J.R.R. Tolkien believed in fairies. At least, he as though they were real in his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” first given as the Andrew Lang lecture at the University of St. Andrews in 1939, then published in 1947, after the horrors of World War II. You may not have heard of Andrew Lang, the Scottish writer, literary critic, and collector of fairy tales, but you’ve probably read his fairy-tale books of various colors, starting with The Blue Fairy Book, then going on to Red, Green, Yellow, and so on. Tolkien, not one to back away from an intellectual fight, took issue with Lang’s books, which included stories he did not consider fairy tales and which he thought continued an English tradition of diminishing the fair folk. For fairies, Tolkien insists right at the beginning of his essay, are not small, or not unless they want to appear so. Neither are they the benevolent nature spirits imagined by Victorian literature— he had no patience for dainty flower fairies. Imagine instead the Queen of Elfland meeting True Thomas by the Eildon Tree and binding him to her service for seven years—that was Tolkien’s idea of a fairy. Indeed, he did not particularly like the word “fairy,” which was too modern and probably too French; he preferred the good old English “elf.” At the time Tolkien gave his lecture, The Hobbit was already a success, and he was starting to work on what would become The Lord of the Rings. In this essay and in “Smith of Wootton Major,” published in 1967, he explored the nature of fairies and Faërie, “the realm in which fairies have their being.” Although many Tolkien fans have not read these shorter, quieter works, they show us what Tolkien believed about fairies and how real they were to him. They reveal the theories that shaped the glorious elves of Middle-earth.
“Smith of Wootton Major,” the last of Tolkien’s stories published during his lifetime, is the closest he came to writing a fairy tale. It’s about a village named Wootton Major, so-called “because it was larger than Wootton Minor, a few miles away deep in the trees.” This village has a Master Cook named Nokes, and Nokes has an apprentice named Alf, whom everyone simply calls Prentice. Every twenty-four years, the Master Cook bakes an enormous cake for the Festival of Good Children. One festival, Nokes puts a small metal star on the cake, laughing when Prentice warns him that it’s a fay-star, from Faery itself. The fay-star is swallowed by one of the children, who grows up to become the smith of the village. Like his father before him, he is called Smith. For a long time, he lives an ordinary life, although he has particularly beautiful eyes (the light of the fay-star shines out of them), and the things he makes have a grace and lightness not usually seen in smithwork. But eventually he finds his way into Faery, telling only his wife and children about his journeys. Tolkien writes that Smith “had business of its own kind in Faery, and he was welcome there; for the star shone on his brow, and he was as safe as a mortal can be in that perilous country.”
Faery itself is described as unimaginably, almost indescribably beautiful. On one journey, Smith comes to a “Sea of Windless Storms where the blue waves like snow-clad hills roll silently out of Unlight to the long strand, bearing the white ships that return from battles on the Dark Marches of which men know nothing.” On another, he sees “a great hill of shadow, and out of that shadow, which was its root, he saw the King’s Tree springing up, tower upon tower, into the sky, and its light was like the sun at noon; and it bore at once leaves and flowers and fruit uncounted.” One day he is brought before the Queen of Faery herself: “She stood there in her majesty and her glory, and all about her was a great host shimmering and glittering like the stars above; but she was taller than the points of their great spears, and upon her head there burned a white flame.” She greets Smith, addressing him as Starbrow, and sends him back to Wootton Major with a message: He must tell the King that it’s time to choose another child to bear the fay-star. On his way home, Smith meets Alf and realizes that the humble Prentice has been the King of Faery all along. Smith lives out the rest of his ordinary life; Nokes has one more uncomfortable confrontation with his former Prentice; and the fairy gift moves on to another, giving him greater insight than is usually given to mortal men.
What does this fairy tale have to do with “On Fairy-Stories”? By the time Tolkien gave his lecture, fairy tales had been consigned to the nursery. They were considered children’s stories that boys and girls would eventually grow out of as they took on the responsibilities of adulthood. They were certainly not the sort of literature that linguistics professors at Oxford were supposed to read—or write. But this state of affairs did not satisfy our particular linguistics professor. In his essay, Tolkien takes on all the Nokeses of the world, who cannot see the importance of either Faery or fairy-stories. He begins by contradicting the venerable Oxford English Dictionary, which tells us that fairy tales are “stories about fairies.” Tolkien says they are not about fairies but rather about Faërie itself,
“which contains many things besides elves and fays, and besides dwarves, witches, trolls, giants, or dragons: it holds the seas, the sun, the moon, the sky; and the earth, and
all things that are in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, mortal men, when we are enchanted.” Most fairy tales are concerned with the adventures of mortal men and women in Faërie—or, of course, their misadventures, because as Smith realized, Faërie is a perilous realm. There you may find yourself marrying a bear, or climbing a glass hill in iron shoes, or sailing to the ends of the earth to fetch a golden apple from a tree guarded by dragons. You may have to clean Baba Yaga’s hut or answer riddles posed by a ferryman named Death. It’s a long way from “once upon a time” to “happily ever after.”
