The summer heat has overcome most of the flowers, though the orange tiger lilies and small pink tea roses are still holding out. When I walk by the river, ocean breezes just barely disperse the steamy humidity.
This week’s Summer of Faerie post probably should have been the introduction to this blog series – a look into fairy tale scholarship from a Christian perspective. However, I didn’t have it ready when I started in late May, so it provides an academic interlude after the delightful prose and poetry other writers have contributed.
Many wise scholars have walked this path before me, exploring the relationship between Biblical truth, faith, and the space between once-upon-a-time and happily-ever-after. This essay explores a few of their thoughts and my own experiences in the perilous realm of Faerie.
Fairy Tales as Lanterns in the Night
In the Cape Cod village where I grew up, the library had previously been the schoolhouse. It was a quiet, sunny building with gleaming wooden floors, framed Sailor’s Valentines made of seashells, and glass cases of wooden ship models. They kept fairy tales, fables, folklore, myths, and legends in the corner of the Children’s wing.
I returned to that corner over and over. These books filled my mind and fueled my own stories with images: golden palaces and dark woods, beautiful princesses and wicked witches, ravenous dragons and friendly enchanted frogs.
While I loved the excitement of these stories, I found that the more-developed characters and complex plots of fairy-tale-related books like C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted, and Edward Eager’s Half Magic series were even better. I grew away from the flat characters and simple plots of the original fairy tales, but still shivered with delight at the mention of enchantments, wizards, castles, sea serpents, riddles, and magic swords.
Since graduating from college, I’ve begun to explore literary scholarship more, especially the work of Christian scholars. I’ve discovered an army of great thinkers who believe that fairy tales are more than escapist fancies for children, but essential to moral formation, awakening wonder, valuing goodness and justice, strengthening courage, and clinging to hope.
Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge said that reading of “Faery Tales & Genii” habituated his mind “to the Vast . . . I know no other way of giving the mind a love of ‘the Great’ & ‘the Whole.’” E. Nesbit, a fantasy writer from the Victorian era, argued that a properly educated imagination is like the light in a Japanese lantern: “It transfigures everything into a glory that is only not magic to us because we know Who kindled the inner light, Who set up for us the splendid lantern of this world.”
I had plenty of voices in my life that taught me to wonder at the vast and magnificent, such as my kindergarten teacher, who taught us about the magic of monarch butterflies, lady’s slipper orchids, and stars. However, fairy tales, especially beautiful illustrations like Angela Barrett’s, helped me accept and love the treasures of the universe: fiery sunsets over mountains, the smell of pine, golden pollen and pine needles floating on water.
G.K. Chesterton argued in “The Ethics of Elfland” that “conditions” of fairy tales teach us a “The Doctrine of Conditional Joy” that parallels the truth of the Bible: “A lamp is lit, and love flies away . . . An apple is eaten, and the hope of God is gone.” Rules like Cinderella’s midnight curfew helped tune my mind to the holy restrictions of the Bible, which did not always make logical sense, like Moses’s disobedience at the waters of Meribah.
C.S. Lewis, Christian apologist, professor, and author of the Chronicles of Narnia (and many other books) fell in love with the Form of the fairy tale for “its brevity, its severe restraints on description, its flexible traditionalism, its inflexible hostility to all analysis, digression, reflections, and ‘gas.'” A fairy story that leaves me wondering and a little mystified, like the Little Mermaid’s voyage to heaven (in the original tale) reminds me that there are mysteries on earth and in heaven too great for my mortal mind to grasp.
J.R.R. Tolkien argues that a fairy tale’s happy ending is a sudden “joyous turn” or “Eucatastrophe” that gives us “a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.” My child self learned to expect happy endings: spring after winter, health after sickness, and especially, Heaven after the difficulties of this life (which even I, loved and sheltered as I was, knew).
Truth. Joy. Wonder. Insight. With all of these brilliant voices before me, I don’t want to just repeat their thoughts – but I do want to consider them. How did fairy tales fill my mind and shape my heart?
I think of the little girl I was: a shy, moody bookworm who spent hours devouring books, a tree-climber in the Cape Cod woods, and a swimmer in the New Hampshire lakes. I preferred my curly hair wet because it looked more like a mermaid’s then, scribbled stories in dozens of spiral-bound notebooks, and acted out scenes from books or movies with my cousins. Fairy tales and other books gave me colors and shapes for my daydreams, vocabulary and information about the world, and a deep yearning for the eternal – the yearning that C.S. Lewis called sehnsucht.
What did fairy tales do to me? They gave me visions of beauty and mystery: vice punished and virtue rewarded; battles and quests finishing with happy endings. They reinforced the framework that I believe is the real story of this world: the Fall that causes suffering, the Eucatastrophe or “joyful turn” that Tolkien described, and the happy ending that stretches into eternity.
Fairy tales gave me a hunger for the wild, the mysterious, the unknown. The lessons I learned through the green flannel-graphs of Sunday School or the boisterous songs of Vacation Bible School taught me goodness and truth, but sometimes made me think of my faith as something that belonged in white church buildings and wooden pews. Fairy tales and fantasies shaped my desire for midnight woods and perilous seas and green mountains beyond this world – a desire that is godly (just read Isaiah or 1 Peter).
To be honest, fairy tales did have some negative effects on me. They helped plant the false ideas of feminine beauty that our culture continually deplores and yet upholds. For a long time, I believed that vice would be punished and virtue rewarded right away, instead of after some years of undeserved suffering or prosperity. They made me long to be perfectly beautiful and good without trying at all, like a fairy-tale princess. Fairy tales gave me deep joys and fascinating ideas, but they were a golden framework, not the full picture of reality.
In our nightly reading time, my parents would read a Bible story and a “fun story” like Treasure Island, Johnny Tremaine, Treasures in the Snow, and The Rats of NIMH. It was the Bible stories that gave me a full picture of reality: the green Eden we lost, the devouring dragon, the righteous King who came to die on the Cross for us, the Spirit who comes like wind, like fire, the glorious kingdom that awaits us. Scripture tells the true story that is far more wondrous and beautiful than anything we sub-creating humans could make.
Snow White is not my favorite Disney movie, partly because I don’t like polka dots. However, the last scene, when the prince and Snow White ride up on his horse and see his castle shining in the sunset, still hurts me because it makes me yearn for the Kingdom of Heaven. Fairy tales, like lanterns in the dark, helped remind me of the true Light.