On Tolkien and Fairy Stories

by Terri Windling

Mirror of Galadriel, Alan Lee

"The Mirror of Galadriel" by Alan Lee, ©1991


"I propose to speak about fairy–stories," begins a famous essay by J. R. R. Tolkien; and I can do no better than to echo the good professor's words today. I propose to speak about fairy–stories, and why these stories mattered to Tolkien. And why such stories, including Tolkien's own fairy–stories, have mattered to me.

In 1938, Professor Tolkien was still best known as an Oxford language scholar. His children's tale, The Hobbit, had only just been published the year before, and he'd barely begun the long years of work on his adult epic, The Lord of the Rings. That year, Tolkien composed his essay "On Fairy–stories" as an Andrew Lang Lecture, delivered at the University of St. Andrews (subsequently published in 1947). 1 In this essay, Tolkien made a learned attempt to define the nature of fairy tales, examine theories of their origin, and refute the notion that magical stories are the special province of children. Essentially, he was arguing the case for his own future masterwork, restoring magical fiction to its place in the adult literary tradition.

As Tolkien points out, "the association of children and fairy stories is an accident of our domestic history. Fairy–stories have in the modern lettered world been relegated to the 'nursery', as shabby or old–fashioned furniture is relegated to the play–room, primarily because the adults do not want it, and do not mind if it is misused." Fairy–stories, he reminds us, are not necessarily stories about fairies, but "stories about Fairy, that is Faerie, the realm or state in which fairies have their being. Faerie contains many things besides elves and fays, and besides dwarfs, witches, trolls, giants, or dragons: it holds the sea, 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." He likens fairy–stories to a pot of soup into which mythology, romance, history, hagiography, folk tales, and literary creations have all been tossed together and left to simmer through the centuries. Each storyteller dips into this soup when writing or recounting magical tales — the best of which have slipped right back into the collective pot. Shakespeare added to the soup with The Tempest and A Midsummer Night's Dream, as did Chaucer, Mallory, Spenser, Pope, Milton, Blake, Keats, Yeats, and numerous other writers whose works were never intended for children.

It was only in the nineteenth century that magical literature and art was pushed into the nursery — ironically, at a time when adult interest in them could not have been higher. Prior to this, ancient epics and myths held a central place in the literary arts, while their country cousins, folk and fairy tales, were told to young and old alike. When fairy tales moved from the oral to the literary tradition, they did so as adult stories. In the west, the earliest published tales we know come from sixteenth–century Italy: Giovan Francesco Straparola's The Pleasant Nights and Giambattista Basile's The Pentamerone. Both volumes were sophisticated works published for educated adults; the stories they contained were sensual, violent, and complex. In the older versions of Sleeping Beauty, for instance, the princess is wakened not by a chaste kiss, but by the twins she gives birth to after the prince has come, fornicated with her sleeping body, and left again. In older versions of Snow White, a passing prince claims the girl's dead body and locks himself away with it; his mother, complaining of the dead girl's smell, is greatly relieved when the maiden returns to life. Cinderella doesn't sit weeping in the cinders while talking bluebirds flutter around her; she is a clever, angry, feisty girl who seeks her own salvation. In the seventeenth century, fairy tales were taken up by the avante garde in France, particularly women authors barred from the French Academy. Parisian writers dressed up old peasant folk tales in fashionable silks and jewels, using fairy tales as sly critiques of aristocratic life. (So popular was this art form that when the French stories were finally collected, they filled up forty–one volumes of a work called Les Cabinet de fées.) In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the German Romantics (Goethe, Tieck, Novalis, de la Motte Fouqué, etc.) created works with mystical themes inspired by myths and fairy tales, while their countrymen, the Brothers Grimm, prepared their famous, influential volume, German Popular Stories. Works by the German Romantics were highly popular in nineteenth century England, and the first English translation of the Grimms collection (in 1823) flamed the fire of Victorian interest in all things magical and fey.

