I don’t remember when I first read J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings; these tales seem to have always been part of the furnishings of my imagination. However, I do recall precisely when I encountered Tolkien’s groundbreaking essay “On Fairy-stories,” in which he explores the origins, nature, and purpose of fantasy literature. I was a young teenager, and while browsing through a book-table at a flea market, I came across a book called The Tolkien Reader, in which this essay was included. Little did I know that this battered paperback with its trippy 1970s cover art would change my life in so many ways.
“On Fairy-stories” is a powerful analysis of how fantasy works. Originating as a lecture in 1939, it came about after he had published The Hobbit and had begun work on the Hobbit sequel that would become The Lord of the Rings. Here, Tolkien sets out his vision of what fantasy is and what it can—and should—do.
A genuine fantasy, according to Tolkien, creates an immersive experience for the reader. In a successful fantasy, the author is a ‘sub-creator’: as Tolkien puts it, “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.”