Who, then, are fairy tales for? According to Tolkien, like Faërie itself, they are not necessarily for children. After all, Smith could only truly experience the fairy realm and meet its Queen once he was an adult. Tolkien specifies that he himself was not particularly drawn to fairy tales as a child. He liked them about as well as he liked stories concerning foreign lands and strange languages and adventures of all sorts. But he preferred Arthur and the knights of the Round Table or tales of the Norse gods. Only as an adult did he come to appreciate the gifts fairy tales can give us. Tolkien calls these gifts “Fantasy, Recovery, Escape, Consolation, all things of which children have, as a rule, less need than older people.” It is adults who can truly benefit from these fairy gifts and the glimpse of Faërie they provide.
The easiest of these to understand is Escape: Which of us has not escaped from the problems of ordinary life into the pages of a book, where we can run away from home dressed in catskins or speak with dragons on an island of Earthsea? Tolkien defends fantasy specifically against the charge of escapism, arguing that we have a right to escape, particularly if our modern lives have grown ugly or dull: “Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home?” This language must have particularly resonated in 1947, when it would have conjured up images of wartime prison camps. An escapee, Tolkien asserts, is not a deserter—escape is our right and may even be our obligation. For Tolkien, there is a sense in which Faërie is our true home, or a version of it. We belong there as much as we belong in the Woottons, Major or Minor. Once we have escaped into the world of a book, we can return to our ordinary lives refreshed, restored: That is Recovery. Getting away for a while to the fantastical can teach us to see the ordinary in a new light. Meeting Pegasus can help us see the nobility of the horse; encountering Ents can teach us something important about trees. Recovery is a regaining of clear sight. And it can be more: It can lead us to create beautiful things, like Smith’s fairy-influenced smithwork, or even to change whatever it is we find dull or ugly about our lives. It can lead us to rebel against or attempt to reform the societies we live in. Recovery can lead to revolution.
Consolation is the possibility of a happy ending, and it is so important to Tolkien that he creates a new word for it: eucatastrophe, the fortunate turn. This is when everything that has gone wrong suddenly begins to go right. The lassie who has followed her bear husband to the ends of the earth finds him, and he recognizes her, and they escape from the troll princess who would have been his bride. The trolls are so angry that they explode, like fireworks. Fairy tales console us for all the happy endings we did not have and promise that “happily ever after” is out there, if we’re brave enough to find it. We may just have to climb a couple of glass hills first.
What, then, is Fantasy? It’s what creates and sustains the story itself, the art that makes Faërie accessible to us mortals. Through a kind of fairy craft, the storyteller weaves a spell, creating a world for us to live in, a journey for us to go on—perhaps with a reluctant hobbit and a company of quarrelsome dwarves. According to Tolkien, creating a fantastical world that feels real is even more difficult than describing the real one we live in. Fantasy, to him, is a higher and more difficult art than realism.
Indeed, he likens it to the art of the elves—to enchantment. Of course, we have the proof of his theories in his own work. Tolkien has enchanted millions of readers with a world so real that we can map it, learn its languages, care deeply about its inhabitants and their destinies. We can dread what Frodo must do and gaze in wonder at Galadriel in the forest of Lothlórien.
In “Smith of Wootton Major,” only Smith gets a fay-star, but in “On Fairy-Stories,” Tolkien implies that we can all have one. We just have to accept the fairy gift. We can’t be like Nokes, who refuses to believe in magic even when the King of Faery stands before him, a more fearsome and splendid version of Alf Prentice. We have to pick up the book, enter its spell, believe in the magical landscape that spreads before us, with its perilous seas, and mountains that reach the sky, and trees that flower and fruit on the same branches. We have to join the elven maidens in their intricate dance. All those things can be ours, as long as we’re willing to be enchanted. Tolkien himself is our King of Faery, with the fay-star in his hand, saying, Come, eat a slice of cake, let the light shine from your eyes. Come see your true home.