The following is a lesson from our course on The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which will be available soon.
C. S. Lewis dedicated The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to his goddaughter Lucy Barfield. In writing to Lucy, Lewis refers to the story as a “fairy tale.” But what is a fairy tale?
The first thing that might come to mind is a story like “Rapunzel,” “Cinderella,” or “Little Red Riding Hood.” These stories, many of them collected by the Brothers Grimm, describe a world of magic, talking animals, princes and princesses, dragons and witches. We actually don’t meet many fairies, but we do expect to encounter frog princes and cats wearing fancy boots. Most of us will be familiar with these traditional fairy tales.
However, C. S. Lewis would also have included stories like The Hobbit, by his friend J. R. R. Tolkien. In fact, Tolkien argued that fairy tales open up a magical and fantastical world:
“[F]airy-stories are not in normal English usage stories about fairies or elves, but stories about Fairy, that is Faërie, the realm or state in which fairies have their being. Faërie contains many things besides elves and fays [fairies], and besides dwarfs, witches, trolls, giants, or dragons: it holds the seas, the sun, the moon, the sky; and the earth, and all things that are in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, mortal men, when we are enchanted.”
A true fairy-tale is enchanting and captivating. An author has to have a good imagination to conjure up a magical realm. That is why it is such a pleasure to read a fairy-tale. We feel that we are experiencing something that is both strangely familiar and remarkably different.
In this lesson, we will identify 7 virtues of fairy-tales and fantasy stories. We have added some sample quotations so you can get a taste of what famous authors like Lewis, Tolkien, and Chesterton thought of fairy tales, especially from a Christian perspective.
7 Virtues of Fairy-Tales
“Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” – Neil Gaiman, quoting G. K. Chesterton.
Most children love scary stories. We want to experience the thrill of danger, of piracy on the high seas or monsters in the woods. These days, a lot of fairy tales for children are cleaned up and less scary. By comparison, in the Grimm brothers’ version of “Little Red Riding Hood,” the wolf devours Little Red Cap, and it is only the hunter who ends up cutting open the wolf’s belly to rescue her (before finally skinning the wolf). In the Grimm “Cinderella,” the step-sisters cut off parts of their feet to try fit the golden shoe. After Cinderella’s wedding, pigeons even pluck out the step-sisters’ eyes! Fairy tales do not need to be full of horror, but we should be afraid of Snow White’s queen mother or the witch in “Hansel and Gretel.” As Chesterton writes, fairy tales teach us that the monsters can be beaten.
“I think . . . realistic stories for children are far more likely to deceive them. I never expected the real world to be like the fairy tales” – C. S. Lewis, “On Three Ways of Writing for Children.”
You’ve probably seen books with the words “based on a true story” on the cover. With fairy tales you know that you’re dealing with something that was made up. No one reads about Snow White and thinks that those seven dwarfs are remarkably realistic. Fairy tales describe a world that is different from ours. So, you don’t need to worry that the author is trying to deceive you about what is real and what is not. If someone says, “fantasy is a kind of lying” then you can respond, “No, fantasy and fairy tales are about imagining magical realms that are clearly invented.”
“We do not look at trees either as Dryads or as beautiful objects while we cut them into beams. . . . We reduce things to mere Nature in order that we may ‘conquer’ them.” – C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man.
Fairy tales make us appreciate the real world. For example, when we read about talking beavers or trees that whisper messages, we learn to love nature. We see God’s creation as full of life. No longer are animals boring or do we think of trees as just objects that we can cut into planks to build houses with. We don’t need to believe that a Dryad is real; just imagining a female tree spirit (or one of Tolkien’s Ents) is enough to remind us that nature is precious. Nature is not something to be conquered, but something to be loved and appreciated as a gift from God.
“It is surely obvious that all ethics ought to be taught to this fairy-tale tune; that, if one does the thing forbidden, one imperils all the things provided.”– G. K. Chesterton, “Fairy Tales.”
