Sunday, June 28, 2015

Of insane fairy tales

The highlight of my weekend was probably sitting in the M&S cafe with my six year old and finishing off reading The Silver Chair with him. And being praised by a primary school teacher at the next table for doing so - and not just giving him a device to play with.

Somewhat painful that it's extraordinary to be reading with your child, though our previous book - Charlie & the Chocolate Factory - anticipated exactly that over 50 years ago.

Our enchanting adventure in Narnia is laced with Christian allegory and reworkings of Lewis' excellent essays in the far richer, more persuasive format of children's novels. Lewis, it seems, isn't just dropping in Christian-isms though, he's going far deeper. 

'Children's books are one of the most important forms of writing we have'

Lewis was in the territory Neil Gaiman later explored in Coraline with his famous saying that 
"Fairy tales are more than true not because they tell us about dragons but because they tell us dragons can be beaten."
Fairy tales tell us about reality, about the true myth. They re-enchant. They re-awaken. They help us to see that this is a "meaning-drenched universe" as Michael Ward puts it. My six year old can tell you that there's meant to be a happy ending to our stories... and that the story isn't over if its still sad.

At the end of The Silver Chair this is shown explicitly as Eustace, Jill and Puddleglum arrive to liberate the Prince from the Witch. 

Rather than acting in force she seeks to enchant them with her magic... seeking to make a mockery of their 'hope' in Narnia, the sun, Aslan... She chides and she mocks: They see a lamp - is the sun just a bigger lamp. They've seen a cat - is Aslan just a bigger cat. But they've been in Narnia, they've seen the sun, they've met Aslan... yet dark underground its all too easy for those things to seem like distant memories, as they had become for the imprisoned Rilian.
"Your sun is a dream; and there is nothing in that dream that was not copied from the lamp. The lamp is the real thing' the sun is but a tale, a children's story" (the Witch, The Silver Chair)
Such folly to think that a children's story less than real...!

Puddleglum remarks further - that the serpentine Queen's world is just rubbish. He says that even if she was right he would want to believe in the sun and in Aslan, rather than just accept the enchantment of her dark world of lamps and cats. It's a concession I'm sure Puddleglum doesn't mean - but one that says: the human heart shouldn't, can't just settle for so little. In the depths of our being, even ahead of evidence and opportunity to taste what's greater, we know we're made for more.

Miley Cyrus claimed recently that the Biblical narrative, particularly of Noah, is 'an insane fairy tale'. I like insane fairy tales and the things about them is that they cut to the heart of reality as it really is. I think it matters whether Noah is myth or true myth -as Tolkien would put it. I don't want to play down the apparent difficulties and questions about whether a flood was of the land or the whole earth and many other important questions. 

But, the story makes emotional sense. Noah tells of justice being done. That there would be salvation. That the world could be remade. That it takes more than a bath to fix the problems deep in the human heart. That the rainbow in the sky can signify God's bow not pointed at man, but pointed at God's heart. And more. 

Is it an accurate account of a historical event - honestly, I think so. But, without scarying some of my more conservative friends, it's verging on the wrong question. You can ask, is this a historically accurate?  (whatever exactly that means... and I do think it is!)... but more than that...this is the story of the world we experience living in. And, yes this story deeply offends us by its confrontation of so much of who we are and love, but its simultaneously the story we deeply long for.

The world is dripping with meaning and fairy tales open the eyes, and open the heart to see the most insane fairy tale of all, the true myth. And of course, when you're enchanted by one story the alternatives do seem insane... 

Generals can fire weapons and lay siege but stories are far more significant.

And so I will read stories to my son after we go swimming on a Saturday morning, and before bed and any other time we can. Not because I'm against him using devices (he does) or against TV and films... but because I want to stretch his imagination. 

I want him caught up in the great stories so that he might never forget what's above ground, never be enchanted by pale imitations, never prefer the light of a lamp to the shining of the sun, and never to use "fairy tale" and "children's story" as derrogatory terms...


  1. Yay! You're writing again! And I share your love for stories. Share your recommendations for all fairy tales and good reading books for kids my way...

  2. Writing on and off when I feel I have something :)

    Good question! Always after recommendations too. We like Emma Yarlett's books (partly cos she was a Falmouth studennt, and cos they're great). Beyond that we're in CS Lewis and Roald Dahl territory mostly for longer books. 3 more of Narnia left then I hope we'll get to The Hobbit...