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  • “The Web of Story”: Structuralism in Tolkien’s “On Fairy-stories”
  • Derek Shank (bio)

In The J. R. R. Tolkien Companion & Guide, Christina Scull and Wayne G. Hammond aptly describe Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy-stories” as “widely cited (if not extensively discussed)” (688). Critics frequently explicate such concepts from the essay as sub-creation, eucatastrophe, and Secondary World in order to shed light on Tolkien’s other work, particularly The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion. Only a few scholars, however, have ventured to undertake a close examination of the essay itself. Much remains to be done in unpacking Tolkien’s conception of Faërie, and the relationship between his theory of language and his aesthetic theory. I have chosen to approach these issues through an exploration of Tolkien’s relationship with structuralism. I shall demonstrate that despite his critique of the structuralist analysis of comparative folklore, from the beginning to the end of the essay Tolkien himself relies on a structuralist framework for theorizing the relationships between human beings, language, stories, and the external world.

When I write of Tolkien’s relationship with “structuralism” I do not use the term in its more strict linguistic or anthropological senses. Rather, by “structuralism” I designate a theory of literature which assumes that the nature of a text is determined by the implied order of the relationships between its constitutive elements. In other words, there is a system of rules according to which the components of a text relate to one another to produce its meaning. Because Tolkien believes that stories qua literature do not exist merely in isolation but as part of lived experience, the “components” of a text also include the reader. Thus, for Tolkien the implied order or system also includes the reciprocal interaction between the individual story and the individual human being, which is structuralist in so far as it operates according to universal principles that govern the nature of stories and human nature.

Scholars have often characterized “On Fairy-stories” as a sprawling hodge-podge on various topics, which Tolkien was never able to form into a coherent and persuasive argument. Even his sympathetic editors Verlyn Flieger and Douglas A. Anderson make similar concessions in characterizing the essay in their introduction: “Tolkien is not making a single argument, nor is he trying to prove a thesis. Rather, he is offering a wide-ranging overview . . . packed with information [End Page 147] and erudition” (9–10). One of the things I hope to demonstrate in the course of my analysis, then, is that by reading “On Fairy-stories” in relation to structuralism we can help to explain the interrelationships between the various parts of the essay, which possesses more conceptual unity than most scholars have acknowledged.

Tolkien begins “On Fairy-stories” by claiming that his addressing the topic of fairy-stories constitutes “a rash adventure” (1), for “Faërie is a perilous land” (1).1 In the logical connection between these two sentences is implicit what Tolkien states later on, that “fairy-stories are not . . . stories about fairies or elves, but stories about Fairy, that is Faërie, the realm or state in which fairies have their being” (10, his emphasis). Faërie is the central concept upon which the entire essay is based, but perhaps partially by virtue of this very position it is the most slippery of Tolkien’s terms. Tolkien himself confesses his inability to explain Faërie as a concept, writing, “I will not attempt to define that, nor to describe it directly. It cannot be done. Faërie cannot be caught in a net of words; for it is one of its qualities to be indescribable, though not imperceptible” (12). In fact, the indescribability of Faërie is rooted in its wondrous nature: “In that realm a man may, perhaps, count himself fortunate to have wandered, but its very richness and strangeness tie the tongue of a traveller who would report them” (2). Since fairy-stories are stories about Faërie, but Faërie itself cannot be defined, Tolkien takes the opposite approach, and attempts to delineate Faërie indirectly and by implication, through his examination of fairy-stories. Flieger...


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