The Making Of A Myth, Part 2

Fairy stories are for children. Or are they? J. R. R. Tolkien in his essay “On Fairy Stories” built an argument that challenged the usual assumptions. First, he believed that fairy stories had significance beyond entertainment.
on Nov 21, 2011 · No comments

Fairy stories are for children.

Or are they?

J. R. R. Tolkien in his essay “On Fairy Stories” built an argument that challenged the usual assumptions.

First, he believed that fairy stories had significance beyond entertainment.

But when we have done all that research — collection and comparison of the tales of many lands — can do; when we have explained many of the elements commonly found embedded in fairy-stories (such as step-mothers, enchanted bears and bulls, cannibal witches, taboos on names, and the like) as relics of ancient customs once practised in daily life, or of beliefs once held as beliefs and not as “fancies” — there remains still a point too often forgotten: that is the effect produced now by these old things in the stories as they are. (pp. 10-11 – emphasis mine)

Whether invented or re-created, every new particle added to a story, nevertheless, retained elements that the teller (or writer) wanted to communicate.

The things that are there must often have been retained (or inserted) because the oral narrators, instinctively or consciously, felt their literary “significance.” Even where a prohibition in a fairy-story is guessed to be derived from some taboo once practised long ago, it has probably been preserved in the later stages of the tale’s history because of the great mythical significance of prohibition. A sense of that significance may indeed have lain behind some of the taboos themselves. Thou shalt not — or else thou shall depart beggared into endless regret. (p.11)

In that regard, fairy stories accomplish something grand:

Such stories have now a mythical or total (unanalysable) effect . . . they open a door on Other Time, and if we pass through, though only for a moment, we stand outside our own time, outside Time itself, maybe.

Because of this idea, that stories passed down from generation to generation communicated things of importance and take readers to places beyond themselves, Tolkien did not believe Faerie was the exclusive realm of children. In fact he felt adults were more suited to it and grew to understand fairy stories more as they aged.

Children as a class — except in a common lack of experience they are not one — neither like fairy-stories more, nor understand them better than adults do; and no more than they like many other things. . . But in fact only some children, and some adults, have any special taste for them; and when they have it, it is not exclusive, nor even necessarily dominant. It is a taste, too, that would not appear, I think, very early in childhood without artificial stimulus; it is certainly one that does not decrease but increases with age, if it is innate.
(pp. 11-12)

So I wonder, is Tolkien right that only some individuals “have a special taste” for fairy tales? Is it true that only some individuals have a desire for “Faerie,” that world of wonder and magic where the incredible is normal?

I’ve long thought that there is something in the human heart that desires heaven, or perhaps, more accurately, desires God. He is the one who makes possible the heart’s dearest longings. In fact He is the satisfaction of that poignant joy that strikes the heart at the sight of a rainbow or a mountain meadow or an autumn forest. Those beauties hint at a greater beauty and stir a longing to live within that beauty, to capture it and hold it, to retain that moment of desire fulfilled.

Equally so, I’ve come to believe that Faerie, as Tolkien believed, is the man-made world that mirrors the beauty and wonder of God, however imperfectly.

An essential power of Faerie is thus the power of making immediately effective by the will the visions of “fantasy.” Not all are beautiful or even wholesome, not at any rate the fantasies of fallen Man. And he has stained the elves who have this power (in verity or fable) with his own stain. (p. 8 – emphasis mine)

My question then is, why would a person hungry for God not be drawn to the world of Faerie? I suppose I’m asking the wrong audience because my guess is most people who visit Spec Faith are indeed drawn to Faerie. But I know a few people who definitely have no desire to live in the land of magic. They read biographies and histories and see no value in “make believe.” Yet they revel in the wonder of God.

Where, then, is the disconnect? Is Tolkien right — the love of Faerie is innate? And am I wrong that the love of Faerie is the same love and longing we have for God?

