Coming when it did in J.R.R. Tolkien’s writing career, “On Fairy Stories” reveals more about the mind and soul of the man than any other non-fiction work he produced in his lifetime.

Not too long after Tolkien had published The Hobbit—to much critical acclaim—and was just beginning a sequel to it, the Faculty of Arts at the University of St. Andrews (Scotland) advised the university that it should invite Tolkien to be the “Andrew Lang Lecturer.”[1] Lang had been a rather famous polymath, a collector of folklore, an anthropologist, and a humanist. The Faculty of Arts had hoped to give Tolkien until 1941 to prepare his lecture. Due to a set of strange academic circumstances, however, the University needed someone for its 1939 lecture. The University formally invited Tolkien to deliver the 1939 address on October 8, 1938, and he willingly accepted the invitation.[2]

It should be remembered that 1938 had been a difficult year for Tolkien. While he had written much for his Hobbit sequel, he had suffered through deep depression in August and a nasty flu in December. Tolkien had also just finished the first several writing phases—as his son Christopher has labeled them—of what would become The Fellowship of the Ring, when he began research and thought regarding his proposed lecture, “On Fairy Stories.” He had hoped to deliver a paper on the same topic to an undergraduate society at Oxford in 1938, but that had fallen through.[3] This would be his chance to rectify that, and with the added benefit of serious academic legitimacy. On the evening of March 8, 1939, Tolkien delivered his lecture at the University of St. Andrews.

To state that the lecture was important to Tolkien and, frankly, to the world of literary criticism, would be a gross understatement. Coming when it does in Tolkien’s writing career, “On Fairy Stories” reveals more about the mind and soul of the man than any other non-fiction work he produced throughout his lifetime. It is, to be certain, seminal and beautifully so. Like his own Stoic and mystical understanding of Faerie, his talk was, in turns, excellent, insightful, and brilliant. It also offers, at its most fundamental level, a counterrevolution of ideas, an image of the world directly counter to that held by the fascists, communists, and ideologues of all varieties of the twentieth century. The Scotsman reported:

The lecturer, in the course of his address, said he could never understand why ‘escape’ should be used as a term of abuse in literature. He did not see why, if a man was in prison, he should not try to get out and go home; nor why, if he could not do that, he should not think of something else than jailers and prison walls. The world outside was not less real because he could not see it, or could glimpse it only through a narrow window.[4]

One might even call it, cautiously, a sort of antidote to all armed doctrines. One might go even further and label “On Fairy Stories” a “Christian Humanist Manifesto.”

Tolkien had used—and would continue to use—the term Fairy. Sometimes he employed the word Fairy, sometimes Fairy Stories, sometimes Fairy Tales, sometimes Faërie, sometimes Faery, and sometimes the Fair Elves and the Fair Folk (often describing the people, the stories, and the culture interchangeably) in much of his own fiction and larger mythology. Most recently, at least in relation to the St. Andrew’s speech, in The Hobbit, Tolkien had described the background of the Wood Elves of Mirkwood as those Elves that had failed to heed the call of the Gods and live in “Faerie in the West,” referring to the Blessed Realm of Valinor.[5] He had, of course, originally used the term Fairy in the Book of Lost Tales and in the Lays of Beleriand to describe the persons, the land, and the culture of the Elves (Gnomes). Fairy was, to be sure, a fundamental part of his mythology.

Tellingly, he had also painted “The Shores of Faery” way back in the spring of 1915, at the beginnings of his Legendarium as it was first taking shape in his mind and in his soul.[6] The painting, typically colorful for Tolkien, is a watercolor one. Inside the organic-mushroom shape of a dome burn several lights: one gold, one silver, and one white. They each light what appears to be a divine city, with purple mountains dominating the sky and greenish waves washing the shoreline. Vines and bulbs shoot from two trees, thus giving the painting its mushroom-like frame. Had this been painted in 1975 rather than 1915, it would grace the cover of a progressive rock album, preferably something by Roger Dean or James Marsh.

Unfortunately—at least for scholars, but a boon for fans—Tolkien never quite finished the essay. There was the speech he delivered, of which there is no copy, but there are newspaper accounts. Three different manuscripts of the essay, as written but not spoken, are extent, and Tolkien, during his lifetime, published one version of “On Fairy Stories” in a memorial volume for Inkling Charles Williams in 1947, and he published a second version in 1964’s Tree and Leaf, a small book consisting of “On Fairy Stories” and his short story, “Leaf by Niggle.” This last version has, to some degree, become the standard version, and it has survived in The Tolkien Reader (1966) as well as in The Monsters and the Critics (1983). As the editors of the “expanded version,” which is really the definitive one, Verlyn Flieger and Douglas A. Anderson have cautioned, though, the text probably should be regarded as a living one throughout Tolkien’s life.[7] Never truly did he stop thinking about Fairy. Tolkien even wrote a sequel of sorts to “On Fairy Stories” in an unpublished essay he wrote to accompany his last short story, “Smith of Wootton Major,” also edited by Dr. Flieger.

This essay is the first in a series on J.R.R. Tolkien’s “On Fairy Stories.”

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[1] J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide: Chronology, 231-232.

[2] Ibid., 236.

[3] Carpenter, Tolkien: A Biography, 190.

[4] “Fairy Stories: Lang Lecture at St. Andrews: The ‘Escapist’ Function,” The Scotsman (March 9, 1939), 9.

[5] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Annotated Hobbit, 219.

[6] J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator, 47-48.

[7] Verlyn Flieger and Douglas A. Anderson, eds., Tolkien: On Fairy-Stories, Expanded Edition, With Commentary and Notes (London, ENG: Harper Collins, 2014), 157-158.

The featured image is “Midsummer Eve” (1908) by Edward Robert Hughes (1851–1914) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened for clarity.

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