J.R.R. Tolkien's Andrew Lang Lecture at the University of St. Andrews, 
8 March 1939, 
"On Fairy Stories," & the European Folklore Debate

"[I]t is a sudden glimpse of Truth, your whole nature chained in material cause and effect, the chain of death, feels a sudden relief as if a major limb out of joint had suddenly snapped back. It perceives--if the story has literary 'truth' on the second plane . . . that this is indeed how things really do work in the Great World for which our nature is made. . . .  Christian joy produces tears because it is qualitatively so like sorrow, because it comes from those places where Joy and Sorrow are at one, reconciled, as selfishness and altruism are lost in Love."
--Letter to Christopher Tolkien, 7-8 November 1944

'I was of course given Hans Anderson when quite young. At one time I listened with attention which may have looked like rapture to his stories when read to me. I read them myself often. Actually I disliked him intensely; and the vividness of that distaste is the chief thing that I carried down the years in connexion with his name."
--Letter to Jane Neave, 22 November 1961

Tolkien's essay, "On Fairy Stories," was the 12th Andrew Lang lecture at St. Andrews, and unlike his predecessors who tended to speak more of Lang's accomplishments, Tolkien undertook a virtual attack on Lang's position on the use and value of folklore studies, as well as on other predominant positions in the field, such as those of Max Müller and of George Webb Dasent. By the time of Tolkien's 1939 lecture, the debate in the field was already an old one, but one that had in no way been settled. It debated such questions as the following:

  • Where do fairy stories come from?
  • Can they be said to be authored by anyone?
  • What relationship do they have to the past and to human progress?
  • Are they related to human language? religion? imagination?
  • Who were they intended for?
  • Why do they still interest us?
  • Can one make a distinction between myth, religion, and folklore?
  • How should we regard them to gain the full benefit of their power or effect?

F. Max Müller, German philologist and founder of the field of comparative religion, argued that fairy stories were essentially a product of primitivism and of a lack of developed categories of the literary and the historical, the admirable and the barbaric. Folklore was a "disease of language," a kind of left over by-product of human development.  Thus, various myths and religion could be set out on a graduated scale of human culture with the ancient myths of some faiths as decidedly more barbaric and child-like. The problem was that the barbaric, once treated as traditional or sacred, would survive against the ordinarily better judgment of later generations:

In an age when there was nothing corresponding to what we call literature, every saying, every proverb, every story handed down from father to son, received very soon a kind of hallowed character. They became sacred heirlooms, sacred, because they came from an unknown source, from a distant age. . . . . [W]hen the heroes, and the gods, and the victory were all forgotten, the song of victory and thanksgiving would often survive as a relic of the past, though almost unintelligible to later generations.

[I]t should be remembered that in ancient as in modern times, the utterances of men who had once gained a certain prestige, would often receive attention far beyond their merits, so that in many a family or tribe the saying and teachings of one man, who had once on his youth or manhood uttered words of inspired wisdom, would all be handed down together, without any attempt to separate the grain from the chaff.

Many a word may have been misunderstood, many a sentence confused, as it was told by father to son, before it became fixed in the tradition of a village community, and then resisted by its very sacredness all attempts at emendation.
--Preface, Translations of the Upanishads, vol. 1

Like Müller, Andrew Lang saw fairy stories as the survival of primitive culture practices, cf "Mythology and Fairy Tales" (1873); "The Method of Folklore" (1884). Lang assumed that the original primitives who created the original roots of folklore were both child-like in their naïveté and savage in their bloodthirsty rituals; thus, they remained attractive primarily to children and those with a child-like spirit:

"The reason, no doubt, is that men were much like children in their minds long ago, long, long ago, and so before they took to writing newspapers, and sermons, and novels, and long poems, they told each other stories, such as you read in the fairy books. They believed that witches could turn people into beasts, that beasts could speak, that magic rings could make their owners invisible, and all the other wonders in the stories. Then, as the world became grown-up, the fairy tales which were not written down would have been quite forgotten but that the old grannies remembered them, and told them to the little grandchildren: and when they, in their turn, became grannies, they remembered them, and told them also. In this way these tales are older than reading and writing, far older than printing. [. . .] These fairy tales are the oldest stories in the world, and as they were first made by men who were childlike for their own amusement, so they amuse children still, and also grown-up people who have not forgotten how they once were children."
--Preface, The Green Fairy Book

