Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Why Do We Like Fairy Tales?

As you can see from the relative flurry of blog activity around here, I've finished my frantic re-reading of the Harry Potter books, giving my self a few days to emotionally process the end of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince before I pick up the series' final installment, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

When I'd decided to re-read the whole series in anticipation of the final book, I was working my way through some Liberation theology. My wife says that I learn more outside of school than I possibly could in, and one look at the reading regimen I give myself each summer says why. This summer I'd already gone through a couple of Michael Eric Dyson books (not theology texts in and of themselves, but relevant to my own theological project), along with Karen Armstrong's The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions (I should write about that one sometime, an ambitious project chasing a thesis through history and pre-history), Paul Tillich's Radical Social Thought by Ronald H. Stone, and some other books that are not immediately relevant to my academic pursuits, but which were good reading anyway (Randall Balmer's Thy Kingdom Come: An Evangelical's Lament, Marilynne Robinson's Gilead, Karen Armstrong's first memoir, Through the Narrow Gate: A Memoir of Spiritual Self-Discovery, Zora Neale Hurston's famous Their Eyes Were Watching God, and Maya Angelo's follow-up to I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, titled Gather Together in My Name).

After all of that, I decided to tackle some Latin American Liberation theology, as that represented a gaping hole in my education. I decided to start with Jon Sobrino's Spirituality of Liberation: Toward Political Holiness, in which he addresses the Vatican criticism that Latin American Liberation theology is just Marxism in Christian language. In it he argues - quite compellingly, I might add - that you can't separate the spiritual from the political, and so he makes more overt the innate spirituality of Liberation theology.

While reading that, I also found a copy of George Kelsey's 1965 book Racism and the Christian Understanding of Man (the whole story of how and why I found that text will hopefully be a post unto itself soon enough). So, as you can see, when I temporarily stopped letting Harry Potter interrupt my theological studies, I had more than enough to go back to. But when I picked Kelsey and Sobrino back up, I just couldn't quite get into it. My mind was elsewhere, in a magical world of children's fantasy.

I didn't want to read theology just yet, I realized. I wanted to read fairy tales. So I shelved Sobrino and Kelsey again, and picked up George MacDonald's classic 1858 work, Phantastes, in which a man named Anodos, on his twenty-first birthday, comes of age and inherits his late father's writing desk and memoirs. And, as happens so often in fairy tales, when he opens up his father’s desk, he finds a fairy. The fairy tells him, after a brief philosophic argument concerning size (meaningless, the fairy argues) and form (which, the fairy claims, really matters), that tomorrow he will see the fairy kingdom.

That's as far as I've gotten in it, so far. But, reading it on the heels of the Harry Potter books, I started wonder why, exactly, we like fairy tales? Why, in other words, would I put my theological work aside once again to pick up a nineteenth century fairy tale. I, who went over three years without reading a single novel? I, who read theology texts for fun?!?

I can't claim to know the whole history of fairy tales. I don't know when they first appeared, nor do I know which cultures have them and which (if any) do not. I can't even give a firm definition of "fairy tale." I can say that, by "fairy tale" I mean more than just stories with fairies in them. I mean what most mean by fantasy, though I have in mind a particular kind of fantasy: children's fantasy. Fantastic, imaginative books and stories meant for children, though they enthrall the child in each of us.

I wrote here that I've probably learned as much theology these imaginative works as I have from theology texts. Whether that's true or not, it feels true, and since

a.) I wrote that, and

b.) I tossed my theological reading aside for a round of Phantastes

I've meditated on what fairy tales have in common with religion, because I suspect that's why I like them, and that may be why others like them, too.

At a bare minimum, fairy tales and religion have these two things in common:

1. They both involve an existential component, a voyage of self-discovery, and

2. they both involve a mystical component, an unveiling of a hidden layer of reality.

Additionally, in both fairy tales and religion, the existential component is deeply connected to the mystical component.

