March 2019 Print

Fairy Tales

by Jane Spencer

“Someday, you will be old enough to read fairy tales again.” C.S. Lewis wrote this letter to his goddaughter; his contemporary, Tolkien, said that only those with the heart of a child could enter fairyland, this being the key to all adventures. To be childlike is the work of a lifetime, and this is why fairy tales can’t be outgrown. Today, then, I will try to persuade you to re-visit a land that you might not have set foot in since you were very small. Though you have grown, you may find to your delight that it has grown with you.

Today, firstly, we’ll look at what exactly the fairytale is; then, I’ll propose three powers that strengthen the person that breathes the air of fairyland often. And with a bit of luck, you’ll see that whether you realize it or not, you’ve been clinging to the spirit of the fairy tale ever since you embarked on the perilous road of Christian warfare.

But let’s begin by getting a clear understanding of our subject. Most of us owe our notion of fairy tales not to their original authors—the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Anderson or Andrew Lang—but to Walt Disney who, even Wikipedia will admit, “altered gruesome fairy tales in order to make them more appropriate for children.”

As a result, many of us grew up unaware of things like the true fate of Cinderella’s stepsisters; in case you’ve ever had suspicions that Disney was too easy on them, I’d like to satisfy your sense of justice with the account of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, two researchers in the 19th century who drew many original fairy tales from German folklore: “When the wedding was going to take place, the two false sisters came…to take part in [Cinderella’s] good fortune. As the bridal party was going to the church…[a pair of] doves picked out…the eyes of each of them…And so for their wickedness…they were punished with blindness for the rest of their days.”

If you find this version upsetting, I don’t suggest that you look into the real fate of the Goose Girl’s unfaithful servant, or the rude dwarf in Snow White and Rose Red. In fact, you might hesitate before delving into a book of original fairy tales. But that would mean you’d also miss some of the most joyful moments in all of literature, such as the happy reunion of Rapunzel with her husband the blind Prince: “He heard a voice which seemed very familiar to him, and he went towards it. Rapunzel knew him at once, and fell weeping upon his neck. Two of her tears fell upon his eyes, and they immediately grew quite clear, and he could see as well as ever.”

I’m not claiming that all original fairy tales are pleasant. Actually many of them are brutal and graphic…for example, who knew that Snow White’s stepmother actually wanted to eat Snow White’s lungs and liver—not just lock her heart in a golden box. Nevertheless, there’s something more realistically evil about this version—and consequently, more realistically joyful about Snow White’s escape. And as we’ll see, realism is essential to a fairytale. So, we’ll dismiss Disney’s work as a corruption in which the princesses and heroes are sentimental, and the villains’ downfall undeservedly tame—a mercy which, by the way, no child watching the film would approve of. Chesterton remarks that children are “innocent and love justice; while most of us are wicked and naturally prefer mercy.”

The true fairyland which we will now examine is a place of wonder, “wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds…shoreless seas and stars uncounted…both joy and sorrow sharp as swords” (Tolkien). The definition of a fairy tale, according to Tolkien, is one which involves a solemn and pure magic… and essential to the story is its implicit, or indirect depiction of “moral and religious truth.”

Now that we’ve defined fairy tales, let’s move on to our second point of examining the three powers they inspire: Realism, Heroism, and Romance.

The first of these may come as a shock if you’ve been thinking of fire-breathing dragons, elves, and giants. But as Tolkien points out, fairy tales don’t deal with what can physically happen in our day-to-day surroundings, but with what the human heart desires—which is every bit as real and much more important. Speaking of his own youth, he confesses: “I desired dragons with a profound desire.” The fact that our hearts yearn to encounter the fantastic beasts or the beautiful heroes of fairy tales suggests that for us, reality means much more than our material surroundings. Just as our bodies inhabit a physical world, our souls inhabit a great spiritual realm of conflicting forces. And it’s these forces—the good and the evil—which find their embodied battlegrounds in the land of the fairies. This land is, in fact, one of countless miniature incarnations—in which the story-teller makes intangible realities like purity, jealousy, malice or wisdom take flesh so that his audience can better understand them. Then, when we encounter these same realities hidden in the more common occurrences of our daily lives, we know more clearly how beautiful or hideous they truly are. That’s why fairy tales, read analogically, are realistic. By looking through them like a magic mirror, we see our own lives transformed, charged with a deeper and more moving significance than meets the senses. Tolkien claims that fairy tales offer us an escape from the materialism of the modern world to the spirituality which is much more human. “Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home?... The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it.” Fairy tales are realistic because they clear our eyes so that we see the spiritual life beneath every natural occurrence in our lives.

