In Defense of Fairy Tales (1) – Introduction
Many years ago, I had to defend the use of Madeleine_L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time for use in the classroom. Fortunately, the key figure in the battle was so exhausted from a prolongued war in another school district that they no longer had the energy to wage this war again. Later, there was a battle over whether books in the Harry Potter series ought to be in school libraries.
In an on-line article entitled “Christian Fantasy: Biblical or Oxymoron?” the author asserts:
God would not have His children take refuge in unreality . . . . If a Christian is loving the Lord with all his mind (imagination), he will be dwelling on truth, reality, His Word, and Him, not fairy tales and fantasy! . . . Because fantasy is anti-reality, it is against godliness, it opens the door to deceit, and is an affront to the very core of your being as a Christian.
Although this position is extreme, there are many Christians who are suspicious of fairy tales because they contain magic or other impossibilities. They mistrust these stories fearing they are an unhealthy escape from reality.
Those who take this view, often see fantasy in opposition to reality. I contend this is a false dichotomy. Rather than being the opposite of reality, fairy stories bring us back to reality—a biblical reality, for in reading them we can experience the wonder of Creation, the presence of evil and brokenness caused by the fall, and the hope of redemption.
J. R. R. Tolkien was apparently familiar with the argument that escape through reading fantasy literature and fairy tales was harmful. His response to this charge is found in his essay “On Fairy Stories.” He agrees that reading such things is an escape, not an escape from reality, but an escape to reality. He compares the escape of the prisoner of war to the flight of the deserter and suggests that the kind of escape provided by fairy tales is that of the prisoner.
He argues that these stories do not take us unjustifiably away from our duty to cause and country which gives the enemy the advantage, as in the flight of the deserter. Instead, the escape we experience in these tales is that of the prisoner of war from an enemy so that we can go home and return to fight another day. His argument is that we misunderstand reality, and in so doing, misunderstand the nature of escape.
Tolkien is not alone in his belief that fairy-tales actually return the reader to reality. G. K. Chesterton argues as much in his book Orthodoxy. He says, “The things I believe most now, are the things called fairy tales.” Although each fairy tale contains a healthy principle particular to itself, Chesterton is not concerned with these specific truths “but with the whole spirit of [fairy] law . . . a certain way of looking at life” which is rooted both in our experience and in the scriptures. Frederick Buechner’s chapter entitled, “The Gospel as Fairy Tale” is found in the book, Telling the Truth. In it he discloses the truths found in fairy tales—the fundamental truths of the gospel. For Chesterton and Buechner, fairy tales return us to reality—the biblical reality.
When these authors use the word reality, they mean the reality presented in the Scriptures. The Old Testament tells of a God who created all things and declared his creation good. Evil is not a part of creation; it is not found in the structure of the universe but is in the human heart and in our disobedience to God’s will. Man was created good, but ‘fell’ by his deliberate choice to turn away from his creator. The redemption element says that because of his love for us God will redeem us; he will forgive us when we turn back to him. We are powerless to save ourselves from evil, but God is actively seeking to rescue us. Accepting the Hebraic understanding of Creation and the Fall, Christians have expanded the notion of Redemption. They believe that Jesus Christ is the epitome of God’s redeeming love and power – and that this redemption is available to all humankind and even the whole creation through him. In short, reality is what the Bible tells us about Creation, the Fall, and Redemption. This is the reality to which fairy tales bring us.
Buechner, Fredrick. Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale. San Fransisco: Harpers, 1977.
Chesterton, G. K. Orthodoxy. New York: Doubleday, 1990.
“Christian Fantasy: Biblical or Oxymoron.” Biblical Discernment Ministries. Ed. Rick Miesel. June 97. <http://www.rapidnet.com/~jbeard/bdm/Psychology/fantasy.htm>.
Perault, Charles. “Cinderella.” Folk & Fairy Tales. 3rd ed. Ed. Martin Hallet and Barbara Karasek. Toronto: Broadview Press, 2002. 39-45.
Tolkien, J. R. R. “The Monsters and the Critics.” The Monsters and the Critics, and Other Essays. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1984.