by Zak Ellison
In his essay “The Twelve Men”, Chesterton points out that a distressing paradox in our world is that “the more a man looks at a thing, the less he can see it”. In other words, the more familiarity we have with something, the less likely we are to appreciate its significance. The posters and paintings that we hang on our dorm wall soon become invisible to us. Class material that at first excites our interest often loses its appeal as the semester drags on. Family members that we love and admire soon get taken for granted. In various ways, our familiarity with the world robs us of the wonder that it initially instilled in us.
Observing the behavior of children supports the truth of this paradox. The joy of children comes from their captivation with the wonders in this world. They have not gazed on the universe as long as we have; therefore, its beauty is still fresh in their eyes. Children delight in playing the same games and hearing the same stories over and over again because they are still enthralled by the beauty of those things. Who would not sustain this sense of delight if he could? Alas, as we grow old we seem to lose something of this delight, despite life being no less beautiful. Our eyes grow dim with age and we no longer see as clearly the rich significance in every starry sky and every blade of grass.
We are all susceptible to this joy-killing familiarity with the world. Tolkien describes it as a man locking his beautiful possessions into a cupboard. A man who hoards in this way still possesses his treasures, but he can no longer enjoy them (Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories”). In similar fashion, the more familiar we become with the people and things in this world, the more we tend to grow numb to the depths of meaning they possess. Unless we intentionally fight against this process, we will mentally lock up the wonders that we daily encounter; therefore, we will no longer delight in their beauty.
I am convinced that the reading of fairy tales can be a powerful weapon in this fight against the numbing effects of familiarity. By fairy tales, I mean stories of ordinary people who find themselves in fantastic worlds where strange and magical powers are at work. The world of fairy tales has an unexpected and startling quality about it. Unexpected pleasures and unexpected dangers lurk around every corner, ready to ambush the hero. There is also a sense that the fairy tale world exists for its own sake, quite apart from considerations for the hero. The hero is expected to make his way the best he can during his adventures in this mysterious land.
Fairy tales can renew our appreciation for the world by reminding us of the wonder of God’s universe. “These tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green” (Chesterton, Orthodoxy). When a story tells us of winged horses, it invites us to ponder the miracle of horses without wings (Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories”). The fantasy elements in a fairy tale recharge and stimulate our imaginations so that we can better receive the wonders of the real world. Reading about the enchanted woods “makes all real woods a little enchanted” (Lewis, “On Three Ways of Writing for Children”). Fairy tales provide an antidote to human forgetfulness, to the indifference of familiarity.
But more than that, they teach us that we ourselves also live inside a fairy tale. The same fundamental qualities in fairy tales also exist in our own lives. Our life has the same unexpectedness of the hero’s adventures in fairyland. “The supreme adventure is being born. There we walk suddenly into a splendid and startling trap. There we see something of which we have not dreamed before. Our father and mother lie in wait for us and leap out on us, like brigands from a bush” (Chesterton, Heretics). Just like in a fairy tale, God creates the characters for his story and throws them into a world of wonder and danger. God leaves it to us either to shrink from this adventure or to embrace it.
Embracing life like a fairy tale enables us to recapture a child-like sense of astonishment. It helps us to remember that this world, though fallen, is indeed an amazing and wondrous place. The fairy tale mindset makes us grateful, because it reminds us that all the beauty of this world is an undeserved gift. The story is precious because it might have been told quite differently. God did not need to write our character into his world, but he chose to. Like a fairy tale, this world is often hostile as well as beautiful; however, God’s word assures us that our adventures in this world are not in vain, and that there is an even greater adventure yet to come.
In our age, fairy tales have often been dismissed as suitable only for children. But I think it’s time to bring fairy tales back out of the nursery. They may have more to teach us than we think.
This was a piece written by my elder brother, Zak. He is a student at Columbia International University, majoring in Humanities; he has a deep love for the older writings of humanity, preferably those who have already passed away.