The Magic of Fairy Tales
How children’s stories changed whole generations by first changing magnificent writers
In J. M. Barrie’s classic fairy story, Peter Pan explains to Wendy that beautiful, delicate creatures are born from the joy of a child.
When the first baby laughed for the first time, its laugh broke into a thousand pieces, and they all went skipping about, and that was the beginning of fairies.
Fairy tales like this are simple, but complex at the same time. They communicate deep truths and morals and they can instill this joy, delight, and wonder while still cutting into the human soul. Maybe we need to return to those important parts of our childhood: joy, delight, and wonder in the simple things. Maybe fairy tales still matter.
There are uncomfortable endings at times in fairy tales because we’re meant to feel the weight of the lesson and think about the truth communicated.
In The Emperor’s New Clothes by Hans Christian Andersen, a child sees through fraud and states the simple truth in the midst of adult inhibitions. The story makes the child look wise, and the adults—the Emperor included—look foolish. This tale invites us to be like children.
Fairy tales warn us of danger within and without, such as in Little Red Riding Hood. The lesson in The Beauty and the Beast is that a thing must be loved before it is lovable. Rumpelstiltskin illustrates the power of words. We can see a longing for heaven and eternal life in the original The Little Mermaid by Andersen. In Sleeping Beauty we see the curse of death amidst the joy of birth, but how death can be softened to a sleep.
Fairy tales show us that things aren’t always as they seem. Ugly ducklings, who are victims of abuse, can experience beautiful transformations. And a frog really can be a prince. Fairy tales help us imagine another world outside of our own. This other world of the imagination is usually constructed out of deep human longing.
Peter Pan gives us Neverland, a place of eternal youth, where there is no death and nothing ever changes. C. S. Lewis gives us Narnia, where a King brings peace and redemption to a broken land. Tolkien gives us Middle Earth, where evil is fought by those who rise up to protect the good.
The new worlds we encounter in fairy tales help us get in touch with our innate desires and compel us to contemplate things that are unseen. We walk away thinking that this other world might actually exist or wonder if there really is a Gandolf, an Aslan, or a Peter Pan. Maybe these people and these worlds can be found in reality.
They also help us grasp a better understanding of our own world. C. S. Lewis believed this happened to him when he read George MacDonald. Lewis said, “The quality which had enchanted me in his imaginative works turned out to be the quality of the real universe, the divine, magical, terrifying and ecstatic reality in which we all live.” Lewis considered MacDonald his master and spiritual father, though MacDonald died before ever meeting Lewis. Many of Lewis’s story ideas and spiritual insights came from reading MacDonald’s fairy tales and non-fiction works.
Lewis was still an atheist when he encountered MacDonald’s work of fantasy, Phantastes. But upon reading it, Lewis felt a difference. There was something about this new world MacDonald created that appealed to Lewis. He claimed other men and their written works converted his intellect and conscience later, but it was Phantastes that converted (or baptised) his imagination first. When the process was complete, and Lewis became a Christian, he said this about the book: “I found that I was still with MacDonald and that he had accompanied me all the way and that I was now at last ready to hear from him much that he could not have told me at that first meeting.”
G. K. Chesterton was affected in a similar way by fairy tales. In Orthodoxy, he traced the process of his conversion back to the fairy tales of his nursery. The stories helped him still believe in what many adults dismissed as “childish ideals.” Chesterton realized that the ideals in fairy tales were much more real to him than the facts of science. He never let go of his belief in fairy tales. They gave him a way of looking at life that helped him grasp the tenets of Christianity with certainty.
Fairy tales first helped Chesterton realize “that this world does not explain itself” and the explanation for it must be some sort of magic. Second, he felt that “magic must have a meaning, and meaning must have someone to mean it.” He said, “There was something personal in the world, as in a work of art; whatever it meant it meant violently.” Third, Chesterton thought this purpose was beautiful (despite its defects), and he felt that whatever it was, we owed something to it, like some form of humility, restraint, and obedience. Last, Chesterton said fairy tales introduced into his mind “a vague and vast impression that in some way all good was a remnant to be stored and held sacred out of some primordial ruin.” He ends with saying that all that time he never thought of Christian theology.
Fairy tales led Lewis and Chesterton down the road to Christianity. Their imaginations were converted before their intellect and conscience. This shows us the importance of fairy tales and the power of the imagination. God can use the wonder of faraway realms, noble characters, adventure, and tragedy to bring the joy of salvation. He was revealing himself to Chesterton and Lewis through story before they even knew it.
Cover image by Matt Hawthorne.