Best known for her aspirations as an epic fantasy author, Becky is the sole remaining founding member of Speculative Faith. Besides contributing weekly articles here, she blogs Monday through Friday at A Christian Worldview of Fiction. She works as a freelance writer and editor and posts writing tips as well as information about her editing services at Rewrite, Reword, Rework.
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  1. Of course, as a modern writer of full-length fairy tales, you all know where i stand. I would love to encourage you all, if interested in the topic, to read an article I wrote about why I write fairy tales:

    I quote some great lines from Chesterton about how fairy tales are not only intrinsic to our core reality but essential in our lives. I love what he wrote on the importance of fairy tales. if the material interests you, be sure to pick up his book Orthodoxy and read the chapter “the Ethics of Elfland.” it is what started me on my journey to becoming a published author of fairy tales. thanks for the post!
    Susanne (C. S.) Lakin

  2. Galadriel says:

    I love “The Ethics of Elfland!”
     I would say that there are some people who are not suited to fantasy, or even fiction. My brother, for example, loves nonfiction and has a difficult time struggling through any fiction, even the more “grounded” genres like historical or contempary. As to why that is…I have no idea.
    Maybe it’s like glasses–some people are farsighted and some are nearsighted, so they see what they are looking for in different places.

  3. Kessie says:

    I know lots of people who like lots of genres. Some people prefer Tom Clancy and thrillers, while some do mysteries, like Agatha Christie. Some people consume romance by the bagful. Some people like vanilla, some people like chocolate, while others prefer pistachio. It’s not bad, it’s just preference.
    I think, in any given genre, there is the hunting for that “aha!” moment of transcendence, when the story gives you a little shiver of a thrill, or brings a lump into your throat. For some, that comes in fantasy, for others, other genres. I don’t think us fantasy writers can point at other genre writers and say that they’re not “true storytellers” or something. It’s just part of the craft, and goes with the reader base.

  4. Andy Poole says:

    Perhaps some Christians are too caught up into legalism to allow themselves to wonder? That they must check off the lists of “have to’s” and pain themselves over the “must not do’s” that they miss it? Many oppose fantasy for the magic. I can understand this to some degree, since I try to stay away from fiction that glorifies witchcraft or other evils to achieve the ends of “good.” Yet the legalists that oppose all of fantasy most likely do so on misinformation and lack of objective research–for example, in Tolkien’s world, the “magic” of the elves and the Istari is not of the occult, and Tolkien himself regretted using the term “wizard,” intending to imply a different meaning than what came to be associated with his work.
    There is a kind of pleasure in believing oneself as right and set apart, as well as in taking up arms to call something “unholy” (often with a weak biblical basis), and that may have something to do with how well-meaning believers can miss out on the wonder of fantasy.

  5. Andy Poole says:

    I forgot to mention, I read in Richard Abanes’ excellent book Fantasy and Your Family that many fairy tales were actually adult entertainment. “Sleeping Beauty” had surprisingly adult content that couldn’t have made it into Disney.

  6. Andy, I have come across a couple people online who take a hard stance against fantasy, including C. S. Lewis’s fantasy, so I know what you’re talking about. I tend to think those folks have some mistaken view that is blinding them. But what about those “preference people” like Kessie mentioned? Is it our preference to be or not to be drawn into the wonder and joy of God’s beauty? I don’t think so. I think there’s an innate longing in our hearts for God.

    Therefore, logically, if fantasy points to that same wonder and joy, that same beauty, then why wouldn’t everyone love fantasy? See, I know they don’t so there must be something faulty in my logic or in the premise itself. But I don’t see it.



    • Kessie says:

      I think they find God’s beauty in other genres. The early Mitford books have a lovely view of God in daily life on par with any fantasy novel.

      • I find beauty in other genres, too, Kessie. I’m not trying to say fantasy is the only place where God’s glory shows through. But it seems like it answers the longing of the heart for something Grand, something beyond ourselves — what Tolkien calls Faerie and others call magic. I think of it as God’s transcendent beauty or (a word I hate because it’s often misunderstood) mystery. He does things that astound and in fantasy we find the astounding. How can this not be true for all believers? (Though I know it is). I just don’t understand. 😕



        • Kirsty says:

          Could it be just in the same way that one person serves God in one way, and another in another?
          Just as we have different gifts we have different tastes, but all for the same purpose.
          So while you or I might see joy and beauty in fantasy someone else may not – they may see it in a non-fiction book on quantum mechanics.
          Equally, you or I may serve God by using our creative gifts, while someone else may do so by organising a team or going and preaching to strangers (neither of which I have any gift for whatsoever!)

