Tolkien and the Fairies: Faith and Folklore

The below was presented as a paper at Oxonmoot 2010 (24th – 26th September). I include endnotes to indicate when I refer to contemporary/topical matters. Please also note that this piece was written for oral delivery, so it’s not polished in the way a piece for publication would be.

Tolkien’s essay On Fairy-Stories has been widely regarded as an important text not only for understanding Tolkien’s own mythopoeic fantasy, but also as an analytical tool for discussing fantasy literature in general. Tolkien first delivered this essay as a lecture, the Andrew Lang lecture at the University of St. Andrews in 1939, and it was published during Tolkien’s lifetime in 1947 in Essays Presented to Charles Williams, edited by C.S. Lewis, and posthumously in a number of different collections, most notably in The Monsters and the Critics, edited by Christopher Tolkien.

A number of the manuscripts of On Fairy-Stories have long been held not far from here[i], in the Western MSS collection of the Bodleian Library, and I was lucky enough to study them while doing my PhD, and to even be allowed to quote from them in my PhD thesis and the book that came from that research.

But there was a major issue that somewhat hindered my study – Tolkien’s handwriting, which ranges from the beautiful to the unreadable! John Garth has commented on this antithesis between Tolkien’s elegant scripts versus his hasty, indecipherable handwriting at times. He described the latter as: ‘a scrawl resembling nothing so much as an electro-cardiograph image of a frenzied pulse’ (Garth 2003: 13)

So I was utterly delighted when in 2008 Douglas Anderson and Verlyn Flieger edited and published all extant versions and MSS of “On Fairy-Stories”, together with a critical study of the history and reception of the essay. Their invaluable book is entitled Tolkien On Fairy-Stories and would have saved me hours of bewilderment and head-scratching over illegible MSS as a PhD student – but better late than never! The book has proved a revelation on all sorts of matters, and has reminded me of some really intriguing questions that had passed through my mind when studying the MSS in the Bodleian.

So what I would like to talk about today is probably the most heretical of Tolkien’s ideas evident in On Fairy-Stories (not that easily discernible in the essay as published but quite clearly articulated in the MSS and drafts now available from Doug and Verlyn’s wonderful new edition). I would like to talk about Tolkien’s belief in “real” elves and fairies. Not his Elves in the Secondary World of Middle-earth, but elves and fairies here, in the real, ‘Primary’ world.

In the essay as published Tolkien playfully hints to the possibility of such a belief on his part, but he leaves it vague enough to be taken as a creative way to discuss his topic.

For the trouble with the real folk of Faërie is that they do not always look like what they are… (Tolkien On Fairy-Stories: 31)

if elves are true, and really exist independently of our tales about them… (Tolkien On Fairy-Stories: 32)

It is often reported of fairies (truly or lyingly, I do not know) that they are workers of illusion… (Tolkien On Fairy-Stories: 35)

God is the Lord, of angels, and of men – and of elves… (Tolkien On Fairy-Stories: 78)

However, specifically MS B of the essay makes things much clearer:

But wondering whether there are such things as fairiesI preserve to this day a fairly open mind on the existence of these things… (Tolkien On Fairy-Stories: 234)

And again:

I preserve to this day an open mind about the primary existence of these things… (Tolkien On Fairy-Stories: 286)

Again in MS B, in a longish and quite extraordinary passage (which is actually one I was able to decipher and have actually quoted and discussed in my book), Tolkien ponders on the “the Question of the Real (objective) existence of Fairies”:

They are not spirits of the dead, nor a branch of the human race, nor devils in fair shapes whose chief object is our deception and ruin. (Tolkien On Fairy-Stories: 254)

Now, this is an interesting point, and deserves a short pause. Tolkien is here talking about possible “theories” of what fairies and elves are. The last one (that fairies are devils in fair shape) is the oldest and least interesting, really: it’s the medieval Christian idea that elves and fairies are remnants of pagan religion, and really demons in disguise, making every effort to lead good men and women to sin and eventually to their damnation (though not all medieval Christianity perceived them in this way). A similar, but more forgiving, theory argued that the fairies were fallen angels, some of the host of angels that initially followed Lucifer when he fell from grace, and were then stuck in a kind of “limbo” between the spiritual and material worlds.

The first theory (that the fairies are spirits of the dead) links in nicely with folklore understandings of elves and fairies: as manifestations of the spirits of the dead in folklore communities, often babies that died before they were baptised.

