We all know J.R.R. Tolkien wrote fantasy fiction. He was the brilliant mind behind The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, a creator of intricate and enthralling new worlds, and one of the founding fathers of the genre. You can rarely talk about fantasy fiction without mentioning Tolkien… but I think his skill in writing fantasy was not the only thing that made him the legend he is today.
People often forget that Tolkien was also a linguist and a poet and a university professor. He invented new languages. He wrote literary essays, many of which discuss his work. He was a friend of fellow fantasy author C.S. Lewis, and the two were members of the same informal literary discussion group.
Tolkien was not only writing amazing fantasy novels, he was also reflecting on his own work and on the fantasy genre itself. One of Tolkien’s famous essays is called On Fairy Stories (Tolkien called “fairy stories” what we would today call “fantasy”) – a speech he wrote and then later published.
I read On Fairy Stories several years ago for an essay I was writing, and recently revisited it to answer a related question on Quora. When I did, I was once again astounded by the eloquence and intelligence of this man. It struck me that in its fledging years, as the fantasy genre was growing in popularity, it couldn’t have had a better champion. He was not just someone writing brilliant fantasy, but also someone analysing it, promoting it, and defending it against critics who dismissed it as useless or escapist or literature fit only for children.
There were other people that wrote fantasy fiction before Tolkien (though they didn’t, in my opinion, do it as well), but his novels created a surge in the popularity and awareness of the genre. This is undoubtedly because of the enchanting stories and characters of Middle-Earth that he brought into existence, but I think his efforts to describe and promote fantasy also helped it in its journey to becoming the force it is today.
So, in celebration of this, I wanted to share a few of my favourite quotes from Tolkien’s essay. Even though he wrote it 75 years ago, many of his words still ring true, and are inspiring to people reading and writing fantasy today.
On fairy stories (aka fantasy) in general:
“I propose to speak about fairy-stories, though I am aware that this is a rash adventure. Faërie is a perilous land, and in it are pitfalls for the unwary and dungeons for the overbold.”
“The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords.”
“The mind that thought of light, heavy, grey, yellow, still, swift, also conceived of magic that would make heavy things light and be able to fly, turn grey lead into yellow gold, and the still rock into a swift water.”
“Such stories [fairy tales] […] 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.”
On the desires fairy stories satisfy:
“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 […] to hold communion with other living things.”
On escapist literature, and why it is not something to scorn:
“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? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it. In using escape in this way the critics have chosen the wrong word, and, what is more, they are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter.”
On stories needing to be understood as whole things, not as an assemblage of components to be picked apart and examined separately:
“It is precisely the colouring, the atmosphere, the unclassifiable individual details of the story, and above all the general purport that informs with life the undissected bones of the plot, that really count.”
On fantasy not being primarily or specifically for children:
“Actually, 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.”
“Among those who still have enough wisdom not to think fairy-stories pernicious, the common opinion seems to be that there is a natural connexion between the minds of children and fairy-stories, of the same order as the connexion between children’s bodies and milk. 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.”
“[…] in fact only some children, and some adults, have any special taste for them [fairy-stories]; as when they have it, it is not exclusive, not even necessarily dominant.”
And finally, here is my favourite quote from On Fairy Stories, which is actually a poem Tolkien wrote in a letter to a man that described fairy stories and myths as “lies” and their creation as “breathing lies through silver” (when he uses the word ‘sub creator’ he is talking about the fantasy author that creates an Otherworld, a new reality that is then brought to life in the minds of readers):
“Dear Sir,” I said—Although now long estranged,
Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
Dis-graced he may be, yet is not de-throned,
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned:
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.
Though all the crannies of the world we filled
with Elves and Goblins, though we dared to build
Gods and their houses out of dark and light,
and sowed the seed of dragons—’twas our right
(used or misused). That right has not decayed:
we make still by the law in which we’re made.”
If you’d like some more Tolkien quotes (from both his fiction and his essays), Goodreads has oodles of them, and if you’re curious about Tolkien’s assertions in On Fairy Stories you can read my summary on Quora… or have a look at the original essay itself. As for the personal experiences and beliefs of the man himself and how they shaped his writing, this article on Mythic Scribes offers a nice summary.