If the first power of fairy tales enriches our perceptions of our world, the second translates into action; Heroism is the power by which we do great deeds and fight bravely for the good even when we can’t physically see the scope of the battle.

St. Paul said that “our wrestling is not against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers.” This is easy to lose sight of in our world, where the forces of good and evil which surround us hide themselves under the most common facades; in other words, our wolves usually seem like grandmothers, and often, the great prince looks like nothing but a frog. Consequently, we easily forget how exciting the battle we fight is, and our motivation flags.

Here is a modern fairy tale-gone-wrong: Once upon a time, a hero was accidentally born into an average 21st-century home. While he longed for dragons to conquer and a Holy Grail to pursue, he found himself surrounded by mundane things like velcro tennis shoes, TV’s, fruit roll-ups, and plastic toys. True, he was scrupulously shielded from gruesome fairy tales; these were replaced by the Cookie Monster, Clifford the Big Red Dog, Sponge Bob Square-Pants, and Minions. After a disappointing childhood, this would-be hero slouched into a mediocre youth, and finally resigned himself to an adulthood of comfortable emptiness; like J. Alfred Prufrock, he “measured out [his] life with coffee spoons,” doing the ordinary, and nothing but the ordinary.

This is, indeed, a tragedy…not because the hero isn’t given heroic opportunities, but because he doesn’t see them right beneath his nose. It certainly doesn’t help that a materialistic, sanitized, safety-consumer, but ultimately downright ugly culture discourages him from trying to see more than meets the eye. He asks himself: “If my life is nothing more than these things which I see, how could I be a hero? Why should I care to be a hero?”

As we’ve seen, the mind trained by fairy tales understands that the modern world which he physically perceives is only the outer crust of a timeless and dynamic spiritual conflict, a warring of principalities and powers whose battlefield, as Dostoyevsky says, is “the human heart.” Surely in this battle there is motivation for nobility. According to Aristotle, the virtue of magnanimity comes only with meriting extraordinary honors; this is exactly what fairy tales make explicit: they embody the evil as a malicious giant or a liver-eating witch, who must be faced and slain courageously. Conversely, the princess who embodies goodness is so beautiful that one would die for her in a moment. The mind trained by fairy tales senses the potency for valor in every moment. He is motivated to conquer even commonplace temptations and choose the good. He embarks on noble quests, and wins success.

This brings us to the final point: the crowning quality of the fairy tale. To step back for a moment: first, we saw how they give a realistic vision, then how they inspire heroic action; now, we’ll look at the result…the moral of the story.

As Tolkien says, fairy tales are all, at root, romances. They re-awaken our desire for the Good by showing just a hint of its true beauty and great power.

While tragedy is the highest form of human drama, Tolkien points out that for fairy tales the case is just the opposite. Tragedies hinge on a catastrophe: a sudden dire turn of events; in the realm of fairy tales, however, the rule is what Tolkien terms eucatastrophe: “the sudden joyous ‘turn’…The joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe…is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence…of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat…”

We have an instinct for the rules of fairyland—rules which characterize any romance. For example, the dragon is always slain. The lovers are always united in the end. But we also know that these rules seem to lose their strength in our day-to-day struggles on this earth; and when, outside of the gates of fairyland, we see lost kingdoms, broken hearts, and the triumph of evil men, we lose our confidence. It is in these moments that a belief in fairy tales—in the essence of the fairy tale—is profoundly necessary, and very realistic. We call it the virtue of hope. By it we trust that the great Lover whose image fairy tales merely reflect will ultimately win; that He will overcome the Dragon.

As Tolkien says, the happy ending of the fairy tale is “a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality…It is not only a ‘consolation’ for the sorrow of this world, but a satisfaction, and an answer to that question, ‘Is it true?’”

In conclusion, we’ve seen that original fairy tales are realistic, inspiring, and always romances. On the next rainy day when you don’t have much to do, you might dust off that old childhood book, and refresh yourself. Tolkien loved to discuss these stories with his friend C.S. Lewis, who went so far as to view the entire history of Christianity as the prototype of all fairy tales. Just as the author of a fairy tale expresses truths with what we would call fantastic characters, Lewis says that “Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call ‘real things.’” And in case you’re wondering if this greatest, truest story will have a eucatastrophe, it is foretold in the book of the Apocalypse: “I saw a great multitude…standing before the throne…in the sight of the Lamb…These are they who are come out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and have made them white in the blood of the Lamb…They shall no more hunger nor thirst…for the Lamb…shall lead them to the fountains of the water of life, and God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes.”