The second theory (that fairies are a branch of the human race) was one also proposed by Victorian folklorists and it linked belief in fairies with the existence of a pygmy race in Europe before the coming of the Indo-European peoples. According to that theory, this small race initially hid away, lived in secret places in forests, but eventually faded away and disappeared entirely, and they remained in European memory as fairies. This idea was supported by such folklorists as Jacob Grimm, Benjamin Thorpe, George Webbe Dasent, and – perhaps more famously – David MacRitchie. Tolkien’s phrase in the published text of On Fairy-Stories that ‘Pygmies are no nearer to fairies than are Patagonians’ (Tolkien On Fairy-Stories: 34) points – I think – exactly to this interpretation and rejects it.[ii]

But then Tolkien goes on to tell us exactly what he thinks fairies are:

They are a quite separate creation living in another mode. They appear to us in human form… (Tolkien On Fairy-Stories: 254)

For lack of a better word they may be called spirits, daemons: inherent powers of the created world, deriving more directly and ‘earlier’ (in terrestrial history) from the creating will of God… (Tolkien On Fairy-Stories: 254)

They are in fact non-incarnate minds (or souls)… (Tolkien On Fairy-Stories: 255)

Thus a tree-fairy (or a dryad) is, or was, a minor spirit in the process of creation who aided as ‘agent’ in the making effective of the divine Tree-idea or some part of it, or of even of some one particular example: some tree. (Tolkien On Fairy-Stories: 255)

Tolkien’s idea of elves and fairies as spiritual beings associated with nature is not a new concept only found in the MSS of On Fairy-Stories. First of all, such beings exist in the first version of his mythology: in The Book of Lost Tales, there are elves and fairies, the size and general personality of whom is very different from the later exalted Elves of Middle-earth. These creatures are called interchangeably “elves” or “fairies”. They are cheerful and pretty and there is a light-heartedness in the way they narrate the great tales we know from the later Silmarillion, even when it comes to the most terrible deeds and incidents. The reader cannot help but visualize little fairy beings with silvery voices, partly due to their flowery narrative style.

But there is also another class of beings in The Book of Lost Tales, often called ‘spirits’, ‘sprites’ or ‘fays’, associated with particular landscapes: trees, woods, rivers, springs and mountains. They are often given names from Classical mythology or from British folklore. Have a look at this extract from ‘The Coming of the Valar and the Building of Valinor’ from The Book of Lost Tales:

With them [Manwë and Varda] came many of those lesser Vali who loved them and had played nigh them and attuned their music to theirs, and these are the Mánir and the Súruli, the sylphs of the airs and of the winds . . . About them [Aulë and Palúrien] fared a great host who are the sprites of trees and woods, of dale and forest and mountain-side, or those that sing amid the grass at morning and chant among the standing corn at eve. These are the Nermir and the Tavari, Nandini and Orossi, brownies, fays, pixies, leprawns, and what else are they not called, for their number is very great: yet must they not be confused with the Eldar, for they were born before the world and are older than its oldest, and are not of it, but laugh at it much, for had they not somewhat to do with its making, so that it is for the most part a play for them; but the Eldar are of the world and love it with a great and burning love, and are wistful in all their happiness for that reason. (Lost Tales I: 65-6)

Also, if we go back even further, to the first drafts of Qenya, Tolkien’s first invented language and the ancestor of Quenya, there are fairies that appear to live in flowers, and others associated with the landscape:

Ailinóne () a fairy who dwelt in a lily on a pool
Nardi a flower-fairy
Tetille a fairy who lived in a poppy
Nermi a field-spirit
tavar (tavarni) dale-sprites
oar (n-) child of the sea, mer-child
*oaris (-ts), oarwen, owen mermaid
*Ui Queen of Mermaids
nandin dryad
wingild- nymph
wingil(d) sea nymph

(see Qenya Lexicon, published in Parma Eldalamberon 12, pp. 29, 64, 66, 68, 70, 90, 90, 92, 97, 104)

So, from The Book of Lost Tales and Tolkien’s early linguistic documents it seems clear that there is a division between:

  • the elves and fairies, the later Elves of the mythology


  • the spirits associated with nature, who are given names from British folklore or Classical mythology

One could argue (as I do in my book [iii]) that fairies, especially flower-fairies, were an integral part of the artistic inventory of poets and visual artists alike in the Victorian and Edwardian periods – and Tolkien started writing towards the end of the former and during the latter, so he was bound to be attracted by little winged fairies and relevant fairylore. Still, I think that Tolkien’s flower fairies and the nature spirits in The Book of Lost Tales are closer to what Victorian Spiritualists and Theosophists called the “elementals”, spirits of nature associated with earth, water, air or fire, first described in detail by the late medieval writer Paracelsus. In Middle-earth these spirits seem to be part of the creative energies that helped materialise the ‘Music of the Ainur’ and created the natural world.

