On Fairy Stories


  • Media: #Books #Books 2020 #wip
    • Author: [[!JRR Tolkien]]
    • Status: read
    • Date: 2020-08-08
    • Tags: #fantasy #fairytale #essay #nonfiction
    • Rating: ★★★★☆
    • Idea richness: ★★★★★
    • Links: [[!Storytelling books]]
WARNING: This note is currently under construction. Venture past this point at your own risk.


  • Tolkien excludes dream stories (ex: Alice in Wonderland) and beast fables.
  • Tolkien argues that one cannot group or categorise stories based on reoccuring elements or details. It is the atmosphere and the 'undissected bones' of the plot that make all the difference.
  • Fairy stories for children a continuation of us thinking we are smarter or better than our ancestors?
  • Not so much about the facts so much as their impact on us?
  • Tolkien thought stories should not be watered down or changed. Audience grow into story not other way around


  • ‘Nisomythos: a long answer to short nonsense’
  • "Most debates depend on an attempt (by one or both sides) at over-simplification;"
  • =="The Locked Door stands as an eternal Temptation."==
  • "...disbelief had not so much to be suspended as hung, drawn, and quartered."
  • "Chesterton truly remarked that, as soon as he heard that anything ‘had come to stay’, he knew that it would be very soon replaced"


What is Faerie?

  • "Faërie is a perilous land, and in it are pitfalls for the unwary and dungeons for the overbold."
  • "I have been hardly more than a wandering explorer (or trespasser) in the land, full of wonder but not of information."
  • "Most good ‘fairy-stories’ are about the adventures of men in the Perilous Realm or upon its shadowy marches."
  • "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."
  • =="Faërie itself may perhaps most nearly be translated by Magic"==
  • "==The magic of Faërie is not an end in itself, its virtue is in its operations==: among these are the satisfaction of certain primordial human desires. One of these desires is to survey the depths of space and time. Another is (as will be seen) to hold communion with other living things. A story may thus deal with the satisfaction of these desires, with or without the operation of either machine or magic, and in proportion as it succeeds it will approach the quality and have the flavour of fairy-story."
  • "It is at any rate essential to a genuine fairy-story, as distinct from the employment of this form for lesser or debased purposes, that it should be presented as ‘true’."

Fairy Tale Origins

  • =="To ask what is the origin of stories (however qualified) is to ask what is the origin of language and of the mind."==
  • "...It is plain enough that fairy-stories (in wider or in narrower sense) are very ancient indeed. Related things appear in very early records; and they are found universally, wherever there is language."
  • "...the debate between independent evolution (or rather invention) of the similar; inheritance from a common ancestry; and diffusion at various times from one or more centres." --> All three necessary in spread but also in story creation. At some point in each step there must have been invention.
  • "Diffusion (borrowing in space), whether of an artefact or a story, only refers the problem of origin elsewhere. ==At the centre of the supposed diffusion there is a place where once an inventor lived. Similarly with inheritance (borrowing in time): in this way we arrive at last only at an ancestral inventor.=="

Fairy Tale Concepts

  • "...folklorists or anthropologists: that is of people using the stories not as they were meant to be used, but as a quarry from which to dig evidence, or information, about matters in which they are interested. A perfectly legitimate procedure in itself – but ignorance or forgetfulness of the nature of a story (as a thing told in its entirety) has often led such inquirers into strange judgements."
  • "It is precisely the colouring, the atmosphere, the unclassifiable individual details of a story, and above all the general purport that informs with life the undissected bones of the plot, that really count."
  • "...it is of merely secondary interest that the re-told versions of this story, in which the little girl is saved by wood-cutters, is directly derived from Perrault’s story in which she was eaten by the wolf. ==The really important thing is that the later version has a happy ending [...], and that Perrault’s version had not. And that is a very profound difference, to which I shall return.=="
  • =="Therein lies the inherent weakness of the analytic (or ‘scientific’) method: it finds out much about things that occur in stories, but little or nothing about their effect in any given story."==

Creating Faerie

  • "An essential power of Faërie is thus the power of making immediately effective by the will the visions of ‘fantasy’."
  • =="When we can take green from grass, blue from heaven, and red from blood, we have already an enchanter’s power – upon one plane; and the desire to wield that power in the world external to our minds awakes."==
  • "But in such ‘fantasy’, as it is called, new form is made; Faërie begins; Man becomes a sub-creator."

