“[F]airy tales whisper to us of our deep need. The best fairy tale is a story you wish would come true. And this wish, in its turn, is merely the obverse side of a confession. It’s an admission that, in and of ourselves, we are incomplete.”
I love fairy tales. When I was very young, my aunt gave us an even then old volume of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, with color illustrations, and I lay on the floor and pored over its stories. By the time I was 12, I had graduated to the science fiction genre and, as a member of the Science Fiction Book Club, was enthralled by the adult fiction of the likes of Kurt Vonnegut, Robert Heinlein, Issac Asimov, and Ray Bradbury. They were not the best fantasies for a boy of 12, and many were not good tales, in that they pointed away from God.
One nihilistic short story I still remember. A man enters a multi-level department store such as you find in New York, with escalators that whisk you to as many as eight floors of shopping. He finishes his shopping on some upper floor, and begins his descent to the ground floor and exit — only he never makes it. Down he descends one floor, walks round to the next down escalator, and down he goes again. This keeps up, the crowds thinning as he goes, until, having descended many more floors than he can count, he is alone. He continues descending, becoming more frantic by the minute, until he is running down, down, down, dropping his packages, yelling for anyone to help, finally falling, splayed at the end of one descending belt of steps, weeping. The end. It’s a parable of futility and hopelessness. It’s not a good fairy tale, though it is told well — so well that 45 years later I still remember it.
A good fairy tale, unlike this story, take us to a place that is unlike what we know. Whether science fiction or fantasy or both, they whisk us away to an improbable reality where evil is evil and good is good, where there is a welcome and unexpected turning of the tables (as when small and humble Frodo the hobbit agrees to take the Ring to the Crack of Doom), where in the end justice is done and good triumphs, where the answer to Sam Gamgee’s question — “Is everything sad going to come untrue” — is yes, yes, of course, and we can finally say “and they all lived happily ever after.”
When I read fantasy as a boy, and when I read it now, I am looking for the good, the true, and the beautiful. I’m looking for the Gospel. Like C.S. Lewis said, “The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. . . . It happens — at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. . . . By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle.” Tolkien said it as well, that “[t]he Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories.” Good fantasies let me come back to the Gospel story and see it fresh, for the crazy Truth that it is: that a God will come down to lift up His creatures, that a God will turn the tables on the Villain of this world. That is the greatest fairy tale of them all. It’s worth regular reading.