In Defense of Fairy Tales

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Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.

G.K. Chesterton

Sally and I recently took the time to listen to a fairy tale entitled The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald. Why? Perhaps it was a twitch on the thread…let’s leave that notion for a moment and return to it shortly.

A fairy tale is defined as “a children’s story about magical beings and lands.” Curiously, the definition stops there, as if that simple definition begins to capture the essence of such stories. The fact that they tend to be simple does not make them simplistic, nor does their being written for children render them less nuanced, compelling, or relevant.

The Princess and the Goblin is written in less than 100 pages but somehow manages to capture truths worthy of voluminous tomes from other authors bent on explaining the mysterious and hidden elements of our own psyches. Insight does not have to be complicated.

Let’s take one example of dialogue that struck me as I was listening to the story:

'Why do you call yourself old? You're not old grandmother.'

'I am very old indeed. It is so silly of people - I don't mean you, for you are such a tiny, and couldn't know better-but it is so silly of people to fancy that old age means crookedness and witheredness and feebleness and sticks and spectacles and rheumatism and forgetfulness! It is so silly! Old age has nothing whatever to do with all that. The right old age means strength and beauty and mirth and courage and clear eyes and strong painless limbs.' 

In the exchange above, our heroine, Princess Irene, is interacting with her “grandmother,” an old lady who lives upstairs in her castle. Of course, no one else knows of this old lady nor can they see her. Irene sees her as very old, and very beautiful; and this old women gets more beautiful with every encounter. Through the eyes of a child, we take another look at old age and rethink our conclusions as we consider what “right old age” means for us.

Why George MacDonald? MacDonald was a Scottish author, poet, and Christian minister who was a “pioneering figure in the field of modern fantasy literature.” We discovered him through C.S. Lewis, who credits much to MacDonald’s influence. George MacDonald died in 1905 and was noted as a tremendous influence on many writers including G.K. Chesterton and J.R.R. Tolkien, who along with Lewis, created works inspiring and enthralling millions.

Through just a single story, one can begin to trace MacDonald’s influence on Chesterton, Lewis, and Tolkien; a discovery that renders him instantly familiar and accessible to any who follow such great authors.

"Did you catch this man?" asked the colonel, frowning.Father Brown looked him full in his frowning face. 

"Yes," he said, "I caught him, with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world, and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread."

The exchange above is from one of G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown stories. A series about a Catholic priest who also solves mysteries. Curiously, Princess Irene’s mysterious grandmother is found working diligently at a spinning wheel in her chambers and gives some of the thread to the Princess; thread that magically helps her find her way home later when she is lost. Chesterton’s “twitch upon a thread” metaphor is later repurposed in Evelyn Waugh’s novel, Brideshead Revisited. Hmm, I wonder if it was the same twitch that we felt pulling us toward MacDonald’s story.

Oh, those simplistic fairy tales, one never knows where their influence may appear.

Following our heroine along on her adventure, Irene befriends a young boy named Curdie, who is a miner, along with his father, in the depths of a nearby mountain. At one point, Irene rescues Curdie by following her invisible thread and decides to take him to meet her grandmother. Alas, Curdie is unable to see Irene’s mysterious grandmother or the invisible thread she used to guide them out of the mines. He does not understand or believe what she is telling him. Irene and grandmother discuss Curdie’s disbelief:

'Yes, grandmother. But it wasn't very good of him not to believe me when I was telling him the truth.'

'People believe what they can, and those who believe more must not be hard upon those who believe less. I doubt if you would have believed it all yourself if you hadn't seen some of it.'

Curdie becomes frustrated and angry because he feels that Irene is teasing him about her invisible grandmother and the magical thread he cannot see so he leaves and returns to his cottage where he tells his mother about it:

'It's no explanation at all, mother, and I can't believe it.'

'That may be only because you do not understand it. If you did, you would probably find it was an explanation, and believe it thoroughly. I don't blame you for not being able to believe it, but I do blame you for fancying such a child would try to deceive you. Why should she? Depend upon it, she told you all she knew. Until you had found a better way of accounting for it all, you might at least have been more sparing in your judgement.'

Seeing is believing, right? Ours is a world of quantification and proof, yet we still find so many mysteries which elude our explanations. Ask “why?” enough times and you will likely find the point at which the concrete of explanation gives way to the acceptance of mystery. There, magic may be as workable an explanation as any equation. Time and again we find ourselves relearning this same lesson. There is beauty in simplicity and a few lines of a children’s story serve to renew our halting acceptance of mystery and the truth of how we believe.

Regarding fairy tales, C.S. Lewis wrote:

"When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up."

Perhaps there is more hiding within these fairy tales than we realize. Maybe the childishness we fear is actually the fountain of youth and our notion of “being very grown up” causes us to lose the sense of awe and wonder, the belief in magic, that actually keeps us young.

But what else might fairy tales remind us? Here are a few more nuggets from The Princess and the Goblin:

  • “We are all very anxious to be understood, and it is very hard not to be. But there is one thing much more necessary.’ What is that, grandmother?’ To understand other people.’ Yes, grandmother. I must be fair – for if I’m not fair to other people, I’m not worth being understood myself. I see.”
  • “Here I should like to remark, for the sake of princes and princesses in general, that it is a low and contemptible thing to refuse to confess a fault, or even an error. If a true princess has done wrong, she is always uneasy until she has had an opportunity of throwing the wrongness away from her by saying: ‘I did it; and I wish I had not; and I am sorry for having done it.”
  • “It was foolish indeed – thus to run farther and farther from all who could help her, as if she had been seeking a fit spot for the goblin creature to eat her in at his leisure; but that is the way fear serves us: it always sides with the thing we are afraid of.”

Our complex world need not always be complicated. There are simple truths and sometimes the joy hides in the mystery – within the unexplainable magic of it all. The adventure of discovering it is its own reward and our childishness need not be petulant, selfish, or naive. Maybe we could all use just a bit more fairy tale in our lives and learn again the glorious possibility of the mystery – those unknown places on the map or within our own imaginations.

Seeing is not believing – it is only seeing.

George MacDonald, The Princess and the Goblin
Showing 2 comments
  • Rebecca Seifert

    Great read!

  • Trish+Berry

    Beautiful piece! I see the lessons when I read to our Babes.

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