These ‘elemental’ sprites remained in Tolkien’s mythology and later evolved into the Maiar, the ‘lesser spirits’ of the same order as the Valar, who aided the Valar in the shaping of the world. In one of his letters Tolkien explained that the Maiar were also involved in the creation of the world, but while the Valar were responsible for the whole creation, the Maiar were interested

‘only in some subsidiary matter (such as trees or birds)’ (Letters: 259).

But, aside from his invented mythology, MS B of OFS suggests that Tolkien believed in “elemental” fairies, spirits of nature, in the real, primary world. How can this belief be reconciled with his orthodox Catholic faith? Well, this might not be such a problem after all.

In John’s gospel, Christ’s words: “and other sheep have I that are not of this fold” (John 10:16) were often interpreted by the Victorians and Edwardians (especially followers of Theosophy and Spiritualism) as proof of the existence of fairies as a separate creation of God. Indeed, many religious men (both laymen and members of the clergy) had somehow incorporated the fairies into their system of belief. Paracelsus himself saw fairy beings as integral to his partially animist Christian belief system.

In MS B of OFS Tolkien seems to agree with the view that belief in fairies (or a parallel dimension of existence inhabited by such beings) is not contradictory to Christian Belief. He talks about

pure faierie… unclouded by doubt or theological suspicion. In fact owing to theological suspicion I am of course not discussing whether such faierie does exist or can exist philosophically or theologically. (Tolkien On Fairy-Stories: 256)

He even says that it is theological suspicion that has been responsible for popular belief often associating fairies with the devil or demonic powers (and promptly jots down the first few lines of te deum laudamus as if to exorcise such powers and declare his orthodox faith at the same time) (Tolkien On Fairy-Stories: 264). But he still seems to be defiant on the issue of real elves and fairies.

The elves and fairies he seems to believe in, and their “plane of existence” which is parallel but different to ours, are – for Tolkien – drawing ‘from the well of creative energy that a man feels to lie behind the visible world’ (Tolkien On Fairy-Stories: 260). He adds further on:

the normal world, tangible visible audible, is only an appearance. Behind it is a reservoir of power which is manifested in these forms. (Tolkien On Fairy-Stories: 270)

This view of a mystical vision of nature, a spiritual form of power and life that lies hidden beyond the visible world is very similar to ideas expressed by Francis Thompson, the Catholic poet whose work Tolkien admired greatly in his youth. In Thompson’s poem The Kingdom of God he writes:

O World invisible, we view thee,

O World intangible, we touch thee,

O World unknowable, we know thee,

Inapprehensible, we clutch thee!

And he adds:

The angels keep their ancient places; –

Turn but a stone, and start a wing!

’Tis ye, ’tis your estranged faces,

That miss the many-splendoured thing.

(Thompson 1913: 226)

This is the same poet who populated many of his poems with little elves and fairies, and talked about the presence of enchantment is our world, despite the fact that many of us have lost our ability to understand and appreciate it.

Now, these two short extracts from Thompson, point straight to another Catholic writer, one whose work Tolkien would have been undoubtedly familiar with: the recently beatified[iv] Cardinal Newman. Tolkien grew up at the Oratory in Birmingham, which was founded by Newman, and many of Tolkien’s early ideas seem to come straight out of Newman’s sermons. Newman talked a lot in his sermons about “the invisible world”, claiming that it is the proper place where God can be found. He also claimed that the other inhabitants of the “world invisible” are spirits of the dead, and angels.