Take the Harry Potter series, for example. In it, a young orphan, raised by is abusive aunt and uncle, with whom he can find nothing in common, dreams of being something more, something special. Then comes the moment of discovery: he is, in fact, a wizard. This moment of discovery is powerful and compelling, because it taps into our own sense of uniqueness, our own desire to somehow be more than we appear to be. And, this moment of discovery is both existential and mystical. In it Harry Potter not only discovers a sense of identity that both makes sense of and transcends his daily experience, he also has unveiled to him a hidden layer of reality: the mysterious world of witches and wizards, unknown to non-magical Muggles.

This theme is not, of course, unique to Harry Potter. In my own fairy tale library I see it over and over again. In Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain a young boy named Taran dreams of being more than an Assistant Pig Keeper, only to have unveiled to him a hidden layer of reality that changes his experience of self and the world. In J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins sets off on a mystical quest and finds not only a wider world than he could have possibly imagined, but also a deeper and richer sense of self. In Lewis' Narnia books, British children walk through a wardrobe into a magical kingdom beyond their wildest imagination, in which they find themselves heroes and royalty. And, before there was Harry Potter, Ursula LeGuin wrote her Earthsea books, in which Ged, who dreams of being more than the son of a blacksmith, discovers that he is a wizard.

In each of these fairy tales - and, I suspect, in thousands more that I can't think of at the moment - the mystical and the existential are linked. A hidden layer of reality is unveiled, and someone small who dreamed of being large finds that who they are transcends even their most ambitious dreams. Stepping out into the wider reality starts a voyage of self-discovery, in which the lonely dreamer becomes the person they are meant to be.

This is very much like my experience of religion, an experience that I started to own for myself just before my fifteenth birthday, when I had my own meeting of the mystical and the existential. But, rather than tell that story now, I'd like instead to point to the dangers inherent in this experience of religion, as they are dangers shared by the characters of fairy tales.

The first danger is with the existential. While it is exhilarating to find that you are somehow more than you thought you were, more even than you ever dreamed you could be, that experience also can make you self-absorbed. This is, as I read it, the biggest character flaw in any fairy tale hero. While their mystical experience has broadened their metaphysical perspective, their concern is often still narrow, still self-absorbed. So, often, is it with those of us who have "found religion." In our ecstasy at beginning the long process of authentic self-discovery, we focus on that self-discovery, and on ourselves. The dangers of this should be obvious to any of us who fight the raging beast of ego.

The second danger is with the mystical. Seeing the more, the sacred, in a previously hidden layer of reality is also exhilarating, to say the least. But it can also make us inclined to neglect our normal experience, to minimize the value of the mundane. Catching glimpse of the sacred [note: here I am using "secular" and "sacred" in the sense of Mircea Eliade's The Sacred and the Profane - I'm not using "profane" because of the negative connotations of the word] can sometimes make the secular seem so trivial, so insignificant that we can't bring ourselves to focus on it except in an effort to let go of it. But this can lead to the worst sort of arrogance and moral callousness. Properly understood, if we grant a division between the secular and the sacred, we still see the sacred in the secular, making the secular a sacramental realm in which the sacred is mediated. It is, in other words, the vehicle through which we see God, and has its own unique value within the concern of God. So our mystical experience - like the mystical experience of the fairy tale heroes - should not drive us away from the secular, nor should it diminish our concern for the secular. Rather our mystical experience should drive us toward the secular, seeing it as a sacral realm.

Aware of these dangers, we can guard against them, using our own enriched existential experience of self to deepen our concern for others, and using our expanded view of reality to make more precious our daily world. Good fairy tales touch that part in us that craves meaning, and help us process the grand fairy tale that is the story of our life.


crystal said...

I like fairy tales very much. - there is something deeply resonant about them. One site I visit - Folklore and Mythology Electronic Texts from the U of Pittsburgh

Anonymous said...

As I recall from the undergrad days, fairy tales were originally part of the French nobility's court bawdiness (Charles Perrault collected them, I think). Presumably the virgin's encounters with Prince Charming were more explicitly sexual.

More formally, liminality is key to understanding their appeal and function in childhood development. Fairy tales deal with liminal realms (thus their accessibility to spiritual interpretations). They also focus on a liminal age (passage from childhood to young adulthood thus the ubiquitous abandonment by parents or wicked stepmother). The passage between realms and/or passage to maturity through accomplishing an adult feat is therefore central.