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 toecho the good professor’s words today. I propose to speak about fairy–stories, and why these stories mattered to Tolkien. And why such stories, includingTolkien’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, hadonly 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, Tolkiencomposed 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 theoriesof their origin, and refute the notion that magical stories are the special province of children. Essentially, he was arguing the case for his own futuremasterwork, restoring magical fiction to its place in the adult literary tradition.

As Tolkien points out, "the associationof children and fairy stories is an accident of our domestic history. Fairy–storieshave in the modern lettered world been relegated to the ‘nursery’, as shabbyor old–fashioned furniture is relegated to the play–room, primarily becausethe 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 "storiesabout Fairy, that is Faerie, the realm or state in which fairies have theirbeing. 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, waterand 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 tossedtogether and left to simmer through the centuries. Each storyteller dipsinto this soup when writing or recounting magical tales — the best of whichhave slipped right back into the collective pot. Shakespeare added to thesoup with The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as did Chaucer, Mallory,Spenser, Pope, Milton, Blake, Keats, Yeats, and numerous other writers whoseworks were never intended for children.

It was only in the nineteenth century thatmagical literature and art was pushed into the nursery — ironically, ata time when adult interest in them could not have been higher. Prior tothis, ancient epics and myths held a central place in the literary arts,while their country cousins, folk and fairy tales, were told to young andold alike. When fairy tales moved from the oral to the literary tradition,they did so as adult stories. In the west, the earliest published taleswe know come from sixteenth–century Italy: Giovan Francesco Straparola’sThe Pleasant Nights and Giambattista Basile’s The Pentamerone. Both volumeswere sophisticated works published for educated adults; the stories theycontained were sensual, violent, and complex. In the older versions of SleepingBeauty, for instance, the princess is wakened not by a chaste kiss, butby the twins she gives birth to after the prince has come, fornicated withher sleeping body, and left again. In older versions of Snow White, a passingprince 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 maidenreturns to life. Cinderella doesn’t sit weeping in the cinders while talkingbluebirds flutter around her; she is a clever, angry, feisty girl who seeksher own salvation. In the seventeenth century, fairy tales were taken upby the avante garde in France, particularly women authors barred from theFrench Academy. Parisian writers dressed up old peasant folk tales in fashionablesilks and jewels, using fairy tales as sly critiques of aristocratic life.(So popular was this art form that when the French stories were finallycollected, they filled up forty–one volumes of a work called Les Cabinetde fées.) In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the GermanRomantics (Goethe, Tieck, Novalis, de la Motte Fouquй, etc.) created workswith mystical themes inspired by myths and fairy tales, while their countrymen,the Brothers Grimm, prepared their famous, influential volume, German PopularStories. Works by the German Romantics were highly popular in nineteenthcentury England, and the first English translation of the Grimms collection(in 1823) flamed the fire of Victorian interest in all things magical andfey.

Victorian England was inundated with fairies.They danced upon the ballet stage, pranced through elaborate theatricalproductions, trooped through enormous paintings hung in Royal Academy exhibitions.The overwhelming public interest in fairies was largely a product of theIndustrial Revolution and the social upheavals engendered by this new economy.As vast tracts of English countryside disappeared forever under mortar andbrick, 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’srooms. There were two primary reasons for the sudden explosion of fairybooks aimed at children. First, the Victorians romanticized the very ideaof "childhood" to a degree that had not been known before — earlier,it had not been viewed as something quite so separate and distinct fromadult life. (Our modern notion of childhood as a special time for play andexploration is rooted in these Victorian ideals, although in the nineteenthcentury this held true only for the upper classes. Working class childrenstill labored long hours in the fields and factories, as Charles Dickensportrayed in his fiction — and experienced as a child himself.) The secondreason 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 withchildhood; publishers had found a market and they needed product with whichto fill it. Cheap story material was available to them by plundering thefairy tales of other lands, simplifying them for young readers, then furtherediting the stories to conform to the rigid standards of the day — turningheroines into passive, modest, dutiful Victorian girls, and heroes intoclean–cut fellows rewarded for their Christian virtues.

