In Defense of Fairy Tales (2) – Creation


We get a lot of rain in south western BC so we often talk about it, often disparagingly.  We fail to see magic anymore—even when it drops out of the sky and hits us on the head.

We think about rain in the same way we have been trained to think about many things.  In science texts, rain is presented as a result of a series of intractable processes.  First, water in the ocean is obligated by impersonal forces to do something we have called evaporation; as it moves inland and cools at higher altitudes the water vapor begins a process that human beings have named condensation; eventually, gravity takes over and the water falls in some form of what we have labeled precipitation.  Why does water do these things?  It does it can’t do anything else.  We expect it.  It’s the law—Natural Law.  We have named all these mindless processes, the water cycle.

Think about it.

What is happening here?

WATER IS FALLING OUT OF THE SKY!!!

This is incredible! Water is falling out of the sky!

What kind of a world is this, where water falls out of the sky?!

It didn’t have to be this way, but it is!

What is reality?  Does nature tediously adhere to natural law, or is it “a wild and startling place, which might have been quite different, but which is quite delightful” (Chesterton).

Which is more consistent with the Biblical teaching of Creation?

The Bible begins by telling us that God made everything and it was good (Genesis 1:31).

. . . crossing the line between fantasy and reality

This means there is no such a thing as an ordinary thing, and Chesterton claims that fairy tales help us to remember this truth.  In the fairy tale we encounter a golden apple and this brings back to us the “forgotten moment,” and the ensuing thrill, when we first discovered that they were green.  We come to see the creation, not as slavishly following a deterministic law, but joyfully producing green apples again and again, like a child who wants to be thrown into the air one more time.  “Again . . . again . . . again.”  It is not law, but “magic” that we find in creation.  There is no wonder associated with law, but there always is with magic.  It is because they ought to invoke our sense of wonder, that Chesterton can claim “[a] tree grows fruit because it is a magic tree.  Water flows downhill because it is bewitched.”

Tolkien refers to this characteristic of fairy tales as recovery.  It is the quality that “allows us to stay ‘childish,’ in the sense of viewing the world in the same way a child does—as if everything is brand new.”  We recover the sense of wonder that creation affords, “not seeing things as they are, but seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them” (Northrup).  This recovered sense of wonder is not “a mere fancy derived from fairy tales; on the contrary, all the fire of the fairy tales is derived from this” (Chesterton).  According to Chesterton, the natural response—the child-like response—to the creation is one of wonder.  And the immediate effect of wonder is praise.  To be filled with wonder at the world around us and to respond with praise to the creator is to be brought back to reality, not drawn from it.

In the fairy tale “Cinderella,” through the presentation of the extraordinary, we experience the ordinary as brand new.  When Cinderella’s fairy godmother transforms an ordinary pumpkin into “a beautiful coach, gilded all over” and six ordinary mice into six “dappled mouse-grey horses” (Perrault), we see anew the commonplace pumpkin and mouse as exceptional. Because they were turned into something different we can, with Chesterton, marvel at their original state.  Which is a greater marvel, a carriage or a pumpkin?  Because it could have been otherwise, we get a sense that in the orangeness and roundness of a pumpkin, “something has been done” (Chesterton) by a creator.  Mice and pumpkins are not as they are simply because they must be; Chesterton proclaims it magic and then stands in awe of these ordinary creatures.

How much more enriching is life when we live in a world where there are no ordinary things?

******************

So fairy tales help us to see the reality of the wonder of Creation. But there is another Creational truth that fairy tales help us to see—the reality of limits.

Cinderella’s fairy godmother “bade her not to stay [at the ball] beyond midnight” (Perrault)—this was her incomprehensible condition of joy. Happiness depends on not doing something: if Cinderella stays beyond midnight, she will be humiliated and lose her happy-ever-after ending. This is a perspective that the fairy tale provides and it is consistent with the conditions found in Eden. Accept the curfew and happiness will endure, leave after midnight and suffer humiliation; do not eat of the Tree of Knowledge and enjoy paradise forever, eat of it and “you will surely die.”

