|"[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
--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
- Are they related to human language? religion?
- 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
"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
--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
portions of this argument are taken from Verlyn Flieger's Interrupted
Music: The Making of Tolkien's Mythology, chapter 1. Kent: Kent SUP,