which, to them, conveys a whole universe of meaning — a feeling more often than a thought, which sums up reality, or their take on it.

And these are the writers, I think, who keep being read long after their deaths. They come to represent, through their works and their fictional worlds, access to their particular feeling, the thing they were most focused on conveying. I don’t know if this is as true of Tolkien — who you can enjoy as adventure and whose actual happy ending is tempered by a sense of sadness — but it certainly rings true for Lovecraft and Machen.

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The Hobbit by J R R Tolkien

The thing that stuck with me from my first reading of The Hobbit (nearly forty years ago, now), was Mirkwood. A place of darkness, where so little sunlight filters through from above it’s a shock when Bilbo climbs a tree and gets a reminder of what daylight looks like (plus a glimpse of Mirkwood’s weird, black butterflies). It’s as much a psychological gloom as a lack of light, with Bilbo and the dwarves having for the first time to do without Gandalf (who so far has been the one to rescue them from trolls, goblins, wolves, and hunger), and soon finding themselves helplessly lost in an unforgiving and almost alien environment, where even the water is dangerous. Mirkwood has its roots pretty clearly in classic fairy tales, but for me it’s the moment when Tolkien’s particularly Tolkien-ish invention kicks in. As he himself wrote in a letter to Stanley Unwin in 1937, the year the book was first published:

“Mr Baggins began as a comic tale among conventional and inconsistent Grimm’s fairy-tale dwarves, and got drawn into the edge of it [i.e., his Silmarillion mythology] — so that even Sauron the terrible peeped over the edge.”

Even before the spiders appear, Mirkwood feels like a ramping up of peril for Bilbo and the dwarves. But it’s not yet the sort of peril — the quality that leant its name to Tolkien’s term for Faërie, “the Perilous Realm” — that you find in The Lord of the Rings, which combines mortal danger with an addictive draw, and whose physical threat is secondary to its moral, psychological, or even spiritual danger. In The Lord of the Rings it’s embodied in the One Ring, but in The Hobbit, you feel it most around treasure, and in particular gold “upon which a dragon has long brooded”.

As I found out when recording The Adventure Film Podcast with my brother, gold pops up with surprising frequency in adventure stories, and almost always with the same result: it lures you on the adventure, but once you’ve acquired it, a whole new set of troubles begin. Adventure-gold has the uncanny ability to bring out the worst in people. (As in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, or The Man Who Would Be King.)

Tolkien’s treasures come with an added dimension, though, as we find out when Bilbo & co. discover a cache of valuables acquired by the trolls. Casually lying there in a wayside cave are two legendary swords, Orcrist and Glamdring. Elrond, who identifies them, suggests how they might have ended up in such a lowly hoard:

“…one may guess that your trolls had plundered other plunderers, or come on the remnants of old robberies in some hold of the mountains.”

Treasure, in Tolkien, does not just have monetary value, it comes laden with historical associations, and in a world like Middle Earth, where old songs and stories are constantly being retold — often by long-lived beings who themselves witnessed them, or have family ties to their protagonists — historical weight can be just as compelling as monetary value, and can take on both deeply personal and highly political ramifications.

The basic effect is initially the same. Just as the One Ring makes you paranoid, secretive, and ashamed, so treasure, in The Hobbit, isolates, makes you selfish and suspicious. Gollum is the first example of this we see, a creature debased by “endless unmarked days without light or hope of betterment, hard stone, cold fish, sneaking and whispering”. Smaug is a dragon, therefore solitary and vengeful by nature, but he dwells in the heart of a place called the Lonely Mountain, just to underline the point. It’s when the “dragon-sickness” takes grip of Thorin we really see this effect at work. Thorin and company think of Smaug’s treasure as having been plundered from them, and so rightfully theirs, but as Bard points out, the dragon added to his horde over the years, so if they’re genuinely interested in restitution, some of it belongs to the descendants of Dale. It’s at this point Thorin starts calling everyone a thief:

“But none of our gold shall thieves take or the violent carry off while we are alive.”

The question of theft — of how treasure is acquired — is a complex one in The Hobbit. Every treasure has a history, of being discovered in its raw state (mined by dwarves or goblins), of being formed into objects of beauty by craftsmen, of being given or bought, of being used in heroic deeds, of being honoured in songs and stories. To whom does it belong? Is not all ownership — of treasure, at least — the result of theft, in Middle Earth? (Except for things freely given, such as Bilbo’s mithril shirt.)

Tolkien, though, finds a shade of difference. Dragons, for instance, are nothing but rapacious thieves:

“Dragons steal gold and jewels, you know, from men and elves and dwarves, wherever they can find them; and they guard their plunder as long as they live (which is practically for ever unless they are killed), and never enjoy a brass ring of it. Indeed they hardly know a good bit of work from a bad, though they usually have a good notion of the current market value; and they can’t make a thing for themselves, not even mend a little loose scale of their armour.”