Man was placed in God’s good creation to enjoy and prosper, but there was a condition—that he “must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” for to eat of this tree would bring death (Gen. 2:17). This prohibition seems arbitrary and irrational, but upon it hinges life itself.

Chesterton recognizes this biblical reality in fairy tales where we find “incomprehensible happiness rests upon an incomprehensible condition.”  He calls it the “Doctrine of Conditional Joy.” Chesterton metaphorically compares this condition to glass, a prevalent substance in fairyland.  “Strike a glass, and it will not endure in an instant; simply do not strike it, and it will endure a thousand years.”   The fairy instruction is, “You may live in a palace of gold and sapphire, if you do not say the word ‘cow.’”

Although these fairy restrictions may seem arbitrary and irrational, they are not unfair. When held up against what we can do, we should not be resentful of the little thing we cannot do.  Chesterton’s illustration of this point is monogamy.  Many chafe under the Christian restrictions of sex only within marriage, all the while failing to see, and be grateful for, the great gift that sex is [Read “KD, Bud and Sex”]. Chesterton thought that “existence was itself so very eccentric a legacy that [he] could not complain of not understanding the limitations of the vision when [he] did not understand the vision they limited.” The thrill of what we can do outshines that which we cannot do and our happiness depends on obeying the restriction. This aspect of fairy tales is consistent with reality as presented in scripture.

Fairy tales present the biblical truth that our continued happiness rests on a condition of obedience.

Read In Defense of Fairy Tales (1) – Introduction
Read In Defense of Fairy Tales (3)Fall
Read In Defense of Fairy Tales (4) – Redemption

Resources:
Chesterton, G. K. Orthodoxy. New York: Doubleday, 1990.
Northrup, Clyde B. “The Qualities of a Tolkienian Fairy-Story.” Modern Fiction Studies. 50.4 (2004) : 814-837.
Tolkien, J. R. R. “The Monsters and the Critics.” The Monsters and the Critics, and Other Essays. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1984.

7 Replies to “In Defense of Fairy Tales (2) – Creation”

  1. “And the wonder of it all
    Is that I’m living just to fall
    More in love with You…”

    Water falling from the sky would penetrate one’s skull if Christ hadn’t created atmosphere to slow it down and ball it up. It is wonderous, ain’t it?

    Thanks for a lovely article, which I will be using in my class this year, and in my discussions with parents. Every Seventh Day Adventist should have to read this as fairy tales to them are falsehood– therefore, of the Devil. What an impoverished way to live. Our Lord’s miracles made Him very attractive to me as a young man, but often non-believers dismiss such stories as mere fiction. They, too, are impoverished by their faith in Science.

    When I am trying to save a fly or a bee in my class by shooing it out of the window instead of merely squashing it, there’s always a student who asks why I’m taking the time to do so. My response is usually along the lines of “Because it’s amazing.” Typically the retort is something like, “It’s only a fly/bee.” Then I am able to re-evoke the wonder in my students (which our schools beat out of them somewhere along the line), by cheekily stating, “Try making one” or asking “Can you make one?” The silence is profound.

    Wonder is worship.

    1. I am honoured that my musings will find their way into your classes. I think your “just a bee” example is another great illustration of this point. I will use it the next time I am beset with that miraculous distraction. “Wonder is worship” — Thank you, Jim.

  2. Do you suppose this is the same reasoning God used when Christ told us to be like children in our faith? What a blessing it is to see our Loving Father with wide-eyed wonder, like a child, with all of the crust of religion and adult cynism pared away. This is what allows us to freely worship a God so creatively wondrous that he gave us the honeybee – that amazing creature that flies around helping flowers to reproduce, and at the same time produces that magnificent substance we call honey. All praise and wonder to our Magnificent Creator!!! Keep the fairy tales coming Trent.

    1. I think you nailed it. Children have all sorts of imaginative access to things that adults have learned to label and then take for granted. Thanks Dan.

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