Victorian England was inundated with fairies. They danced upon the ballet stage, pranced through elaborate theatrical productions, trooped through enormous paintings hung in Royal Academy exhibitions. The overwhelming public interest in fairies was largely a product of the Industrial Revolution and the social upheavals engendered by this new economy. As vast tracts of English countryside disappeared forever under mortar and brick, fairies took on a glow of nostalgia for a vanishing way of life. Just as interest in fairy lore reached its peak, a peculiar thing happened: fairy–stories began to find themselves moved from the parlor to the children's rooms. There were two primary reasons for the sudden explosion of fairy books aimed at children. First, the Victorians romanticized the very idea of "childhood" to a degree that had not been known before — earlier, it had not been viewed as something quite so separate and distinct from adult life. (Our modern notion of childhood as a special time for play and exploration is rooted in these Victorian ideals, although in the nineteenth century this held true only for the upper classes. Working class children still labored long hours in the fields and factories, as Charles Dickens portrayed in his fiction — and experienced as a child himself.) The second reason was the growth of a new middle class that was both literate and wealthy. There was money to be made by exploiting the Victorian love affair with childhood; publishers had found a market and they needed product with which to fill it. Cheap story material was available to them by plundering the fairy tales of other lands, simplifying them for young readers, then further editing the stories to conform to the rigid standards of the day — turning heroines into passive, modest, dutiful Victorian girls, and heroes into clean–cut fellows rewarded for their Christian virtues.

In his Andrew Lang Lecture (named for one of these very Victorian editors, although certainly not the worst of them), Tolkien decried this bowdlerization of the older fairy–story tradition. "Fairy–stories banished in this way, cut off from a full adult–art, would in the end be ruined; indeed, in so far as they have been so banished, they have been ruined." Tolkien would have been discouraged indeed had he known that worse was still to come, for Walt Disney would do more damage to the tales than all Victorian editors put together. Just the year before, Disney had released Snow White, his first feature–length cartoon — making sweeping changes to this story of a mother and daughter's poisonous relationship. Disney expanded the role of the prince, making the square–jawed fellow pivotal to the plot; he turned the dwarfs into comically adorable (and thoroughly sexless) creatures. In this singing, dancing, whistling version, only the queen retains some of her old power. She is a genuinely frightening figure, and far more compelling than Disney's simpering Snow White — who is introduced in Cinderella–style rags, down–trodden but plucky. This gives Disney's rendition of the tale its peculiarly American flavor, implying that what we are watching is a Horatio Alger–type "rags to riches" story. (In fact, it's a story of "riches to rags to riches," in which privilege is lost and then restored.) Although the film was a commercial triumph, and has been beloved by generations of children, critics through the years have protested the broad changes the Walt Disney Studios made, and continues to make, when retelling fairy tales. Walt himself responded, "It's just that people now don't want fairy stories the way they were written. They were too rough. In the end they'll probably remember the story the way we film it anyway. " Regrettably, time has proved him right. Through films, books, toys, and merchandise recognized all around the world, Disney, not Tolkien, is the name most associated with fairy–stories today.

Disney and the imitative books he spawned bear a large part of the responsibility for our modern ideas about fairy tales and their fitness only for small children. And not all children at that, Tolkien argues persuasively in "On Fairy–stories." Children, he says, cannot be considered a single class of human being with tastes all formed alike. Some children, like some adults, are born with a natural appetite for marvels, while other children, even those raised side by side, simply are not. Those of us born with this appetite usually find that it doesn't diminish with age, unless society teaches us to repress or sublimate it. Tolkien, of course, was the kind of child who hungered for marvels and magical adventures. "I desired dragons with a profound desire," he tells us eloquently. And yet, he notes, "a liking for fairy–stories was not a dominant characteristic of [my] early taste. A real taste for them woke after 'nursery' days, and after the years, few but long seeming, between learning to read and going to school. In that (I nearly wrote 'happy' or 'golden', it was really a sad and troublesome) time I liked many other things as well, or better: such as history, astronomy, botany, grammar, and etymology. A real taste for fairy stories was wakened by philology on the threshold of manhood and quickened to full life by the war."

