On Fairy Tales

Last night I was giving Ellis a bath when she told me, “You fight the choices [that] you make.” Sometimes I don’t know if I’m talking to a two-year old or some otherworldly sage.

Lately she has been role-playing Rapunzel and insisting that the rest of us play along. I don’t know how many times I have been injured and then healed by Rapunzel’s magical tears. In the Disney version (of which Ellis is particularly partial to), Eugene cuts Rapunzel’s hair. Ellis has captured an appropriate look of horror and shock after I pretend to cut her hair, mimicking the movie. It is hard to watch her without laughing. We have already discussed her acting career.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the stories we tell Ellis, about whether the stories we tell her are true: whether they embody a greater metanarrative, or have little to offer besides romantic love. And, this means criticizing and judging storybooks and Disney movies, trying to hold up the ones that point to something great, point to redemption through substitutional love, and rejecting the many stories out there which, while well-intentioned, do nothing to stir her imagination and give her a greater sense of reality.

I’ve decided that I like the Rapunzel story. In fact, most fairy tales are more able to tap into the metanarrative of life than many modern stories, I think. Or, as Chesterton said: fairy tales aren’t true because there are dragons; they are true because the dragon can be defeated. At least, he said something along those lines. And the ending of Rapunzel: Eugene chooses death in order to free his love, in order to release her from her captor’s power. No, he doesn’t die in the end, but is only brought back to life by Rapunzel’s tears, by her suffering. Sure, the idea of a Christ-figure is muddy at best, but the overall structure of most fairy tales is based on the passion narrative (the quest, the suffering, the death, the redemption), and has at its core this idea of sacrificial love.

Fairy tales understand that there is real evil, or often a real curse which must be overcome. C.S. Lewis’ Narnia may be the last great example for children. And, I find that Ellis, with her child’s heart, is much more interested in stories that present good and evil, suffering and redemption and love, than she is in other stories. No, she would not put it in such terms, and we are careful to protect her from stories that are beyond her age. Yet, even now she likes the stories where something is at stake, where there is a demarcation between good and evil, where there is more to the story than being good or getting what you want.

I want Ellis to know such stories because I want her to live such a story: one where she experiences sacrificial love and then takes the great risk of sacrificing for others, one where being good is not the end goal but the by-product of living in a great story, fighting evil in its many forms, and always pursuing what is beautiful, what is good, and what is true. Then, in 20 or 30 or even 50 years, she’ll still be able to see the world with enough clarity to utter even wiser sayings than, “You fight the choices that you make.”

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