We don’t normally notice how odd the universe is because although we’re born into a world of wonder, we gradually become accustomed to it. We look for patterns, and once we find them we ignore them, lest we waste further brain power that could be better spent elsewhere. But fortunately we can be broken of this bad habit through the judicious use of fairy tales. Fairy tales give us fresh eyes, a perspective robust enough to understand what our world is really like. As Chesterton said, “this world is a wild and startling place, which might have been quite different, but which is quite delightful.”
Fairy tales have the ability to puncture through the mundane and bring the magical aspect of reality back into focus. They reorient our perspective and get us to think about the world as we ought to. “There is the chivalrous lesson of “Jack the Giant Killer’ that giants should be killed because they are gigantic. It is a manly mutiny against pride… There is the lesson of Cinderella which is the same as that of the Magnificat—Exlatavit Humiles… There is the great lesson of Beauty and the Beast; that a thing must be loved before it is loveable. There is the terrible allegory of Sleeping Beauty, which tells how the human creature was blessed with all birthday gifts, yet cursed with death; and how death also may perhaps be softened to a sleep.” But don’t misunderstand—it’s not any particular story that matters as much as the way of looking at life in general. Fairy tales stimulate the imagination and keep us humble.
Now before I quote Chesterton further, let me stop and explain again why fairy tales matter so much; let me remind you of the fact that Chesterton just spent the last two chapters making the case that fairy tales aren’t opposed to reason but are instead the antidote to the prison of reason. I think it’s right to take a detour here because we’re so conditioned to thinking that fairy tales are imaginative nonsense that we’ve progressed a long way down the wrong path without realizing it, and we need an oversized reminder to bring us back.
Remember that the skeptical, agnostic, rational man stands in contrast to the imaginative man. The rational man does not believe in anything behind our world; to him there is nothing outside of our universe animating it. “The materialist, like the madman, is in prison; in the prison of one thought.” And the problem is that sooner or later he’s going to put his arms around his situation and it’s going to crush him. If there is only this closed system in the end, then he’s in jail, and no amount of “the universe is a big place!” can get him away from the fact that he is bottled up. “The cosmos went on forever, but not in its wildest constellation could there be anything really interesting; anything, for instance, such as forgiveness or free will. The grandeur or infinity… added nothing to it. It was like telling a prisoner in the Reading gaol that he would be glad to hear that the gaol now covered half the country. The warder would have nothing to show the man except more and more long corridors of stone lit by ghastly lights and empty of all that is human.”
Remember too that imagination (dragging with it the antidote of humility) produces a very different result. It produces freedom, and wonder, and delight—but not at the cost of reason. For imagination isn’t opposed to reason, but rather imagination teaches us the true value of reason by guarding it and keeping it from growing out of control. We know this because our imaginative fairy tales are chocked full of reason. In every magical world two and two always equal four, and try as you might you cannot imagine a world constructed differently. Shapes, numbers, and reason are things which must be regardless of the world, but the remaining details are not fixed. Reason dictates that “If Jack is the son of a miller, then a miller is the father of Jack.” and you can't argue with it. But imagination points out that there may be a world with no miller, or no Jack.
We can’t conceive of a world without the necessities of reason, but we can conceive of a world being different from our own. “If the apple hit Newton’s nose, Newton’s nose hit the apple. That is a true necessity: because we cannot conceive the one occurring without the other. But we can quite well conceive the apple not falling on his nose; we can fancy it flying ardently through the air to hit some other nose, of which it had a more definite dislike.”
In our world there’s a force accelerating things toward the earth at 9.8m/s^2. That’s the way things happen here—but who’s to say it must be like that everywhere? Why couldn’t Earths core have been less dense and the apple have fallen slower? And if you really get down to it, why is an apple an inert edible piece of fruit and not a kind of flying, living ball with a grumpy disposition? Chesterton is trying to impress upon us the magnificent strangeness of this place. Why do eggs turn into birds? Why does our solar system spin through the cosmos in a helical shape like an electro-magnetic wave? “The only words that ever satisfied me as describing nature are the terms used in the fairy books, “charm,” “spell,” “enchantment.” They express the arbitrariness of the fact and its mystery.” It’s not the scientist who thinks fairy tales are nonsense who is rational, it’s the one who wonders at our existence. And fairy tales are helpful for restoring this wonder to where it belongs.
