This tale grew in the telling until it became a history of the Great War of the Ring.

Foreword to the Second Edition of The Lord of the Rings (1965)

Most of the telling occurred under the shadow of World War Two (see the diagrams below). Tolkien began his sequel in the week before Christmas 1937, wrote through to around March 1938, and continued again from August through to the end of the year. He then read widely in fairy stories in preparation for a lecture on that subject delivered at St Andrews in March 1939.

He returned to his story that August, the following month Great Britain declared war on Germany, and 4 dark years later, he wrote up the St Andrews lecture into the essay On Fairy-stories. Where the third part of the lecture inquires into the “function” of fairy stories the last part of the essay asks of their “use” and adds to the answer “Recovery.” I believe this new turn of phrase and new answer are keys to Tolkien’s understanding of the relationship between the real war and his story of the legendary war.

To understand the ultimate question asked and answered in On Fairy-stories we need to make sense of the story of Rohan. Tolkien wrote up his essay in 1943, having put the story aside for over a year at the close of 1942, having just told of the breaking of Saruman’s staff and the Palantir hurled from a window in Orthanc by Wormtongue, by which he wrapped up the story in Rohan. The story he had just told is a dramatically personalized tale of the recovery of our senses by fairy story that becomes urgent in a time of war.

Three questions of the story in Rohan:

  1. What is the nature of Theoden’s recovery once Gandalf has silenced Wormtongue?
  2. What is the difference between the spells of words cast by Wormtongue and by Saruman?
  3. Why does Eomer accept Aragorn’s word on the Lady but balk when he takes the Paths of the Dead?