“Fairy tales are for children and childlike people, not because they are little and inconsequential, but because they are as enormous as life itself.”Fairy tales are full of characters that are recognizable for their types: the damsel in distress, the knight in shining armor, the evil step-mother... The world they inhabit is a moral world where good is good and evil is evil. The two are at war but we know that good will always triumph. The stories and the characters in them resonate with us because they are fundamentally true--not in a “true,” historical way, but rather in a real, typified way. They may be exaggerated or simplified, but they are like a child’s palette of colors--you know, the ones that come in the Crayola eight pack of crayons. To a child the sky is blue and trees are green. As he grows he will learn that the sky is sometimes gray and trees turn vibrant red, orange and yellow in the fall. But his understanding of the basics will be a firm foundation upon which to build a deep appreciation for the variety, richness and complexity of life.
“When you starve a child of the folk tale, you not only cramp his imagination for the time being. You help render vast realms of human art (not to mention life) incomprehensible.”Characters that are real feats of the imagination are not wholly good or wholly bad--the elemental motives of human nature drive them to make the choices they do. But the good and the evil in them remain unchanged. If our imaginations are full of types from fairy tales, we will be able to understand these subtler, finer-drawn people. We will see jealousy and self-sacrifice in the same person, or foolishness and vitality, weakness and strength. The hero’s armor isn’t always quite so shiny and the villain’s motives not quite so black. But the heroism and villainy is there nonetheless, just like it was in the fairy tales. As these people come to life on the pages of the books we read, they “become parts of our moral universe... they are the lights to shine upon what we have seen and known to reveal what would otherwise have lain hidden from our understanding.” They are the telescope we use to see the stars by which we navigate through life. They are a magical device for seeing deep into the human heart. They will reveal truths about the lives that are being lived out around us.
In our enlightened day, though, we sneer at the archetypal figures in fairy tales and call them antiquated “stereotypes.” We flatten them into homogeneity and use them to push political agendas. We replace the types with cliches. Men become beasts, religious people are bigots, women are never weak, Indians are good because they are In Touch With Nature... Every subtlety is replaced with current platitudes.
Cliches are easy. Instead of making us think, they elicit “a cheap, automatic, superficial, and temporary response.” We aren’t changed, we don’t grow in our perception of humanity. We just laugh or mock or hate as the movie, book, or song suggests. Fundamental truths, on the other hand, require “a real response: they cause us to brood over the mysteries of this life....[They] require silence, and patience, and thought.”
Cliches are rooted in the here and now. In fact, people reading them ten years from now probably won’t even understand them. Powerful imaginative literature is not about ourselves. Like a ship, it transports us to lands unknown. It transcends time and the people we meet feel familiar to us just as they felt familiar to the people who read the stories in earlier generations. It’s not the setting or the message that fire the imagination. It’s what is fundamentally true: an innocent person outnumbered by evil people, men united in a death-defying purpose, the lowly exalted to glory and the arrogant reduced to nothing.
Of course it’s easy to think of modern movies and books full of political and cultural cliches and those of us who grew up on “good” literature are quick to scoff. But Christians also produce literature that pushes our own agenda and provokes an automatic and superficial response. We give our kids sugar-coated stories with morals that are easy to swallow and not hard to think about. We gloss over the faults of history’s heroes minimizing complex, multi-dimensional men and women to flat caricatures. The stories in the Bible too are often reduced merely being about people who go to heaven and people who go to hell. Perhaps even God, who moves in such wondrously mysterious ways, is reshaped into a nice, bland deity we can understand.