Last semester I took a pretty unique class, Folklore, which included nature hikes and basket weaving and lectures on all sorts of delicious mythology. Basically, it was like school when I was 10 (thanks mom), except the tests were harder. The first assignment was to read 15-20 of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Best assignment ever, right? I could get used to that kind of studying. At the next class session, the professor asked,
“What did you all think of the reading? I bet it’s been awhile since any of you read fairy tales.”
For most people, this is probably true. Our exposure to fairy tales is usually limited to stories read to us as small children and Disney movies. Every book of fairy tales I ever read is still on my bookshelf, without a single speck of dust disgracing their belovedly worn pages. If eyes wore out ink instead of sun, those books would have been blank years ago. This avid devotion is not a habit of the past, either. It’s difficult for me to go into a used bookstore and leave without some dingy fairy tale collection. The latest, a book of Irish fairy tales, is currently sealed in a plastic bag with dryer sheets for the purpose of hopefully eradicating the forty-year-chainsmoker smell. My little fairy-tale family also includes Grimm’s (of course), The Big Red Fairy Book, Welsh fairy tales, Tibetan tales, Cherokee animal tales, George MacDonald, and many other compilations that aren’t really intended for people over the age of 10. My favorites of course include any tale where enchantment is broken by love and everyone lives happily ever after. Heroes in disguise and princesses worth dying for are always a major plus. But doesn’t everybody agree with this? Doesn’t everybody love it when the stable-boy turns out to be a prince, defeats evil against all odds, and rescues the princess from her terrible misfortune? Then they get married and everyone rejoices! Except for the evil witch, who dances in hot-iron shoes until she falls over dead.
A friend of mine got detention in elementary school for talking back to her teacher who was trying to perpertrate the insidious lie that faries do not exist. It’s very important that we believe fairies exist, because if we don’t then they die (isn’t that a delightful metaphysical irony). More important is the reason G. K. Chesterson said that fairy tales are more than true. When you read a fairy tale, excluding some of the more bizarre tales involving cooking pots and foamy mermaids, something epic and very life-changing takes place for the characters. An enchantment is broken, a true identity is discovered, a great treasure is discovered. Most importantly, evil is always defeated (once again, excluding the foamy mermaids). Everything good that was lost is restored, and everyone lives happily ever after.
Maybe the reason adults don’t often read fairy tales is because they’re jaded into believing that such stories cannot possibly be true. Lost with childhood innocence is the belief that everything turns out all right. It’s not hard to fall into this; I think everybody does. It is naive and stupid to believe that life is all sunshine and flowers, and if you do believe that you’re in for a long hard landing. But the moment we forget that dragons really can be defeated, that goodness is restored and evil dances to its death, we lose all hope.
Please put aside your faulty silliness filter for a moment and bear with me. Read this tale with childish innocence. We are living in a land under great evil enchantment. We dripped tallow on the Prince’s white shirt and brought it upon ourselves. The castle has been usurped by a wicked witch of a stepmother. Daily we must pick the rice out of the ashes in hope of going to the ball, with the threat of death if we fail. But despite the fact that we didn’t listen to the Prince’s admonishment, that we did light that candle and drip the tallow, he’s coming to rescue us. He has disguised himself as the shoe-shine so he can fight the dragon and strike at the heart of the enemy. But alas! The wicked witch sneaked up from behind and turned the prince into a dove. She now keeps him in a cage. We ask the poor dove-prince, what can we do? He tells us, stab me in the heart with a thorn. Kill the beautiful prince? Never! But he demands that we do, and when the thorn pierces his heart he leaps up free, a prince again! He kills the witch and breaks the enchantment. The king returns to the castle and the entire kingdom rejoices! And all of the land dances and celebrates as the Prince and we, the rescued Princess, are married.
Some things, friend, are too good not to be true. Some tales speak so deeply into our hearts that we feel we have stumbled on something of the real truth, without which the world would not make sense and life would not be much worth living. This is why we love fairy tales. This is why they are important.
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.””