Fairy Stories are very rarely about fairies

J.R.R. Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy Stories” should be read by everyone who does or intends to write fantasy. I consider it the best and most important discussion of what fantasy, and specifically “fairy stories,” are all about. People ask: What’s the big deal about magic? Why do we fantasy-lovers seem more interested in imaginary worlds than the real one? (Not to say that we are, but that is a common misconception.) Isn’t fantasy all mere escapism? Isn’t it, in fact, childish? Tolkien does not just dismiss these questions as those of individuals who “don’t get it,” but turns the full weight of his analytical skills to dissecting what the genre is all about. In addressing one specific kind of fantasy tale – the fairy story – he ends up making profound statements that concern all of literature, regardless of genre. I highly recommend you read the whole essay if you haven’t already. Here is an excerpt from the beginning, where he begins to define what a “fairy story” is, and what it most definitely is not.

Stories that are actually concerned primarily with “fairies,” that is with creatures that might also in modern English be called “elves,” are relatively rare, and as a rule not very interesting. Most good “fairy-stories” are about the adventures of men in the Perilous Realm or upon its shadowy marches. Naturally so; for if elves are true, and really exist independently of our tales about them, then this also is certainly true: elves are not primarily concerned with us, nor we with them. Our fates are sundered, and our paths seldom meet. Even upon the borders of Faërie we encounter them only at some chance crossing of the ways.

The definition of a fairy-story—what it is, or what it should be—does not, then, depend on any definition or historical account of elf or fairy, but upon the nature of Faërie: the Perilous Realm itself, and the air that blows in that country. I will not attempt to define that, nor to describe it directly. It cannot be done. Faërie cannot be caught in a net of words; for it is one of its qualities to be indescribable, though not imperceptible. It has many ingredients, but analysis will not necessarily discover the secret of the whole. Yet I hope that what I have later to say about the other questions will give some glimpses of my own imperfect vision of it. For the moment I will say only this: a “fairy-story” is one which touches on or uses Faerie, whatever its own main purpose may be: satire, adventure, morality, fantasy. Faerie itself may perhaps most nearly be translated by Magic—but it is magic of a peculiar mood and power, at the furthest pole from the vulgar devices of the laborious, scientific, magician. There is one proviso: if there is any satire present in the tale, one thing must not be made fun of, the magic itself. That must in that story be taken seriously, neither laughed at nor explained away. Of this seriousness the medieval Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is an admirable example.

But even if we apply only these vague and ill-defined limits, it becomes plain that many, even the learned in such matters, have used the term “fairy-tale” very carelessly. A glance at those books of recent times that claim to be collections of “fairy-stories” is enough to show that tales about fairies, about the fair family in any of its houses, or even about dwarfs and goblins, are only a small part of their content. That, as we have seen, was to be expected. But these books also contain many tales that do not use, do not even touch upon, Faerie at all; that have in fact no business to be included.

~ J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories”

9 thoughts on “Fairy Stories are very rarely about fairies

  1. An excellent review of a wonderful essay! Thank you. You should also read George MacDonald’s essay “The Fantastic Imagination”. Macdonald’s theory of fairy tales influenced both Tolkien and Lewis.

    1. Thanks for the recommendation! I just found the essay online, and will read it soon. I’m an admirer of MacDonald, because of the way Lewis talked about him. I’ve only read Phantastes and Little Daylight, though. Hoping to read (and review here!) more of his works in the future.

  2. Haha. I clicked on this post, saw it was a Tolkien essay, and immediately grabbed Of This and Other Worlds by C.S. Lewis, flipped to his essay, “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to Be Said” – and found that Lewis had referenced the very essay above. You really can’t have one without the other when it comes to these two.

    Anyway, I was looking for a particular quote on the “childishness” of fairy stories:
    “I never wrote down to anyone; and whether the opinion condemns or acquits my own work, it certainly is my opinion that a book worth reading only in childhood is not worth reading even then.”

    1. That’s one essay of Lewis’ I haven’t read! I suppose I shall have to. One of my favorites is his “On Three Ways of Writing for Children,” in which he also references “On Fairy Stories.” I think I know what my next feature will be…

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