  7. Bob Menees says:

    It must be innate, for some. As long as I remember, I’ve dreamed in fantasy. I’ve flown into the strange and haunted, into beautiful wonder, and into the unexplainable. For some reason, I’m usually flying – most times flapping, sometimes soaring and once on a carpet. At times, the scenes have rivaled any cinematic production. Daydreaming followed suit. Maybe that’s the connection to liking the genre.

    • If it’s innate, Bob, then I wonder about the idea that all people have the longing for God, for the heavenly glory. Is it true that they do?

      I’m also wondering if perhaps we all dream in fantasy until it’s schooled out of us. I know that was a great concern when I was a young teacher — that our methods were stifling creativity (so school systems drifted away from things like reading and writing! But that’s another subject).

      I suppose this is something we won’t know until we get to heaven. I mean the people who no longer dream in fantasy (if they ever did) won’t recall having done so and can’t tell us they left off doing it because of this or that.



  8. Maria Tatham says:

    Becky, perhaps individuals love different attributes of the Lord, His lovingkindness rather than His creativity–and the wonders of that. So they seek reflections of Him in different kinds of books, broadly fiction or nonfiction, and within these, different genres. Some people may love His lovingkindness and read real-life accounts of missions or Christian romances. Some are in love with His creativity and seek Him in the Creation and in subcreated worlds.

  9. Maria, that’s an interesting idea. So fantasy might lend itself to a certain aspect of God’s character (his justice, glory, transcendence, power, that sort of thing), and something in us fantasy people resonate particularly with those traits. We long especially for those things from God, so we gravitate to the works that show God in that light.

    Interesting in deed.

    The thing is, unlike Bob who said he dreamed in fantasy for as long as he can remember, I didn’t know I was a fantasy person until I read fantasy. I could have known, I suppose, because I loved children’s stories that were of the fantastic nature and I loved to pretend, but when I started in on chapter books, I read stories of this world, without fantastic elements.

    I suppose I’ve felt that others are fantasy people too, but they just don’t know it. And they’re fantasy people because God is Other and fantasy gives us a window to peek at His greatness.

    But maybe not. 🙂



    • Maria Tatham says:

      Becky, perhaps this is the case, that some people are fantasy people but don’t know it yet; and that they will understand about fantasy, and love it when they find authors who point the way, writers who have created worlds that for some reason capture their hearts and minds.

      • Good point, Maria! Not all fantasies are equal. Perhaps there are some that will unlock this sense of wonder, but not all will do so for all people. That I can certainly understand. Quite frankly, not all the fantasies I’ve read do so for me, and I am a fantasy person. So perhaps it is a matter of people finding the right books and authors. Unfortunately, those who do not see themselves as fantasy people may not ever find the book that will unlock their sense of wonder.

        One of the non-fantasy people in my life read The Hobbit at my insistence, then The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. She did not like either. She wants real world stories she says, though she loves the Bible and the numerous parables that point to deeper truths. There’s a disconnect, it seems. It’s OK for the Bible to have allegory and metaphor and point to things above, but when stories use those same devices, she doesn’t care for them. Perhaps she has yet to read the right book for her.



  10. Maria Tatham says:

    Becky, some people can’t see that the Bible contains different kinds of literature, history, poetry, etc. For them, such a notion may seem to detract from its glory. A brother I know, who loves and reads his Bible, told me he hates literature.

    Some people will never get there–to a heartfelt response to fantasy, that is. Like other good places to be, only the Lord can get them there. This may not be His plan for them. And for them, a sense of the wonder may be evoked by something else completely different, like a walk on the beach at sunset. Meanwhile, keep offering things you know are excellent–it’s worth a try, it’s a potential gift to such a person. Perhaps point them to Charles Williams or George MacDonald, for example. You know many more I know.