Most of us don’t like to be told what to do. The worst is when someone tells us not to be angry: that’s like pouring fuel on the fire. But when we read a story, we don’t notice the lessons quite so much. And that’s the beauty of fairy tales. Fairy tales are full of morals. Take the story of “The Three Little Pigs,” where each pig builds a house out of different materials (straw, wood, bricks), and the wolf comes to blow them down. We quickly learn that it’s best not to be lazy, but take the time to build a house that keeps us safe from danger. We reluctantly admit that those who are older often know better. We realize that in emergencies we have to be resourceful (e.g., lighting a fire when the wolf tries to come down the chimney). But we don’t notice these lessons. We feel them to be true. More than that, we recognize just how crucial it is to do the right thing. So much depends on making the correct decision. If you don’t go home by midnight, everything may fall apart. If your family forgets to invite someone, you may end up falling asleep for a hundred years. The point is therefore not that fairy tales contain morals, but that the morals are important. Doing the right thing can be the difference between life and death.
“… Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories.” – J. R. R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories.”
Some folks can read for hours. When you try to talk to them, they don’t even notice you’re there. It’s not surprising, then, that people talk about escapist fiction. This term is often used quite negatively. Why are you trying to escape from reality by reading a book? Don’t you have homework to do? Can’t you make yourself useful? But sometimes escaping for a while is beneficial. When we return, we have a new perspective on what is important. Reading The Lord of the Rings reminds you of the beauty of places like the Shire, unspoiled by grimy factories. Stories let us dream of what could be, so that we don’t take our real world for granted, but can imagine a better one. And when life is difficult, escaping can be comforting and healthy. We all need a good holiday from time to time.
“For me it invariably begins with mental pictures. . . . Everything began with images; a faun carrying an umbrella, a queen on a sledge, a magnificent lion.” – C. S. Lewis, “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s To Be Said.”
Part of the fun of writing fairy tales and fantasy stories is the room for creativity. Authors are not bound by the real world. We can imagine fauns and centaurs. We can dream of magical events and wondrous castles. Of course, we don’t have unlimited freedom. Whatever world we create has to make sense. That’s why Tolkien spent many years making up a language for the Elves (called Quenya) and a detailed history of Middle-Earth. He wanted his world to be believable and internally consistent. Such creativity also helps us understand the real world. Tolkien undoubtedly learned a lot about grammar when he was constructing his imaginary language. C. S. Lewis also gained a new appreciation for the importance of family, love, heroism, and much more. God is the ultimate Creator, and when human beings are themselves being creative, they are living as the image of God.
“The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories.” Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories.”
Fairy tales often have happy endings. The main character might face all kinds of challenges, but the ending is usually joyful. This kind of plot is similar to the Bible story, where the fall into sin caused great suffering and despair, but Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection brought hope and comfort. Fairy tales can therefore help us appreciate the gospels (“gospel” literally means “good news”). That is also C. S. Lewis’ aim with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The story of Aslan is very similar to Christ’s. Yet Lewis is not saying that the Bible is as fantastical as a fairy-tale. On the contrary, he is saying that the Bible gives us even greater delight and satisfaction. The Bible teaches us about true joy. It teaches us what is truly supernatural. Like a reflection in the water, fairy tales mirror the gospel narrative.
Tolkien’s definition of fairy tales is from his classic essay “On Fairy-Stories,” Essays Presented to Charles Williams, edited by C. S. Lewis (Eerdmans, 1966), p. 42. Neil Gaiman’s quote is from Coraline, but he misquotes the original passage. Chesterton actually wrote, “Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey [the monster]. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.” See G. K. Chesterton, “The Red Angel,” Tremendous Trifles, available through Project Gutenberg. Still, we like Gaiman’s rewording, so we’ve used that one. Chesterton’s other quote (about morality) is from “Fairy Tales,” in All Things Considered, likewise available through Project Gutenberg. C. S. Lewis’ comments on realism and fairy tales can be found in “On Three Ways of Writing for Children,” Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories, edited by Walter Hooper (Geoffrey Bless, 1966), p. 28. For Lewis’ insightful reflection on seeing nature as animated and full of life, see The Abolition of Man (HarperCollins, 1974), pp. 70, 71. Tolkien’s thoughts about the value of escapism (virtue 5) and the gospels (virtue 7) are quoted from “On Fairy-Stories,” pp. 75 and 83 respectively. Finally, C. S. Lewis’ observation about creativity is taken from “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s To Be Said,” Of Other Worlds, pp. 35, 36.