Close window
© 2009/2010 Festival in the Shire Journal. All rights reserved.

The Tolkien Professor

On Fairy-Stories
Corey Olsen

Last month, in my article on Smith of Wootton Major, I discussed some of the ideas about fairy tales, fairies, and the realm of Faerie that Tolkien lays out in his great essay On Fairy-Stories. Having touched on the work, I thought I would return in this month’s issue to go over some of the other very important issues that Tolkien explores in this rich and complex essay. On Fairy-Stories does much more than outline Tolkien’s understanding of fairies and Faerie; it is also the closest thing to a literary manifesto that Tolkien ever wrote. Although Tolkien’s argument is at times convoluted and digressive, it lays out the framework for Tolkien’s theoretical understanding of storytelling and the value of fantasy.

Tolkien was dissatisfied with some of the vocabulary that people often use to talk about both the writing and the reading of stories. The common term used to describe a reader’s engagement with a story, for instance, is “willing suspension of disbelief.” This concept suggests that when we read a story, we are aware of the unreality of what we read, but that we make the conscious choice to set that recognition aside and go along with the story. Tolkien thought this was a very insufficient description of the experience of reading a good story. If we are consciously suppressing skepticism when we read, Tolkien asserts, then the story has plainly failed to draw us in: “The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed” (132).

What really happens, Tolkien explains, is that a good story-teller “makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is ‘true’: it accords with the laws of that world” (132). A good story draws us imaginatively out of the Primary World, the “real” world that surrounds us, and into its own Secondary world, enabling us to invest in it. Tolkien calls this investment “secondary belief.” Willing suspension of disbelief is simply the means by which we tolerate a poor performance; a successful story-teller will usher us into the world of the story. Such a story-teller, the maker of a Secondary world, Tolkien calls a sub-creator.

Tolkien’s terminology here shows a great deal about the differences between his assumptions and those of the traditional modern understanding. The mainstream modern terminology is premised upon a dogged adherence to the “real” world. The term “willing suspension of disbelief” is a very revealing one. It says nothing about belief being associated with a story, since a work of fiction is not real, and therefore our disbelief in it is taken for granted. The term grants that we may, temporarily, suspend that disbelief, but insists that this happens only willingly or consciously – no getting swept away from good solid realities, there! The concept betrays an almost anxious insistence that we not lose our grip on reality, and it grants only a grudging indulgence to anything outside that reality.

Tolkien’s conception is rather more broad-minded. On the on hand, his terms demonstrate a thorough and consistent recognition of the difference between the “real” world and imaginary ones. God’s making of the world around us is creation; an author’s making of a fictional world is sub-creation. The “real” world is the Primary World; an imaginative world is Secondary. Our outlook on the world around us is Primary Belief; our investment in a story is Secondary Belief. At no time does Tolkien confound writing and reading with mere delusion, and he always insists that sub-creations are derived from and secondary to the Primary World.

At the same time, however, by building these two distinctly separate categories, each valuable on its own ground, Tolkien validates both sub-creation and Secondary Belief. Having clarified the relationship between the Primary and the Secondary, he asserts that we need not be anxious that in entering the latter we are abandoning the former. He insists upon the right both to make and to enter imaginative worlds. Tolkien considered this not only healthy and permissible, but fundamental and almost inevitable. The sub-creative impulse is “a human right,” he says, for “we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.” (145)

Tolkien’s resistance to blind and fretful adherence to reality, shown so clearly in the terminology he uses to discuss reading and writing, has a very important corollary, a corollary which is the defining principle of all fantasy literature. The natural sub-creative impulse stirs people to make imaginative worlds which are separate from the primary world, and if they are separate, why should they not also be different? A writer need not be bound by a mindless servitude to the Primary world any more than a reader is. The sub-creation of a different world, marvelously strange and full of wonder, that can nevertheless command Secondary Belief is what Tolkien calls Fantasy, and he considers it the purest form of human art.

Tolkien recognizes that Fantasy brings out all of the latent anxiety about reality that informs the mainstream modern point of view. He notes that “to many, Fantasy, this sub-creative art which plays strange tricks with the world and all that is in it … has seemed suspect, if not illegitimate” (74). But Tolkien insists that this is untrue:

Fantasy is a natural human activity. It certainly does not destroy or even insult Reason; and it does not either blunt the appetite for, nor obscure the perception of, scientific verity. On the contrary. The keener and clearer is the reason, the better the fantasy will it make. (74-75)


Not only is fantasy not in conflict with reality, Tolkien insists, but it is dependent upon it

Not only is fantasy not in conflict with reality, Tolkien insists, but it is dependent upon it: “For creative Fantasy 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” (75). If you are willing to let go of the dogmatic insistence on realism, you will find that your relationship with reality is not weakened, but enriched. You will be enabled to be Nature’s “lover, and not her slave” (78).

Tolkien goes on, in the last portion of the essay, to explain more fully what he perceives to be the benefits of Fantasy which he has already hinted at. The first, Recovery, spells out more fully the positive affect that Fantasy may have on our understanding of reality. Tolkien maintains that our greatest danger is not losing our grip on reality, but becoming too casual and too familiar with it. This familiarity Tolkien characterizes as possessiveness, as ceasing to see the things around us as “things apart from ourselves” (77). He compares our taking for granted of the things in the world around us to a dragon who locks beautiful things away in his hoard and then ceases to look at them.