I desired dragons with a profound desire. Most Tolkien readers, I suspect, have felt that very same sentiment. I certainly did, and yet I, too, desired many other things as well; and music, not books, played a far more dominant role in my early years. A stronger interest in fairy–stories wakened, like Tolkien's, on the threshold of adulthood — and was, like his, "quickened to life by war," of a peculiar sort. Before I leave the good green hills of Tolkien's England for my own America, I'd like to take a moment to look at war in relation to fairy–stories. Tolkien himself does not dwell on this subject in the text of his Andrew Lang Lecture, and yet (as Tolkien scholars have argued) his experience of a world at war, of evil that threatened the land he loved, informs every single page of Frodo's journey through Middle Earth. It is this, along with the elegant framework of myth and philology on which the tale rests, that lifts The Lord of the Rings from entertainment into literature.

Another great fantasist, Alan Garner 2, has written about his own experience as a child in England during World War II, and how such experience can effect the writing of magical fiction. "My wife," Garner notes, "claims to find, in recent children's literature, little that qualifies as literature. She asked herself why this should be, after a Golden Age that ran from the late Fifties to the late Sixties. And she found that generally writers of this Golden Age were children during the Second World War: a war raged against civilians. The atmosphere these children and young people grew up in was one of a whole community and a whole nature united against pure evil, made manifest in the person of Hitler. Parents were seen to be afraid. Death was a constant possibility . . . . Therefore, daily life was lived on a mythic plane: of absolute Good against absolute Evil; of the need to endure, to survive whatever had to be overcome, to be tempered in whatever furnace was required . . . . Those children who were born writers, and would be adolescent when the full horrors [of the concentration camps] became known, would not be able to avoid concerning themselves with the issues; and so their books, however clad, were written on profound themes, and were literature. The generation that has followed is not so fueled, and its writing is, by comparison, effete and trivial." 3

While I agree with Garner that the "tempering furnace" of war has resulted in fine works of fantasy, I'd like to suggest that mythic themes can be found in other areas of life — including the domestic sphere that was once the primary province of women. Let's take a look at the field of magical fiction published during the twentieth century — a field that, thanks to Tolkien, expanded rapidly from the sixties onward. It is possible to divide these books into two related but different kinds of tales: those rooted in the grand themes, symbols, and language of myth, epic, and romance, and those rooted in the humbler stuff of folklore and fairy tales. The first category includes tales epic in scope, full of sweeping heroic adventures and battles on which the fate of worlds, or at least kingdoms, depend. The latter category includes much smaller tales, more intimate in nature — stories of individual rites of passage and personal transformation. 4  Historically, epic literature was composed by men of the privileged classes, and preserved by highly educated bards, monks, scholars, and editors. The oral folk tale tradition, on the other hand, was a peasant tradition, and a largely female one. Even its male literary proponents (Basile, Straparola, Perrault, and the Grimms) acknowledged that the bulk of their source material came from women storytellers. What interests me here is that Tolkien's clear preference for the first category was "quickened" by his experience of war in its most epic form: the great horrors of World War II; while my own preference for the second category grew out of a different kind of war — an intimate war, a tempering furnace confined to the home front.

