Writing Tips

Principles from Tolkien for the Truest Fantasy

Over Christmas, I read a wonderful essay (and the related short story and poem) by J. R. R. Tolkien. The essay is titled “On Fairy Stories,” and it can be found, with the related story and poem, in the book Tree and Leaf.

“Fantasy, the making or glimpsing of Other-worlds, was the heart of the desire of the Faërie.”(41)

I highly recommend this essay to every fantasy writer, especially the Christian one, but as we are all very busy people and have reading lists miles long, I want to share with you my favorite descriptions, rules, and principles of the fairy story in a shorter form: the blog post. I hope that you will take away some valuable instruction about writing fantasy and hopefully get inspired to read the essay for yourself (Here is an online link that I discovered—proceed at your own risk).

Quotes from Tolkien "On Fairy Stories"

Curiosities of the Faërie

These are just some interesting quotes that reminded me of special aspects about fantasy that I had forgotten. Maybe these will inspire stories from you. They definitely inspired me.

“For the trouble with the real folk of Faërie is that they do not always look like what they are….” (Page 8)

“… to us evil an ugliness seems indissolubly allied. We find it difficult to conceive of evil and beauty together. The fear of the beautiful fay that ran through the elder ages almost eludes our grasp. Even more alarming: the goodness is itself bereft of its proper beauty. In Faërie one can indeed conceive of an orge who possesses a castle hideous as a nightmare (for the evil of the orge wills it so), but one cannot conceive of a house built with a good purpose—an inn, a hostel for travelers, the hall of a virtuous and noble king—that is yet sickeningly ugly.” (65)

“… the notion that the life or the strength of a man or creature may reside in some other place or thing; or in some part of the body (especially the heart) that can be detached and hidden in a bag, or under a stone, or in an egg.” (17)

Principles of Faërie

Here is a collection of quotes from Tolkien’s essay about specific traits of fairy stories. As a fantasy writer, I am not considering these points and hope to change my own fantasy in editing to make it truer to what a fairy story should be.

“Even fairy-stories as a whole have three faces: the Mystical towards the Supernatural; the Magical towards Nature; and the Mirror of scorn and pity towards Man.” (26) I would also add ‘honor to Man’ to the third face, and I believe that Tolkien would agree with me– at least C. S. Lewis does: “‘You come of the Lord Adam and the Lady Eve,’ said Aslan. ‘And that is both honour enough to erect the head of the poorest beggar, and shame enough to bow the shoulders of the greatest emperor on earth. Be content.’” (Prince Caspian)

“I had not special childish ‘wish to believe.’ I wanted to know.” (40) We should remember that our readers don’t want to believe in our tale; our readers want to know something real, and we should consider very carefully what they will know about life because of our fantasy.

“Fantasy is a rational not an irrational activity.” (Footnote 1 on 48)

“[F]airy-stories offer also, in peculiar degree or mode, these things: Fantasy, Recovery, Escape, Consolation.” (46)

“And actually fairy-stories deal largely, or (the better ones) mainly, with simple or fundamental things, untouched by Fantasy, but these simplicities are made all the more luminous by their settings.” (59)

Desires that Fantasy Attempts to Satisfy

These desires that Tolkien discusses are deeply philosophical and rooted in his Christianity. Unfortunately, I don’t have time to expound on each quote, as I would not be able to do the quotes justice without a long paper devoted to each. So I will leave you to ponder them (either in your head or in the comments.)

“At least part of the magic that [fairy-stories] wield for the good or evil of man is the power to play on the desires of his body and his heart.” (8)

“The magic of Faërie is not an end in itself, its virtue is in its operations: among these are the satisfaction of certain primordial human desires.” (13)

“Ones of these [desires] is to survey the depths of space and time.” (13)

“I might venture to say [that fairy-stories should attempt to] “see[] things as we are (or were) meant to see them’—as things apart from ourselves.” (58)

“Creative fantasy, because it is mainly trying to do something else (make something new), may open your hoard and let all the locked things fly away like cage-birds. The gems all turn into flowers or flames, and you will be warned that all you had (or knew) was dangerous and potent, not really effectively changed, free and wild; no more yours than they were you.” (59)

“Another is (as will be seen) to hold communion with other living things.” (13) Lewis mentioned that this is why Fantasy often includes talking animals, animate trees, and so forth.

“And lastly there is the oldest and deepest desire, the Great Escape: the Escape from Death.” (68) And this is why Fantasy has elves. I think I have been treating my elves too frivolously.

Joy: The Requirement of the Fairy-Story

“And he lived happily ever after to the end of his days.” (The Hobbit) These quotes are pointing to the biblical “Day of the Lord” when Christ will come again and creation will be redeemed. This is a very challenging part of the fairy-story to achieve– just as difficult or even more so that the tragic ending.

