I wonder what possessed the publishers to combine these very different pieces by Tolkien together between the same set of covers? I was a little baffled when I first read them, I don't think I was more than twelve at the time.
I now find it much easier to grasp "On Fairy Stories", since I've read a great deal more Tolkien, a lot more fantasy literature, and also a lot more literary criticism since the first time I tried it. Not being partisan in the debate myself, I can only say that Tolkien defends his patch vigorously and well.
As a convent-school pupil, I was pretty familiar with Catholic teaching on the afterlife even aged 12, and the allegory in "Leaf by Niggle"is not subtle. But what I realise now is the extent to which Tolkien was writing about himself - Niggle's great work of art is not appreciated by his neighbours, who think it's a waste of time, rather as some of Tolkien's fellow dons must have speculated about his writing.
"Beorhtnoth" is still rather above my head. The play in itself, Tolkien's only attempt at drama, isn't very dramatic. The short essay before it (and the shorter one after) make it clear that this is in some way a critique of, well, I'm not sure what; is it other scholars, or the original author of the "Battle of Maldon"? I actually liked it more as a twelve-year-old, where there was the romance of the partially preserved manuscript and the effort of tackling an unfamiliar form of writing.
Funny how we change, as life changes us.