Myth, Fairy Tales, and Christian Faith

OldDesignShop_FairyTalesBookCover1918

This blog post reminded me that I wrote about a similar theme last semester. Here it is with only minimal editing. (I don’t understand how career writers live with themselves. I’m only a semester and a winter break removed from this piece, and I’m already tempted to edit it the schmutz out of it.)

*********************

Attacking Christianity as a myth or fairy tale has become commonplace in contemporary atheism. Any number of atheists, from online commenters to Richard Dawkins, use this attack as a sort of self-evident, trump card. The rationale behind the supposed self-evidence goes something like this. Any story that involves the supernatural is false. Myths, fairy tales, and Christianity involve the supernatural; therefore, they are all equally false. Those who perpetuate these ideas routinely denigrate Jesus Christ as a moral teacher with a cadre of deluded followers, or worse, a conjurer of cheap, magic tricks.

Christians are not only disturbed by the vicious nature of these attacks but by the apparent following mustered by the group of scholars popularly known as the “New Atheists.” The more fundamental vein of Christian scholarship has expended much time and effort combatting the attacks of atheism with scientific and historical data. Apologetics and worldviews studies have surged with the popularization of atheism. The overwhelming impetus in contemporary Christian apologetics is to distance Christianity from mythology and present everything recorded in the Christian scriptures as based on historical and scientific fact, and therefore true.

Certainly much good has come from Christian apologetics, not least its commitment to contemporary issues and questions. However, in its attempt to present a demythologized faith, the church has indirectly accepted the presuppositions embedded in atheist arguments—namely, that myths and fairy tales are always false, and truth is synonymous with fact. Instead of standing on the foundation of Christendom’s great thinkers and literary giants, the church has opted to fight on atheist turf with atheist weapons. And as so often happens in war, one battle won usually means another battle lost.

Perhaps, in this new era of scientific materialism and reductionism, it is time to reconsider Christianity’s proximity to mythology and fairy tales. Since quality fantasy stories reflect cosmic, human, and therefore, Christian themes—themes of good and evil, creation and redemption, to name only a few—contemporary Christians can own their story as the real-life incarnation of fantastic images.

Mythology

In his classic work, The Everlasting Man, G.K. Chesterton traces and discusses the development of myth. According to Chesterton “mythology is a lost art, one of the few arts that really are lost; but it is an art.”[1] As an art form mythology has become an integral part of Western and even Christian literature. In his seminal work, Paradise Lost, John Milton extends the tradition of Greco-Roman mythological epics to the Christian story. The Greco-Roman gods serve not only as metaphors, but as actual spiritual beings, albeit in a Judeo-Christian context. Dante, as well draws heavily from established mythology in his Divine Comedy. More recently, C.S. Lewis retold the classic myth of Cupid and Psyche with decidedly Christian overtones in his novel, Till We Have Faces.

Mythology in its essence, senses something beyond the human experience. Myths break down the rigorous boundaries between what is seen and what is unseen, and present a world in which spirit has its say in the matter. In Homer’s Illiad and Odyssey, for example, the warring deities constantly direct and thwart, bless and curse the exploits of the soldiers or the travels of Odysseus. In these stories we, along with the ancients, understand that what we see is not necessarily all that we get. We are not always in control. Spirit is alive. In Chesterton’s estimation, mythology recognizes “that beauty and terror are very real things and related to a real spiritual world; and to touch them at all…is to stir the deep things of the soul.”[2]

Ultimately, myth is not so much a defined literary genre as it is a way of reading. According to C.S. Lewis, “the degree to which any story is a myth depends very largely on the person who hears or reads it.” The reader who simply reads the story asks, “Will the hero escape?” Whereas the true myth-lover feels, “I shall never escape this. This will never escape me. The images have struck roots far below the surface of my mind.”[3]

However open he left the definition to the reader, Lewis does identify six elements of a myth. First of all, myth is “extra-literary.” By this Lewis means that all myths, regardless of their respective authors, offer similar experiences to the reader.[4]

Second, “the pleasure of myth depends hardly at all on such usual narrative attractions as suspense or surprise.”[5] This element is key to reading myths for what they are. Those who read myths simply for the sake of the story will forget the story as soon as the excitement of plot passes because their imaginations are not committed to the grander possibilities embedded within the plot.[6]

Third, the human element of mythology does not elicit deep sympathy from the reader in the sense of the reader feeling emotions for the specific character in the plot. Rather, myth elicits sympathy for humanity in general through the individual human in the story.[7] Here again, myth extends its reach beyond the territory of narrative fiction and deals with the universal.

