G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936) was an accomplished author of detective fiction, poetry, Christian apologetics, philosophy, and fantasy. He is well-known for his “Father Brown” stories, The Man Who Was Thursday, and Orthodoxy, a little volume of Christian apologetics that remains popular among theologians to this day. In chapter four of Orthodoxy, “The Ethics of Elfland,” Chesterton provides a defense of the fairy tale that is rivaled by few.
The term “fairy tale” is not easy to define, but we recognize one when we see it. “The Frog Prince,” a story that most would consider a fairy tale, was traditionally the leading story in the Grimm collection. A handsome prince is imprisoned by a curse, turned into a frog. One day, a princess loses her favorite ball in a well where the frog dwells. The princess accepts an offer by the frog to retrieve the ball, and she promises to keep him and love him and be his companion for life — a promise she has no intention of honoring. Her father, the king, makes her keep her word. In her anger, she throws the frog against the wall. But a frog does not get up from the ground; a handsome prince does. The curse has been broken. (Many readers will be more familiar with the modern version of the tale, in which the princess kisses the frog to break the curse.)
There are, in Chesterton’s view, necessary ethical lessons to be learned by children and adults from fairy tales. Jack and the Beanstalk teaches the reader to launch an assault against pride; Cinderella, to embrace humility; Beauty and the Beast, to overcome prejudice with love. In “The Frog Prince,” the king makes the princess reject her selfish behavior and keep her word. These moral lessons are fundamental to learning to live honorably and compassionately towards others.
But Chesterton believed the fairy tale had a more important value than just the ethical lessons. (After all, adults do not need magical frogs to learn how not to lie.) At a higher level, the fairy tale placed in Chesterton’s heart the conviction “that this world is a wild and startling place, which might have been quite different, but which is quite delightful” (67). Chesterton believed that what modern people called incontrovertible and unalterable scientific facts were in reality mysterious. He explains the difference between this “scientific fatalism” (67) and the views of the “fairy-tale philosopher” (68):
[Learned men in the modern world] talked as if the fact that trees bear fruit were just as necessary as the fact that two and one trees make three. But it is not. [ ] You cannot imagine two and one not making three. But you can easily imagine trees [ ] growing golden candlesticks or tigers hanging on by the tail. (59)
Fairy tales challenge the reader to imagine magical worlds different from our own. We are reminded by the fairy tale of the thing we never should have forgotten — that our world might have been different and is magical the way it is: unexplainable, unpredictable, wild, and surprising. With our imaginations awakened, we can see with new eyes our own world filled with wonder once again.
Unlike the fairy-tale philosopher, the scientific fatalist does not believe in this unpredictable magic: everything either already has or eventually will have a law-abiding explanation. Everything in nature is predictable and can be counted upon to happen. Things could not have been any other way than they are, and nothing is surprising or wild. Chesterton believed that the fairy-tale philosophy prompted a better response to reality than the one constructed by anti-supernaturalistic versions of scientific inquiry.
When we are asked why eggs turn to birds or fruits fall in autumn, we must answer exactly as the fairy godmother would answer if Cinderella asked her why mice turned to horses or her clothes fell from her at twelve o’clock. We must answer that it is magic. It is not a “law.” [ ] It is not a necessity. [ ] We have no right to say that it must always happen. (60)
There are thousands of years of the fairy tale tradition, but the folks who have the most to say about it are those who defended it through the period we now call modernity (very roughly, from the Enlightenment until the 1960s) — the rise of scientific fatalism. The fairy tale is a protest against the Enlightenment, for the writers and defenders of fairy tales like Chesterton (and C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Madeleine L’Engle after him) were writing worlds of magical refuge in the midst of modernity. Without the magic of the fairy tale, the magic of life disappears in a morass of strictly rational, naturalistic facts, theories, propositions, experiments, and arguments. The fairy tale frees us from the law-based, unchangeable world of the scientific fatalist, where explanations are everywhere but wonder is lost.