  11. Becky, some people can’t see that the Bible contains different kinds of literature, history, poetry, etc.

    Hmm, so again, the main problem is likely rooted in a flawed view of God’s Word …

    For them, such a notion may seem to detract from its glory. A brother I know, who loves and reads his Bible, told me he hates literature.

    Only when one better discerns and enjoys (though of course we can’t fully grasp it!) the original fantastic Story, will we be able better to discern and enjoy others’ fantastic stories — all not just for entertainment, but for the sake and glory of God!

    • Maria Tatham says:

      Stephen, I think it’s possible that some people react in this way because they’ve seen careless folks disrespect God’s Word, try to destroy its credibility, or put it on a parr with human writings. They may be reacting to evil they’ve seen. And so ‘fiction’ frightens them.

      I wish these people could understand about such fiction, and the glory it brings to God, but some things are not to be, at least in this life; and I really believe that God has His reasons. Another problem: If Tolkien could regret using the word ‘wizard’ for Gandalf, is it any wonder that people who don’t know his mind react as they do to his use of such a word?

      It’s still unhappy, I know, but in Heaven we will see and know without these troubles, and troubled views.


    • Stephen, you said

      Hmm, so again, the main problem is likely rooted in a flawed view of God’s Word …

      I suspect this is true for some people, but not for the friend I’m thinking of. She knows and loves God’s Word like few others. She understands and appreciates the various genres within Scripture. She sees the various people in the Old Testament as types of Christ and appreciates the symbolism of the Law and the temple sacrifices. These are God-ordained and she gets them, even loves them.

      But C. S. Lewis writing a lion in the role of Christ? No, this she didn’t care for at all. I’ve asked her about it and she can’t explain beyond the fact that she prefers the “real.”

      She has said she never enjoyed the Greek myths when she had to read them growing up, and my theory is, there may be some carry over from that experience. Perhaps fantasy is fixed in her mind as a product of paganism. I don’t know.

      But now I have to wonder if Maria is right and perhaps a book out there will unlock the Wonder for her. But maybe Tolkien is right after all. I just don’t see how.



  12. […] suggested that the appeal of fantasy was innate and actually grew stronger as one aged. My focus in Part 2 centered on that idea of “innate-ness,” but this week I’d like to look a little […]

  13. Sarah Sawyer says:

    Great post, Becky! And yes, it’s eerie that we were writing on similar topics the same day. 🙂

John Olson did an interesting workshop at ACFW one year, focused on science fiction and fantasy. In it, he mentioned the fact that different genres of fiction correspond to different fundamental desires in humans. For example, romance would relate to the desire to love and be loved/pursued. Science fiction and fantasy of course, delve into the craving for the supernatural directly, that desire for wonder, for otherworldly beauty and splendor. 

    Although everyone has an innate longing for God, perhaps some don’t feel as pressing a desire for the wonder/awe component of His nature?

On the flip side, I’ve found that most people, if convinced to give fantasy a try, are pleasantly surprised by what they read. So maybe that desire for wonder is present to a degree in everyone, just buried deeper in some than in others?

    • Thanks for the input, Sarah. I think I was at that John Olson workshop. ACFW in Dallas?

      I see what you’re saying — the longing for God might express as a desire for security, for example, rather than for a peek at Glory. But yes, I’m thinking that most people, when they encounter magic and adventure respond positively. A former Spec Faith contributor used to point out that people often like speculative stories without realizing they are. She mentioned things like The Lion King and ET, a couple popular movies. We could add Avatar, Ever-After, The Princess Bride, a host of others. Lots of people are watching these movies who may never label themselves as fans of fantasy.

      So maybe that desire for wonder is present to a degree in everyone, just buried deeper in some than in others?

      That’s what I think, but also that it will take the right book to bring it out. The friend I mentioned in the comments above who does not like fantasy, admitted she liked Screwtape Letters, so I have hope. 😀


    • I think I was at that John Olson workshop. ACFW in Dallas?

