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EH 32 Through the Wardrobe Door:
The Fantasy and Science Fiction of C. S. Lewis
Interim 2005

Attributes of Fairy Stories
According to J. R. R. Tolkien

For the full text of Tolkein's essay "On Fairy-Stories" please follow this link.

  • Fairy Stories are about "the adventures of men in the Perilous Realm or upon its Shadowy Marches" or, in other words, about human beings in a magical world. In any case, human events are central.

  • This secondary world has its own laws, and justice always occurs.

  • Things are often not what they seem or, in other words, there is often a gap between appearance and reality, and characters and readers can be fooled.

  • There is often an expansion or contraction of time and/or space.

  • Humans often live out their fantasies and have their basic desires fulfilled.

  • The ending is inevitable, and it is always happy: there is usually a catastrophe, but it always turns out to be a good one.

  • The plot involves the achievement of at least one seemingly impossible task through the means of magic.

  • Magic is taken seriously as a supernatural power, but it is always a means to an end rather than an end in itself.

  • There is often a wicked stepmother (in stories about girls) or giant (in stories about boys) or another blocking character, and there are often helpful animals or fairies and either wise men or wise women.

  • The youngest and physically weakest character turns out to be the smartest.

  • Fairy Stories cannot be dramatized effectively because they depend on an imaginative, mental image that stage and film either violates or limits or cannot capture.

John D. Tatter, Birmingham-Southern College,