Because wonder is the thing which dies as we grow acclimated to our world, and is a thing most necessary to get back. “This elementary wonder, however, is not a mere fancy derived from the fairy tales; on the contrary, all the fire of the fairy tales is derived from this… when we are very young children we do not need fairy tales: we only need tales. Mere life is interesting enough. A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door…” God got here first, all fairy tales do is make us remember how we saw the world before we stopped thinking about things. “[Fairy tales] say that apples were gold only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found out they were green. They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water.”
That last sentence perfectly sums up our plight, doesn’t it? That’s really the sad fact that as fallen human beings have become largely impervious to joy. When we are children we are young and full of life, and by degrees we begin to die and forget. Our imaginations shrivel as we become used to this world, no longer remembering what this place is truly like, until for a brief moment we’re touched by an impressive story, or a movie, or a piece of art, or a symphony, and we remember for that one beautiful and sad spell that we are no longer children, but that we are dying.
So the world is strange and delightful, but what’s more, it’s also conditional. Everything in it depends on doing or not doing something; everything can be gained or lost. And where else do we find this property of fate? In fairy tales. In fairy tales happiness is always based on conditions. “All virtue is in an ‘if’. The note of the fairy utterance is, ‘you may live in a palace of gold and sapphire if you do not say the word ‘cow.’ Or ‘you may live happily with the king’s daughter if you do not show her an onion.’ The vision always hangs on a veto… in the fairy tale incomprehensible happiness rests upon an incomprehensible condition. A box is opened, and all evils fly out. A word is forgotten, and cities perish. A lamp is lit, and love flies away. A flower is plucked, and human lives are forfeited. An apple is eaten, and the hope of God is gone.”
There’s an if in a fairy tale that we don’t think strange at all, no matter how stupid the if is. Why should we? But yet when God gives us an if in the real world we go berserk and trumpet how awful it is, how cruel and unjust and unrighteous the whole notion is. Laws!? Rules?! How dare He tell us what to do! But really, it’s His story, and therefore He gets to set whatever rules He wants without being challenged on them. “If the miller’s third son said to the fairy, ‘Explain why I must not stand on my head in the fairy palace,’ the other might fairly reply, ‘Well if it comes to that, explain the fairy palace.’” You may try to complain to God about your lot in life, but He may just as quickly turn the tables on you and ask how you’re able to think and talk to Him in the first place. As Chesterton says, “it seemed to me that existence was itself so very eccentric a legacy that I could not complain of not understanding the vision they limited.” For you can’t murmur against God without first acknowledging there is a God. And once you’ve admitted He’s God, you realize it makes no sense to complain about how unhappy you’ve made yourself to an all power, all knowing being who created you to enjoy Him. To open the door to imagination is to open it enough for humility as well, for you can’t get the one without the other.
Having convincingly made that the observation that our world looks suspiciously like a fairy tale, Chesterton then goes on to demolish the materialist notion that there is nothing behind our world holding it up, moment to moment. “First, I found the whole modern world talking scientific fatalism; saying that everything is as it must always have been, being unfolded without fault from the beginning.”
