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Tolkiens Essay On Fairy Tales

On Fairy-Stories

"...It is a long tale..." — Aragorn
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On Fairy-Stories is an essay written by Tolkien about the reader who enters a realm full of fairy tales. An excerpt is shown below.

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 sharp as swords. In that realm a man may, perhaps, count himself fortunate to have wandered, but its very richness and strangeness tie the tongue of the traveller who would report them. And while he is there it is dangerous for him to ask too many questions, lest the gate should be shut and the keys be lost.
—J.R.R. Tolkien, "On Fairy-Stories," in The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays


The essay was first delivered as a lecture in 1939 and was first published in Essays Presented to Charles Williams. It was subsequently published in a revised form in Tree and Leaf and The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays (1983). In 2008, editors Verlyn Flieger & Douglas A. Anderson published an expanded edition with commentaries: Tolkien On Fairy-stories.

Categories: Articles needing expansion | Lectures by J.R.R. Tolkien | Published articles by J.R.R. Tolkien

In J.R.R Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy Stories” he argues that it is not necessary to be a child to enjoy and read fairy-tales, he states (while making a reference to the races found in H.G Wells novel, The Time Machine), “Let us not divide the human race into Eloi and Morlocks: pretty children—“elves” as the eighteenth century often idiotically called them—with their fairytales (carefully pruned), and dark Morlocks tending their machines. If fairy-story as a kind is worth reading at all it is worthy to be written for and read by adults”. However, it should not be seen in such an extreme manner and that by their very nature, fairy-tales are primarily for children and that it loses its power of escape, recovery or even fantasy when read by an adult.

Children are naïve and prone to believing whatever they are told, thus their imagination is much better than an adult’s and is capable of seeing things that others would not see when presented with a fairy-tale. As adults we read fantasy and write creative literature to recapture some of that magic lost when we grew up, and the magic and stories contained in fairy-tales are not for us. When reading these stories we must ignore reality and places ourselves in the “Secondary World” created by the story. Adults are in capable of fully immersing themselves, they are preoccupied with the ideas and knowledge they have learned as they’ve grown up, with life experiences and responsibilities. Only children have the true power to immerse themselves in these tales and therefore understand the mystical world presented to them. While adults have the intelligence and the vocabulary to tell these fairy-tales, only children have the ability to fully imagine and understand them.

“I do not deny that there is a truth in Andrew Lang’s words (sentimental though they may sound): “He who would enter into the Kingdom of Faerie should have the heart of a little child.” For that possession is necessary to all high adventure, into kingdoms both less and far greater than Faerie.” While Tolkein states that Lang’s words are sentimental, they should be seen as fact. Fairy-tales, while a form of literature, should not be dissected and looked at critically like with novels or essays. He says that adults “…of course, put more in and get more out than children can.” It should not be seen in this fashion. You do not “put more into” a fairy-tale; you can only get a story and a sense of wonder out of it. It should not be said that adults are too close-minded for this, but that they have seen the world and learned about and so the sense of wonder is gone which is required for a fairy-tale.

Works Cited

Tolkein, J.R.R. “On Fairy Stories.” WebCT. University of Western Ontario, 23 Jan. 2011. Web

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