Cover art by Tove Jansson

Bilbo is several times called a thief, and in some cases (Gollum’s ring, for instance), may be acting as one, but he comes to think of himself as a burglar, and though it’s only a nicety that works in the fairy-tale world of Middle Earth, a burglar, here, is one who acquires treasure through a modicum of craft or skill, and perhaps bravery, and certainly through deeds around which a story might be told. This isn’t to say Bilbo doesn’t feel the “dragon-sickness” at times — as when he first sees the Arkenstone and is “drawn by its enchantment” (and how literally does Tolkien mean that “enchantment”?) — but crucially, he doesn’t give way to it when it comes to losing friendships or causing strife.

After all, Bilbo has no heroic notions about himself. All he wants, once the adventure is underway, is to get back home to his comfortable hobbit-hole, with perhaps a new tale or two to tell, and a nice-looking memento on the mantlepiece to dust off and reminisce about. He has no intention of installing himself as a king somewhere, and knows he has no chance of transporting a fourteenth-load of dragon’s gold all the way back to the Shire on his own, so he can’t see himself as a legendary hero. He knows he’s vulnerable, and still needs to rely on others. And this despite the fact that, once Gandalf leaves the dwarves, Bilbo is the one who takes over the heroic role, by saving the party every time they’re in danger. But whereas Gandalf saved them thanks to his magical power and wide-reaching knowledge, Bilbo does it through “some wits, as well as luck and a magic ring — and all three are very useful possessions”. Bilbo saves the dwarves not through Gandalf-style confrontations, but through using his wits, wits honed by knowing how helpless and unheroic he is, and so in full knowledge that only burglar-style tactics (or “sneaking”, as Gollum might put it) will work.

It’s almost impossible to read The Hobbit without feeling the weight of The Lord of the Rings bearing down on it. But it’s a fun book, and a neat little adventure which really starts to warm up once the dwarves and Bilbo get to Mirkwood, and then again once Smaug is dead and the Battle of the Five Armies draws near. It may be a toe-dip in the worlds of corruption and power that saturate the later trilogy, but I think that was all it was ever meant to be — there and back again, in time for tea.

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Tolkien

I was almost put off going to see this biopic because of Mark Kermode’s review, which made it sound like nothing more than a series of crudely-drawn parallels between Tolkien’s life and his work. But I found the film far more subtle than that, perhaps because I already knew those parallels — the way the Fellowship of the Ring could be seen as owing something to Tolkien’s close friendships with his fellows in the “Tea Club and Barrovian Society”, for instance, which only ended with their deaths in the First World War, or the obvious influence of the war itself. The way that dark figures like dragons and Black Riders form from the smoke, fire and devastation of a First World War battlefield — as seen through a trench-fevered Tolkien’s eyes — wasn’t just a nice touch, I thought it was the whole point of the film.

(It even managed to convince me of one more parallel, though I don’t know how factually accurate it might be: as the fevered Tolkien searches the trenches for his friend, Geoffrey Smith, he’s made to seem like a ring-weary Frodo being supported by his Sam Gamgee-like batman, Private Sam Hodges, struggling through Mordor.)

I think part of the trouble any Tolkien biopic will have is that the image we (I, anyway) have of him is as an old, betweeded, pipe-smoking don, mumbling to himself in Elvish and very much not writing about women. It’s a point emphasised by Humphrey Carpenter’s biography, where, once Tolkien is ensconced as a professor at Oxford about a third of the way into that book, Carpenter says: “And after this, you might say, nothing else really happened.” And it’s the “nothing else really happened” Tolkien I tend to think of. The fact that Tolkien was, at one time, passionate about changing the world, and deeply in love with the woman he married — the fact that he was, at one time, a young man — seems difficult to grasp, so any film of his life can’t help but feel an exaggeration or romanticisation. (This film surely owes a lot to John Garth’s Tolkien and the Great War, much more so, I’d think, than the Carpenter biography.)

But biopics have to work as stories at the same time as they’re serving as biographies, and Tolkien is an origin story, not a full biography. It’s about the experiences that led up to the writing of The Lord of the Rings — or, rather, The Hobbit, because it ends with him writing the famous opening sentence to that book. I think, overall, the film makes a good artistic point about the formation of Tolkien as a writer, and though by no means a definitive biopic — I really wanted to see Tolkien at the end of his life, bothered by hippies turning up on his lawn, brandishing copies of the Ballantine paperback whose cover he hated — it was certainly more than the TV movie style box-ticking exercise Mark Kermode implied.

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