In the sixties, as Tolkien's hobbit and elves set sail across the wide Atlantic, I was a child growing up in an American working class family. My stepfather was a truck driver, often unemployed, usually drunk; my mother held the family together working two, or three, or even four jobs at once, all of them underpaid, demoralizing, and exhausting. Our small household was not unique, for this was the industrial Northeast where the steel works and the factories that had sustained the previous generations were now all closing down, one after another, and moving south. Another thing that was not unique was the daily violence in our home — violence that broke bones, left scars, and sent us children to the hospital where jaded, overworked doctors (in those days before child abuse reporting laws) stitched and plastered and bandaged us up and sent us back home again. There was nothing remarkable in this. Neighborhood kids sported black eyes too; their fathers were also out of work. That these men were angry was something we all knew. That they were frightened is something I only later understood. My stepfather had nothing out in the world, but at home he could still rule as king, and the one measure of manhood that he had left lay in his fists. My brothers and I didn't need Hitler's bombs to understand how Sauron came to be; we didn't need the Third Reich to make us feel as helpless as hobbits.

It wasn't until I turned fourteen that I discovered Tolkien's books. I began The Fellowship of the Ring on the school bus sometime during that year, reading with pure amazement as Middle–earth opened up before me. Culture, back then, came largely from the radio and the television, where The Brady Bunch strained credulity far more than any fairy–story. But here, here, in this fantasy book I found reality, and truth — for ours was a childhood in which good and evil were not abstract concepts. Here, the mortal battle between the two had become a tangible thing. Darkness spread over Middle–earth, corrupting everything it touched, and yet our hero persevered with the aid of the greatest magics of all: the loyalty of his friends and the courage of a noble heart. I read Tolkien's great trilogy in one gulp and was profoundly changed . . . not, I have to add, because those books truly satisfied me. What they did was to reawaken my taste for magic, my old desire for dragons. But even then, in the years before I quite understood what feminism was, I saw that there was no place for me, a girl, on Frodo's quest. Tolkien woke a longing in me . . . and then it was to other books I turned — to Mervyn Peake, E. R. Eddison, Lord Dunsany, and William Morris, searching through those magical kingdoms for a country where I could live.

Some months after The Lord of the Rings, I discovered Tolkien's Leaf by Niggle, a volume containing the expanded text of his essay "On Fairy– Stories." How, now, can I possibly convey the elation this slender book gave me? To understand, perhaps I must set the scene a bit more clearly. Picture a girl, rather small, quite bruised, frail of health and preternaturally quiet. Nights, at that particular time, when going home was problematic, I often spent in a secret nest I'd made (unbeknownst to anyone except a sympathetic janitor) in a hidden corner of the prop room behind my school's auditorium stage. Terror and exhaustion have never been known as aids to education, and so it was with laborious effort that I made my way through Tolkien's prose, my critical facilities strained to their limit by this Oxford scholar. I didn't understand all of it, not then. But I knew, somehow, this essay was for me. "It was in fairy–stories," Tolkien said, "that I first divined the potency of the words, and the wonder of the things, such as stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine." Yes, yes, yes, I murmured, excited now, for I'd felt that too. And this: "I desired dragons with a profound desire. Of course, I in my timid body did not wish to have them in the neighborhood  . . . .But the world that contained even the imagination of Fáfnir was richer and more beautiful, at whatever the cost of peril." And especially this: " . . . it is one of the lessons of fairy–stories (if we can speak of the lessons of things that do not lecture) that on callow, lumpish, and selfish youth peril, sorrow, and the shadow of death can bestow dignity, and even sometimes wisdom."

