Journey to the Sea

an online magazine devoted to the study of myth

G.K. Chesterton on Fairy Tales

Posted by • Oct 1st, 2008

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.


13 Responses »

  1. I read Orthodoxy one summer when I had a job that involved more time outdoors than I’ll probably ever have again. It was just after the spring snowmelt, and for a few weeks the streams and irrigation ditches were running full and fast. It was a fascinating sight because the region is usually very arid, and along with a surge of joy, this one line from “Ethics of Elfland” kept running through my head every time I stopped to admire them.

    “These tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green. They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water.”

    It was a perfect illustration of what Chesterton meant by a world filled with wonder.

  2. This effect that fairy tales had on G.K. Chesterton resembles (on a much smaller scale, I think) what Joseph Campbell described as the first of his four functions of myth, the “metaphysical” or “mystical function”:

    The first is the mystical function […] realizing what a wonder the universe is, and what a wonder you are, and experiencing awe before this mystery. (The Power of Myth 31)

  3. A question —

    In a book written as an apologia to Christianity, where is the connection to Christian theology in the chapter “The Ethics of Elfland”? There seems to be much mention of magic, but none of God. I haven’t read the book, but I find this somewhat surprising. For Travis or Randy (or anyone else who may have read the book), does the chapter actually fit in with the overall mission of Orthodoxy, or would you say that the chapter is a kind of intellectual cul-de-sac?

    And a comment —

    “These tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green.”

    I don’t know that I agree. I can’t imagine that primeval man was surprised to find them green, nor filled with wonder at the color, nor that he even noticed it. That’s romanticizing from the present backward. It was simply a given (though he might have noticed that some apples were green, while some were red). So, rather, I would say that the legendary apples are golden only to serve as a contrast to the received knowledge — of the present — that they should be green (or red). That is to say, rather than recalling some prehistoric moment of surprise or wonder, I think such fairy-tale elements are meant to contrast with expectations in the present. (By “present”, of course, I mean both the present of the fairy-tale author as well as the later present of the fairy-tale reader.) To put it another way, fairy-tales aren’t forward-looking, but backward.

  4. @Jason Fisher,

    Concerning your question — As far as I can tell, Orthodoxy is a fairly autobiographical work; Chesterton describes how he came to believe in and accept Christianity, but he presents many of his own theological views along the way. (I have only read this “The Ethics of Elfland” chapter; hopefully Travis or someone else can comment on the book as a whole.) He introduces his discussion on fairy tales and wonder with these words:

    My first and last philosophy, that which I believe in with unbroken certainty, I learnt in the nursery. […] I deal here with what ethic and philosophy come from being fed on fairy tales. […] I am concerned with a certain way of looking at life, which was created in me by the fairy tales, but has since been meekly ratified by the mere facts.

    Concerning your comment — I don’t think the “forgotten moment” belongs to primeval man but to modern children. Earlier in the same paragraph, he says 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.

    I think Chesterton believed that children respond to world correctly: with wonder. Fairy tales recall those earlier memories and prompt us as adults to respond to the world correctly again.

  5. @Randy,

    Thanks for the reply!

    Concerning your comment — I don’t think the “forgotten moment” belongs to primeval man but to modern children. […] I think Chesterton believed that children respond to world correctly: with wonder. Fairy tales recall those earlier memories and prompt us as adults to respond to the world correctly again.

    I think, mutatis mutandis, it makes no difference whether it’s children or primeval man Chesterton has in mind; I still find myself not altogether convinced by his apple metaphor. Wonder seems to me to imply surprise, and that’s the sticking-point. Excitement isn’t the same as wonder. A child of three may indeed “be excited by being told that Tommy opened a door”, but how do we know that a child feels wonder that an apple is green …? I’m just not sure I quite buy it.

  6. @Jason,

    I don’t know how important these “forgotten memories” would be to Chesterton’s argument. He thinks the world should inspire in us wonder because it could have been different — a conclusion he has had “meekly ratified by the mere facts.” Whether or not children (or primeval man) felt this wonder at the world wouldn’t matter that much, would it?

    You bring up a good point about wonder. Many people mention wonder in relation to ancient myths and modern-day speculative fiction, so I think it’s worth exploring that emotion a little more. I agree that wonder and excitement are definitely different though often confused or conflated. But I have a feeling that wonder does not always imply surprise. Here’s an excerpt from the Wikipedia article on “Wonder (emotion)” that might express the same thing I’m feeling in this regard:

    Wonder is an emotion comparable to surprise in that it is most commonly felt when perceiving something rare or unexpected. Unlike surprise, however, it is more definitely positive in valence and can endure for longer periods.

    (The qualifier “most commonly” and the fact that wonder can last for longer periods touch on what it is that I’m feeling.)

  7. Quick fly-by comments.

    Jason, you bring up some interesting points. Quick question: do you have kids? I have a 2 year old daughter, and yes, it’s both a surprise and/or a wonder that the apple is green. Every time. I agree with Randy that wonder does not always mean “surprise.”

    I’ve read “Elfland” multiple times, as a part of studying fairy tales, but I’m not familiar with the entire book as a whole. That said, I don’t tend to agree that Chesterton managed this whole chapter without Christian theology (despite his claim to the contrary at the end). It wasn’t exclusively Christian theology, but I’m of the opinion that God is almost an absolute necessity for his argument in this chapter, and that the heart of it is his comment that “our Father is younger than we.” Unless God is there, with the option of having made the world different (but exciting as it is), then all that’s left is what science itself determines.