“But the ‘consolation’ of fairy-stories has another aspect than the imaginative satisfaction of ancient desires. Far more important is the Consolation of the Happy Ending. Almost I would venture to assert that all complete fairy-stories must have it…. I will call it Eucatastrophe. That eucatastrophic tale is the true form of fairy-tale, and its highest function.” (68)

“In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, [the joyous turn] is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to return…. It denies… 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.” (69)

“The peculiar quality of the ‘joy’ in successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth. It is not only a ‘consolation’ for the sorrow of this world, but a satisfaction, and an answer to that question [that children ask], ‘Is it true?’” (71)

Fantasy as Sub-creation

Ever thought of writing fantasy as a human right? Did you ever think that Fantasy Writer is a role inherited from the divine? Think again. (Also read the poem, “Mythopoeia,” if this interests you– I was going to put a quote from it in here, but I could not choose a single one, so go read the full thing instead.)

“We may put a deadly green upon a man’s face and produce a horror; we may make the rare and terrible blue moon to shine; or we may cause woods to spring with silver leaves and rams to wear fleeces of gold, and put hot fire into the belly of the cold worm. But in such ‘fantasy’, as it is called, a new form is made; Faërie begins; Man becomes a sub-creator.” (22-23)

“Fantasy remains a human right: 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.” (56)

An Address to the Jaded Student of Faërie (aka you and me)

I know this quote in long, but you may need to hear it. I know that I did.

“The analytic study of fairy-stories is as bad a preparation for the enjoying or the writing of them as would be the historical study of the drama of all lands and times for the enjoying or writing of stage-plays. The study may indeed become depressing. It is easy for the student to feel that with all his labour he is collecting only a few leaves, many of them now torn or decaying, from the countless foliage of the Tree of Tales, with which the Forest of Days is carpeted. It seems vain to add to the litter. Who can design a new leaf? The patterns from bud to unfolding, and the colours from spring to autumn were all discovered by men long ago. But that is not true. The seed of the tree can be replanted in almost an soil, even in one so smoke ridden (as Lang said) as that of England. Spring is, of course, not really less beautiful because we have seen or heard of other like events: like events, never from world’s beginning to world’s end the same event. Each leaf, of oak and ash and thorn, is a unique embodiment of the pattern, and for some eye this very year may be the embodiment, the first ever seen and recognized, though oaks have put forth leaves for countless generations of men.

“We do not, or need not, despair of drawing because all lines must be either curved or straight, not of painting because there are only three ‘primary’ colours. We may indeed be older now, in so far as we are heirs in enjoyment or in the practice of many generations of ancestors in the arts. In this inheritance of wealth there may be a danger of boredom or of anxiety to be original, and that may lead to a distaste for fine drawing, delicate pattern, and ‘pretty’ colours, or else to mere manipulation and over-elaboration of old material, clever and heartless. But the true road of escape from such weariness is not to be found in the willfully awkward, clumsy, or misshapen, not in the making all things dark or unremittingly violent; not in the mixing of colours on through subtlety to drabness, and the fantastical complication of shapes to the point of silliness and on towards delirium. Before we reach such states we need recovery. We should look at green again, and be startled anew (but not blinded) by blue and yellow and red. We should meet the centaur and the dragon, and then perhaps suddenly behold, like the ancient shepherds, sheep, and dogs, and horses—and wolves. This recovery fairy-stories help us to make. In that sense only a taste for them may make us, or keep us, childish.” (56-57)


I hope that you enjoyed this (rather long but hopefully not tedious) listing of quotes about fairy-stories. Do you disagree with anything that Tolkien claimed? Is there anything that stuck out to you that you want to include in your story?

Now I am going to think over this essay again (as I continue to edit my novel) and ponder just how much of my fairy-story I will need to rewrite after I finish these edits.

God bless,



7 thoughts on “Principles from Tolkien for the Truest Fantasy”

  1. Today’s blog on Fantasy was thrilling to read. You chose some great Tolkien quotes; thought-provoking and wonderful. Nothing dark or dreary there, just logical, common sense touched with the Divine.

    Thanks for the inspiration … I need to go find a good read!

    Love, Grama

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is excellent! Thank you so much for writing it. It was a good reminder of this essay; the last time I read it was many years ago, when I was certainly too young to understand it. I shall have to borrow my mom’s copy again, or perhaps acquire one of my own.

    I appreciate the selection of quotes. Many of them were very relevant to where I am in my own writing. And that last one, while lengthy, was something I needed to hear. Rather early in the post I actually pulled out my notebook and pen and started to make note of a few things I ought to keep in mind while I write.

