On Fairy Stories: J.R.R. Tolkien, Jaws, and Jeremy Wade

My recent post thanking Heidi and directing you to her blog, reminded me of the value that many modern influential Christians find in “fairy tales” and “nursery tales.” These authors include J.R.R Tolkien and his friend C.S. Lewis both of whom read G.K Chesterton and George MacDonald. In turn, these authors have been influential in my thinking and remind me to attend to my imagination. Fairy Stories take us into a world that is not and in doing so they increase our appreciation and awareness of the world that is. As Chesterton notes in Orthodoxy, we read about rivers that flow with jelly and trees that bear diamonds and then we re-discover a world in which rivers flow with fresh waters and trees bear juicy peaches and crisp apples.

Last year, our family read through The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings at bedtime and on the occasional Sunday afternoon. We have read The Chronicles of Narnia. I do not know how many times my son Christopher, Corban’s identical twin, has read through it on his own. Currently, we are reading Christopher Healy’s The Hero’s Guide to series, in which you get the “real” story of the Princes Charming. As I right this post, my youngest son Caleb (8) is curled up on our love-seat with the tales about King Arthur (Thanks, Uncle Vance.) We have already read T.H. White’s The Sword in the Stone. So, fairy tales and fantasy stories are very much a part of our daily lives as we read. Harry Potter may begin next year and be allowed one at a time per year.

We do not neglect film and TV either (although, we do not have cable — what is on really). In this medium, our children have learned to trust us. Instead of telling us they want to watch something, without prompting, they ask us to preview something. We can then tell them. Yes, we can watch that or No, not yet. I do not usually tell them never. I either say I don’t think it is appropriate for you right now or, in some cases, I think that would be too scary for you, right now.

When Pokémon was on the Christian hit list, a family asked me to watch the show and let her know if I thought it was “demonic” as some vocal Christians were intimating. (As I child, I had heard similar warnings against watching The Smurfs.) So, I rented a few episodes. I loved it. In watching it, although I was not even married at the time, I saw so many opportunities to talk to children about caring for creation and the power of kindness and generosity. The main character Ash Ketchum starts off selfish, inconsiderate, and undisciplined. Through his relationships with his pokémon and human friends, he learns patience, compassion, and generosity. In one of the films, he sacrifices himself for his pokémon. True love is what? I now watch this show with my own children (it is on Netflix) and, as a family, we collect, play, and trade the cards. (We even got my wife a deck.)

[Caleb just walked into the room. So, I asked him, “What is one lesson you have learned watching Pokemon? He said, “You should always be kind.” One of the fruit of Spirit, I believe. I did not know what he would say.]

On being scared, my sons and I have had different experiences and we have different tolerances. I did se Jaws when I was four years old after all. (I have made different parenting choices.) It was one of the few movies available on VHS back then and we watched on my parents’ friends’ VCR (which was the size of a couch cushion). I had shark dreams for a long time. Nevertheless, it is still one of my favourite movies and it instilled in me (and I suspect many others) a life-long love and respect for these fascinating creatures.


  
Here, I think Mr. Spielberg gets bad press. If he is going to be held responsible for creating a fear of sharks and making them despised creatures, he ought to be given credit also for the many young men and women he inspired to become marine biologists. In the film, Dr. Hooper, Richard Dreyfuss’s character, is only citing the scientific opinion of the day. Without Spielberg and, of course, John Williams , we would not have Shark Week. Life would be dull indeed.

Spielberg’s fairy tale about a man who must face a sea monster (Leviathan) plays on our fear of the sea and death but it also increases our fascination with this realm that covers much of the service of the earth. Jeremy Wade in River Monsters is doing much the same with the fresh water realm. I had no idea how interesting rivers were. We sometimes watch Jeremy, popcorn in hand, on documentary night.

Remember, fairy stories are not simply for children, some of them are not even appropriate for children, as Tolkien writes, in “On Fairy Stories” in The Tolkien Reader,

Among those who still have enough wisdom not to think fairy-stories pernicious, the common opinion seems to be that there is a natural connexion between the minds of children and fairy-stories, of the same order as the connexion between children’s bodies and milk. I think this is an error; at best an error of false sentiment, and one that is therefore most often made by those who, for whatever private reason (such as childlessness), tend to think of children as a special kind of creature, almost a different race, rather than as normal, if immature, members of a particular family, and of the human family at large.

If you have not read a fairy tale for awhile, pick up one of the books by the above authors and their Inkling companions. Or get something by Ursual LeGuin (start with A Wizard of Earthsea (The Earthsea Cycle). Or if you are like me and like to be a little scared or enjoyed
The Twilight Zone 
turn to Stephen King. Skeleton Crew is a good place to begin.

In the next few posts, in keeping with the themes of fairy stories and becoming good readers, I will offer some reflections on books by Chesterton, Lewis, Tolkien and MacDonald.

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Reading more fiction and especially fairy tales, will, in my opinion and experience, make you better readers of the Bible. I am not suggesting that the Bible is not historical or not true but it is a literary work and reading fiction, especially fairy tales and fantasy, will help you develop an eye for the literary artistry and techniques employed by the authors of Scripture.

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