Late one night, a few weeks back, I whizzed down a California freeway with my A.C. blasting and a radio preacher’s voice blaring. My eyelids felt heavy, like they were weighted down with mud — the same thick mud I felt I had been trudging through all week.
And then the preacher’s voice rumbled, loud and unhindered:
“You’ve got to hunger for the Truth!” he said. “You’ve got to long to be in the Word!”
And my soul — the soul that’s learned to love Jesus for 26 years — felt nothing. No longing; no hunger. Nothing but the weight of that viscid mud.
Sometimes, when the mud is especially ubiquitous, I like to remember my childhood. I remember the days I exclaimed in delight over spit bugs, believed people when they told me I was fantastic, and found the Gospel of Jesus awe-inspiring. Back in those days my soul was always alive with longing for the Truth.
And then I grew up.
And now a family friend lies in the hospital while cancer ravages her body, and my soul is still heaving from relief at the doctor’s words this weekend: “Your sister’s bump is benign.”
On these muddy days I find myself wanting to want more of Jesus and his world. But the wanting to want isn’t always enough, and the radio preacher’s exhortations bounce off the barrier around my heart, like bullets off a fortress wall.
When I was a little girl my mom read The Chronicles of Narnia to my family at bedtime. As I entered adulthood, memories of these cozy nights with wood nymphs and fawns prompted me to read other fairy stories. And so I spent afternoons romping through Middle Earth, and evenings walking the corridors of Hogwarts.
Sometime between eating second breakfast with hobbits and perfecting my summoning charm with Hermione Granger, I realized these stories were doing something for me that rational arguments rarely did.
Like author G.K. Chesterton, when I read of cities where rivers gushed with wine, I marveled that the rivers in my world flow with water, of all things. Water that churns frothy white, generates power, and bends the light, separating it into vibrant ribbons of color.
When I read of orchards that grew golden apples I saw afresh the glory of the tree outside my window. This tree is laden with green apples that grow from soft blossoms, and power my dusty body to breath, blink, and dance. And it doesn’t have to be this way. But it is!
During a time of piercing grief I read George MacDonald’s tale The Light Princess, in which a wicked witch curses a newborn princess so that she is ‘light of spirit’ and ‘light of body.’
As the princess grows the law of gravity doesn’t bind her, nor does her soul feel pain or sorrow. Instead, she spends her days being tossed or dragged from place to place — her freedom from gravity no freedom at all, as it strips her of the autonomy necessary for walking. When she sees her mother cry, or is told an enemy is about to attack, she laughs a loud, hollow laugh, which bespeaks her incapacity to feel deeply. And when a prince falls in love with her she can’t know the joy of returning his love, for her inability to feel any depth of emotion precludes the possibility of relational intimacy.
And so it was that I longed for the Light Princess to be able to feel pain. And I knew deep in my grieving heart that the God-given capacity to feel pain makes us much freer than we would be without it, and that to be human is marvelous.
As fairy tales awakened in me what philosopher Peter Kreeft calls a “right response to reality,” my appetite for them increased. Soon I realized every tale went the same: an enemy invades a peaceful Kingdom¹, and an epic battle between good and evil ensues. Lives are forfeited and dreams sacrificed. And then, just when it seems like all hope is lost, a savior arrives to rescue the faithful ones from the grip of evil, and restore order to the Kingdom.
These stories revived my longing to be swept up in something bigger than myself. They made me want to sacrifice and even die for the greater good. And when they ended happily a childlike voice deep inside whispered with longing, ‘Is it true?’
One day I re-read Genesis 3:14-15, which announces to a world invaded by evil that a Savior will come to fight evil on behalf of the suffering ones. The story unfolds throughout scripture: the Savior will die, and just when it looks like all hope is lost he will defeat death and darkness. And one day, he will restore everlasting order to his Kingdom of faithful ones.
And that’s when I understood how fairy tales could resurrect my desires.
Fairy tales are trumpet sounds of the truest and greatest fairy tale of all: the Gospel.² These tales dress Truth in the beauty of story. And beauty so powerfully engages our desires that it can creep past our intellectual defenses, or fortress walls, via the secret passageway of imagination. And like Aslan breathing onto the White Witch’s stone statues to revive them, these tales can breath resurrection life into our hardest heart spaces. For as C.S. Lewis reminds us,
“Spells are used for breaking enchantments as well as inducing them.”³
For a list of suggested fairy tales and essays about the power of fairy tales click here.
²When I say the Gospel is the truest fairy tale, I do not mean that it is literary fiction. I mean, instead, that its true storyline is unique to the fairy tale genre, and that it is the archetype for every fictional fairy tale.
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