Just a Fairy Story?MICHAEL D. O'BRIEN
Good magic and bad magic in truthful stories correspond to true religion and false religion in our real world.
Shortly after our children's exposure to dinosaurs, I began to read fairy tales aloud to them. As they listened over the years, they each heard the story on different levels. Interestingly, sometimes a five-year-old could grasp a subtle point an older sibling had missed, yet it was clear that they were all tapping into the mysterious power of Story. I rummaged through attics, library sales, and used-book stores in search of as much old literature as I could find. I even began to plunder the attics and box-rooms of my own imagination, inventing bedtime stories for them. This strained my imagination somewhat, and some of the stories were better than others, but a little goes a long way in a family. The children began to compose their own as well, and there were nights when bedtime became rather an elaborate affair. Telling “pretend'' stories naturally stimulated a flow of accounts of real happenings. The children began to regard the day-to-day events of their lives as the material of their stories. Conversation grew; communication expanded. As we developed into a full-blown storytelling family I noticed something interesting happening in our children's play. First of all, they began to find playing more exciting. Also, they acted out the fundamental dramas of the cosmic struggle between good and evil embellishing and revising them with startling ingenuity. I gradually came to understand the universal love among all peoples for “fairy stories”.
In his masterful essay “On Fairy Stories” , J. R.R. Tolkien describes the vital role played by these tales in the cultures of the world. They contain rich spiritual knowledge. The sun may be green and the fish may fly through the air, but however fantastical the imagined world, there is retained in it a faithfulness to the moral order of the actual universe. The metaphors found in the literary characters are not so much random chimeras as they are reflections of our own invisible world, the supernatural. Whether in dreams or conscious imagination, the powers of the mind (and one must see here the powers of the human spirit) are engaged in what Tolkien calls “sub-creation”. By this he means that man, reflecting his divine Creator, is endowed with gifts to incarnate invisible realities in forms that make them understandable.
For example, magic has been used traditionally in fairy stories to give a visible form to the invisible spiritual powers. But a crucial distinction must be made between the use of “good magic” and “bad magic” as they appear in fairy stories, because for us in the real world, there is no such thing as good magic, only prayer, the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and abandonment to divine providence. “Good magic” in traditional fairy stories represents these very realities, symbolizing the intervention of God in the lives of good men put to the test. It is actually a metaphor for grace and miracle, the suspension of natural law through an act of spiritual authority culminating in a reinforced moral order.
Bad magic in traditional stories represents the evil power that the wicked use in order to grasp at what does not rightly belong to them—whether worldly power, wealth, or even love. It is also a metaphor for the intervention of the enemies of God the evil spirits, in the lives of wicked men. As Saint Paul says, “For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual host of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12).
Good magic and bad magic in truthful stories correspond to true religion and false religion in our real world. True religion is the search of the soul for God in order to surrender itself to him, the search for his will in order to fulfill it, the search for truth in order to conform to it. False religion is the inverse. It makes a god out of oneself; it makes one's own will supreme; it attempts to reshape reality to fit one's own desires. True religion is about surrender, while false religion is about control.
Most of us do not learn about the nature of reality through theology, philosophy, or higher mathematics. But all of us readily grasp the language of a parable drawn from the universal human story. The forms may be dressed in elaborate costumes and enact impossible dramas, but they enable the lover of tales to step outside of himself for a brief time to gaze upon his own disguised world. What is the value of this temporary detachment? It is an imaginative withdrawal from the tyranny of the immediate the flood of words and sensory images that often overwhelm (and just as often limit) our understanding of the real world. A rare objectivity and insight can be imparted regarding this world's struggle for spiritual integrity. In the land of Faerie, the reader may see his small battles writ large in the wars of titans or elves and understand for the first time his own worth. He is involved, not in a false or spurious world, but in the sub-creation of a more real world (though obviously not a literal one). I say more real because a good author clears away the rampant undergrowth of details that make up the texture of everyday life, that crowd our minds and blur our vision. He artfully selects and focuses so that we see clearly the hidden shape of reality.
The term “fairy tale'' is used rather loosely, for many of these stories are not about fairies as such but deal with a variety of supernatural beings and imaginative happenings. Ancient hero tales, nursery stories, riddle-songs, legends, myths — all have their place in what is really a very broad field of literature. There are countless tales from hundreds of races and language groups, many dating back thousands of years. With very few exceptions, they display a surprising uniformity in their depiction of good and evil: good is good, and evil is evil.
A rich treasure trove of such fiction grew with the passing of centuries. A pattern of symbols emerged that signified real presences in the invisible world. Beautiful winged persons represented unseen guardians and messenger spirits. At the opposite end of the spectrum, dragons (and a host of other monsters) represented the fiendishly clever spirits that sought man's destruction. These symbols were common to so many races and cultures that they were practically universal. But they were also well suited to the spiritual insights of Christian civilization. The shape of these symbols told the reader in a flash some essential information regarding the invisible realm — a realm that long predated Judeo-Christian civilization and was, even then, a spiritual battleground.
O'Brien, Michael. “Just a Fairy Story?” In Chapter 2 of Landscape With Dragons: The Battle for Your Child's Mind. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1998), 27-30.
Reprinted by permission of Ignatius Press. All rights reserved. Landscape With Dragons: The Battle for Your Child's Mind. - ISBN 0-89870-678-5.
Michael O'Brien is a professional artist and the author of a series of novels including his most recent A Cry of Stone, the best selling Father Elijah, and Eclipse of the Sun. In addition, he is the author of A Landscape With Dragons: The Battle for Your Child's Mind which looks at the proper role of children's literature in the forming of character (see sample chapters from this book on the CERC site). O'Brien's articles on faith and culture have appeared in numerous journals throughout the English-speaking world. Michael O'Brien is on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Educator's Resource Center. Visit his web site at: studiobrien.com.
Copyright © 1998 Ignatius Press
Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.