Fourth, myth always belongs in the realm of fantasy because it always deals with “impossibles and preternaturals.”[8] By contrast, de-mythologized versions of history take great pains to strip away all vestiges of the supernatural in an attempt to present “what really happened.”

Fifth, myth always contains an element of gravity, regardless of the outcome of the story. While Lewis allows for both sad and joyful myths he concludes that “it is always grave.”[9] This universal seriousness of myth speaks to the seriousness of human existence.

Finally, and closely related to a myth’s inherent gravity, is its ability to inspire awe in the reader. Often this awe prompts the reader to allegorize the myth in an attempt to grasp the significance and meaning of it. Still, after all the allegories have come and gone, the myth stands on its own and remains worthwhile simply for being what it is—a grand epic.[10] And in the grand, epic, foreignness of the myth-world, we see reflections of the familiar.

Myth as a reflection of reality is especially evident in those myths which concern the search for something that was lost. In fact, Chesterton sums up the essence of mythology as a search—“something that combines a recurrent desire with a recurrent doubt…”[11] He then draws these ideas together with the myths of Demeter, Isis, and Adonis:

Demeter wanders over a stricken world looking for a stolen child; Isis stretches out her arms over a stricken world in vain to gather the limbs of Osiris; and there is lamentation upon the hills for Atys and through the woods for Adonis. There mingles with all such mourning the mystical and profound sense that death can be a deliverer and an appeasement; that such death gives us a divine blood for a renovating river and that all good is found in gathering the broken body of a god. We may truly call these foreshadowings; so long as we remember that foreshadowings are shadows. […] For a shadow is a shape; a thing which reproduces shape but not texture.[12]

Images such as “divine blood” and “broken body of a god” evoke deeply Christian images of the Passion of Christ—evocations obviously intended by Chesterton.

As much as Chesterton draws parallels between Christianity and mythology, they are not synonymous. The Christian narrative is not one of many myths but the ultimate fulfillment of the many. Mythology is incomplete because it satisfies the human need for “festivity and formality” but fails to address the human need for a creed.[13]

The incarnation of Christ is the lynch pin for a truly Christian reading of mythology. Of all the things mythology got wrong, “it had not been wrong in being as carnal as the Incarnation.”[14] This understanding ultimately led Chesterton to the idea that all pre-Christian mythology and philosophy find their fulfillment in the Jesus Christ. In his words, “…the rivers of mythology and philosophy run parallel and do not mingle till they meet in the sea of Christendom.”[15]

In a letter to a friend, C.S. Lewis also discusses the connection between Christianity and mythology:

Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened: and one must be content to accept it in the same way, remembering that it is God’s myth where the others are men’s myths: i.e. the Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there, while Christianity is god expressing Himself through what we call “real things.”[16]

In a similar vein, J.R.R. Tolkien, famous for his mythological Lord of the Rings, understood that the ancient myth of a “dying god” found its fulfillment in the historical, Christian, God Incarnate who died as a sacrifice for the world.[17] For men like Chesterton, Lewis, and Tolkien, Jesus Christ filled—with real flesh and blood—the shadows cast by ancient mythology.

Fairy Tales

If asked, most people could probably tell a fairy tale better than they could define the genre. This in itself speaks to the establishment of fairy tales in popular culture. Americans as well as Europeans grow up on the stories of Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella, Rapunzel, and Little Red Riding Hood to name only a few. While fairy tales from non-Western cultures use localized characters, the basic themes and even forms remain strikingly similar. Fairy tales have been collected and popularized by anybody from the Brothers Grimm to Disney movie producers; however, few fairy tales have definite origins.

So what is the nature of a fairy tale? To answer this questions we first need to establish the nature of fairyland. According to Tolkien, the definition of “fairy” does not depend on the definition of a fairy but “upon the nature of Faërie: the Perilous Realm itself, and the air that blows in that country.” Yet even this nuance does not help much because, according to Tolkien,

Faërie cannot be caught in a net of words; for it is one of its qualities to be indescribable, though not imperceptible. It has many ingredients, but analysis will not necessarily discover the secret of the whole.[18]

Obviously, the only satisfactory “definition” of a fairy tale is direct experience. In essence, the reader knows fairyland when he or she enters it. However, for the sake of the discussion one can identify some major themes associated with fairy tales. Paradoxically, these themes both reflect the real world of humans and distinguish fairyland from it.

