To write of fairy tales is, as J.R.R. Tolkien once asserted, “a rash adventure.” For fairy tales are enigmas, difficult to define and impossible to believe. And yet we believe them, because they are ultimately more real that real life. They offer us a glimpse of a distant, approaching reality that we cannot see.
This is by far the most important aspect of the fairy tale. It is what makes it invaluable to the developing, questioning mind of a child and intriguing to the mature rationale of the adult.
Stories that are not strictly true often take hold of deeper realities than a story based on true events. Within the context of real life, we are limited. We are flawed, fallen, floundering creatures seeking just a brief taste of sweet happiness in a sea of salty, bitter sin. Pushing ourselves through this life is exhausting and restrictive. It narrows our vision so that we cannot see the entire ocean, the ship approaching us from a distance, or the land mass just off the edge of the horizon. All we see are the burdensome, capping waves that drown us in their persistence. But a fairy tale is a step away from the water. It is a moment of relief on the deck of a boat, catching a glimpse from its mast of a distant, welcoming shore.
A fairy tale is a story that suspends belief in the world of the senses; it looks beyond what we can prove exists, and believes in a distant, wondrous, confusing, and salvific power. The person who lives just at the crest of the ocean knows only two things: there is a small space in his existence where his head is above water, and there is a large opportunity for it to be dragged under. He cannot prove that there is a land, and he may even fear to hear of it; its existence makes his life that much more miserable. It is easier to only believe in the capped waves.
But if he denies and avoids the reality of the shore, he will do nothing to reach it. He will never hope and without hope, his strength will wear out and he will inevitably drown.
It is the fairy tale that saves us! With its magical, imaginative stories, it lifts us up and broadens our imagination to see something better, something greater, something meaningful. It places the mundane struggle of our souls into a broader context, encouraging us to live for others.
The fairy tale encourages the moral imagination to stretch its horizons and see beyond the obvious. Transcending the mundane, it infuses the soul with beauty, love, and hope. It equips it to rise above mediocre life and live in the shining castles beyond. While they may be castles in the clouds, they are not insubstantial; grasping at greater realities, they move the soul toward what is truly important.