This jaded view of the “real” world is a condition from which Tolkien says that Fantasy can help us recover. He explains that he uses the word “recovery” with the intention of invoking both of its primary senses: “return and renewal of health” (77). Fantasy helps us to recover as from sickness by shaking us out of complacent and presumptuous relationship with the things that surround us, prompting us to pay attention to them again and perceive their beauties and worth. In doing so, we not only recover a healthy perspective on the world, but we recover (in sense of gaining back or having returned to us) the world itself and its wonders: “By the forging of Gram cold iron was revealed; by the making of Pegasus horses were ennobled; in the Trees of the Sun and Moon root and stock, flower and fruit are manifested in glory” (78). Fantasy may help you to realize that “all you had (or knew) was dangerous and potent, not really effectively chained, free and wild; no more yours than they were you” (78). Far from undermining our appreciation of the real world, Fantasy greatly enriches it.

Tolkien also points to Escape as one of the primary benefits of Fantasy, and here he tackles openly the most common accusation made against Fantasy and fairy-stories: that they are escapist. Tolkien notes that the term escapist is generally used with a “tone of scorn or pity,” and it is in that tone that we can hear once more the presuppositions of the modern viewpoint that Tolkien is attempting to correct. Underlying that tone is a view which says that reading or writing a work of literature that openly departs from the “real” world, cloistering oneself away in a Secondary World that is alien to the world around us, is an act of childish or even cowardly irresponsibility.

Tolkien observes that this use of the term “escape” reveals “a misuse of words, and also a confusion of thought” (79). He points out that in every other circumstance, escape is “evidently as a rule very practical, and may even be heroic” (79). He asks the disarmingly simple question: “Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home?” (79). In speaking scornfully of escape, Tolkien maintains, critics of Fantasy are confusing “the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter” (79). Critics would imply, without explanation or justification, that any escape from the world around us is necessarily shameful, and Tolkien resists that thinking strenuously, even going so far as to compare that line of thinking to Nazism or any other totalitarian state that considers departure from or even criticism of it treachery (79).

In Tolkien’s discussion of Escape, we can see a glimpse of a new line of thinking that he has not articulated clearly to this point. Previously, we have looked at the distinction Tolkien makes between Secondary Worlds and the Primary World, and the ways in which he argues that Fantasy enriches our relationship with reality rather than jeopardizing it. But we can’t get around the fact that here Tolkien appears to be speaking of the Primary world around us rather slightingly. After all, in his metaphor of the prisoner, the world around us appears to be the prison from which we long to escape.

What we can see here is Tolkien’s quiet introduction of a third variable in the Primary-Secondary World equation, a Reality that lies behind both. This is why Tolkien tends to speak conditionally about the “real” world (and why I have persisted in putting that word in quotation marks throughout this article), for he did not think that the physical world around us is all that there is. This, ultimately, is the question upon which the shamefulness of “escapism” turns. If there is nothing else beyond the world of “scientific verities,” then any attempt to escape from it, even imaginatively, is the action of a deserter, not a refugee. But if there is a higher world, a Truth, to which both the physical Primary World and artistic Secondary Worlds are subordinate and from which they are derivative, then Escape is not “fugitive,” but rather “the resistance of the patriot” (79).

The third benefit of Fantasy that Tolkien articulates also lies in the glimpse that Fantasy and fairy-stories can give of that higher Truth. This is Consolation, specifically the Consolation of the Happy Ending. Tolkien could not find a word that expressed this idea of the happy ending which is the exact opposite of Tragedy, so he invented one: eucatastrophe. This “good catastrophe” is “the sudden joyous ‘turn,’” at the end of a fairy tale, a “sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur” (86). A eucatastrophe is not “fugitive” or “escapist,” for it does not “deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure.” Rather, a eucatastrophe denies “the universal final defeat,” giving to readers “a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief” (86). If it opens for readers a window into Truth, Fanstasy is genuinely “derived from Reality” (87) in a way which may be transformative for writer and reader alike, for it is an “echo of evangelium,” the good news (88).


In the Gospel, according to Tolkien’s famous words to C.S. Lewis, Myth became Fact.

These final contemplations lead Tolkien, in his Epilogue, to one of the most open discussions of his Christian beliefs that that he undertook in any of his published writings. The Christian Story is, in a sense, a fairy-story, a Fantasy story which points perfectly to that higher Reality and which, through the Primary Art of the Creator, is embodied in the Primary World itself. In the Gospel, according to Tolkien’s famous words to C.S. Lewis, Myth became Fact.

Tolkien’s emphasis in the Epilogue is not just a declaration of his Christian beliefs, but an explanation of the final significance that he believes sub-creation and Fantasy may have. Tolkien suggests that “God redeemed the corrupt making-creatures, men, in a way fitting to this aspect, as to others, of their strange nature” (88), giving the final affirmation to the sub-creating impulse. Since “Redeemed Man is still man,” then “story, fantasy, still go on” (89). In the end, the Fantasy of human sub-creators, Tolkien hints, may through God’s grace be made actually to assist in the “multiple enrichment of creation” (89).

Visit his website at

Close window

Found this page without going through the magazine front page? Click here: Festival in the Shire Journal. For all things Tolkien inspired.