Myth & Legend

  • =="The nearer the so-called ‘nature-myth’, or allegory of the large processes of nature, is to its supposed archetype, the less interesting it is, and indeed the less is it of a myth capable of throwing any illumination whatever on the world."==
  • "Which came first, nature-allegories about personalized thunder in the mountains, splitting rocks and trees; or stories about an irascible, not very clever, red-beard farmer, of a strength beyond common measure, a person (in all but mere stature) very like the Northern farmers, the bœndr by whom Thórr was chiefly beloved?"
  • "But there would always be a ‘fairy-tale’ as long as there was any Thórr. When the fairy-tale ceased, there would be just thunder, which no human ear had yet heard."
  • "Andrew Lang said, and is by some still commended for saying, that mythology and religion (in the strict sense of that word) are two distinct things that have become inextricably entangled, though mythology is in itself almost devoid of religious significance."
  • "Even fairy-stories as a whole have three faces: the Mystical towards the Supernatural; the Magical towards Nature; and the Mirror of scorn and pity towards Man."
  • "Yet these things [myth & religion] have in fact become entangled – or maybe they were sundered long ago and have since groped slowly, through a labyrinth of error, through confusion, back towards re-fusion."

Time & Significance

  • "...the Cauldron of Story, has always been boiling, and to it have continually been added new bits, dainty and undainty."
  • "No one, I fancy, would discredit a story that the Archbishop of Canterbury slipped on a banana skin merely because he found that a similar comic mishap had been reported of many people,"
  • "The historian would be likely to say that the banana-skin story ‘became attached to the Archbishop’, as he does say on fair evidence that ‘the Goosegirl Märchen became attached to Bertha’. That way of putting it is harmless enough, in what is commonly known as ‘history’. But is it really a good description of what is going on and has gone on in the history of story-making? I do not think so. I think it would be nearer the truth to say that the Archbishop bcame attached to the banana skin,"
  • "It seems fairly plain that Arthur, once historical (but perhaps as such not of great importance), was also put into the Pot. There he was boiled for a long time, together with many other older figures and devices, of mythology and Faërie, and even some other stray bones of history (such as Alfred’s defence against the Danes), until he emerged as a King of Faërie."
  • =="History often resembles ‘Myth’, because they are both ultimately of the same stuff."==

The Power of Story

  • =="Small wonder that spell means both a story told, and a formula of power over living men."==
  • "...they open a door on Other Time, and if we pass through, though only for a moment, we stand outside our own time, outside Time itself, maybe."
  • "If we pause, not merely to note that such old elements have been preserved, but to think how they have been preserved, we must conclude, I think, that it has happened, often if not always, precisely because of this literary effect."
  • "The things that are there must often have been retained (or inserted) because the oral narrators, instinctively or consciously, felt their literary ‘significance’"

Fairy Tales are for All

  • "Reads them as tales, that is, not studies them as curios. Adults are allowed to collect and study anything, even old theatre-programmes or paper bags."
  • Is there any essential connection between children and fairy-stories?
  • "Children as a class – except in a common lack of experience they are not one – neither like fairy-stories more, nor understand them better than adults do;"
  • "It is a taste, too, that would not appear, I think, very early in childhood without artificial stimulus; it is certainly one that does not decrease but increases with age, if it is innate."
  • "...the nursery and schoolroom are merely given such tastes and glimpses of the adult thing as seem fit for them in adult opinion (often much mistaken)."
  • =="...the association of children and fairy-stories is an accident of our domestic history."==
  • "I think this is an error; at best an error of false sentiment, and one that is therefore most often made by those who, for whatever private reason (such as childlessness), tend to think of children as a special kind of creature, almost a different race, rather than as normal, if immature, members of a particular family, and of the human family at large."

