Tolkien’s Fairy-Story Gifts: Recovery


Tolkien believed the fairy story provided the reader with the gift of recovery. Recovery is about renewed, transformed vision – “regaining a clear view,” in Tolkien’s words.

How does this happen? By traveling to a new world, one which is different from our own, we are able to encounter many of the “permanent things” of our own world in a completely different context. Seemingly trapped in the daily, mundane existence of our own worlds, it’s often hard to see the magic of life. The fairy story allows the reader to travel in the land of Faerie, to go on adventures through the Perilous Realm, and to remember that our world is just as perilous and just as full of magic.

It also allows us to see issues in our own world more clearly. When the Pevensies escape to Narnia, they do not escape war. They escape a war with guns and bombs to fight a war with swords and magic. But in the magical setting, they are able to deal with the terror they were sent away from in the first place back in the primary world. So, too, the reader faces, in the pages of fantasy, issues that are often too frightening to face head-on in our own worlds.

Why do we need to regain a clear view? Because it’s all about vision. Randall’s recent post reminded me of a quote by C.S. Lewis about “the seeing eye.”

“To some, God is discoverable everywhere; to others, nowhere. Those who do not find him on earth are unlikely to find him in space. (Hang it all, we’re in space already; every year we go a huge circular tour in space.) But send up a saint in a spaceship and he’ll find God in space as he found God on earth. Much depends on the seeing eye.”

It’s easy to lose vision of God in our day to day experiences. The true fairy story will shake us back awake and remind us what we’re supposed to be looking for.


  1. David H

    The story of humanity is one of perception. Science is just a pair of glasses that augments what the eye can see. But the latest, greatest pair of specs won’t necessarily let me see to the end of knowledge. In fact, if built improperly they can make me see a dragon when there is only a bird or a bird when there is actually a dragon.

    There is far more to this world and the universe than has yet been perceived. If that were not true we could all — saint and/or scientists — stop looking.

    One thing of which I like to remind people is that people, with their normal people eyes, don’t ever see an actual thing. We always see the light reflected off that thing and that reflection can be affected by the temperature of the light (sunlight vs fluorescent vs sodium vapor vs halogen) as well as filters (the atmosphere, tinted windows or the shade of our shades).

    Atoms are 99.9 percent empty space, thus our world, our universe, our very bodies have little real substance. Yet they look and even feel fairly solid. Or, as the Nobel Prize winning free-will philosopher Henri Bergson said, “The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend.”

  2. Jeff Schinella

    Praise God for stories. I think the ability of stories to open our hearts or refocus our minds is revealing of one of our weaknesses. We usually see the world through a single, often prideful pair of eyes. Good (or blessed) stories offer us a new pair. Maybe since it’s so easy to see the faults of everyone else with our own eyes, it might be easier to see our own shortcomings through another pair…….or maybe Aslan just rocks like that.

  3. Gretchen Emily

    A few months ago I picked up ‘Leaf by Niggle’ by Tolkien. It most definitely held the magic of ‘recovery’ that you’re talking about. The story was so simply beautiful and heartfelt that it rejuvenated my whole view of the world, and our life in it.

  4. Janna


    The first few scenes of the film version made me realize how much the Pevensies did need Narnia and what a gift it was to them. However, I believe stories do not have to be fantasy to work recovery in the lives of readers. Was Tolkien setting limits with his use of the word “fairy,” or do you think his definition might also include other types of fiction?

  5. Travis Prinzi


    Tolkien actually set quite strict limits on what he called a “fairy story,” yes; but he wouldn’t say fairy stories are the only ones that can provide the gifts, I don’t think. He does seem to believe that fairy stories provide them best, and that other stories do it well when they evoke something of the mood of the true fairy tale, even if they don’t fit the criteria from start to finish.

  6. Dawn Canright

    Living out our fears through stories, somehow serves to ease the rawness of our own true life experiences. I believe that the reason a “fairy story” is so comforting, is precisely because it wraps up the darkest most awfully twisted tale into a magical “anything is possible” package. We are empowered to find the courage to slay our own dragons, sprout fairy wings, or climb the towering beanstalk. In so doing, we find our own answers…we create our own magic potions…we seek to destroy the enemy, all in hopes that in the end, we too will celebrate victoriously!

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