At a recent Honors Forum, Dr. David Bryant discussed the continued presence of fairy tales in our culture and the value that they hold. As Dr. Bryant noted, fairy tales can be found in children’s literature, opera, ballet, symphonic music and musicals, in films, and even in cartoons. Despite the pervasive modern rejection of superstition, the fantastical, and the metaphysical, fairy tales have remained a significant component of musical, theatrical, and literary expression. As a culture, we balk at the supernatural but cling to stories of dragons, witches, and magic spells. Why is this?
As Dr. Bryant explained, fairy tales allow children to see that they are not alone in feeling certain anxieties by presenting difficulties as a “shared burden” that all people face. Furthermore, fairy tales inspire courage insofar as they present heroes and heroines who must face and overcome their fears. Dr. Bryant also noted that in general, fairy tales offer children heroes who fight for the good in a way that is attractive and engaging. Evil is everywhere in fairy tales and often has the upper hand. It may even have a certain appeal that tempts the hero of the story. It is important not only that goodness wins in the end, but that the hero is attractive and is someone readers want to emulate. As Dr. Bryant puts it, “It’s not this parsimonious, ‘You must be good.’ They present good in such a winsome and attractive way that that’s what you want to be like. That’s what happens in a fairy tale.”
I think this hits the nail on the head when it comes to what exactly makes fairy tales so wonderful – not only are they enchanting, moving, and beautiful, but good fairy tales also endear goodness to us. Sir Philip Sidney said something similar about the power of literature: “The final end [of literature] is to lead and draw us to as high a perfection as our degenerate souls, made worse by their clayey lodgings, can be capable of.” By the “perfection” of our souls, he means nothing less than virtue. Sidney argues that philosophers may define virtue and historians may provide examples of virtuous lives, but literature has an unique power to actually move humans towards it. The genre of fairy tales is no exception – it not only reveals to us what is good, but also moves us to desire it.
C.S. Lewis certainly believed so. In 1956, he wrote an article for the New York Times entitled “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to be Said.” In this article, Lewis asks, “Why did one find it so hard to feel as one was told one ought to feel about God or about the sufferings of Christ? I thought the chief reason was that one was told one ought to.” With this thought process, he developed The Chronicles of Narnia, with the hope that the sufferings of Christ and the love of God might “appear in their real potency” to those who, like Lewis, struggled to feel the way they “ought to” about such things.
J.R.R. Tolkien offers yet another reason why fairy tales are such a rich genre. In his essay “On Fairie Stories,” he says that the trademark of the fairy tale genre is the happy ending – the sudden turn from catastrophe to joy, which he calls “eucatastrophe.” Tolkien argues further that “the Gospels contain a fairy story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories…The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation…There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true.” Eucatastrophe within a good fairytale, says Tolkien, “can give to child or man that hears it, when the ‘turn’ comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart.” This element of fairy tales is a smaller manifestation of the good news of the gospel, upon which Christian hope rests – the hope that, as Julian of Norwich so aptly put it, “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”
In light of this, it is unsurprising that Tolkien and Lewis are adamant that fairy tales are not merely for children, but for adults too. Lewis goes so far as to say, “a book worth reading only in childhood is not worth reading even then.” As Dr. Bryant suggested, the potency of a good fairy tale is in its ability to enchant readers of all ages, moving us towards what is good and even allowing us to taste the hope of the gospel.