Tolkien On Fairy-stories

Tolkien On Fairy-stories. J.R.R. Tolkien. Expanded edition, with Commentary and Notes by Verlyn Flieger and Douglas A. Anderson. London: HarperCollins Publishers, 2008. ISBN 978-0007244669. Hardcover. 320pp. £16.99.

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Reviewed by Jason Fisher

[This review originally appeared in Mythlore 27.1/2 (#103/104) (2008): 179–84.]

Within the pages of any journal concerned with J.R.R. Tolkien, it should go without saying that “On Fairy-Stories” is one of his most important works, yet one of the least read outside of scholarly circles. We might therefore expect a variorum edition, with detailed discussion of the textual history of the essay, copious notes and commentary, contemporary reports, and two bibliographies to be read even more closely by scholars and serious students, but even less so by everybody else. That being said, I must direct the remainder of my evaluation toward that small minority, or else abandon my task. I do this with high hopes that Verlyn Flieger and Douglas A. Anderson’s Tolkien On Fairy-Stories will find a larger audience than I have reason to expect, because the book is a treasure trove, and one not to be hoarded, but shared.

The editors’ introduction, a considerable essay in itself, offers valuable summary and context for “Tolkien’s defining study of and the centre-point in his thinking about the genre” (9). As those who have read it before will know, its central thread is a long and circuitous one, making the editors’ roadmap all the more indispensable. Moreover, the editors show how the lecture was a critical bridge between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, the latter being “the practical application and demonstration of the principles set forth” (15) in it. Further, they point out that Tolkien “established positive criteria by which fairy-stories [...] could be evaluated. He built up a working vocabulary for the craft of fantasy that could be used in its criticism” (19). Many of the terms we take for granted in Tolkien studies today, of which sub-creation is surely (and justly) the most well known, first took shape in “On Fairy-Stories.” The editors also give vital background material on the debates of Tolkien’s day, represented in the essay by “the major opponents in the mythology wars” (21), Andrew Lang and Max Müller.

For the essay proper, the editors have opted for the text as published in The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays, which in turn was slightly edited from the version printed in the second edition of Tree and Leaf (Hammond 243-4). The only change Flieger and Anderson have made to the present text is the addition of paragraph numbers for ease of reference in the subsequent commentary. This is an enormously helpful feature I wish more editors would espouse. I feel I need hardly comment in this review on the essay itself-many others have done so before me, and the issue at hand is the trappings of this expanded edition-and so, in Tolkien’s words, “I shall therefore pass lightly over [it]” (40) and move on.

In discussing the history of “On Fairy-Stories” (123-5), Flieger and Anderson present some excellent background on how Tolkien came to be selected for the Andrew Lang Lectureship of 1938-39, including previously unpublished correspondence to Tolkien from the University of St. Andrews. Dates and details provided here fill in a few small gaps in Scull and Hammond’s otherwise authoritative Chronology (Scull and Hammond 222-3, et seq.). (I should note that in their online addenda and corrigenda, Scull and Hammond have now written a new entry for 8 October 1938.) Equally interesting are unpublished letters from Charles Williams’s “friend and occasional typist,” Margaret Douglas (134, 135-6). Thus, a more complete picture of the evolution of the essay begins to emerge. I should clarify that the Douglas letters are referred to in the Chronology, but very succinctly, and scholars will welcome the opportunity to examine her own words directly. By referring back to the Chronology, one may also get a clearer sense of what else was occupying Tolkien’s time during this time-primarily, The Lord of the Rings.

Following this history, we have two of the three newspaper reports that appeared in the days after Tolkien delivered his lecture at St. Andrews. The longest was published in The St. Andrews Citizen, with two others clearly abridged from it appearing in The Scotsman and The St. Andrews Times. These two are practically the same; therefore, the editors reprint only the former. No better, indeed no other, record of the original lecture as delivered survives (references to the essay in Tolkien’s published letters are scant, and they mostly cluster around times he was known to be revising it for print); therefore, it is only these contemporary accounts which make possible some reconstruction of the contents of (and omissions from) the original lecture.

