Did you know that fairy tales like "Beauty and the Beast," "Rumpelstiltskin," and "The Smith and the Devil" may have originated 4,000 to 6,000 years ago? Scholars think so.
One fairy tale researcher, Dr. Jamie Tehrani, says that these stories “have been told since before even English, French, and Italian existed. They were probably told in an extinct Indo-European language.” Yet they’re still enchanting children today. And the modern incarnation of the fairy tale—the genre of fantasy fiction—has become a behemoth in the world of contemporary literature, for children and adults alike.
What can possibly account for the endurance and continuing resonance of fairy tales and fantasy? What is the unique power of this type of fiction?
Fantasy takes spiritual realities and makes them physical. Nowhere besides fantasy (at least traditional fantasy) can we find in such a clear-cut manner the difference between good and evil, truth and falsehood, honor and ignominy. The villains in fantasy, such as a dragon or a dark sorcerer, are embodiments of evil itself. Traditionally, they are not complex characters with conflicting motivations. They are evil, pure and simple, because they stand for forces that are utterly corrupt, such as sin, temptation, or the demonic. True fantasy is highly moral in character.
This is not to say that fairy tales are, necessarily, mere allegory. And, in fact, I think the best ones are not. The two great fantasy masters, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, took differing approaches to this issue. Lewis’s fiction was marked by obvious parallels to Christianity, while Tolkien intentionally avoided allegory in his writing, though he did call “The Lord of the Rings” a “fundamentally religious and Catholic work.”
I think a better term than allegory is perhaps “echo.” Fantasy echoes and dramatizes the spiritual and moral struggles that all of us face in life. Monsters and spells, quests and true love—these things are real, perhaps the most real things in life. Each of us fights monsters: depression, poverty, illness, our own sins, injustice, loss, the daily grind, whatever it may be. Each of us encounters spells (both good and bad): the pull of a drug, the enchantment of music, the stillness of a softly settling evening, and the mysterious processes and powers of nature. Each of us faces desperate quests: the career we are chasing, the people we are trying to save, the person we are trying to become—and there are countless dangers that could draw us away from our quests. And there is love. We may not be able to bring a princess back to life through a kiss, but we can raise someone out of despair by showing them our love and kindness. Heroes are no fantasy.
And so the importance of fantasy, which reflects the presence of these wonders in our world and touches our spiritual nature, is very real and very personal. C.S. Lewis put it this way in a letter to Miss Matthews: “I’ve never met Orcs or Ents or Elves-but the feel of it, the sense of a huge past, of lowering danger, of heroic tasks achieved by the most apparently unheroic people, of distance, vastness, strangeness, homeliness (all blended together) is so exactly what living feels like to me.”
The Enchanted World
At the same time that a fairy tale makes moral and spiritual struggles physical, it—paradoxically —takes physical realities and spiritualizes or enchants them. The point of reading fantasy is not to escape into a dream realm in order to distance ourselves from reality. Rather, we read fantasy in order to return to this world with purified eyes that allow us to see everyday things for the wonders that they really are, realities full of meaning, beauty, and magic. J.R.R. Tolkien makes this point in his famous essay, “On Fairy Stories”:
And actually fairy-stories deal largely, or (the better ones) mainly, with simple or fundamental things, untouched by Fantasy, but these simplicities are made all the more luminous by their setting. … It was in fairy-stories that I first divined the potency of the words, and the wonder of the things, such as stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine.
G.K. Chesterton echoes these sentiments in his reflections on George MacDonald’s fantasy novel, “The Princess and the Goblin,” which, he says, “made a difference to my whole existence [by showing] how near both the best and the worst things are to us from the first ... and making all the ordinary staircases and doors and windows into magical things.” He goes on to say that the novel is “the most real, the most realistic, in the exact sense of the phrase the most like life.”
Writer Neil Gaiman, summarizing Chesterton, says that the fairy tale vision of reality is “more than true.” How can something be more than true? If one reads enough fantasy, then hills become scenes of heroism, forests become recesses of magic, mountains become apocalyptic prophecies, and rivers become the habitation of water spirits. And this is not mere illusion—there is something profoundly true about such impressions of the world. Anyone who has spent much time in these natural environments knows it. I can’t explain why precisely. It is a mystery. There is some energy that runs through our world that is as old as time and as mysterious as the farthest star, and best expressed by “faerie.”
Fantasy helps us achieve a sense of wonder in the face of reality, and, in this respect, it is exactly the opposite of a lot of contemporary “realist fiction.” Chesterton writes in “The Dragon’s Grandmother” that “Folk-lore means that the soul is sane, but that the universe is wild and full of marvels. Realism means that the world is dull and full of routine, but that the soul is sick and screaming.”
In much modern fiction—though not all, certainly—we sense an underlying rejection of reality and resulting ennui that borders on despair. “Life is meaningless and cruel” seems to be the conclusion of much modern fiction. As literature professor Dr. John Senior writes in “The Death of Christian Culture”: “Without the food of music, music sickens and love dies to leave suspicion and disgust. ... What all the major writers of the [20th] century are sick of is themselves.” Sick of themselves because they are trapped in themselves, and have lost an outward-looking sense of awe. Elsewhere in the book, Senior writes, “Ennui is the hell of Modernism. The aesthetic in the extreme is anesthetic: numb, having no sensation, unconscious.”
If there is one thing certain about a fairy-tale inspired view of reality, is that reality is anything but dull. It is the antidote to ennui. And a great breath of clear air to us.
The Happy Ending
“And they lived happily ever after”—the phrase has become a cliché, particularly associated with fairy tales. The idea is often derided; indeed, if you say someone is “living in a fantasy” or “believes in fairy tales,” you imply that they are in denial, deluded. Yet I believe that the final reason why fairy tales have such power to move us and have stayed with us throughout history is because of their potential for a happy ending, even in the face of seemingly hopeless situations. Some part of our nature wants to believe—and I think rightly so—that ultimate victory is possible, that everything’s not lost, in the end, that, maybe, the secret of the universe is a joyous one.
As an example, writer K.M. Weiland recently mused on the power of Tolkien’s epic, “The Lord of the Rings” to take you “there and back again”—meaning, to bring the reader into the abyss of despair, and then draw him or her out again by restoring hope. Indeed, the trilogy is very much a book about despair, and yet it does not end despairingly. That is part of its immense power, and the power of all the best fantasy literature. This is the point that Tolkien himself makes towards the end of his essay “On Fairy Stories.” I will let the master speak for himself and conclude this essay:
“The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending; or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous ‘turn’ (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially ‘escapist,’ nor ‘fugitive.’ In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”
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Walker Larson teaches literature at a private academy in Wisconsin, where he resides with his wife and daughter. He holds a master's in English literature and language, and his writing has appeared in The Hemingway Review, Intellectual Takeout, and his Substack, “TheHazelnut.”