First of all, the fairy world usually involves some element of magic—that is, the world in which fantasy happens is decidedly other than world in which the reader lives and operates by different laws. In fairy tales, animals talk, pumpkins turn into coaches, frogs turn into princes, and witches make houses of candy to attract little children. While Tolkien agrees that fairyland is related to magic, he clarifies that it is not the magic of a “laborious, scientific, magician” but magic of a “peculiar mood or power.”[19]

Yet even as fairyland operates according to imaginative magic, it is quite reasonable and rational, like our world. According to G.K. Chesterton,

We have always in our fairy tales kept this sharp distinction between the science of mental relations, in which there really are laws, and the science of physical facts, in which there are no laws, but only weird repetitions.[20]

Fairyland laws might differ from the laws of human reality but they are as consistent if not more so. According to Gene Veith, fantasy “must be believable, if not in terms of our world, in terms of its own.”[21] Thus, fairy tales, while filled with fantastic characters such as goblins, dwarves, ogres, and dying princesses, remain true to themselves.

The fairy world is also dangerous. And in the dragon lairs and dingy forests, children (and adults) face and conquer their deepest fears.[22] Whether fairy tales shape our current fears, or whether they arose from the subconscious fears of a culture, the themes of fear and courage reflect what humans experience as everyday life.

Related to the rational consistency of fairyland is its deep sense of morality.[23] Hardly any other genre of literature contains characters that are as unambiguously good or hopelessly evil. In the story of Hansel and Gretel, few, if any, question the justice of burning witches alive for intended cannibalism. The wolf in Little Red Riding Hood deserved to be gutted because he ate Grandma. Even Little Red Riding Hood deserved her misfortunes because of her disobedience. The iron law of consequences rules fairyland. However, fairy tales are not just about teaching good morals; they allegorize themes of human existence in even more nuanced ways. In a classic piece from Orthodoxy, Chesterton writes:

There is the chivalrous lesson of “Jack the Giant Killer”; that giants should be killed because they are gigantic. […] There is the lesson of “Cinderella,” which is the same as that of the Magnificat—exaltavit humiles. There is the great lesson of “Beauty and the Beast”; that a thing must be loved before it is loveable. There is the terrible allegory of the “Sleeping Beauty,” which tells how the human creature was blessed with all birthday gifts, yet cursed with death; and how death also may perhaps be softened to sleep.[24]

Similar to myth, fairy tales allow us to see the familiar in the foreign.

Finally, fairy tales can be identified by their characteristic comic ending.[25] After escaping from their castles and battling their demons, the protagonist of fairy tales usually live “happily ever after.” Tolkien writes:

It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind, that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the ‘turn’ comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art, and having a peculiar quality.[26]

Tolkien labeled this fairy tale escape from death a eucatastrophe—a good catastrophe that is characteristic of all good fairy tales.

This theme of ultimate comedy after tragedy echoes distinctly Christian themes of restoration and redemption—an “echo of evangelium in the real world.”[27] For the Christian, the Gospel of Christ, with its art, beauty, and “self-contained significance,” is the truest of all fairy tales. The only difference is that this eucatastrophe actually took place in human history. The joy experienced by the Christian is the same joy experienced in the ‘turn’ of the fairy tale. Except this ‘turn’ resolves the true story of humanity and creation redeemed from the weight of sin and death. “Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men—and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused.”[28]

In short, fantasy and myth reflect an astounding reality. Thus, the supposed trump card for the atheist becomes the highest compliment for the Christian.


[1] G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2008), 102.

[2] Ibid., 108.

[3] C.S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1961), 49.

[4] Ibid., 43.

[5] Ibid., 43.

[6] Ibid., 47.

[7] Ibid., 44.

[8] Ibid., 44.

[9] Ibid., 44.

[10] Ibid., 44.

[11] Chesterton, Everlasting Man, 113.

[12] Ibid., 114.

[13] Ibid., 109.

[14] Ibid., 176.

[15] Ibid., 111.

[16] C.S. Lewis, “Letter to Arthur Greeves,” October 18 1931, quoted in Gene E. Veith, Jr., Reading Between the Lines: A Christian Guide to Literature (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1990), 138.

[17] Michael D. O’Brien, A Landscape with Dragons: The Battle for Your Child’s Mind (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1998), 141.

[18] J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” California Lutheran University, http://public.callutheran.edu/~brint/Arts/Tolkien.pdf, 3.

[19] Ibid.

[20] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (New York: Image Books, 2001), 48.

[21] Gene Edward Veith, Jr. Reading Between the Lines: A Christian Guide to Literature (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1990), 141.

[22] Ibid, 143-4.

[23] Ibid, 145.

[24] Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 47.

[25] Veith, Reading Between the Lines, 145.

[26] Tolkien, 14.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid., 15.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s