Newman’s understanding of angels is very close indeed with Tolkien’s conception of fairies as “spirits of nature”. In his sermon on “The Powers of Nature” he writes:

But why do rivers flow? Why does rain fall? Why does the sun warm us? And the wind, why does it blow? Here our natural reason is at fault; we know, I say, that it is the spirit in man and in beast that makes man and beast move, but reason tells us of no spirit abiding in what is commonly called the natural world, to make it perform its ordinary duties. Of course, it is God’s will which sustains it all; so does God’s will enable us to move also, yet this does not hinder, but, in one sense we may be truly said to move ourselves: but how do the wind and water, earth and fire, move? Now here Scripture interposes, and seems to tell us, that all this wonderful harmony is the work of Angels… [The] course of Nature, which is so wonderful, so beautiful, and so fearful, is effected by the ministry of those unseen beings… I affirm, that as our souls move our bodies, be our bodies what they may, so there are Spiritual Intelligences which move those wonderful and vast portions of the natural world which seem to be inanimate… (Newman 1908: 359-61)

Bearing in mind the ideas expressed by Thompson and Newman, the flower-fairies and nature spirits in the Qenya Lexicon, and the elemental fays and sprites in The Book of Lost Tales, are not just an influence of Victorian whimsy, but also an effort to integrate spirits of nature in his early mythology. Newman calls them Angels, or “Spiritual Intelligences”, Thompson calls them angels or elves, Tolkien call them elves and fairies. And these spirits of nature, he believed to be real, true, semi-angelic powers that allowed the processes of nature to actually take place.

In the ever-surprising MS B of OFS, Tolkien refers to a memory from his youth:

I was walking in a garden with a small child. I was only nine­teen or twenty myself. By some aberration of shyness, grop­ing for a topic like a man in heavy boots in a strange drawing room, as we passed a tall poppy half-opened, I said like a fool: ‘Who lives in that flower?’ Sheer insincerity on my part. ‘No one,’ replied the child. ‘There are Stamens and a Pistil in there.’ He would have liked to tell me more about it, but my obvious and quite unnecessary surprise had shown too plainly that I was stupid so he did not bother and walked away. (Tolkien On Fairy-Stories: 248)

Due to a very recent article by John Garth in Tolkien Studies 7[v], we now know that this little anecdote is not an invention, but a real memory. The child Tolkien addressed was Hugh Cary Gilson, half-brother of Tolkien’s school friend Robert Quilter Gilson (Rob Gilson of the TCBS). Although Tolkien used this example to scorn flower-fairies in MS B of OFS, I think the memory is genuine of Tolkien’s different conception of flower-fairies at that time in his life.

Correspondence between Tolkien and another TCBS member, Christopher Wiseman, gives us further proof of this. When Tolkien presented the TCBS with some of his ‘fairy poems’ in 1916, planning to submit them for publication as a volume under the title The Trumpets of Faërie, Wiseman called some of them ‘freakish’ (Garth 2003: 119). He wrote to Tolkien:

You are fascinated by little, delicate, beautiful creatures . . . But I feel more thrilled by enormous, slow moving, omnipotent things . . . And having been led by the hand of God into the borderland of the fringe of science that man has conquered . . . I feel no need to search after things that man has used before. (quoted by Garth 2003: 121)

Wiseman’s argument was for the majesty of the solar system against the enchantment of fairies; he favoured science over folklore and belief in the supernatural. For Wiseman the fairies were only fit for Old Wives’ tales and belonged to a darker age of superstition. They were ‘the things that man has used before’, that is, before modern science. Wiseman saw Tolkien’s use of fairies and elves as anachronistic and unrealistic. Tolkien’s answer was that his own work ‘expressed his love of God’s creation: the winds, trees and flowers’. His elvish creatures ‘caught a mystical truth about the natural world that eluded science’ (Garth 2003: 121).

This is exactly Newman’s point in his sermon on “The Powers of Nature”:

Now all these theories of science, which I speak of, are useful, as classifying, and so assisting us to recollect the works and ways of God and of His ministering Angels… But if such a one proceeds to imagine that, because he knows something of this world’s wonderful order, he therefore knows how things really go on, if he treats the miracles of Nature (so to call them) as mere mechanical processes, continuing their course by themselves, – as works of man’s contriving (a clock, for instance) are set in motion, and go on, as it were, of themselves, – if in consequence he is, what may be called, irreverent in his conduct towards Nature… and if, moreover, he conceives that the Order of Nature, which he partially discerns, will stand in the place of the God who made it, and that all things continue and move on, not by His will and power, and the agency of the thousands and ten thousands of His unseen Servants, but by fixed laws, self-caused and self-sustained, what a poor weak worm and miserable sinner he becomes! Yet such, I fear, is the condition of many men nowadays, who talk loudly, and appear to themselves and others to be oracles of science, and, as far as the detail of facts goes, do know much more about the operations of Nature than any of us. (Newman 1908: 363-4)

Elves, fairies, angels, elemental spirits, spirits of nature: Tolkien’s early beliefs tap into anxieties and interests of his time, with Spiritualism and Theosophy very much in vogue, but also remain strangely compatible with his Catholicism. Could we consider Catholicism as a more mystical brand of Christianity that allows for such beliefs? Rudyard Kipling certainly thought so!