"These stories are as old as anything that men have invented. They are narrated by naked savage women to naked savage children. They have been inherited by our earliest civilised ancestors, who really believed that beasts and trees and stones can talk if they choose, and behave kindly or unkindly. The stories are full of the oldest ideas of ages when science did not exist, and magic took the place of science. [. . .] When the nobles and other people became rich and educated, they forgot the old stories, but the country people did not, and handed them down, with changes at pleasure, from generation to generation. Then learned men collected and printed the country people's stories, and these we have translated, to amuse children. Their tastes remain like the tastes of their naked ancestors, thousands of years ago, and they seem to like fairy tales better than history, poetry, geography, or arithmetic, just as grown-up people like novels better than anything else."
--Preface, The Violet Fairy Book

George Webb Dasent's Popular Tales from the Norse (1904) represented another version of this evolutionary strain of thinking, of the move from a primitive past to a more developed future. Dascent described the process of origination as a confused mass that one cannot hope to untangle, a "soup" that one cannot expect to uncover the ingredients in a pure, uncooked state:

The most careless reader can hardly fail to see that many of the Tales in this volume have the same groundwork as those with which he has been familiar from his earliest youth. They are Nursery Tales, in fact, of the days when there were tales in nurseries--old wives' fables, which have faded away before the light of gas and the power of steam. It is long, indeed, since English nurses told these tales to English children by force of memory and word of mouth. . . . for that was an uncritical age, and its spirit breathed hot and cold, east and west, from all quarters of the globe at once, confusing the traditions and tales of all times and countries into one incongruous mass of fable, as much tangled and knotted as that famous pound of flax which the lassie in one of these Tales is expected to spin into an even woof within four-and-twenty hours. 

In these pages, where we have to run over a vast tract of space, the reader who wishes to learn and not to cavil--and for such alone this Introduction is intended--must be content with results rather than processes and steps. To use a homely likeness, he must be satisfied with the soup that is set before him, and not desire to see the bones of the ox out of which it has been boiled. When we say, therefore, that in these latter days the philology and mythology of the East and West have met and kissed each other; that they now go hand in hand; that they lend one another mutual support; that one cannot be understood without the other,--we look to be believed.

Against this viewpoint, Tolkien set out to show that fairy tales were as suited for adults as children because there was nothing primitive or child-like about them. Instead, they have a particular literary power that invokes a particular realm, Faërie, and which calls for a particular imaginative sensitivity. Much like his "Monsters and the Critics," Tolkien takes the antiquarian interests of folklore studies as missing something essential about fairy tales, namely their literary construction and value.  Moreover, their value for all people, adult and child, lies in their qualities of enchantment and escape, but not as an irresponsible flight into the primitive, but as a deeply powerful intuition into the real state of the Great World. 

Significant portions of this argument are taken from Verlyn Flieger's Interrupted Music: The Making of Tolkien's Mythology, chapter 1. Kent: Kent SUP, 2005.

Discussion Questions
  • Why does Tolkien have some sympathy to the quest of Müller and Lang, while ultimately rejecting their approach?
  • What distinguishes Tolkien's view of the "soup" from Dasent's?
  • What makes Tolkien's view of language different from Müller's?
  • Why does Tolkien reject the ranking of the elements in fairy stories?
  • How and does Tolkien distinguish believability from desirability? Why does he think the later is the better question? (Consider his point above about Hans Christian Anderson.)
  • How does Tolkien revalue the things that Lang (and to a lesser extent Dasent) condemn or mistrust?
  • How do the values of fantasy, recovery, escape, and consolation rethink the elements in fairy stories?
  • How does Tolkien agree with the notion that one religion (i.e. Christianity) can be ranked above others and yet redefine the manner of that valuation?

All images from Andrew Lang's Red and Blue Fairy Books


"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding