Fairy tales help us hope in the midst of darkness. They help us see through our tears to the One who will wipe them from our eyes.
What is it about fantasy and fairy tales that grip our hearts and shape our imagination? In his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” J.R.R. Tolkien proposed that the structure of fairy tales derives its source from the gospel itself, from God’s created order. There is an “inner consistency of reality” to them, Tolkien argued, that then help us make sense of the “supreme” and “true” story in which we live. “Art has been verified,” he wrote. “God is the Lord, of angels, and of men—and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused.”
Search your feelings. You know this to be true. Your life is wrecked with grief and sin, but if the Bible is true, death and darkness do not have the final word. “This story begins and ends in joy,” wrote Tolkien. Fairy tales give us leave to lament a fallen world even as they help us hope for the redemption that really is on its way. Below, a few of our contributors show how some of their favorite fairy tales have brought them to tears, both sad and happy, and lifted their eyes to a higher view of God’s reality.
Tina Wilson: The Wingfeather Saga
“Once upon a time . . . and they all live happily ever after.” Truthfully, I like books (and movies) that start and end this way. Everything wrapped up nicely when the final page is turned or the final credits roll. And on a Friday night when I’m weary from the week, these are the kind of things I turn to.
But every so often I find myself in need of a sad story. Or I happen on one by chance. And those stories are often the ones that stay with me long after I’ve finished them. They leave an indelible impression on me, a reminder that there is sadness and brokenness in this world and I should expect that. Yet they also leave me with a sense of hope; an understanding that our wrong choices can be redeemed and our stories can be lovely even though we live very flawed lives.
There is a particular beauty, in my mind a heavenly beauty, in stories that make us weep yet also leave us profoundly hopeful.
Andrew Peterson’s Wingfeather Saga is a rather different sort of series: otherworldly, quirky, rather dark in places and quite honestly, at times, a struggle for me to get through. I enjoyed the first book (his footnotes are priceless) but the second book was hard for me. It felt like everything that could go wrong did go wrong and it didn’t end with a lot of hope. I debated whether or not I really wanted to keep reading. But I am one of those people who has trouble not finishing a series so I started the third book. I happened to be reading it on a family vacation. One afternoon during rest time I unexpectedly found myself with tears rolling down my cheeks as I read, doing my best to not weep aloud as both my kids were in the room as well.
So as not to spoil the story, I’ll just say that I am someone who struggles with compassion for others. I can struggle to see beyond their behavior or choices to the brokenness inside that motivates them or the past that holds them back. And this story profoundly showed me the power of compassion, the power in choosing to see beyond the exterior and engage with the heart.
The whole story hinges on one character’s choice to see worth and value in a character everyone else saw as a monster. And that choice is the very one that changed the whole trajectory of the story, turning it from a tragedy to a story that ends with loss threaded through with hope and redemption and glory.
I wept for that character and for the hard choices he made that led to hope; choices I doubt I would have made in the same circumstances. I came away with a renewed understanding of my need to choose compassion, even if it doesn’t come naturally. I came away understanding that when I don’t choose to ask God to help me love or to act with compassion, I miss out on bringing that thread of hope and redemption into my interactions with others.
Compassion will never come naturally to me. But when faced with a situation where I can truly give it, I remember this story (and others like it) and they help me to choose compassion so that I can also choose hope. “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts . . .” (Colossians 3:12).
Aaron Paulding: Pan’s Labyrinth
The gospel straddles the line between reality and fairy tale. Reality because, well, it’s true. Simple as that. But it’s also a fairy tale—a love story of extravagance, miracles and happily ever after. It fills both roles.
But life has a way of choking out the reality and wonder of the gospel. We need to be reminded of it, and often.
Few stories remind me of the hope of heaven like the movie Pan’s Labyrinth (not to be confused with the David Bowie movie). Pan’s Labyrinth is the story of an 11-year-old girl named Ofelia who is forced to move with her newly married and very expectant mother to a military outpost deep in the Spanish countryside. Her new “father” is a captain in charge of the outpost during World War II and charged with fighting guerrilla insurgents encamped in the woods.
Worse than all of this is that her new “father” is a fiend. He is stone-faced and heartless in pursuit of his goals, which makes his brutality even harder to bear because he shows so little emotion in carrying out his vicious acts. He is one of the hardest movie villains for me to watch.
But Pan’s Labyrinth is also a fairy tale. Running parallel with the story is Ofelia’s discovery that she is a long-lost princess from an underground realm—a place of life, joy and perfection. She meets a faun while at this outpost who tells her she must complete certain tasks to open a portal which will return her to her realm.
These tasks are hard. They test her will, obedience, the goodness of her heart and require incredible courage. All the while the real world fills with troubles of its own. Ofelia’s mother dies in childbirth, the war reaches their doorstep and her ruthless father seeks to separate her from her new brother. But she doesn’t give up. Though she’s small and weak, she struggles on. In the end it costs her everything.
It’s an R-rated fairy tale. This may sound like a contradiction, but to me it’s a vital distinction. It’s honest about the hardness of this world; even a little girl like Ofelia isn’t spared. The brutality and suddenness of death steals our breath away, and this movie doesn’t shy away from that or try to mask it.
But it’s still a fairy tale. Ofelia completes the tasks and she is rewarded. She is reunited with her family in the underground realm. She lives happily ever after, and death can touch her no more.
Like Ofelia, we must hold our hope amid the pains of life, pains that caused even Jesus to weep. Pain is real, but so is heaven. Stories like Pan’s Labyrinth help us reconcile the two, and remember that, of the two, heaven wins in the end.
Aimee Fuhrman: The Last Battle
Someday Jesus will return. Oh, how I long for that day.
Yet, in the day-to-day grind I can forget. The longing can grow dim and I forget to be watchful. But when I read The Last Battle by C. S. Lewis, I remember, and my heart is stirred.
I have read the Chronicles of Narnia at least four times now. Each time, the books grow with the reading. These may be children’s novels, but Lewis wove rich theology into them. What appears on the surface to be purely fantasy turns out to be a complete treatise on the major doctrines of the Christian faith. The stories I once enjoyed as mere fiction have, with each reading, deepened, becoming portals not just into a magical world but into the rich depths of biblical theology. Each book contains nuggets of truth; each affect me a different way.
But it is The Last Battle that never fails to reduce me to weeping. As Aslan sweeps in in a final redemptive rescue, I weep—in longing for my own King:
…but as he spoke the earth trembled. The sweet air grew suddenly sweeter. A brightness flashed behind them. All turned. Tirian turned last because he was afraid. There stood his heart’s desire, huge and real, the golden Lion, Aslan himself…Tirian came near, trembling, and flung himself at the Lion’s feet, and the Lion kissed him and said, “Well done, last of the Kings of Narnia who stood firm at the darkest hour.”
Oh, that I might stand firm and have my Lord tell me when all is over, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
I weep for the culmination of justice and the triumph of Right in my world when Jesus, the great Judge will, like Aslan, separate those who have loved him from those who have denied his existence or his goodness.
I weep with an aching that hurts for a homeland I’ve never seen but for which I am created:
“Further up and further in!” roared the Unicorn, and no one held back…Only when they had reached the very top did they slow up; that was because they found themselves facing great golden gates. And for a moment none of them was bold enough to try if the gates would open. . . . But while they were standing thus a great horn, wonderfully loud and sweet, blew from somewhere inside that walled garden and the gates swung open. . . . Aslan himself was coming, leaping down from cliff to cliff like a living cataract of power and beauty. . . .
“You do not yet look so happy as I mean you to be.”
Lucy said, “We’re so afraid of being sent away, Aslan. And you have sent us back into our own world so often.”
“No fear of that,” said Aslan. “Have you not guessed?”
Their hearts leaped and a wild hope rose within them.
“There was a real railway accident,” said Aslan softly. “Your father and mother and all of you are—as you used to call it in the Shadow-Lands—dead. The term is over: the holidays have begun. The dream is ended: this is the morning.”
And as He spoke He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story, which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.
Take heart, dear friends—my brothers and sisters in Christ—our Lord will come, radiant and valiant, riding on a white horse, justice in his hand. His name, Faithful and True, King of Kings and Lord of Lords. And he will reign forever and ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end. And we? We shall be his bride, pure and spotless by his blood, beloved. And there shall be a new heaven and a new earth, and God shall live among us. And he will wipe every tear from our eyes: there will be no more death, and no more pain, and no more mourning.
“I, Jesus, have sent My angel to testify to you these things for the churches. I am the root and the offspring of David, the bright and morning star.”
And the Spirit and the bride say, “Come.” And let the one who hears say, “Come.” (Revelation 22:16-17)