The thing that I took away from this essay, imperfectly as I understood it then, was that fairy tales had once been so much more than Disney cartoons. So I went back to the fairy tale book that had been my favorite as a young child: The Golden Book of Fairy Tales, translated from the French by Marie Ponsot and exquisitely, deliciously illustrated by Adrienne Ségur. And here it was that I found at last the country that I could settle in, the water that would quench my thirst and the food that would quell the ache in my belly. For I had been very fortunate as a child — this was no bowdlerized collection. These tales, largely taken from the Russian and French, had been shortened for young readers but not simplified. Tolkien himself had never enjoyed the French tales of D'Aulnoy and Perrault, but I found in their rococo imagery exactly what I'd been looking for: intimate stories that spoke, in a coded language, of personal transformation. These were tales of children abandoned in woods; of daughters poisoned by their mothers' hands; of sons forced to betray their siblings; of men and women struck down by wolves or imprisoned in windowless towers. I read of the girl who dared not speak if she wanted to save her swan–brothers from harm; I read, heart pounding, of Donkeyskin, whose own father desired to bed her. The tales that affected me the most were variations on one archetypal theme: a young person beset by grave difficulties sets off, alone, through the deep, dark woods, armed only with quick wits, clear site, persistence, courage, and compassion. It is by these virtues we identify the heroes; it is with these tools that they make their way. Without these tools, no magic can save them. They are at the mercy of the wolf and wicked witch.

A year later, my own life reached the inevitable crisis of a classic fairy tale. I asked for a dress the color of the moon, the color of the sun, the color of the sky, but nothing I did kept evil at bay, and so I fled. Living on the streets of a distant city, my possessions fit into one small sack: two pairs of jeans; two flannel shirts; a bundle of letters from my first, lost love; a travel–stained sleeping bag; and The Golden Book of Fairy Tales. Like Frodo Baggins, I discovered I had the gift of making true friendships; and like the heroes of fairy tales, as I traveled through the deep, dark woods I learned that no kindness, however small, goes unrewarded. I learned to distinguish friend from foe, and met helpers along the road: animal guides and fairies cloaked in the most unlikely disguises.

A year later, by magic as powerful as any enchanted ring, I found myself in the safe harbor of a small midwestern college. It was here that I discovered the legacy J. R. R. Tolkien had left behind: a whole new publishing genre called fantasy, rooted in myth and magic. It was deeply important to me that some of these books were written by women authors: Ursula K. Le Guin, Patricia A. McKillip, Joy Chant, Susan Cooper, C. L. Moore, and many others, blazing trails into the lands where I longed to make my home. I studied literature, folklore, and women's studies, and satisfied my hunger with the scholarly works of Katherine Briggs, the fiction of Sylvia Townsend Warner and Angela Carter, the fairy tale poetry of Anne Sexton, the fairy tale art of Jessie M. King . . . all of which proved that Tolkien had been right: fairy–stories could rise to Art. And that even I, a working–class girl, could add to the soup of story.

College marked my emergence from the dark of the woods to a brighter place, the fertile lands where life could now be lived happily ever after. This does not mean, of course, a life entirely free of pain or challenges, but one that partakes of the qualities that Tolkien required in a fairy–story's ending, the consolation of joy and what he called "a miraculous grace." As fond as I am of this brighter land, there are times when I journey back into those woods, back into the dark, back once upon a time into the endless story. Now, however, I've a different part to play. I'm not the hero struggling through — I'm the one waiting by the side of the road, disguised, and ready to light the way for those who come behind me.

Wherever I stand waiting on that road, Tolkien has usually been there before. If I ever come face to face with him in that forest, I will shake his hand.



Endnotes

1 In Essays Presented to Charles Williams, Oxford University Press, 1947.
(continue reading)

2 Author of The Owl Service, Elidor, Red Shift, Strandloper, and other fine books.
(continue reading)

3 In his essay collection The Voice That Thunders, The Harvill Press, 1998. (continue reading)

4 Some authors write in both modes, of course. Tolkien himself adopted the fairy–tale voice in his shorter fiction. (continue reading)

About the Author:
Terri Windling is a writer, artist, and editor, and the founder of the Endicott Studio and the Journal of Mythic Arts. For more information, please visit her Endicott bio page for more information.

Copyright © 2001 by Terri Windling. This article appeared in Mediations on Middle–Earth, edited by Karen Haber (St. Martin’s Press, 2001). It may not be reproduced in any form without the author's express written permission. The art on this page is copyright by Alan Lee and appears here by permission of the artist. More of his work can be found in the Endicott Gallery.