“Tolkien’s great essay ‘On Fairy-stories’ is the best and deepest consideration I have encountered of the nature, origin, and value of myth and fantasy, as well as the most cogent commentary on his own work. Here, among the many nuggets of pure gold, is the clearest statement of his working theory of fantasy. ‘For creative fantasy,’ he writes, ‘is founded upon the hard recognition that things are so in the world as it appears under the sun; on a recognition of fact, but not a slavery to it.'”
Verlyn Flieger

In Verlyn Flieger’s Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien’s World (original edition 1983), she offers a discussion of the relevance of Tolkien’s work, particularly his less popular collection of lore, The Silmarillion. She also addresses Tolkien’s “On Fairy-Stories,” as referenced in the quote above, which I have long regarded as the best succinct discussion of the fantasy genre that I’ve yet encountered. (Gratifying, I note, to find support for this perception.) As the book unfolds, it attempts to reconcile Tolkien’s lived experiences with aspects of his writings–of interest to me is the way (and perhaps the reasons?) Tolkien used fantasy.

Many of Flieger’s key points relate to a discussion of Tolkien’s “On Fairy Stories.” I have recorded a number of relevant items here:

  • Tolkien is often regarded in terms of contrasting ideas–such as how, in The Lord of the Rings, orcs are depicted as fairly universally evil, yet Frodo and Sam also contemplate whether this is truly so. Flieger observes that “The alternation between the vision of hope and the experience of despair— between light and dark— is the essence both of Tolkien and of his work. The contrast and interplay of light and dark are essential elements of his fiction. The light-dark polarity operates on all levels— literal, metaphoric, symbolic” (Flieger 363-365).
  • I hear echoes of Booth’s Rhetoric of Fiction as Flieger notes Tolkien’s rhetorical use of storytelling: “For Tolkien, story is the most effective carrier of truth because it works with images rather than concepts, with forms rather than abstract ideas, and with action rather than argument” (Flieger472-474).
  • “‘On Fairy-stories’ was originally an Andrew Lang Lecture given at the University of St. Andrews on March 8, 1939. It was revised and expanded for inclusion in Essays Presented to Charles Williams, reissued together with “Leaf by Niggle” in Tree and Leaf in 1964, which volume was subsequently folded into The Tolkien Reader” (Flieger 495-497).
  • “The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous ‘turn.’ … does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief” (qtd. in Flieger 509-512).
  • “‘On Fairy-stories’ did not reverse a trend; rather, it began one. Tolkien was the first literary scholar since Aristotle to bend his attention to the development of a critical theory for the evaluation of fairy tales […] Tolkien took a literary approach, finding the importance of fairy-stories in their effect now on those who read the tales for pleasure rather than for information. In an argument parallel to his Beowulf position, he dared to suggest that fairy tale is a valid literary mode and that fairy-stories are worthy of attention in their own right, rather than being made ‘a quarry from which to dig evidence, or information’ (MC 119). While looking briefly at the nature and origin of fairy-stories, his essay concentrates on their function. He explores the value and special appeal of this kind of fiction and sets up solid critical standards by which to judge it” (Flieger 531-543).
  • In describing Tolkien’s use of elements of extant mythology in his mythopoeia, Flieger cites another passage from his writings: “A man inherited a field in which was an accumulation of old stone, part of an older hall. Of the old stone some had already been used in building the house in which he actually lived, not far from the old house of his fathers. Of the rest he took some and built a tower. But his friends coming perceived at once (without troubling to climb the steps) that these stones had formerly belonged to a more ancient building. So they pushed the tower over, with no little labour, in order to look for hidden carvings and inscriptions, or to discover whence the man’s distant forefathers had obtained their building material.… And even the man’s own descendants, who might have been expected to consider what he had been about, were heard to murmur: ‘He is such an odd fellow! Imagine his using these old stones just to build a nonsensical tower! Why did he not restore the old house? He had no sense of proportion.’ But from the top of that tower the man had been able to look out upon the sea” (qtd. in Flieger 557-563). This passage (apparently from The Monsters and the Critics: And Other Essays) serves as an example of not only justifying his use of fantasy–but it does so in fantasy’s own language.
  • Again describing “On Fairy-Stories”: “The emphasis is on humanity’s need for the beauty and wonder of another world, rather than his inevitable defeat in this one. Instead of drawing a little circle of light and surrounding it with darkness, Tolkien calls attention to the Otherworld of Faërie. Both worlds are dangerous— he calls Faërie ‘the perilous realm’— but the dark northern space of Grendel and the Dragon is replaced by a greater and brighter threat, the possibility of losing one’s self and finding it again in another and perhaps higher world” (Flieger  649-653).
  • Enchantment as the defining feature of fairy-stories: “By Faërie, he means fay-er-ie, the place and practice, the essential quality, of enchantment. It is this quality, above all, that distinguishes fairy-stories from ordinary stories” (Flieger 679-680).