Second World, not Suspension of Disbelief

  • "That state of mind has been called ‘willing suspension of disbelief’. But this does not seem to me a good description of what happens. What really happens is that the story-maker proves a successful ‘sub-creator’. ==He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is ‘true’: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside.=="
  • "A real enthusiast for cricket is in the enchanted state: Secondary Belief."
  • "...if they really liked it, for itself, they would not have to suspend disbelief: they would believe – in this sense."
  • "At least it will be plain that in my opinion fairy-stories should not be specially associated with children. They are associated with them: naturally, because children are human and ==fairy-stories are a natural human taste== (though not necessarily a universal one); accidentally, because fairy-stories are a large part of the literary lumber that in latter-day Europe has been stuffed away in attics; unnaturally, because of erroneous sentiment about children, a sentiment that seems to increase with the decline in children."
  • "If fairy-story as a kind is worth reading at all it is worthy to be written for and read by adults."

The Concerns of Fairy Story

  • "Far more often they have asked me: ‘Was he good? Was he wicked?’ ==That is, they were more concerned to get the Right side and the Wrong side clear. For that is a question equally important in History and in Faërie.=="
  • "Our fairy-stories, however old certain elements in them may be, are certainly not the same as theirs. Yet if it is assumed that we have fairy-stories because they did, then probably we have history, geography, poetry, and arithmetic because they liked these things too,"
  • "Fairy-stories were plainly not primarily concerned with possibility, but with desirability."
  • "Red Indians were better: there were bows and arrows (I had and have a wholly unsatisfied desire to shoot well with a bow), and strange languages, and glimpses of an archaic mode of life, and, above all, forests in such stories." --> Explains Legolas XD
  • "This is, naturally, often enough what children mean when they ask: ‘Is it true?’ They mean: ‘I like this, but is it contemporary? Am I safe in my bed?’" --> Not so much about fact as its impact on us.

Are there child-like qualities to Faerie?

  • "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 Faërie 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 Faërie.=="
  • "‘For children’, he [Chesterton] says, ‘are innocent and love justice; while most of us are wicked and naturally prefer mercy.’"
  • "==The process of growing older is not necessarily allied to growing wickeder, though the two do often happen together.== Children are meant to grow up, and not to become Peter Pans. Not to lose innocence and wonder; but to proceed on the appointed journey:"
  • "Though it may be better for them to read some things, especially fairy-stories, that are beyond their measure rather than short of it. ==Their books like their clothes should allow for growth, and their books at any rate should encourage it==."

Fantasy requires belief

  • "Drama is naturally hostile to Fantasy." --> Mimicry (men dressed up as creatures) is not Fantasy. No belief is required
  • "Drama has, of its very nature, already attempted a kind of bogus, or shall I say at least substitute, magic: the visible and audible presentation of imaginary men in a story."
  • Not sure i agree. Each medium excels in different areas. To translate a literary fantasy is one thing, but could there not be an original drama? Or is this more about Fantasy in the purest sense, before it's translated too a medium?
  • "Drama is, even though it uses a similar material (words, verse, plot), an art fundamentally different from narrative art."

Escapism & Creation of Art

  • "Art, the operative link between Imagination and the final result, Sub-creation."
  • =="Fantasy, of course, starts out with an advantage: arresting strangeness. But that advantage has been turned against it, and has contributed to its disrepute."==
  • =="Fantasy is a rational not an irrational activity."==
  • "Man, Sub-creator, the refracted Light through whom is splintered from a single White to many hues, and endlessly combined in living shapes that move from mind to mind."
  • "...we make still by the law in which we’re made."
  • =="Fantasy is a natural human activity. It certainly does not destroy or even insult Reason; and it does not either blunt the appetite for, nor obscure the perception of, scientific verity. On the contrary. The keener and the clearer is the reason, the better fantasy will it make."==
  • "For creative Fantasy is founded upon the hard recognition that things are so in the world as it appears under the sun; ==on a recognition of fact, but not a slavery to it.=="
  • =="Fantasy remains a human right: we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker."==
  • "We do not, or need not, despair of drawing because all lines must be either curved or straight, nor of painting because there are only three ‘primary’ colours."
  • "I do not say ‘seeing things as they are’ and involve myself with the philosophers, though I might venture to say ‘seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them’ – as things apart from ourselves"
  • "Creative fantasy, because it is mainly trying to do something else (make something new), may open your hoard and let all the locked things fly away like cage-birds. The gems all turn into flowers or flames, and you will be warned that all you had (or knew) was dangerous and potent, not really effectively chained, free and wild; no more yours than they were you."

On Escapism

  • "...fairy-stories offer also, in a peculiar degree or mode, these things: Fantasy, Recovery, Escape, Consolation, all things of which children have, as a rule, less need than older people."
  • "Why should a man be scorned, if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?"
  • "...they are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter."
  • "In what the misusers of Escape are fond of calling Real Life, Escape is evidently as a rule very practical, and may even be heroic."
  • "Escapism has another and even wickeder face: Reaction."
  • "Why should we not escape from or condemn the ‘grim Assyrian’ absurdity of top-hats, or the Morlockian horror of factories?"
  • "Many stories out of the past have only become ‘escapist’ in their appeal through surviving from a time when men were as a rule delighted with the work of their hands into our time when many men feel disgust with man-made things."
  • "The human stories of the elves are doubtless full of the Escape from Deathlessness."
  • "A vivid sense of that separation is very ancient; but also a sense that it was a severance: a strange fate and a guilt lies on us. Other creatures are like other realms with which Man has broken off relations, and sees now only from the outside at a distance, being at war with them, or on the terms of an uneasy armistice." --> On man and nature
  • "And lastly there is the oldest and deepest desire, the Great Escape: the Escape from Death. Fairy-stories provide many examples and modes of this – which might be called the genuine escapist, or (I would say) fugitive spirit. But so do other stories (notably those of scientific inspiration), and so do other studies." --> AI & Technology a modern escapism attempt?

On Happy Endings

  • "It [a happy ending] does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief."
  • "Probably every writer making a secondary world, a fantasy, every sub-creator, wishes in some measure to be a real maker, or hopes that he is drawing on reality: hopes that the peculiar quality of this secondary world (if not all the details) are derived from Reality, or are flowing into it."
  • "The peculiar quality of the ‘joy’ in successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth."
  • "‘eucatastrophe’"
  • ==Christianity --> "This story begins and ends in joy"==
  • "==The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories.== They contain many marvels – peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: ‘mythical’ in their perfect, self-contained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe. ==But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfilment of Creation.=="
  • "Because this story is supreme; and it is true. ==Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men – and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused.=="

Fantasy & The Real World

  • =="Nature is no doubt a life-study, or a study for eternity (for those so gifted); but there is a part of man which is not ‘Nature’, and which therefore is not obliged to study it, and is, in fact, wholly unsatisfied by it."==
  • "The radical distinction between all art (including drama) that offers a visible presentation and true literature is that it imposes one visible form. ==Literature works from mind to mind and is thus more progenitive. It is at once more universal and more poignantly particular.=="
  • "If a story says ‘he climbed a hill and saw a river in the valley below’, the illustrator may catch, or nearly catch, his own vision of such a scene; but every hearer of the words will have his own picture, and it will be made out of all the hills and rivers and dales he has ever seen, but specially out of The Hill, The River, The Valley which were for him the first embodiment of the word."
  • =="Fantasy does not blur the sharp outlines of the real world; for it depends on them."==
  • "As far as our western, European, world is concerned, this ‘sense of separation’ [from nature] has in fact been attacked and weakened in modern times not by fantasy but by scientific theory."

Scrapbook Concepts

  • The palace of Oberon has walls of spider’s legs #fragments
  • Windows of the eyes of cats --> windows from eyes which change how you see outside #fragments #locations
  • Tree of Tales #locations
  • the tormented hills and the unharvested sea #locations
  • the Trees of the Sun and Moon #locations
  • "The human stories of the elves are doubtless full of the Escape from Deathlessness." #fragments #creatures
  • "...when the wedding was over, they sent me home with little paper shoes on a causeway of pieces of glass.’" #fragments
  • The Terrible Head #fragments #creatures