Sunday, August 13, 2006

J.R.R. Tolkien on the Audience for Fairy Tales

J.R.R. Tolkien on the audience for fairy tales:

It is usually assumed that children are the natural or the specially appropriate audience for fairy stories. In describing a fairy story which they think adults might possibly read for their own entertainment, reviewers frequently indulge in such waggeries as: ‘this book is for children from the ages of six to sixty.’ But I have never yet seen the puff of a new motor-model that began thus: ‘this toy will amuse infants from seventeen to seventy’; though that to my mind would be much more appropriate. Is there any essential connection between children and fairy stories? Is there any call for comment, if an adult reads them for himself? Reads them as tales, that is, not studies them as curios.


If fairy story as a kind is worth reading at all it is worthy to be written for and read by adults. They will, of course, put more in and get more out than children can. Then, as a branch of a genuine art, children may hope to get fairy stories fit for them to read and yet within their measure; as they may hope to get suitable introductions to poetry, history, and the sciences. Though it may be better for them to read some things, especially fairy stories, that are beyond their measure rather than short of it. Their books like their clothes should allow for growth, and their books at any rate should encourage it.

From J.R.R. Tolkien, “Children and Fairy Stories” (1964); reprinted in Sheila Egoff, G.T. Stubbs, and L.F. Ashley, eds., Only Connect: Readings on Children’s Literature (1980).


Anonymous said...

Heh. I love the thought of reading books that are a size or two too big to allow for growth.

Michael said...

A movie-related example-- I pointed out to people that Gladiator, widely respected and honored with a Best Picture Oscar, would have gotten none of that respect if it had been the exact same movie-- but set on the planet Zar in the year 2350. The very thin gloss of history made what was basically a WWF action movie without a brain in its head into something respectable.

In Tolkien's own work one could say that the absence of sexuality makes it hard to say it's fully for adults. At the same time, it's so informed by the experience of WWI (and the coming of WWII) that it's far more serious and willing to wrestle with mortality and personal moral corruption than most children's books (even though there's an essential contradiction between the fact that Tolkien comments on how most of his boyhood chums died in WWI, yet almost all the good guys in LOTR survive-- I really felt, watching the movies, that at least one of the hobbits needed to die, dramatically, or else Mordor and Sauron seem like pushovers).

In his work, I think, it's that tension between the story the ten year old boy wants and the story the grown man can't help turning it into that makes LOTR more than a kid's story, I think-- Ivanhoe meets Goodbye To All That.

Orange Blossom Goddess (aka Heather) said...

Both of the previous comments say it all. I am enjoying The Hobbit...again for about the 5th time. Each time I read it I feel as if something magical has happened because I see a different facet but am able to just purely enjoy it at the same time.