The Indispensability of Fairy Tales

And so she fell asleep…and had dreams. Wonderful dreams. Clara had spent a magical Christmas Eve with family and friends. But perhaps most marvelous were the games played and stories woven by her godfather Drosselmeyer. His games delighted Clara, but  his tale of the toy, oh the toy – the gallant Nutcracker. The tale insinuated itself into young Clara’s mind so as to bring her sweet dreams to life: a toy-become-man, a dazzling sugar-plum fairy, a land of sweets, a nefarious Mouse King with his minions, and a glorious coronation in the Land of Sweets. And when the curtain was lowered on The Nutcracker Suite, all the children clapped and all the adults smiled.

Reading Rumplestiltskin to my daughters is an extraordinary experience. It brings up so many questions. Who is that little man? Why is he so small? How does he spin that straw into gold? Why does he want that woman’s baby? What kind of name is Rumplestiltskin? On and on come deeply inquisitive questions about the nature of this odd little yarn. And yet, one question that NEVER emerges is,Why doesn’t she just break the deal she made with Rumplestiltskin? In my adult mind, where power is taken into consideration, it simply seems logical (not necessarily moral) for the new Queen to sic the King’s forces on the little twerp, put him in the dungeon and never look back. But that would never occur to my daughters…because a deal is a deal. In this magical world of strange happenings, there is a solid standard of right and wrong. Again, a deal is a deal. Period.

Thus, attending the Nutcracker or reading Rumplestiltskin, I reason with myself, is edifying for my children. These are innocent tales of magic and suspense. They bring far-fetched characters from fantastic environments into close proximity with our routine lives. They bring us a taste of Truth, Goodness and Beauty inserted between bathtimes and tooth brushings. They teach us a deeper moral lesson after a piggyback ride, but before the dreamy, glassy fade into sleep. I convince myself that this is really best for my kids, but I know deep inside that it is just as good for me.

C.S. Lewis once said,

“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.”

And while I enjoy the complexity of the world embodied in the study of history, theology and medicine, I find there to be something tremendously refreshing when I return to Little Red Riding Hood, the Three Little Pigs, and the Wizard of Oz. These stories brilliantly showcase the most outlandish figures and events while simultaneously crystallizing a truth more compelling than if someone simply and baldly stated it.  Illustrations brilliantly drive home verities. Perhaps in a rough, but apt parallel I would aruge that while St. Thomas Aquinas is great, he’s got nothing on Christ telling a parable. As Flannery O’Connor reminded,

“A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is. You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate. When anybody asks what a story is about, the only proper thing is to tell him to read the story.”

The brilliant writer and Catholic convert G.K. Chesterton maintained a child-like wonder throughout his life. Remarkably, he never lost hold of the eternal lessons taught by the fairy tales he read or the toy-theater stories his father told. Chesterton recalls,

 “My first and last philosophy, that which I believe in with unbroken certainty, I learnt in the nursery…The things I believed most then, the things I believe most now, are the things called fairy tales. They seem to me to be the entirely reasonable things…Fairyland is nothing but the sunny country of common sense.”

Yes, so it is true. In a “grown up” world that fights to be grey, a world that bathes itself in rationalization, relativism and cynicism, we all need to go back to the books and the theater which overcome our fear of childishness, remind us of our first and last philosophy, and which lead us back to the sunny country of common sense. There is a Spirit (I argue a Holy Spirit) inside us that longs to lead us back to where we came from and to what we already know: that there is good and evil, right and wrong, duty and honor, loyalty and love. It is this understanding that makes our lives sensible, meaningful and worth living.

So it is true. I need fairy tales…just as much as my children do.

C.S. Lewis anticipated,

“Some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.”

G.K. Chesterton mused,

“It is an old story, and for some a sad one, that in a sense these childish toys are more to us than they can ever be to children…I do not look back, I look forward to this kind of puppet play; I look forward to the day when I shall have time to play with it. Some day when I am too lazy to write anything, or even to read anything, I shall retire into this box of marvels; and I shall be found still striving hopefully to get inside a toy-theatre.”

And Clara, who woke from her fantastic dream of the Nutcracker who became a prince and escorted her to the glories of the Land of Sweets? What did she do upon awakening to find her adventure little more than a beautiful dream? It is quite simple. She held the toy aloft and cherished it…with a love that was fresh, deep and enduring.

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