Sunday, September 21, 2008

Chesterton, the Globe, and the Fear of Fairy Tales

In its "Ideas" section, last Sunday's Boston Globe had an article on one of my favorite subjects: Fairy tales. The title ("Fear of fairy tales") is promising, and the subtitle ("The glossy, sanitized new versions of fairy tales leave out what matters: the scary parts") is even more so.

Unfortunately the promise ends up being largely unfilled, because the author cannot imagine any way to understand fairy tales other than through the limited categories of secular modernity. Thus she sees that fairy tales are "rich in allegory" and "endlessly adaptive," but that only fits them to be "a framework for talking about social issues." The pre-modern culture in which fairy tales originated, however, did not restrict itself to talking only about social issues. It felt free to also talk about God, the devil, sin, redemption, faith, hope, love, damnation and salvation. In fact it considered such topics to be infinitely more important than social issues; their illumination was the classical purpose of fairy tales. The classic fairy tales have stood the test of time because they are about nothing so boring as "social issues." Children instinctively hunger for a way to explore the deep mysteries of life, and the classic fairy tales introduced them to them; children don't care a whit for social issues.

The quickest way to suck the life out of a fairy tale is to reduce is to some secular moral purpose, as the author does to Little Red Riding Hood and Snow White:
Little Red Riding Hood, in which a wolf lures a young girl out of public view, has been taken as a story about sexual awakening and as an allegory about a girl made responsible for her own rape. Snow White, in which a motherless child is hunted by her jealous stepmother, is rooted in concerns about abusive parenting.
What six year old has any concept of sexual awakening, and why would a child of good parents have concerns about abusive parenting, assuming the notion meant anything to him at all? Yet both these stories have universal and timeless appeal. Such appeal requires a universal and timeless cause. Little Red Riding Hood is not about sexual awakening but about the universal nature of childhood in its dependence and innocence. There is a wisdom of childhood as well as a wisdom of adulthood, and children have a natural desire for the wisdom appropriate to them. But how do the dependent and innocent become wise in their innocence? Through such stories as Red Riding Hood. Mothers and Fathers give mysterious orders that they do not and cannot always explain. What happens if they are not obeyed? There is evil in the world that the child cannot recognize, as Red Riding Hood does not recognize the wolf as evil. Through no evil intention on her part, Red Riding Hood falls victim to the wolf, and makes her Grandmother a victim of the wolf as well. There is no "lesson" in Riding Hood, but a child who is told the story gains the wisdom of the penalty of disobedience without actually being disobedient. She has imaginatively experienced the diabolical power of evil to entrap her, and has learned that evil ramifies beyond the individual to affect those most dear to her.

And she has learned something else as well. When all seems lost, a Huntsman happens by the Grandmother's house and senses something amiss. He investigates, discovers the Wolf, kills it, and sets Red Riding Hood and Grandmother free. Here in the climax the child imaginatively experiences the meaning of grace. There is diabolical evil in the world, yes, but also profound good, a good that (unlike Riding Hood) is able to recognize evil and defeat it. Furthermore, this good operates in deep and mysterious ways. How is it that the Huntsman "just happened" to be passing by Grandmother's house? Even the youngest reader recognizes that Riding Hood cannot demand that the Huntsman be there (the sin of presumption), but may hope that he will save her despite her disobedience (the virtues of Faith and Hope).

If we wish to understand the meaning of fairy tales, then we need a guide with a vision more expansive and profound than that permitted by the crabbed categories of modernity; we need a guide like G.K. Chesterton, who judges modernity in light of fairy tales, rather than fairy tales in light of modernity:
My first and last philosophy, that which I believe in with unbroken certainty, I learnt in the nursery. I generally learnt it from a nurse; that is, from the solemn and star-appointed priestess at once of democracy and tradition. The things I believed most then, the things I believe most now, are the things called fairy tales. They seem to me to be the entirely reasonable things. They are not fantasies: compared with them other things are fantastic. Compared with them religion and rationalism are both abnormal, though religion is abnormally right and rationalism abnormally wrong. Fairyland is nothing but the sunny country of common sense. It is not earth that judges heaven, but heaven that judges earth; so for me at least it was not earth that criticized elfland, but elfland that criticized earth.