We suppose that the universe is made up of fixed and impersonal laws, things like the charge of an electron, or the force of gravity which mean no matter how many times we drop an object, it falls to the earth. But does it stand to reason that because an object falls over and over again it is compelled to fall by a fixed law of nature to do so? No. Never. A thousand times no. In these natural patterns we do not see the operation of some dead and lifeless law, but the moving hand of an active God. Behind the “law” of gravity stands a God who moment to moment wills the “law” to come to pass. As Chesterton says (and here I’ll just quote him for a bit),“The repetition of nature seemed sometimes to be an excited repetition, like that of any angry schoolmaster saying the same thing over and over again. The grass seemed signaling to me with all its fingers at once; the crowded stars seemed bent upon being understood. The sun would make me see him if he rose a thousand times. The recurrences of the universe rose to the maddening rhythm of an incantation, and I began to see an idea. All the towering materialisms which dominates the modern mind rests ultimately upon one assumption; a false assumption. It is supposed that if a thing goes on repeating itself it is probably dead; a piece of clockwork. People feel that if the universe was personal it would vary; if the sun were alive it would dance… but variation in human affairs is generally brought into not by life, but by death; by the dying down or breaking off of their strength or desire. A man varies is movements because of some slight element of failure or fatigue. He gets into a bus because he is tired of walking; or he walks because he is tired of sitting still. But if his life and joy were so gigantic that he never tired of going to Islington, he might go to Isglington as regularly as the Thames goes to the Sheerness…
The sun rises because he never gets tired of rising. His routine might be due, not to a lifelessness, but to a rush of life. The thing I mean can be seen, for instance, in children, when they find some game or joke that they specially enjoy. A child kicks his legs rhythmically though excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say ‘Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is… it is possible God says every morning, ‘Do it again!’ to the sun; and every evening, ‘Do it again!’ to the moon… it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never gotten tired of making them… The repetition in Nature may not be a recurrence; it may be a theatrical encore.” Well then does Chesterton conclude of God, “He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”
There are patterns in our world not because our world is stone dead, but because moment to moment God by His providence and decisions is making life rush into them. Patterns repeat in our world because they are alive with the gigantic joy of their creator God who made a cosmic fairy tale and is insistent on telling His story in an inescapable way over and over again, not because we are an accidental conglomeration of dead, fixed, and impersonal forces.
So our world is a fairy tale that we’ve only grown accustomed to and forgotten how strange it is, and through smaller, simpler fairy tales (the kind we tell to our children) we’re remember to recognize this fact. We men have forgotten to be humble, but by becoming like little children we are able to enter the kingdom of heaven.
The take-aways of this truth are thus:
- If life is a gigantic fairy tale then godless naturalism is a dead end. “The world does not explain itself. It may be a miracle with a supernatural explanation; it may be a conjuring trick with a natural explanation. But the explanation of the conjuring trick, if it is to satisfy me, will have to be better than the natural explanation I have heard. The thing is magic, true or false.”
- If life is a gigantic fairy tale then there is someone telling the tale. “Magic must have a meaning, and meaning must have someone to mean it.”
- That we are personal beings must mean we had a personal creator. “I had always vaguely felt facts to be miracles in the sense that they are wonderful: now I began to think them miracles in the stricter sense that they were WILFUL. I mean that they were, or might be, repeated exercises of some will. In short, I had always believed that the world involved magic: now I thought that perhaps it involved a magician… some purpose; and if there is a purpose, there is a person.”
- If God is telling us a story then we should, like children, accept Him reading it to us. We ought to be thankful for the humongous variety of pleasures and things to enjoy in the world. “The proper form of thanks is some form of humility and restraint: we should thank God for beer and Burgundy by not drinking too much of them. We owed, also, an obedience to whatever made us.” Or in a more brilliant phrasing, “One might pay for extraordinary joy with ordinary morals. Oscar Wilde said that sunsets were not valued because we could not pay for sunsets. But Oscar Wilde was wrong; we can pay for sunsets. We can pay for them by not being Oscar Wilde.”
What then can I say in response to this? Not only have I done a supremely poor job of summarizing this chapter, but I feel I have done violence to the very concept by even mentioning it. For it is a marvelous, life changing chapter. Read it again if you don’t believe me. Read it again even if you do. This chapter is absolutely wonderful and self-evidently correct. Accepting the truth of it is like having a dislocated shoulder set into place. And yet, even so I can’t help but feel that Chesterton has barely scratched the surface of how important this idea is, the clarity of his words notwithstanding. Ours is a wild and beautiful world, filled with all sorts of silly and stupid things. God said to Himself, “Let’s make a mammal that flies, but is also blind.”
“Let’s make a giant flower that blooms once a century, and when it does it smells like a corpse.”
“I know we gave creatures tongues to taste with and eyes to see with, but let’s just make this pit vipers see with its tongue for the fun of it.”
“Let’s make a duck billed platypus.”
And above and beyond all this His animating statement was, “Let’s make the world do the same thing over and over again so there’s no way an obstinate mankind can refuse to accept My glory.”
Next: Chapter 5 - The Flag of the World