The Truth of Fairy Tales

[ 2 ] December 22, AD 2011 |

It may be a commonplace to call our age one that prides itself on freedom from the “miserable dark ages,” from obscurantism, superstition, and perhaps belief in anything beyond the inquiry of natural science; but while materialisms philosophical and commercial may seem to rule the day in much of the world, somehow the most popular stories remain those inspired by the visions of former ages: by thought-worlds too foreign and spacious for the physicalist or relativistic confinement cell.  Fairy tales continue to be retold– just think of Disney, the Shrek films, or the two Snow White films to be released next year–and new stories inspired by them emerge one after another.  How could stories like The Lord of the Rings receive such popularity and affection from an age that appears so thoroughly to despise all that comes from its world of origin?

Because fairy tales bear in their hearts something that satisfies our longings; they carry truths too obvious for the modernist to remember, and if we search them out we may learn something not only of them but of ourselves and the world we inhabit.

Image courtesy of Bleu Turrell (click the image to see other work)

“Fairy tales are more than true,” tells us G. K. Chesterton, “not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”  In other words, the bad news– the real threat of dragons– is already apparent; the good news of their defeat is the surprise. The dragons we know about already, lurking as they are both in our imagination and in the world beyond, or else there would be no talk of evil, of suffering and death.  The pagans of old knew about the dragons– they knew the brokenness of the world before they had heard the Gospel preached.  Pandora knew of it; the Stoic philosopher in his calm despair knew of it.  The good news that follows, that the Dragon has been beaten decisively, that was what no human heart could have conceived, beyond what all hopes could dream.

But it is in the promise of this hope beyond human conception that lies so much of the attraction of fairy stories. Of the many truths which fairy tales might hold up to modern eyes the greatest is that good will triumph–that the dragons can be beaten.  J.R.R. Tolkien coined a term for the in-breaking of miraculous good which triumphs over insurmountable evil precisely in the good’s hour of greatest weakness, the most unlikely ending to modern readers but perhaps for that reason the most satisfying: eucatastrophe, or “a good down-turn.”  The eucatastrophe of the fairy tale is the Good News: the dragon is slain, the princess rescued, the day won, and all live happily ever after.

This is no pipe-dream’s perfect ending, as readers of the Lord of the Rings will remember. The eucatastrophe of fairy stories as Tolkien interprets them (and as they themselves echo the Gospel) truly embody the idea of “earning your happy ending”; not, of course, that in the end “earning” the final, miraculous victory has much to do with it– or else it would not be miraculous. For the very place where the Gospels and fairy tales touch is in rejecting any carnal hope of worldly success in favor of that far more fulfilling victory which comes as unexpected gift. Yet it is unmistakeable that if there is some unique power that fairy tales still hold over human hearts it is because in them can be traced something of the same pattern that lies in the Cross and Resurrection.

By way of contrast, if the modernist carries his “real” beliefs to their logical conclusion, the ending to the story is dreadfully unsatisfactory and does not result in the cathartic “happy ending” characteristic of fairy tales.  An excellent and very real published example of this horrendous type of ending is the Series of Unfortunate Events.  Daniel Handler (pseudonym Lemony Snicket) is a self-proclaimed “secular humanist.”  Not to ruin the ending of the intriguing thirteen-book series, it will simply be mentioned that anyone who has read it can attest to the utter lack of catharsis and complete flop of the end of Book the Thirteenth.  Very few loose ends are tied up and even more are opened.  Unlike a story such as Heart of Darkness or 1984, where the ending leaves you uncomfortable and pondering, but you inevitably realize it could not end any other way, The End (Book the Thirteenth of A Series of Unfortunate Events) results in the reader wanting to rewrite the story to have… well, a fairy-tale ending.  An epic such as the Series of Unfortunate Events demands a fairy-tale ending–or at least one somewhat resembling it.

Like a dissonant conclusion to an otherwise harmonious melody, the lackluster ending to A Series of Unfortunate Events leaves with its impression of dissatisfaction a testament to the truth that gives fairy tales their enduring allure. What draws people to fairy tales is the promise of something more than disappointed expectations or the punishments of cruel vicissitude: the hope of a victory that breaks through from beyond the circles of this world and in reaching down to broken human beings offers them the guarantee of a new day more great and terrible than they can imagine.

 

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Category: Books, Columnists, Entertainment, Life, Religion

About the Author ()

Ink and Quill are Roman Catholic college students studying architecture and philosophy (respectively). Long-time friends and co-writers, they enjoy studying Ancient Greek and attempting to re-create the 1920s (or sometimes the 1220s). Ink rarely sleeps. Quill rarely posts. Both love what they do. They post together at With Eager Feet.
  • Gabriel Austin

    Chesterton’s essay on fairy tales was included in an anthology of scientific writings, by Martin Gardner [RIP]; he edited the mathematical column in the SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN].

  • Brandon

    What a great Chesterton quote that you lead with early:

    “Fairy tales are more than true not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”

    Bingo! That’s a marvelous thought, and you do a nice job of teasing out of it the reasons why some modern stories are so…well…so dull–and unsatisfying.

    Then you bring it to a natural conclusion: “If there is some unique power that fairy tales still hold over human hearts it is because in them can be traced something of the same pattern that lies in the Cross and Resurrection.”

    This reminds me of my favorite quote in the whole Catechism of the Catholic Church, the quote that explains why we find eucatastrophe so appealing: “It is precisely in the Passion, when the mercy of Christ is about to vanquish it, that sin most clearly manifests its violence and its many forms: unbelief, murderous hatred, shunning and mockery by the leaders and the people, Pilate’s cowardice and the cruelty of the soldiers, Judas’ betrayal – so bitter to Jesus, Peter’s denial and the disciples’ flight. However, at the very hour of darkness, the hour of the prince of this world, the sacrifice of Christ secretly becomes the source from which the forgiveness of our sins will pour forth inexhaustibly.” (#1851)

    Great article: I think you’re getting bookmarked!