On a rocky promontory, two young hobbits cling to life, caught in the fiery cataclysm of an erupting volcano. In the smoke and the blaze, Frodo begins to despair. But his faithful companion, Samwise, looks up to behold the unexpected — rescue, arriving on the wings of eagles.
I read the climactic scene in J.R.R. Tokien’s The Lord of the Rings when I was only 8 years old, and it remains as vivid in my memory as anything I experienced in my early years. Back then, the world seemed a scary, even volcanic, place. But in this fairy tale, hope took on a shape so powerful that it enhanced my understanding of the gospel.
It happened again in Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. Young Charles Wallace fell under the influence of a malevolent villain, a bodiless brain called “IT,” and was imprisoned by pure reason … quite literally. But his sister Meg came to his rescue with a love so irrational and selfless that it confounded the enemy and broke IT’s power.
The Lord of the Rings, A Wrinkle in Time, The Chronicles of Narnia… all of these fantasy stories remain strangely reassuring. While they take place in imaginary worlds, and illustrate impossible events, fairy tales have given me more real hope than any other form of art.
Growing up, I watched my peers “put away childish things,” so I became reluctant to admit my continuing love for fairy tales. I was even more embarrassed to reveal that I spent my evenings designing my own mythology. Was I sinking into useless escapism? Elves, wizards, dragons — they’re for kids, right?
L’Engle, Tolkien, and Lewis — and their inspiration, George MacDonald, 19th-century author of The Princess and the Goblin — understood that the world of make-believe lets us give shapes to our worst fears and deepest longings. The creative inventions of fairy tales allow us to experience the fulfillment of promises that are yet to be fulfilled — even the redemption of the world from the consequences of sin
From Rumpelstiltskin to Where the Wild Things Are, from How the Grinch Stole Christmas to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, fairy tales train us to perceive the sacred in the common, the extraordinary in the ordinary. A common servant girl might be a princess. A shiny apple might contain a poisonous influence. A beast might be saved from beastliness. It’s not hard to find echoes of Scripture’s own stories here. We are all heirs to a great kingdom, children who seized forbidden fruit and fell under a curse, prisoners in need of salvation from beyond.
I have recently completed a four-book epic fantasy called The Auralia Thread (Auralia’s Colors, Cyndere’s Midnight, Raven’s Ladder, and The Ale Boy’s Feast), and I am already hard at work on the beginning of a new saga. At this year’s Northwest Christian Writers Renewal gathering, I will share some of the life-changing things I’ve learned from a life of reading about — and writing about — wild, bizarre, mysterious, even terrifying things.
In one lecture, I’ll talk about fairy tales — old stories and new stories, famous and obscure, religious and “pagan.” I’ll share how I’ve seen them continue to reveal the glory of God in the ordinary things in this world, and I’ll talk about the challenges of writing fantasy as a Christian.
In the second, I’ll dig even deeper, and talk about the redemptive power of play. Where does play begin? What it is for? Why do so many adults outgrow make-believe? And what do they lose when they do?
I hope to see you there.
Jeffrey’s workshop titles for the NCWA Renewal Conference are: “A Box of 64 Crayons: How Storytellers Can Play Without Ceasing” and “Beast and the Beauty: What Fairy Tales and Jesus’ Parables Have in Common.” Click here for details.
[An extended version of this post was originally published in Seattle Pacific University’s Response magazine.]
About the Author:
Jeffrey Overstreet is the author of a “memoir of dangerous moviegoing” called Through a Screen Darkly, and a four-volume series of fantasy novels called The Auralia Thread, which includes Auralia’s Colors, Cyndere’s Midnight, Raven’s Ladder, and The Ale Boy’s Feast. Jeffrey is a contributing editor for Seattle Pacific University’s Response magazine, and he writes about art, faith, and culture for Image, Filmwell.org, and his own website, LookingCloser.org. His work has also appeared in Paste, Relevant, Books and Culture, and Christianity Today (where he was a film columnist and critic for almost a decade). He lives in Shoreline, Washington. Visit him on Facebook at facebook.com/jeffreyoverstreethq.