Speculative writers are familiar with J. R. R. Tolkien’s long essay “On Fairy Stories” and with some frequency may even quote from it. I know I have. And yet I’ve never read it. But that is changing.
With little effort, I located a copy on line, available for free download, and I’ve begun to make my way through the twenty-seven pages discussing a fairly narrow segment of speculative fiction.
Tolkien is specific. Fairy stories are certain things and definitely not others.
First they are stories about Faerie, “the realm or state in which fairies have their being,” though this realm contains much more than elves or fairies, even more than “dwarfs, 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.”
Though Tolkien obviously has in mind what he believes constitutes a fairy story, he ultimately declines to define them:
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. . . I will say only this: a “fairy-story” is one which touches on or uses Faerie.
Instead, he elaborates on what fairy stories are not. They are not dream experiences such as The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland. They are not journey tales such as “The Voyage to Lilliput,” a rendering of an excerpt of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. They are not beast fables such as “Brer Rabbit” or “The Three Little Pigs.”
At one point, however, Tolkien hints at what he believes to be key to fairy stories: “the primal desire at the heart of Faerie [is] the realization, independent of the conceiving mind, of imagined wonder.”
I have to let that one sink in. The idea brings to mind Narnia, further up and further in, or Perelandra or Middle Earth itself. It’s beauty and awe made alive. It’s longing and hope and expectation and joy, all textured and in living color.
As to the origin of the stories themselves, Tolkien says they come from invention, inheritance, or “diffusion,” the latter two both being forms of borrowing. In the end, of course, the borrowed must of necessity spring from an original invention. But as Tolkien sees it, dissecting the origin isn’t critical. The stories themselves, even if taken from the identical original invention, will be distinct.
In Dasent’s words I would say: “We must be satisfied with the soup that is set before us, and not desire to see the bones of the ox out of which it has been boiled.” . . . By “the soup” I mean the story as it is served up by its author or teller, and by “the bones” its sources or material—even when (by rare luck) those can be with certainty discovered. But I do not, of course, forbid criticism of the soup as soup.
So what are your thoughts? Is Tolkien too narrow in his understanding of what constitutes a fairy story? Are myths better if they are invented instead of borrowed? Do you grow weary of stories that grow out of the most common myths such as King Arthur or the Biblical (and real) Nephilim? Do you think we readers spend too much time trying to look at the “bones” instead of contenting ourselves with the “soup”?