“Fairy stories offer their readers four things that the human spirit needs: Fantasy, Recovery, Escape, and Consolation. Of these, the primary element is Fantasy, for the other three derive from it. Fantasy is both a mode of thinking and the created result of that thinking. Recovery, Escape, and Consolation are experiential terms describing varieties of response to Fantasy.”
–Verlyn Flieger on J.R.R. Tolkien’s “On Fairy-Stories”

  • “In Tolkien’s words, Fantasy ‘combines with its older and higher use as an equivalent of Imagination, the derived notions of ‘unreality’ (that is, of unlikeness to the Primary World), of freedom from the domination of observed “fact,” in short of the fantastic’ (139). Fantasy is ‘the making or glimpsing of Other-worlds'” (Flieger 717-720).
  • For Tolkien, Flieger notes, creating fantasy was a spiritual–even religious–experience: “Sub-creation thus has a purpose beyond itself. The making of a Secondary World is not simply the production of enchantment as its end result. The Secondary World can and should redirect our attention to the Primary World and through that World to its Maker” (Flieger 729-731).
  • “The word fantasy, which figures so largely in Tolkien’s discussion of fairy-stories, is etymologically linked to the word phenomena, and both have to do with appearances and perception. Phenomena is the word for the appearances of the Primary World, appearances revealed by light and fixed as concepts by words. Fantasy is involved in the making of a Secondary World, the appearances of which are built up in words.  Both terms—phenomenon and fantasy— derive from Greek, phenomenon from phainesthai, ‘to appear,’ and fantasy from phantazein, ‘to make visible'” (Flieger 1065-1069).
  • “At the risk of belaboring a point, let me call attention to Tolkien’s use of the word fantastic to describe human language. He is talking about the writing of fantasy, but he takes as a given that human language is a ‘device’ peculiarly designed for and particularly suited to the creation of fantasy. Used literally, of course, the word fantastic will mean ‘making visible or revealing appearances,’ and we have seen that for Tolkien this is a primary function of language. Use of so powerful a tool to make a Secondary World must be backed up by ‘labour and thought’ and must be informed by skill beyond the ordinary, what he calls ‘elvish craft'” (Flieger 1344-1348).
  • “Two ideas crucial to Tolkien’s philosophy emerge with increasing clarity as his mythology is studied. One is the inevitability and absolute necessity of change. The other is the centrality of language and its importance as both cause and result. The two ideas are linked psychologically, philosophically, and spiritually. Each is an aspect of the other, and both are best understood in conjunction. They are inextricably tied into Tolkien’s mythology as agents and functions of its design. From change, whether good or bad, gradual or cataclysmic, comes growth and development. One of the chief agents of change is language, altering and governing perception Out of change comes new perception and hence new language. Language separates, divides, distinguishes, breaking down and refining aspects of original, undifferentiated reality. However, it is more than a refiner of meaning; it is also the creator and preserver. New concepts, new metaphors, incantatory adjectives can enhance or deepen or change meaning and so sub-create a new reality. Tolkien’s mythology is a record of change in history, in language, in peoples, and of the cumulative result of these—change in awareness” (Flieger  3152-3160).


Flieger, Verlyn. Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien’s World. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2002. Kindle edition.