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Tolkien On Fairy-stories;
Expanded edition, with commentary and notes

Edited by Verlyn Flieger and Douglas A. Anderson, 2008 - HarperCollins.

A Review.

Arriving with little fanfare in 2008, I believe that this is in fact one of the most important Tolkien-related publications of recent years.  The modest subtitle of the book hardly begins to hint at the box of delights inside.  This new edition of one of Tolkien’s most important critical essays not only contains the text of ‘On Fairy-stories’ that most of us will be familiar with.  It returns to the origins of this work, giving us a lucid history of OFS, and all the available evidence for its long development from a fairly short and simple lecture for St Andrews’ University in 1939, to the subtle masterpiece published in 1964.  The basic format will be familiar to readers of Christopher Tolkien’s magisterial History of Middle-earth.  What Flieger and Anderson have done with it, however, is I think interestingly different, and very useful.

The two editors are both major figures in Tolkien studies.  Douglas A. Anderson’s works include The Annotated Hobbit, both a valuable edition and one of the best studies ever made of that underestimated book.  Verlyn Flieger is the author of several important books, notably Splintered Light, one of the finest critical pieces on Tolkien ever written, and A Question of Time, a fascinating look at Tolkien’s ideas in the context of his own day.

The Introduction to this Expanded Edition of On Fairy-stories contains a long essay acting as a readers’ guide to OFS, and also shorter sections on its context and publication history.  From there, we move to the familiar text, but here it is accompanied by a sizable commentary explaining Tolkien’s references and expanding upon them.  If you’ve ever wondered just what Tolkien was referring to at any point in OFS, the answer is here.  Next comes the beginning of the new material, a history of the essay which surveys its development and begins to show how it changed over time.  This acts as an introduction to the following sections.  In the first of these are reprinted the newspaper reports of Tolkien’s lecture at St Andrews, which are the only surviving evidence for what he actually spoke of on the night.  This is followed by the manuscript drafts, which are presented with exemplary clarity for such difficult material.  Clever use of typography allows almost everything, including passages later struck through and rejected, to be included.  Each draft is accompanied by its own Notes and commentary section, which like that on the familiar 1964 text, is interesting and useful.  Finally, the bibliography is a priceless resource, including all the works consulted or cited by JRR Tolkien during the writing of OFS.

Anyone who has ever wanted to look a little further into Tolkien’s writings is likely to have read On Fairy-stories; it is his own major statement of his thinking on fiction.  Even if you already own a copy of OFS, however, if you are at all serious about trying to understand what Tolkien was doing and why, you need this edition.  For the first time it allows us to see how Tolkien’s thinking on key areas changed across the critical period of time when he was writing The Lord of the Rings.  The massive development from The Hobbit to The Lord of the Rings here finds not only an explanation but a parallel in the development of OFS from a simple lecture in a fairly light tone to an important critical essay.  The book is not perfect; there are slip-ups, but they are minor ones (I can forgive two Americans for not knowing which side of the Eildon hills Thomas the Rhymer’s tree was on).  For me, its only major flaw is that I wish it was longer.  No doubt it was copyright issues which forbade the inclusion of the 1943 text, but some more commentary on that work’s difference from the familiar text would have been good, particularly since its absence means that we are left without any real background for Tolkien’s comments on the visual arts.  This is however without a shadow of a doubt a very good book.  It takes complex texts and presents them with great clarity, and it shows us just why this material matters.  There is ample guidance here for a newcomer to the subject, but there is also room for the more seasoned investigator to make new and surprising discoveries.  Given Verlyn Flieger’s previous works, dare we hope that she will follow this with the  study of OFS, in the double context of Tolkien’s writings and those of others working on the subject at the time, which it deserves and which she could do so well?

Elizabeth Currie


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