In their commentary, the editors do much to contextualize Tolkien’s essay, from identifying and explaining arcane references such as “the Devil’s tithe” (87) to giving readers extended passages from which Tolkien quoted only piecemeal. These include excerpts from Fridtjof Nansen (88), Samuel Taylor Coleridge (107), G.K. Chesterton (109-10, 114-5), Andrew Lang (90, 109, et passim), and Max Müller (102), inter alia. Such passages constitute one of this edition’s most useful features. In some cases, Tolkien has misquoted a source (90, 91, 121, 297), and Flieger and Anderson have thoughtfully pointed out his mistakes. The editors throw their own voices in on a few other occasions as well: they say of Drayton’s Pigwiggen: “His name tells you all you need to know about him” (91); or of Thackeray’s The Rose and the Spring: “[m]uch of its content and approach can be deduced from the names of its principal characters [e.g., the Countess Gruffanuff]” (120). These editorial comments, with their deadpan delivery (intended or not), are most welcome.

Now we have reached the halfway point in the book. The remainder consists of two complete (or nearly complete) manuscripts, each with commentary. MS. A, the editors believe, represents the original draft for the lecture. MS. B, on the other hand, is the considerably expanded revision made for the essay’s first publication in Essays Presented to Charles Williams. Much may be gleaned from careful comparison of these two drafts, together with the various published versions (further to this, see Hammond 184-190). It is almost possible to peer over Tolkien’s shoulder as he works through the presentation of complex ideas and metaphors, as well as reintegrates much of the careful research he had been forced to cut from the lecture at St. Andrews. Readers will observe that most of the key elements (including sub-creation, the failings of the OED, the indictment of Max Müller, the excerpt from Tolkien’s poem, “Mythopoeia”, and so on) were there from the beginning, but ever more refined through the mortar and pestle of revision. Other elements (e.g., the Tree of Tales, the Cauldron of Story) emerged later. Though usually the opposite, Tolkien’s wording sometimes went from clearer and more emphatic to subtler and more complex. As one example, we find in MS. A the powerful declaration that “[m]ythology is language and language is mythology” (181). Most often, however, we see Tolkien’s ideas become clearer and more focused over the course of the essay’s evolution. For instance, in MS. A, we find Tolkien much more wishy-washy about his reasons for excluding beast fables, travel tales, and so forth, from the genre of true ‘fairy story’; he seems more interested in simply keeping the number and kinds of tales to a manageable number, no doubt in the interests of a shorter lecture time, and dismissing the others with the cavalier remark, “[a]t least they do not come in my department” (178).

Next, we come to the much longer MS. B. By this point in the book, it requires considerable fortitude to face yet another version of the essay. But a dedicated reviewer must not quail (even if many readers will), but press on with each and every word. There are rewards for those who do press on, as MS. B is actually longer than the published essay, with many associated “miscellaneous pages,” as well as extended passages struck out by Tolkien but available for study here. Perhaps the most profitable way to explore this long portion of the book is to jump from one canceled passage to another-rather like Gollum, Frodo, and Sam traversing the Dead Marshes from one patch of dry land to another (if the editors will excuse the comparison). One has the feeling that the various recensions will be quarried by scholars, but not often read straight through one after the other-at least, not more than once. And that seems to me a perfectly reasonable use of the raw material Flieger and Anderson have painstakingly provided.

For a book of its length and a topic of its complexity, the defects of Tolkien On Fairy-Stories are few and small, but it does have some. Before I discuss more subjective quibbles, there are one or two objective ones to dispense with. The commentaries to the A and B manuscripts, unlike the commentary to the published essay, identify their referents by page number; however, these pages numbers are all wrong, every last one of them. For MS. A, I should advise readers to subtract two from each page reference in the commentary; for MS. B, subtract three. The problem likely arose during typesetting; perhaps the two-page introduction to the manuscripts was inadvertently excluded from the count.

Second, I find the two bibliographies and the index to be a bit idiosyncratic. The editors quote from Tolkien’s translations of Sir Orfeo and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (86); however, the source publication is absent from their bibliography. So too, Francis James Child’s English and Scottish Popular Ballads, though they clearly consulted that work (87). And there are several others. Likewise, the bibliography of works cited or consulted by Tolkien has notable slips. Tolkien quotes from The Tempest (297), but it is not in his bibliography with other works by Shakespeare. (The editors refer to Romeo and Juliet, but that is not in their bibliography either.) He also mentions Charles Kingsley, but the editors have not placed him in Tolkien’s bibliography. And so on. The index, while it may have license for more selectivity, is also missing some entries. Knatchbull-Huggesen, for instance, is in Tolkien’s bibliography but not in the index (for the record, see 170, 249). Tolkien’s “Lay of Aotrou and Itroun” is not to be found in the index, though the editors discuss it (118). And so on again. But lest we become bogged down in minutiae, let me move on.

