4 stars First given as a lecture in 1939, it was first published in 1947 and then appeared again in 1966 as one of two essays in Tree and Leaf. It reads as an academic essay whereas Tolkien sets out to defend the fairy story. An important read for any one interested in this genre and the thoughts of one who mastered it. His reflection includes wrestling with definitions, a consideration toward the origins of the genre, the audience as child or adult, how we ought to think of fantasy and the role of fairy-stories with regard to recovery, escape and consolation.
Here was some of my take away:
"The definition of fairy story--what it is, or what it should be--does not, then, depend on any definition or historical account of elf or fairy, but upon the nature of Faerie, the Perilous Realm itself, and the air that blows in that country. I will not attempt to define that, nor to describe it directly. It cannot be done. Faerie cannot be caught in a net of words, for it is one of its qualities to be indescribable, though not imperceptible. It has many ingredients, but analysis will not necessarily discover the secret of the whole...a 'fairy-story' is one which touches on or uses Faerie, whatever its own main purpose may be: satire, adventures, morality, fantasy...if there is any satire present in the tale, one thing must not be made fun of, the magic itself. That must in that story, be taken seriously, neither laughed at nor explained away...The magic of Faerie is not an end in itself, its virtue is in its operations: among these are satisfaction of certain primordial human desires. One of these desires is to survey the depths of space and time. Another is (as will be seen) to hold communion with other living things."
"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. The essential face of Faerie is the middle one, the Magical. But the degree in which the others appear (if at all) is variable, and may be decided by the individual story-teller."
"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."
"Fairy-stories were plainly not primarily concerned with possibility, but with desirability. If they awakened desire, satisfying it while often whetting it unbearably, they succeeded."
"If fairy-story as a kind is worth reading at all it is worthy to be written for and read by adults."
"Fantasy can, of course, be carried to excess. It can be ill done. It can be put to evil uses. It may even delude the minds out of which it came. But of what human thing in this fallen world is that not true?"
"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."
"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 enjoyment or writing of stage-plays."
"From the wildness of my heart I cannot exclude the question whether railway-engineers, if they had been brought up on more fantasy, might not have done better with all their abundant means than they commonly do."