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.
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 because we think 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.
What is happening here?
WATER IS FALLING OUT OF THE SKY!!!
When you think about it, it’s 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!
John Piper makes a similar point in a more thorough manner here.
What’s true about the water cycle? 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).
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. Chesterton claims that “[a] tree grows fruit because it is a magic tree. Water flows downhill because it is bewitched.”
These things, indeed all created things, ought to invoke our sense of wonder.
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 by “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.
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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 “Kraft Dinner and Premarital 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 help us to recover a sense of wonder, and understand that our happiness rests on a condition of obedience.
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.