To consider more subjective matters, my own opinion is that while the editors do a great deal to intercontextualize “On Fairy-Stories” with other works in the critical and literary milieu to which it belongs, they do less than they might have to intracontextualize it with the larger body of Tolkien’s own work, especially (but not exclusively) his fiction. I would like to give a few examples before I close this review. And let me be clear: I did not expect a lengthy disquisition in any of these cases; however, with a work as central to Tolkien’s theories of story-making as “On Fairy-Stories” certainly is, many readers would have appreciated additional crib notes to more of the those occasions where Tolkien demonstrates these theories in his other work.

While the Postscript to the editors’ history of the essay (157-8) makes an excellent point of comparison between “On Fairy-Stories” and Smith of Wootton Major and its accompanying essay (unpublished until 2005), several opportunities to highlight this interrelationship in the earlier commentary are ignored. For instance, at the first mention of George MacDonald, some mention of Smith of Wootton Major would have been most welcome (98). Shortly following, where the editors comment on MacDonald’s story, The Golden Key, they do not mention Tolkien’s draft preface to a new edition of it, which work actually precipitated Smith (104). In the note on “the magic land of Hy Breasail” (88), readers could benefit from reference to the legend of St. Brendan and Tolkien’s published poem “Imram,” taken up again in The Notion Club Papers (Tolkien Sauron Defeated 261-4, 295-9). On “enchantment” (112), the editors choose not to refer to The Silmarillion with its “songs of power” (Tolkien Silmarillion 171, et seq.). Neither do the editors allude to the analogous song contests in The Kalevala, from which Tolkien took inspiration. In the note on Gram (115), why not mention Narsil, a strong analogue in The Lord of the Rings? The editors do allude to specific elements from the novel (e.g., just a few pages later, 118), so why not here?

Speaking of The Lord of the Rings, and recalling that the editors have called it “the practical application” of Tolkien’s theories on fairy-stories, there is a passage from the A manuscript of “On Fairy-Stories,” unpublished before now, which I found strongly redolent of Tolkien’s masterpiece: “Joy can tell us much about sorrow, and light about dark but not the other way about. A little joy can often tell more about grief and tragedy than a whole book of unrelieved gloom” (245). It is telling, I think, that C.S. Lewis, upon his first full reading of The Lord of the Rings in 1949, said something very similar: “the steady upward slope of grandeur and terror (not unrelieved by green dells, without which it [would] indeed be intolerable) is almost unequalled in the whole range of narrative art known to me” (C.S. Lewis 990). Likewise, Tolkien’s admonition that the fabulist should “look at green again, and be startled anew (but not blinded) by blue and yellow and red” (67) is a central motif with threads extending all directions. There are Tolkien’s references to The Coloured Lands of Chesterton and to Lang’s collection of fairy books, each with its proper color. And as it should happen, Tolkien was successful in reinvigorating the world of color, at least for one reader, where The Lord of the Rings offered “new colours available in profusion, whether the journey be beautiful or terrible” (W.H. Lewis 231).

In closing, this new edition, despite a few small problems, can rightly be called the definitive reference work on Tolkien’s watershed essay. It contains much supplementary material helpful in understanding and contextualizing the essay, as well as valuable and often revelatory insights into Tolkien’s thought processes as he developed the essay over a period of years. In some cases, the editors might have gone further with their contextual notes, but taken as a whole, their work is absolutely first rate and will surely be an essential resource for further work on-and with-”On Fairy-Stories.”

Works Consulted

Hammond, Wayne G., with Douglas A. Anderson. J.R.R. Tolkien: A Descriptive Bibliography. New Castle, Delaware: Oak Knoll Press, 1993.
Lewis, C.S. Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Vol. II: Books, Broadcasts, and the War, 1931-1949. Ed. Walter Hooper. San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2004.
Lewis. W.H. Brothers and Friends: The Diaries of Major Warren Hamilton Lewis. Ed. Clyde S. Kilby and Marjorie Lamp Mead. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1982.
Scull, Christina and Wayne G. Hammond. The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide, Vol. 1: Chronology. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006.
—. “Addenda and Corrigenda to The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide (2006), Vol. 1: Chronology.” 2 August 2008. 4 August 2008 <>.
Tolkien, J.R.R. Sauron Defeated. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1992.
—. The Silmarillion. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977.

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