The Truth about Fairy Tales

Knowing God Here by Finding Him There

Is fantasy truer than real life? Can it enhance our view of the world in which we live? Does it offer us as adults the chance to break, albeit temporarily, our grip on reality and view the world from the idealistic perspective of a child? In many ways C. S. Lewis thought so. The following passages from the introduction to The Heart of the Chronicles of Narnia by Thomas Williams really struck a chord with me:

Although millions of Christians have delighted in the Narnia stories, I have encountered several and heard of others who shy away from any form of fantasy literature containing magic or real-world impossibilities. They mistrust such stories as conveyors of truth or fear them as escapism from reality, Lewis himself encountered the same attitude and effectively laid to rest such objections by showing how such tales can be “truer” than much of what children read in contemporary fiction…

The longing aroused by the fantastic tale is quite different. The boy reading such a story does not really desire the dangers of dragons and giants and ogres and enchanters. His desire is diffused over the entire world he enters, and it’s impossible to identify any single object as the focus of it. The whole magical aura of castles, knights, spells, woods, mist-shrouded mountains, dwarfs, caves, courage and honor draws him. As Lewis said “It stirs him and troubles him (to his life-long enrichment) with the dim sense of something beyond his reach and, far from dulling or emptying the actual world, gives it a new dimension of depth. He does not despise real woods because he has read of enchanted woods: the reading makes all real woods a little enchanted.”

Addressing the charge that fantasy literature is escapism, [J. R. R.] Tolkien asked Lewis, “What class of men would you expect to be most preoccupied with, and most hostile to, the idea of escape?” The answer: jailers. Lewis described the Christian life as warfare in which Christians lived in enemy-occupied territory. Naturally our enemies would oppose our escape; they would condemn any sort of reading that opens the door and shows us the glory of our true commander, inspiring us to rally to him and throw off the yoke of oppression…

Our problem is that, in Harry Potter terms, we have become “muggles“—mundane creatures unappreciative of and denying the power of anything we cannot see, hear, feel, taste, or touch. Modern rationalism and everyday routine have worn us down to where we reject the magical, romantic view of reality as head-in-the-clouds fantasy. We smile indulgently at teen crushes that send young people swooning and dreaming of that one face that entrances all the senses. We warn about-to-be-marrieds not to expect the euphoria of palpitating romance to last. Romance is an illusion caused by stars in the eyes. We tell the couple to expect the romance to fade and warn them to steel themselves for the long-haul, everyday chore of making a marriage work. Work is the key, not romance. Not joy.

Of course these are all sensible warnings because we live in a fallen world. We are flawed. The new wears off. Youthful beauty fades. The travails we experience convince us that wonder and romance are illusions, that plodding duty and hard work express the essence of reality.

Not so. In the play as God originally wrote it, the euphoria and tingling romance were intended to last. Wonder and delight are essential ingredients of reality, deeply embedded beneath the canker and rust that have marred the world since creation. Beneath the crust of decay, immense glory resides latent in every created thing. That beauty is still visible to any eyes that can be opened to see it. Chesterton reminded us that our world is just as much a fantastic creation as any that the most imaginative write can devise. The romantic view is the true view of reality, because it sees beyond the veil to the true heart of a thing. When the face we behold across the candlelit table appears to be that of a goddess, we see the truth. Likewise when the mountain looks like a monumental being aspiring toward heaven, when the chord of music reverberates in the heart and fills us with a longing for we know not what. In these magical moments the truth breaks past our defenses, shows our muggle existence to be a lie, and reveals reality in all its glory for what it really is.