Review of “On Fairy-Stories” (1939/1947)


J. R. R. Tolkien (writer).

Read in 2024.

A defence of fairy-stories on the basis of four aesthetic values, most of which “are nowadays very commonly considered to be bad for anybody”: Fantasy, Recovery, Escape, and Consolation. Children, thinks Tolkien, don’t need those values, and are not the natural audience of the genre.

Children are capable, of course, of literary belief, when the story-maker's art is good enough to produce it. That state of mind has been called “willing suspension of disbelief.” But this does not seem to me a good description of what happens. What really happens is that the story-maker proves a successful “sub-creator.” He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is “true”: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside. The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed. You are then out in the Primary World again, looking at the little abortive Secondary World from outside.

The counter-cultural poetics are very interesting, but don’t be fooled by Tolkien’s own excellent fiction. Like many romantics attempting this sort of thing, Tolkien passes glibly through some weakly reasoned passages, ignoring the horrors of the past and stupidly rejecting electric light. In the epilogue, he openly embraces the Christian dogma that leads him to use the term “sub-creator”, but even he can’t make it seem relevant to his points.

References here: Fantasy with and without consistency, Trovärdighet i bordsrollspel, Rollpersoner i bordsrollspel.

text non-fiction