November 20, 2005

Need Your Fairy Story Today?

I ran across an article in The New Yorker about C.S. Lewis. It was an interesting read, even though it seemed pretty obvious to this Christian that the author did not understand the depths of Christianity, despite his apparent fairness. What interested me most—despite the author’s factual problems—was the concluding two paragraphs:

For poetry and fantasy aren’t stimulants to a deeper spiritual appetite; they are what we have to fill the appetite. The experience of magic conveyed by poetry, landscape, light, and ritual, is…an experience of magic conveyed by poetry, landscape, light, and ritual. To hope that the conveyance will turn out to bring another message, beyond itself, is the futile hope of the mystic. Fairy stories are not rich because they are true, and they lose none of their light because someone lit the candle. It is here that the atheist and the believer meet, exactly in the realm of made-up magic. Atheists need ghosts and kings and magical uncles and strange coincidences, living fairies and thriving Lilliputians, just as much as the believers do, to register their understanding that a narrow material world, unlit by imagination, is inadequate to our experience, much less to our hopes.

The religious believer finds consolation, and relief, too, in the world of magic exactly because it is at odds with the necessarily straitened and punitive morality of organized worship, even if the believer is, like Lewis, reluctant to admit it. The irrational images—the street lamp in the snow and the silver chair and the speaking horse—are as much an escape for the Christian imagination as for the rationalist, and we sense a deeper joy in Lewis’s prose as it escapes from the demands of Christian belief into the darker realm of magic. As for faith, well, a handful of images is as good as an armful of arguments, as the old apostles always knew.

How existential is that? It seems that the author implies that the specifics of our beliefs are rather meaningless—provided we have an escape in our fairy-tale lands. Don’t get me wrong—I adore a good fantasy. But isn’t the fantasy that this author proposes simply a sham used to cover up the nitty-gritty of our life? It seems to me, though, that good fantasy rather exposes the grittiness of our lives—and helps us make sense of it, helps us to aspire to greater things. Ultimately, I think the very best fantasies—often indirectly—point us toward Truth, a Truth that doesn’t try cover up the messiness in our life and yet a Truth that doesn’t leave us hopeless.

Any thoughts?

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