This significant historical event is brought to you by the Fellowship of St Andrews. Each fortnight, Owl Eyes will bring you their re-telling of a lesser-known event in St Andrews history.
On the 8th of March, 1939, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien came to St Andrews to participate in the Andrew Lang Lecture series. Just two years previously, in 1937, J.R.R. Tolkien had published his groundbreaking novel, The Hobbit, rocketing him to literary fame. The book was so popular, in fact, that most people could not find a copy – even years after its initial publication. Paper rationing in the United Kingdom, due to World War II, strictly limited the amount of editions that could be printed at a time.
The year of 1938-39, leading up to his Andrew Lang Lecture, had been an especially trying one for Tolkien. He had begun the construction of a crude skeleton of a sequel for The Hobbit, but struggled with formulating the characters and themes he wanted to put into play. He knew that he desired a story that was wider reaching and deeper than his previous Middle Earth novel, but was fearful of sacrificing his beloved hobbit and dwarf characters to reach that ambitious end. How to strike a balance between small characters and huge themes? This difficulty would plague Tolkien, and his patient editors at George Allen & Unwin, for more than a decade to come. The Lord of the Rings would not be completed until 1949, and would not be published until 1954.
With only a microscopic germ of an idea for his greatest work, Tolkien came to St Andrews with a heavy burden, and a singular mission: to justify and exemplify the literary worth of fairy tales. It must have been quite a sight for those few students and lecturers, crowded into a lecture theatre on a rainy day in March, to hear a small middle aged man discuss, for an hour, in utter academic seriousness, fairies.
And discuss he did. One could even call his lecture an argument, it was so fiery and revolutionary. Tolkien was a pioneer for speculative fiction. His Andrew Lang lecture is a beautifully architected vindication for treating fairy tales with respect as quality literature. Tolkien was among the first reputable scholars to defend the supernatural and speculative as themes not to be discarded to the fringes. Rather, he boasted, these areas are ripe opportunities for writers. Escape is the aim of art, is the major message of Tolkien's lecture in St Andrews.
To this day, “On Fairy Stories” is among the most influential works of literary criticism for fantasy and the supernatural. And it was delivered by its author, for the first time, in this town.
The full essay of J.R.R. Tolkien's Andrew Lang Lecture, “On Fairy Stories,” can be found for free online here.