Reading Fairy Stories with J. R. Tolkien
In “On Fairy Stories,” J. R. R. Tolkien explores the realm of Faerie, and considers “What are fairy-stories? What is their origin? What is the use of them?” As you might expect, the essay is packed with deep thought illustrated with examples from the best of fantasy literature, from Norse mythology to A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Lest a reader be deceived into thinking that fairy tales and fantasy are simply entertainment and unworthy of study, Tolkien begins by reminding us that
“The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords.”
Tolkien crafts a beautiful and compelling argument in “On Fairy Stories,” and it is worth close study, especially for budding writers and students of literature.
Where to find “On Fairy Tales”
“On Fairy Tales” was originally a talk Tolkien delivered for the Andrew Lang Lecture Series at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, but was later published as an essay. It has appeared in compilations including Tree and Leaf and The Tolkien Reader, and in The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays, edited by Christopher Tolkien (affiliate link at left). It has also appeared as a standalone text with additional study material. A PDF copy is available to students at the link below (28 pages).
Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy Stories” (PDF)
The Tolkien Estate website provides a brief overview of “On Fairy Stories,” summarizing the origin and content of the essay. There is also a paragraph on “eucatastrophe,” Tolkien’s word for a “good catastrophe” such as the sudden and favorable resolution of a conflict in a story.
You may also want to read a related essay, “Sub-Creation or Smuggled Theology: Tolkien contra Lewis on Christian Fantasy” by David C. Downing, published at the C. S. Lewis Institute. It’s an interesting comparison of how C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien viewed the role of an author and the purpose of literature, with a focus on fairy tales or fantasy literature.
This commentary and excerpt of the essay by J. R. R. Tolkien is provided here for educational purposes only. Thanks to Stacy Esch, English professor at West Chester University, for sharing this resource with us; it was originally published on her website. Related material referenced by Excellence in Literature.
Stacy Esch teaches composition and literature at West Chester University in West Chester, Pennsylvania. She is an avid supporter of the liberal arts tradition in higher education.
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We think Tolkien is a great author, and you can learn a lot about the craft of writing, the English language (and maths and science and citizenship and lots more) by reading his works. If you have chosen to work on Tolkien for a paper, project or thesis, we are delighted!
What should I read?
We have put together two lists – books by Tolkien and books about Tolkien. Have a look at these to get an idea of the kind of material available.
In most parts of the world you can get these books at any public or university library. In the case of harder to find books or articles, the interlibrary loan system is your friend.
Help! I need an idea for an essay on Tolkien!
Don’t worry, we’ve come up with some ideas for students at all levels of education. Have a look at the appropriate document below:
Below you’ll find a series of study packs and essays which you may find useful in your studies. Indeed, if you’ve written an essay on Tolkien and are proud of it, we’d be happy to consider publishing it in one of our publications or on this page.
Is it possible to take courses on Tolkien?
Yes! As a first port of call, you should look at what’s currently available at:
All members of the Tolkien Society are entitled to a 15% discount on all courses offered by the Mythgard Institute, an organisation which offers online university-level classes taught by world-class teachers and leading scholars. So, if you’re not already a member, join us today!