For Joanna Weiss, Red Riding Hood is about sexual awakening, Snow White about abusive step-mothers, Cinderella "articulates the fears children have about blended families," and Rapunzel about child mortality rates. I can't think of anything more depressing... no wonder children brought up in the modern way need Prozac and Ritalin. But we don't need drugs, we need our souls and imaginations to be liberated the way they once were through fairy tales:
But I deal here with what ethic and philosophy come from being fed on fairy tales. If I were describing them in detail I could note many noble and healthy principles that arise from them. There is the chivalrous lesson of "Jack the Giant Killer": that giants should be killed because they are gigantic. It is a manly mutiny against pride as such. For the rebel is older than all the kingdoms, and the Jacobin has more tradition than the Jacobite. There is the lesson of "Cinderella," which is the same as that of the Magnificat - exaltavit humiles. There is the great lesson of "Beauty and the Beast": that a thing must be loved before it is loveable. There is the terrible allegory of the "Sleeping Beauty," which tells how the human creature was blessed with all birthday gifts, yet cursed with death; and how death also may perhaps be softened to a sleep.

The failure to interpret fairy tales in anything beyond the categories of secular modernity must lead to misunderstanding them. Thus Weiss sees Harry Potter as a modern version of Cinderella:
Even Harry Potter, Zipes says, can be seen as a modern take on Cinderella: a boy who faces cruel treatment at the hands of his adoptive family, before he discovers his true and formidable talents.
Zipes gets Harry Potter right, but Cinderella exactly backwards. The discovery of the self and all its "talents" is the modern project and why we are so obsessed with "self-esteem." But Cinderella doesn't have talents; she's got something much better - virtues, especially theological virtues. She incarnates, like Mary, the love St. Paul describes in I Corinthians 13:
Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Harry Potter doesn't need love because he's got something much better: Magic. At least it is better in the twisted sub-creation that J.K. Rowling created in the Potter books. With magic Potter doesn't need endurance or hope or love. He can insist on his own way because he is "the Harry Potter." And he rejoices in the wrong, as he rejoices at the humiliation of his enemies at the end of every Potter book. 

Chesterton understood that, far more important than technical philosophy, is the imagination that informs philosophy. That imagination is formed in the early stages of life through fairy tales and myths. Tell me the stories told to a child when he is young, and I will tell you the sort of man he will become. Plato understood the same thing, which is why education in his Republic focusses so much on the stories told to the young. Chesterton understood that his later conversion to Christianity was prepared by his early exposure to classic fairy tales, which are imaginatively Christian if not explicitly so.

The cultural war against Christianity, therefore, also assumes the form of a war against the stories that form the Christian imagination. One way to destroy these stories is to "reinterpret" them in light of the categories of secular modernity. Another, better, way is to replace them with stories that form an entirely different sort of imagination: The imagination of ego, self-assertion and pride that is characteristic of modernity. The Harry Potter books are such modernly imaginative stories.

The Shrek series of movies are a form of modern fairy tale that explicitly seeks to undermine classic fairy tales. Instead of the humility, patience, faith, hope and love that characterize classic heroines like Cinderella, Shrek is impatient, obnoxious, self-centered and cynical. Many characters from classic fairy tales appear in the movies, but their virtues are "exposed" as false and hypocritical. Shrek, the films communicate, is superior to the classic heroes because he doesn't believe in any bogus and enslaving notions of virtue. He incarnates "authenticity," the only thing approaching a virtue that is recognizable in modernity. His "freedom" is expressed by the rejection of any standards outside himself. Shrek has no vision to which he conforms his life, no holy city he wishes to reach, no one whom he admires, for all these things are expressions of the Christian imagination that the modern mind finds so stifling. Contempt for the Christian imagination is the expression of modern freedom, and Shrek expresses his contempt for the classic fairy tales (and the imaginatively Christian world in which they exist) by using the pages from fairy tale books as toilet paper. Compare Shrek with the imaginative Christian as described by Chesterton:
But though (like the man without memory in the novel) we walk the streets with a sort of half-witted admiration, still it is admiration. It is admiration in English and not only admiration in Latin. The wonder has a positive element of praise. This is the next milestone to be definitely marked on our road through fairyland. I shall speak in the next chapter about optimists and pessimists in their intellectual aspect, so far as they have one. Here I am only trying to describe the enormous emotions that cannot be described. And the strongest emotion was that life was as precious as it was puzzling. It was an ecstasy because it was an adventure; it was an adventure because it was an opportunity. The goodness of the fairy tale was not affected by the fact that there might be more dragons than princesses; it was good to be in a fairy tale. The test of all happiness is gratitude; and I felt grateful, though I hardly knew to whom. Children are grateful when Santa Claus puts in their stockings gifts of toys or sweets. Could I not be grateful to Santa Claus when he put in my stockings the gift of two miraculous legs? We thank people for birthday presents of cigars and slippers. Can I thank no one for the birthday present of birth?
Admiration and gratitude. These words have almost lost their meaning in the modern world. We can get them back through the classic fairy tales, read the Chestertonian way... not the way of the Boston Globe.

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