      I recall that workshop too. In fact, I still have the notes for it. John Olson did two in 2006, at the Dallas conference. The first was “Thrillers: Writing with Super Glue.”

      Here’s an excerpt (the quotes mean direct quotes; otherwise, I’ve paraphrased):

      Romance reveals the desire to love and be loved.

      Mystery reveals the desire to know, and presupposes that things are understandable. “Mystery — use it with a big wide sloppy brush!” (knocks off microphone) “No more sloppy brushes for me until the next mood overtakes me.”

      Science fiction and fantasy: “Our thirst for the supernatural, the transcendent … we all have a yearning to experience beyond what we see around us.”

      Historical: “It’s very similar to science fiction and fantasy, this thirst for other-ness. But also, there is a nostalgia. There’s a sense that the life I’m living now isn’t as it should be. It’s a God-given desire for Heaven.”

      Chick lit? “The desire to be understood … the desire to be part of community.”

      Thriller / suspense? “We have a desire to be afraid. Now isn’t that a weird thing? I’m a biochemist … the desire to be afraid doesn’t fit into my ‘normal evolutionary thinking’ in my frame. … We have a desire to live life on the edge. God did not create us to sit in front of a television in our living rooms to live safe, secure and meaningless lives. He created us with a purpose. He created us to be heroes.”

      Living dangerous lives vicariously through characters? “Part of that is a desire to take a risk. And that involves faith. … When we’re afraid, we turn to God.

      “How many of you are Nice People? Nice people have a hard time writing thrillers, because they don’t want to hurt their readers. But readers want to be hurt! They want to sweat! They want to pee their pants while they’re reading!”

      My sister and I used to read Mysteries. We would walk to the bad section of towns and talk aloud about how rich my parents were. They weren’t. “We were trying to get kidnapped.”

      His second was about “Science Fiction and Fantasy: Writing for Elves, Vulcans, and Pointy-Eared Humans.” Excerpt:

      “Our message is eternal, but language has a shelf life. What that means is that you can read a great book, even multiple times and still get things out of it, but if you hear the message long enough it starts to lose its meaning and will end up completely losing its meaning.”

      Row, Row, Row Your Boat is heretical! It’s “go with the flow, dude,” it’s hedonistic, and the “life is but a dream” part is completely wrong. Yet it’s not too dangerous — it’s lost its meaning.

      “After I began reading 26 romances a week, they all started to sound the same. They kind of lost their impact.” Historicals too. “I mean dude, how long has it been since there’s been romance on that prairie? I mean, all those prairie romances — there’s not going to be any room on that prairie anymore through all those romances!” That genre’s repetition has lost some of its power.

      “Mystery and other genres will start to feel the same over time.

      “Speculative fiction, which is basically science-fiction, fantasy, and every other weird thing that the other genres don’t know about — that has the potential to keep people’s interest and be different, time after time. … You have the power to say things in a new and different way, every single book you write. You have a tool to bend the entire universe towards your message. And people think it’s okay. It’s really bizarre. In spec. fiction, you can do anything — almost — as long as you’re writing a really good story you can do anything in order to keep the message fresh and to say it in a different way that’s not going to be lost.[“]

      What’s more hilarious, perhaps, is that apparently we were all in the same room those days, and only now, over the internet, know each other a little better. 😀

  14. Finally I have a chance to touch back on this conversation, and offer some thoughts …

    From Andy Poole, above:

    Perhaps some Christians are too caught up into legalism to allow themselves to wonder? That they must check off the lists of “have to’s” and pain themselves over the “must not do’s” that they miss it? Many oppose fantasy for the magic. I can understand this to some degree, since I try to stay away from fiction that glorifies witchcraft or other evils to achieve the ends of “good.”

    I think some of this is rooted in well-intended but un-Biblical theology, especially relating to what Christians can and cannot be “exposed” to. It’s inherent in phrases like “garbage in, garbage out,” or “be careful little eyes what you see,” or even “you are what you eat.” This perspective overemphasizes the (very real) risks from an evil world system, taking them too far, as if those are in and of themselves dangerous to us, and not what Jesus said they were — exacerbations of and temptations to the sin that we already have in our wicked hearts.

    If I had to compare that wrong, with the wrong of Christians not discerning enough, I would say the latter problem is more common among professing Christians. However, that doesn’t mean the problem of wrongfully defined discernment isn’t also possible.

    One example, about the “witchcraft” angle. It’s a frequent topic on Spec-Faith, and I think some views about it result from confusion about what “witchcraft” God truly forbids. Magic forces, or “magic” from imagined technology, in fiction, very often has no parallel to real-world, pagan, occultic “magic” that people use to try to talk with the dead, or demons, or control their environments. No real-life person can “apparate” or turn teakettles into tabby cats. If we assume the Devil can do that, and lets practicing pagans in on the secret, and therefore fiction that includes such things is too close to reality and must be forbidden, then we give the Devil too much credit, and we have bought into mysticism and assumptions that bragging pagans are telilng the truth!

    But anyway, reading about actual evil acts does not automatically mean we are tempted or will imitate the sin that’s shown. If a book with imagined “witchcraft,” for example, makes you personally want to ignore Christ and go find the closest real-world equivalent to “magic” that you can, then yes, by all means, put down the book, and repent, not of the book’s “sin,” but of your own. Yet if you can be exposed to wrong stuff, as was the prophet Daniel or the apostle Paul, without sinning, you are okay.

    Here’s Becky‘s comment, though, on which I’ll camp for the rest of this reply:

    But what about those “preference people” like Kessie mentioned? Is it our preference to be or not to be drawn into the wonder and joy of God’s beauty? I don’t think so. I think there’s an innate longing in our hearts for God.

    Amen times ten. And it wasn’t Christian leaders like John Piper who originated a truth like this: “Joyless faith in Jesus is a contradiction in terms.” (Tweeted today from Desiring God Ministries.) They just remind us of the truth that Scripture was already portraying so often, and in so many ways. In Jesus’ parables, for example, He tells not of people fulfilling religious duties, or getting saved mainly for the goal of getting others saved, but of people attending a feast, or sacrificing all they have, or investing in the future, or any other deed, for the sake of reward. In His parables, that reward takes many forms, but to what — or rather Who — do they all point? The Kingdom. Christ Himself. His love, His truth, His Person. They point to that longing for Him.

    Thus, I think that the real problem is again a slightly flawed (though well-intended!) theology (a.k.a., view of God). We angst over having, or showing, or “working up” emotion in worship (or at least I do!) because we aren’t sure how to “handle” emotion and joy in our relationship with Christ. With suffering in the world, and our very real call to missions, we aren’t sure if we should actually pleasure in our lives, and how we balance that with self-sacrifice. Tricky issues, these are. But not impossible, I’m sure.

    With that in mind, it might be that with better teaching about what folks like Piper nickname “Christian Hedonism” — that all we do, duties and joys and suffering and pleasures, is meant for the greater end of enjoying God forever — will begin naturally to resolve some Christian readers’ uncertainty about fantasy and speculative stories.

    So far, I’ve not met anyone who had gotten ahold of Biblical “Christian Hedonism” truth who had not also at least begun to see why things like great music and stories, along with being willing to suffer for Christ’s sake, made sense. Not all of them go after great sci-fi or fantasy novels as ways to gain more of His delight indirectly, of course. But they would at least see how, theoretically, these things could be a means toward Him.

    Finally, sure, all genres echo truths and beauties about God, in some way or another. But it does seem that as Becky said, speculative genres show eternal truths and fantastic realities in far superior ways to, say, a contemporary mystery story. Those other stories may echo Scripture’s subplots, or our own subplots, but only fantasy and such seem to echo the overarching Story itself of the Bible, of the Gospel, which by its nature can only be imitated most directly by a supernatural/fantastic story. And, as I like to say, it’s only speculative stuff that will be “contemporary” in the New Earth …

    (By the way, some trip up over the term “Christian Hedonism.” There’s a summary of it here. But if anyone prefers, just substitute “delighting in God personally” instead.)

What do you think?