In Kipling’s 1906 story story “Dymchurch Flit”, later published as part of Puck of Pook’s Hill of the same year, there are fairies who live happily in Romney Marsh in East Sussex, until ‘Queen Bess’s father’ came ‘with his Reformatories’:

A won’erful choice place for Pharisees, the Marsh, by all accounts, till Queen Bess’s father he come in with his Reformatories… This Reformatories tarrified the Pharisees same as the reaper goin’ round a last stand o’ wheat tarrifies rabbits. They packed into the Marsh from all parts, and they says, “Fair or foul, we must flit out o’ this, for Merry England’s done with, an’ we’re reckoned among the Images.”‘ (Kipling 1994: 189)

The  implication is that the fairies were driven out of England because of Henry VIII’s (Queen Elizabeth I’s father) break with the Catholic faith and the formation of the Church of England. Kipling’s fairies are afraid that this will lead to their persecution as they exclaim: ‘Fair or foul, we must flit out o’ this, for Merry England’s done with, an’ we’re reckoned among the Images’. Indeed, in the sixteenth century the reformation of the church in England was followed by the desecration of monasteries and destruction of ‘idolatrous’ religious images. Iconoclasm at its extreme considered religious images to represent a sinful adoration of objects, rather than the scene or figure they represented. Kipling’s fairies, therefore, see Catholicism as a ‘friendlier’ Christian denomination that retains mysticism and could accept them as part of God’s creation. When they see the ‘images’ torn down, they embark on a boat and sail to France.

Tolkien’s belief in elves and fairies in the real, primary, world, therefore, is not as “heretical” as I promptly labelled it in the beginning of my talk – but, then, I was trying to get your attention and intrigue you! Newman’s angels, Thomson’s elves and Tolkien’s elves and fairies are the same spiritual beings that can live happily within a Christian understanding of the world, and create the necessary “supernatural” enchantment, making the way we look at the world new, exciting and mystical again: after all, isn’t that what fantasy literature does anyway?


[i] Oxonmoot 2010 was held at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford.

[ii] For these Victorian theories of the nature and function of fairies see Silver 1999, Bown 2001, and Purkiss 2000.

[iii] See especially Chapter 3: “’Fluttering Sprites with Antennae’: Victorian and Edwardian Fancies”

[iv] Newman was beatified on 19 September 2010 (literally days  before Oxonmoot 2010) and was later canonised in 2019.

[v] See Garth 2010.


Bown, Nicola, Fairies in Nineteenth-century Art and Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).

Fimi, Dimitra, Tolkien, Race and Cultural History: From Fairies to Hobbits (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008)

Garth, John, Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth (London: HarperCollins, 2003).

Garth, John, “J.R.R. Tolkien and the Boy Who Didn’t Believe in Fairies”, Tolkien Studies, 7 (2010), 279-90.

Kipling, Rudyard, Puck of Pook’s Hill (London: Penguin, 1994 (first published in 1906)).

Newman, John Henry (1908), Parochial and Plain Sermons, Volume 2, Sermon 29: “The Powers of Nature”, pp. 359-61. Available at:

Purkiss, Diane, Troublesome Things: A History of Fairies and Fairy Stories (London: The Penguin Press, 2000).

Silver, Carole., Strange and Secret Peoples: Fairies and Victorian Consciousness (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).

Thompson, Francis, The Works of Francis Thompson. Vols 1 and 2 (London: Burns & Oates, 1913).

Tolkien, J.R.R., Tolkien on Fairy-Stories, ed. by Verlyn Flieger and Douglas A. Anderson (London: HarperCollins, 2008).

Tolkien, J.R.R., The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1981).

Tolkien, J.R.R., The Book of Lost Tales, Part One, edited by Christopher Tolkien (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1983).

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