*Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from The Spiritual World of The Hobbit by James Stuart Bell. 

Faërie and Fairy Stories

 

Once upon a time.

The way you react to that phrase—the emotions it stirs up and how you feel thereafter—probably has a lot to do with the kinds of stories you’ve been exposed to. But whether those four words leave you feeling happy, wistful, bored, nostalgic, or even downright annoyed, it’s undeniable that they help introduce some of the best-loved  stories in the history of the world.

Fairy stories (or fairy tales) have been an important element of many cultures for many years. On one level, they have an academic appeal. They provide a common mythology and shared values. Most people will understand why it’s a bad idea to “cry wolf,” for example, because they’ve heard about The Boy Who Cried Wolf.

On a more practical level, people enjoy fairy stories simply because they are good stories. They provide fascinating characters who move through compelling plots. In other words, fairy stories are fun. Both aspects appealed to J. R. R. Tolkien at different times in his life. Like many children, he was a fan during his younger years.

He especially liked the many volumes of stories compiled by Andrew Lang, as well as various tales within Norse mythology. During his maturation as a scholar, Tolkien took a much more academic (and assionate) interest in fairy stories. He studied their development over time—the way certain stories morphed and changed when moving from culture to culture. He delved into the historical roots of characters. He even explored the impact of fairy stories on the development of different words and languages, and vice versa.

Not surprisingly, Tolkien’s passion for these stories influenced his own fictional world. In fact, one of the most central facts about The Hobbit is that Tolkien intended it to be a fairy story in the very best sense of the term. Lucky for us, he succeeded.

 

Definitions

Fairy story can mean different things to different people. Some view fairy stories as silly narratives written primarily for children. Others define them as tales whose main characters are fairies, pixies, brownies, elves, and other magical creatures. Still others think of them as adventures that are touched by some element of magic or the supernatural. We know exactly what Tolkien thought about fairy stories because he was not shy about offering his opinions on this subject.

And those opinions lend a great deal of insight into his views on The Hobbit and other stories within his mythology. In 1939, two years after The Hobbit was published, Tolkien gave a presentation called “On Fairy-Stories” as part of the Andrew Lang Lecture Series at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. In 1947—while writing The Lord of the Rings trilogy—Tolkien revised this presentation for publication in a book called Essays Presented to Charles Williams.

“On Fairy-Stories” was Tolkien’s attempt at both explaining and exploring fairy stories as a valid genre of literature. What makes the essay fascinating for our purposes is that Tolkien was working through it at the same time he was creating what would become arguably the best fairy stories of the twentieth century: The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

So, what is a fairy story?

To be fair, Tolkien wasn’t entirely certain. Or to say it another way, he felt that the borders separating fairy stories from other literary genres were hard to define. He admitted this within the first few paragraphs of his essay: