Fairy-Story Apologetics, Pt. 2

Editor’s note: Part one of this installment can be read here. It defined fairy-stories and expressed that they can be a potent defense of Christianity in a postmodern age. It discussed three important preliminary points: a defense of Christianity through fairy-stories does not have salvific power, imagination must not be severed from reason, and fairy-stories should be received, not used.

Now that part-one has presented vital definitions and clarifications, this part will delve into specific ways that fairy-stories can offer a defense for Christianity. One of the most prominent ways is through what Tolkien calls the ‘Consolation of the Happy Ending’ or Eucatastrophe. ‘The eucatastrophic tale is the true form of fairy-tale, and its highest function’. [1] Eucatastrophe is the ‘good catastrophe, the sudden joyous turn’ and a ‘sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur’. [2] Although it includes the existence of pain and suffering, it presents a denial of final defeat. The existence of eucatastrophe in fairy-stories gives a vivid picture of the ‘greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe’, which is the Birth of Christ (a eucatastrophe of man’s history) and the Resurrection (a eucatastrophe of the Incarnation story). Fairy-stories have the ‘echo of evangelium’, and as people encounter the echo, it can make them more receptive and cause them to rejoice all the more when they hear the source of the echo saying ‘Take heart! I have overcome the world’ (John 16:33). [3] The fairy-stories give a taste and craving for eucatastrophe that will draw them toward the Feast. The Story they most want to be true, they can find to be true indeed.

Further, fairy-stories are also an apologetic in that they stir in people an affinity for mystery and God’s ways. In explaining one of the reasons for writing his own fairy-stories, The Chronicles of Narnia, Lewis stated:

Why did one find it so hard to feel as one was told one ought to feel about God or about the sufferings of Christ? I thought the chief reason was that one was told one ought to…The whole subject was associated with lowered voices; almost as if it were something medical.  But supposing that by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday school associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons? I thought one could. [4]

When such things as God’s laws are merely taught from the pulpit, they can at times feel as if they were just a restrictive, arbitrary list, or even seem like unjust stipulations, and people are turned away from God because that life of rules is unappealing and pointless. Casting God’s laws into the imaginary world, on the other hand, can lead people to see them as the beautiful and delightful laws that they actually are.

For instance, as Chesterton elucidates, the morality of elfland matches the morality on earth: happiness depends on not doing something, and typically it is not obvious why the characters should not do it. ‘In the fairy tale an incomprehensible happiness rests upon an incomprehensible condition. A box is opened, and all evils fly out. A word is forgotten, and cities perish. A lamp is lit, and love flies away. A flower is plucked, and human lives are forfeited. An apple is eaten, and the hope of God is gone’. [5] Within the fairy tales, those ‘queer limitations’ do not seem unjust or unreasonable: ‘If Cinderella says “How is it that I must leave the ball at 12?” her godmother might answer, “How is it that you are going there till 12?”’ [6] Cinderella had her rags turned into a gown and saw a pumpkin turned into a carriage. Faced with such a bizarrely splendid gift, why would she question the comparatively minuscule condition of the gift, whether or not it made logical sense? The gift—mice turning into horses—did not make sense either! If one fairy asked another why they are not allowed to stand on their head in a fairy palace, the fairy might respond, ‘Well, if it comes to that, explain the fairy palace’. [7]

Likewise, with Christianity, people may ask questions about the seemingly odd laws or about why there is suffering and deny God if they do not get an answer that makes sense to them. However, their denial of God then means that they cannot explain earth and the existence of good and beauty on earth—they cannot explain how they get to go to the ball till 12 in the first place. Chesterton maintains that existence on earth is itself an eccentric legacy, and he can not complain about not understanding the limitations on certain aspects of existence, for he cannot fully understand existence itself. The conditions contain eccentricity just as the gifts do. He will not resist a rule only because it happens to be mysterious. The world, like a fairy tale, is a wild, startling, and delightful place, and before this wildness and delight, Chesterton is willing to ‘submit to the queerest limitations of so queer a kindness’. [8] When the queer limitations and mysteries of the faith are paired with fairy-stories, rather than just stained glass and Sunday school, people can better see the delightful context in which those laws and mysteries exist.

Fairy-stories additionally serve apologetics by ‘baptizing imagination’ and providing an avenue for using the imagination. Lewis, who defines the imagination as the ‘organ of meaning’, [9] explains that when he read MacDonald’s book Phantastes, his imagination was baptized, thereby allowing him to see things in a whole new light. [10] Lewis had difficulty knowing what Christian doctrines meant, and stories were able to help him understand the meaning of Christianity. He began to realize that before its translation into a codified doctrinal system, Christianity was first to be understood as a story. [11] Thus, rather than just seeing Christianity as a system of abstract statements, people can grasp the ‘so-what’ factor of Christianity through the organ of meaning: imagination.

Imaginative and literary apologetics invites people into a story versus just trying to convince them of statements of doctrine that have been abstracted from context and rich meaning. Imagination is what enables people to see the Story and imagine their place in it.

A bigger imagination is needed in order to see the bigger Story, and fairy-stories have the potential to baptize imagination, expanding the ‘organ’ so that it is equipped to ingest the Story.

Expanding the imagination is taking part in the divine. Imagination, according to MacDonald, is the faculty of man most similar to God’s prime operation of power, and ‘the imagination of man is made in the image of the imagination of God’. [12] Since the reception of fairy-stories requires the engagement of the imagination, when people read or write fairy-stories, they are using the faculty most related to the Creator’s work. That can lead them to know God more, just as taking part in the prime work of an employer, working together with the employer, can help the employee to have more understanding and connection with him or her.

MacDonald says that man should ‘imagine greatly like God who made him’ with a ‘following and worshipping imagination’, [13] and fairy-stories offer ample training ground and material for imagining greatly. As people begin to imagine greatly, they can have more ‘vivid visions of something beyond, something which the eye has not seen’, and those visions influence more powerfully than things seen with the eyes. [14] They can fix their minds on the eternal unseen (2 Corinthians 4:18)  and live by faith, not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7).

Moreover, fairy-stories aid the case for Christianity through the awakening or reawakening of wonder. As Malcolm Guite says, using a quotation from Coleridge, a purpose of imaginative literature is ‘to excite a feeling analogous to the supernatural, by awakening the mind’s attention … and directing it to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us’. [15] MacDonald claims that one of the best things one can do for another is to wake things up that are in him. [16] Fairy tales do not create wonder; rather, they appeal to the instinct of wonder inherent within man: ‘we all like astonishing tales because they touch the nerve of the ancient instinct of astonishment’, Chesterton declares. [17] He says young children do not need fairy tales because ordinary life is already fascinating to them. ‘This proves’, he writes, ‘that even nursery tales only echo an almost pre-natal leap of interest and amazement.

These tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green. They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water’. Due to sinful self-focus and the worries of this world, or because it is too obvious to see, people easily forget and take for granted that rivers run with water. With the remembrance can come a sense of wonder and admiration of the world.

The stories can kindle the emotion that life is precious and puzzling, an ecstasy and an adventure, and they can inspire the notion that it is good to be alive here on this wondrous and mysterious earth despite suffering, just as it is good to be in a fairy tale in spite of dragons. [18] With that sense of wonder and admiration can come gratitude. Chesterton felt thankful, but before he knew the Lord, he did not know to whom he could be thankful. Whom could he thank for the birthday present of birth? [19] When fairy-stories stir within the feeling of gratitude for the fairyland elements of earth, it can then lead to a search for the Gift-Giver.

Some may object that the world is not filled with wonder: that it can all just be explained away in scientific laws. For Chesterton, however, even science is awe-inspiring and seems more like magic. Those who talk about the ‘Laws of Nature’, such as the law that when an apple leaves the tree it will reach the ground, feel that because ‘one incomprehensible thing constantly follows another incomprehensible thing the two together somehow make up a comprehensible thing’. [20] However, Chesterton argues that there is not really a law, for no one really understands the general formula, and they have no right to say it must always happen just because they can count on it happening practically.

They cannot count on it—they can only bet on it—for there is actually no necessary mental connection within the scientific laws.

For example, ‘we cannot say why an egg can turn into a chicken any more than we can say why a bear could turn into a fairy prince’. If asked why eggs turn into birds or fruits fall from trees, Chesterton claims the answer is akin to what the fairy godmother would answer if Cinderella were to ask why the mice turned to horses: ‘We must answer that it is MAGIC’. [21] That idea led Chesterton to start looking for the Magician. He also began to feel that ‘magic must have a meaning, and meaning must have someone to mean it’. [22] Fairy-stories, plump full of magic and meaning, remind people there must be a Meaning-Maker of earth. The world is too full of wonder to not have a Wonder-Maker. It is too beautiful in its design (despite the ‘dragons’) [23] to not have a Designer.

Therefore, creation does not just point to the need for an Intelligent Designer but helps us perceive that an Imaginative Designer exists, one who creates astonishment, beauty, and meaning. Someone who says to the sun every day, ‘Do It Again’. [24] A Magician of sorts. Instead of just showing scientific evidence to prove the need for an Intelligent Designer, or philosophic evidence to prove the need for an Unmoved Mover, apologists should also share and write fairy-stories that can point to the ‘Magician’ and Storyteller. With their ability to expose meaning and purpose in the world, fairy-stories can refute the nihilism of postmodernism. The stories can help people understand what Christianity feels like from the inside. [25] Christianity feels like a fairy-story because Christianity is a story. [26] The Gospel embraces all the essence of fairy-stories yet is true: ‘Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men—and of elves’. [27]

In contrast to a postmodernist view, the stories fit into the Grand Story. Since postmodernists are incredulous of metanarrative, [28] fairy-stories can take postmodernists by the arm and dance them into the grandeur and Christian joy of the Metanarrative. Once they have felt the glorious movement, they may be awakened to the Metanarrative and meaning that actually exist within reality. Then the quest to seek out the Magician and Storyteller might begin.

 

[1] J. R. R. Tolkien, ‘On Fairy Stories’, Excellence in Literature, accessed March 25, 2017, https://www.excellence-in-literature.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/fairystoriesbytolkien.pdf, 22
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid., 23.
[4] C. S. Lewis, ‘Sometimes Fairy-stories May Say Best What’s to be Said’, in Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories(San Diego: Harvest, 1975).
[5] G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (New York: Pantianos Classics, 2016), 33.
[6] Ibid., 34.
[7] Ibid., 34.
[8] Ibid., 34-35.
[9] C. S. Lewis, ‘Bluspels and Flalansferes: A Semantic Nightmare’, in Selected Literary Essays, ed. Walter Hooper (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1980), 265.
[10] C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy(Glasgow: Collins, 1982), 146.
[11] Michael Ward, ‘The Good Serves the Better and Both the Best: C.  S. Lewis on Imagination and Reason in Apologetics’, in Imaginative Apologetics,ed. Andrew Davison (London: SCM Press, 2011), 64-65.
[12]George MacDonald, ‘The Imagination: Its Functions and Its Culture’, in A Dish of Orts: Chiefly Papers on the Imagination, and On Shakespeare (New York: Dossier Press, 2015), 1-2.
[13] Ibid., 12-13.
[14] Ibid., 12.
[15] Malcolm Guite, ‘C.S. Lewis Symposium 2/3: Imaginative Fiction’ (Youtube Video of lecture, Westminster Abbey Institute C.S. Lewis Symposium, St Margaret’s Church, Westminster, November 21, 2013), accessed December 12, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lOxbeQLFX2k.
[16] George MacDonald, ‘The Fantastic Imagination’, in A Dish of Orts: Chiefly Papers on the Imagination, and On Shakespeare (New York: Dossier Press, 2016),3.
[17] Chesterton, 31.
[18] See Chesterton, 32.
[19] Ibid.
[20] Ibid., 30.
[21] Ibid., 31.
[22] Ibid., 39.
[23] Ibid., 39.
[24] Ibid., 36.
[25] Ward, 71.
[26] Ward, 65.
[27] Tolkien, 24.
[28] Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993).

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