    Again, thank you for compiling these quotes and adding the commentary; it was an excellent read, and very encouraging.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am glad the quotes were helpful! The essay both inspired and convicted me. You should definitely read the full essay again.
      I kept trying to shorten quotes, and then I got to that last long one. I knew I needed to hear the full thing, so I included it here. It is definitely encouraging.
      Good luck with your writing!


  3. This is great! Especially the last quote. Sometimes I find it a bit depressing to realise that everything I put in my stories has been done before, so this is really encouraging.
    I don’t disagree with any of these quotes. They are all so inspiring! Thanks for sharing this.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi Gabrielle, and thanks for this good selection from ‘On Fairy Stories’.

    I am at present making a selection of quotes from OFS and it was easier to do this from the web than copying them out from my old battered edition.

    You may be interested to know that I wrote my final year’s dissertation on ‘The Lord of the Rings’ in 1971 at the University of Portsmouth in the UK. The book had been published in three separate hardback volumes from mid-1954 to end-1955, only 16 years before. But the real watershed was the paperback one-volume edition published in 1968, which was both affordable (for students …) and which made the book available to many more people. So I actually wrote my dissertation just three years after the ‘accessible’ edition came out.

    Two very important situations came into play: 1/ The refusal of the literary establishment to accept (I only use this word out of convenience) ‘Fantasy’ as ‘real literature’ (just as Sci-fi, Horror, and most Detective fiction were also neglected); 2/ The Hippy movement of the late ’60s took LOTR as a kind of Bible – of return to nature, rejection of industrial society, voyages into ‘other worlds’ through marijuana and LSD, etc. They did not consider the book as literature, but more of a Guidebook to Hippydom.

    These two situations meant that LOTR continued not to be reviewed and analysed for what it was – a literary story in three parts.

    I decided (and I still consciously don’t know why) that it should be looked at as a literary story, and my Bachelors dissertation was essentially a classic literary analysis of the book.

    I then went to Nancy in France in 1972, and in between teaching at the university and pursuing my career as a musician in a contemporary folk duo -touring, doing TV, radio, and making records, I decided that I wanted to pursue my Tolkien research further, extend it beyond my dissertation, and write a Masters thesis. The key to this was ‘On Fairy Stories’. Not only is it a short, superbly accessible and revelatory piece of writing, I realised it was also a guidebook. I wanted to analyse LOTR to see if it fitted Tolkien’s own definitions. And not wanting to limit my thesis just to LOTR, I wanted to see if other writers in similar genres fitted also, particularly one, Mervyn Peake. The thesis was entitled “Secondary Worlds: J.R.R. Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings’ and Mervyn Peake’s ‘Gormenghast’ trilogy”. It was published, defended and accepted in 1975 and is now, still, I suppose, in the library of the University of Nancy.

    But what was key to the research was that it was easy! Why? Because in 1973 practically nothing had been written critically about LOTR! In those days, one had to ask the librarian for an article, which came back often a couple of weeks later as a poor photocopy, or order a book, which also took time. But these were so few. I looked up, found, and got everything that had been written, and still have them. There must have been a couple of books, a parody, and a few articles, none of which dealt with my subject – and amongst the articles I did receive, there was still a lot of the ‘… but is it literature?’ stuff, or, importantly, writers trying to prove that LOTR was a reworking of the Christ myth, given that Tolkien was a Catholic.

    (BTW, I have always made a big separation between C.S. Lewis – whose work I don’t actually like – and Tolkien. Lewis couldn’t keep his Catholicism out of his work. Tolkien subtly imbued his work with his beliefs in I think the much wider theme of ‘Other Worlds’ – that which is beyond Man. And we mustn’t forget that Lewis’s most well-known and successful work, ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ is NOT a Secondary World concept; it has, like ‘Alice in Wonderland’ a looking glass structure – normal people go through a magic door, mirror, station (Harry Potter), whatever, and enter another world. With Secondary World literature the reader is immediately in the other world, and it is the job of the writer to convince the reader of this world and to maintain their belief that they are in it. (Coleridge called this ‘secondary belief’, which again, is not the same as a ‘willing suspension of disbelief’). And the writer does this through the use of his or her Creative Imagination.

    It was my job in my thesis to show to what extent Tolkien and Peake achieved this. Tolkien, definitely; Peake, with reservations.

    I hope this has been a useful ‘historical’ contribution to your blog.

    I’d like to end with a paraphrase of an apparently simple but extraordinarily important phrase from OFS – which has to do with linguistics (never forget that Tolkien was first and foremost a linguist), the creative imagination, and secondary worlds:

    You say the word ‘moon’ to someone and they will immediately visualise a round thing in the sky which is white or pale yellow.

    But if you add the adjective ‘blue’ before it, that person will visualise a blue moon, which does not exist in our ‘real’ world, but which now exists in that person’s imagination.

    Alan Ward


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