In his Andrew Lang Lecture (named for oneof 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 indeedhad he known that worse was still to come, for Walt Disney would do moredamage to the tales than all Victorian editors put together. Just the yearbefore, Disney had released Snow White, his first feature–length cartoon— making sweeping changes to this story of a mother and daughter’s poisonousrelationship. Disney expanded the role of the prince, making the square–jawedfellow pivotal to the plot; he turned the dwarfs into comically adorable(and thoroughly sexless) creatures. In this singing, dancing, whistlingversion, only the queen retains some of her old power. She is a genuinelyfrightening figure, and far more compelling than Disney’s simpering SnowWhite — 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 toriches" 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 commercialtriumph, and has been beloved by generations of children, critics throughthe 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 werewritten. They were too rough. In the end they’ll probably remember the storythe 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 spawnedbear a large part of the responsibility for our modern ideas about fairytales and their fitness only for small children. And not all children atthat, Tolkien argues persuasively in "On Fairy–stories." Children,he says, cannot be considered a single class of human being with tastesall formed alike. Some children, like some adults, are born with a naturalappetite for marvels, while other children, even those raised side by side,simply are not. Those of us born with this appetite usually find that itdoesn’t diminish with age, unless society teaches us to repress or sublimateit. Tolkien, of course, was the kind of child who hungered for marvels andmagical adventures. "I desired dragons with a profound desire,"he tells us eloquently. And yet, he notes, "a liking for fairy–storieswas not a dominant characteristic of [my] early taste. A real taste forthem 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 otherthings as well, or better: such as history, astronomy, botany, grammar,and etymology. A real taste for fairy stories was wakened by philology onthe 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 certainlydid, 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 infairy–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. Tolkienhimself 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 ofFrodo’s journey through Middle Earth. It is this, along with the elegantframework of myth and philology on which the tale rests, that lifts TheLord 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 WorldWar II, and how such experience can effect the writing of magical fiction."My wife," Garner notes, "claims to find, in recent children’sliterature, little that qualifies as literature. She asked herself why thisshould be, after a Golden Age that ran from the late Fifties to the lateSixties. And she found that generally writers of this Golden Age were childrenduring the Second World War: a war raged against civilians. The atmospherethese children and young people grew up in was one of a whole communityand a whole nature united against pure evil, made manifest in the personof Hitler. Parents were seen to be afraid. Death was a constant possibility . . . .Therefore, daily life was lived on a mythic plane: of absolute Good againstabsolute 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 fullhorrors [of the concentration camps] became known, would not be able toavoid concerning themselves with the issues; and so their books, howeverclad, were written on profound themes, and were literature. The generationthat has followed is not so fueled, and its writing is, by comparison, effeteand trivial." 3

While I agree with Garner that the "temperingfurnace" of war has resulted in fine works of fantasy, I’d like tosuggest that mythic themes can be found in other areas of life — includingthe domestic sphere that was once the primary province of women. Let’s takea 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 kindsof tales: those rooted in the grand themes, symbols, and language of myth,epic, and romance, and those rooted in the humbler stuff of folklore andfairy tales. The first category includes tales epic in scope, full ofsweeping heroic adventures and battles on which the fate of worlds, or atleast kingdoms, depend. The latter category includes much smaller tales,more intimate in nature — stories of individual rites of passage and personaltransformation. 4  Historically,epic literature was composed by men of the privileged classes, and preservedby highly educated bards, monks, scholars, and editors. The oral folk taletradition, on the other hand, was a peasant tradition, and a largely femaleone. Even its male literary proponents (Basile, Straparola, Perrault, andthe Grimms) acknowledged that the bulk of their source material came fromwomen storytellers. What interests me here is that Tolkien’s clear preferencefor the first category was "quickened" by his experience of warin its most epic form: the great horrors of World War II; while my own preferencefor the second category grew out of a different kind of war — an intimatewar, a tempering furnace confined to the home front.

In the sixties, as Tolkien’s hobbit and elvesset sail across the wide Atlantic, I was a child growing up in an Americanworking 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 Northeastwhere the steel works and the factories that had sustained the previousgenerations 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 hospitalwhere jaded, overworked doctors (in those days before child abuse reportinglaws) stitched and plastered and bandaged us up and sent us back home again.There was nothing remarkable in this. Neighborhood kids sported black eyestoo; their fathers were also out of work. That these men were angry wassomething we all knew. That they were frightened is something I only laterunderstood. My stepfather had nothing out in the world, but at home he couldstill rule as king, and the one measure of manhood that he had left layin his fists. My brothers and I didn’t need Hitler’s bombs to understandhow Sauron came to be; we didn’t need the Third Reich to make us feel ashelpless as hobbits.

It wasn’t until I turned fourteen that I discoveredTolkien’s books. I began The Fellowship of the Ring on the school bus sometimeduring that year, reading with pure amazement as Middle–earth opened upbefore 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 ourswas a childhood in which good and evil were not abstract concepts. Here,the mortal battle between the two had become a tangible thing. Darknessspread over Middle–earth, corrupting everything it touched, and yet ourhero persevered with the aid of the greatest magics of all: the loyaltyof his friends and the courage of a noble heart. I read Tolkien’s greattrilogy in one gulp and was profoundly changed .&nbsp. . not,I have to add, because those books truly satisfied me. What they did wasto 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 therewas no place for me, a girl, on Frodo’s quest. Tolkien woke a longing inme . . . and then it was to other books I turned — toMervyn Peake, E. R. Eddison, Lord Dunsany, and William Morris, searchingthrough those magical kingdoms for a country where I could live.

Some months after The Lord of the Rings, Idiscovered Tolkien’s Leaf by Niggle, a volume containing the expanded textof his essay "On Fairy– Stories." How, now, can I possibly conveythe elation this slender book gave me? To understand, perhaps I must setthe 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 cornerof the prop room behind my school’s auditorium stage. Terror and exhaustionhave never been known as aids to education, and so it was with laboriouseffort that I made my way through Tolkien’s prose, my critical facilitiesstrained to their limit by this Oxford scholar. I didn’t understand allof it, not then. But I knew, somehow, this essay was for me. "It wasin fairy–stories," Tolkien said, "that I first divined the potencyof the words, and the wonder of the things, such as stone, and wood, andiron; 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 desireddragons with a profound desire. Of course, I in my timid body did not wishto have them in the neighborhood  . . . .But the world that contained eventhe imagination of Fáfnir was richer and more beautiful, at whatever thecost of peril." And especially this: " . . . it is one of the lessonsof 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 shadowof 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 beenso much more than Disney cartoons. So I went back to the fairy tale bookthat had been my favorite as a young child: The Golden Book of Fairy Tales,translated from the French by Marie Ponsot and exquisitely, deliciouslyillustrated by Adrienne Ségur. And here it was that I found at last thecountry that I could settle in, the water that would quench my thirst andthe food that would quell the ache in my belly. For I had been very fortunateas a child — this was no bowdlerized collection. These tales, largely takenfrom the Russian and French, had been shortened for young readers but notsimplified. Tolkien himself had never enjoyed the French tales of D’Aulnoyand Perrault, but I found in their rococo imagery exactly what I’d beenlooking for: intimate stories that spoke, in a coded language, of personaltransformation. These were tales of children abandoned in woods; of daughterspoisoned 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–brothersfrom harm; I read, heart pounding, of Donkeyskin, whose own father desiredto bed her. The tales that affected me the most were variations on one archetypaltheme: a young person beset by grave difficulties sets off, alone, throughthe 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, nomagic 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 anyenchanted ring, I found myself in the safe harbor of a small midwesterncollege. It was here that I discovered the legacy J. R. R. Tolkien had leftbehind: a whole new publishing genre called fantasy, rooted in myth andmagic. It was deeply important to me that some of these books were writtenby women authors: Ursula K. Le Guin, Patricia A. McKillip, Joy Chant, SusanCooper, C. L. Moore, and many others, blazing trails into the lands whereI longed to make my home. I studied literature, folklore, and women’s studies,and satisfied my hunger with the scholarly works of Katherine Briggs, thefiction of Sylvia Townsend Warner and Angela Carter, the fairy tale poetryof Anne Sexton, the fairy tale art of Jessie M. King . . . allof which proved that Tolkien had been right: fairy–stories could rise toArt. And that even I, a working–class girl, could add to the soup of story.

College marked my emergence from the darkof the woods to a brighter place, the fertile lands where life could nowbe lived happily ever after. This does not mean, of course, a life entirelyfree of pain or challenges, but one that partakes of the qualities thatTolkien required in a fairy–story’s ending, the consolation of joy and whathe called "a miraculous grace." As fond as I am of this brighterland, there are times when I journey back into those woods, back into thedark, back once upon a time into the endless story. Now, however, I’ve adifferent part to play. I’m not the hero struggling through — I’m the onewaiting by the side of the road, disguised, and ready to light the way forthose who come behind me.

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