    I’m feeling something circular in there…but I don’t have the time to re-analyze it at the moment. If it’s there, you’ll find it ;-)

  8. … Chesterton, Tolkein, Lewis, Campbell mistake science with philosophical ideas about science. They are excused given the scientistic ideologies prevalent in their times, but we post-moderns have no such excuse.

    ** “I have no need of that hypothesis” – LaPlace **

    No god hypothesis is necessary. Was it only 200 years ago that LaPlace supposedly said this to Napoleon?

    “Materialism” “certainty” “uniformity” “induction” “determinism” “scientific law” “universal causality” are as dead as “God” — belief in them is no longer believable.

    1.There is no such process as “induction” from “the facts” of nature. 2. There are no necessary empirical truths. (No science is certain.) 3. Every empirical statement is falsifiable in principle. 4. To be part of science, an empirical statement must be testable, hence refutable. 5. “Materialism” is no part of science 6. Mathematics makes models. Models, however refined, are not reality.

    What follows from these now well-known propositions: 1. No part of science presupposes any “uniformity of nature.” (No faith needed!) 2. There are no “laws” in science — no need for a “law giver” or any “source.” 3. If a religion makes an empirical claim; then, it could be false. 4. In order to be considered scientific, an empirical claim made by religion must specify conditions to test it — that is, show how it could be falsified 5. “God” doesn’t do mathematics. Mathematics doesn’t “describe” or “explain” the world.

    Science determines nothing — if by ‘determines’ one means ‘demonstrates with certainty what is true.’ It’s the demand for so-called mathematical certainty in our knowledge which is problematic.

    bipolar2 ©2008

  9. @bipolar2 — I think it might be overstating the point to say that these authors mistook science with philosophical ideas about science. C.S. Lewis, as one example, was extremely careful to distinguish in his essay “The Funeral of a Great Myth” (published posthumously in Christian Reflections) between these two:

    We must sharply distinguish between Evolution as a biological theorem and popular Evolutionism or Developmentalism. (83)

    I think it would be correct to say that people today (at least in America) fail to see this difference. Your example about the existence of God is a good one; we see many authors claiming that science somehow proves there is no divine being and no level of existence other than the material. I don’t know how science could ever prove such a thing.

    We will be discussing on this site in the future the notion that science and myth have historically served different functions among human beings. I think it will be fruitful to contrast them at least at some level, though (since this is a myth magazine and not a science magazine) we will obviously spend more time exploring the functions of myth.

  10. Fairy tales do allow us to see the wonder and magic in the world and it is a fun and exciting place to experience the gift of imagination that God has given so many people. That same wonder can be experienced when sitting and watching God’s beautiful creation. This morning, although it was cold and brisk outside, I sat in a chair on the porch and felt the warm sunrays; the sky was streaked with beautiful blues and pinks as if painted by an artist, not to mention the birds singing and a small ant carrying a crumb on its shoulder. This is magic. How can a small ant carry a crumb that is almost as large as itself? I did not need a fairy or an elf to complete my wonder for this beautiful creation. Scripture is inspired by God and also filled with wonder. There are sections of it which are poetry, some sections of great history, other books like Daniel and Revelation are filled with all kinds of symbols and parallalism. I regard the scripture as God’s inspired word. I take Genesis as it is written, not a fairy tale, but the account of God’s creation. He spoke and it happened. I believe in miracles. I also believe in science, true science. True science and the Bible agree. I don’t need to turn the Bible into a maze of fairy tales, in order to make them more believable. I believe in miracles. Creation in 6 days….there is a miracle. There is the great wonder. Our God’s power is not limited. Some believe in myths, in order to explain the wonder. Others believe in God and embrace the wonder. You can quote me on that one.

  11. All authority is relational, and yet we as a people are still “Straining out Gnats in order to swallow Camels”. . . Materialism, Evolution theory, Apologetics . . . all of it. Firstly it is as one who not only believes in the God of the Bible that I say, “If my God was small enough for me to understand he wouldn’t be worth my time.” Yet those like Chesterton, Lewis, and Tolkein all educated men showed themselves to be brilliant men in how the applied what they learned as Chesterton said it best when he said, “he was concerned (or contemplating) a way of looking at life. . .” Whether one recognizes anything outside of themselves is at its core a personal choice. . . The problem for most is in Living w/ Their choice – Period ! –

    For Myths are exactly that, a window/lense in which we can look at life . . . Honestly. No-one is qualified to disprove any myth strictly on the basis of Inconveince or as some say their Individuality . . . ; p – Because my faith in the Author of the Universe has nothing to do w/ your Choices. So in light of this I want to say that for me “story” or “myth” is better seen as a Language in that whether your a Scientist, Mathematian or an Autistic Prodigy (think -Rainman). . . Its a language we all speak and understand. Its when we waste time debating the details or the question of life that we lose out on Life itself. So please remember that if one looks hard enough. . . You will See, Experience, and finally Live your life for what it was meant for . . . To be lived ; ) As for me . . . I whole heartily embrace myths as eternal because its the story of my life like my children that will out live me. . . That my friend is how I define Legacy.

  12. Travis and Bipolar,

    Chesterton is quite clear that Orthodoxy is not, primarily, a work of positive, apologetic proof for the existence of God: it is merely his [Chesterton’s] journey back to what he came to see as the best possible set of beliefs for living one’s life, i.e., The Apostle’s Creed (as he concludes). Some may even say, as the author does, an autobiography. In short, the work humorously traces the intellectual journey of this terribly intelligent fellow, and explains why he, himself, came to believe in Christianity.

    That being said, your attack on this book for it’s being “circular” is off the mark. Of course, since it is a Catholic’s Theists autobiography, the book revolves around the central axiom that GOD EXISTS (in other words, the author does in fact believe God exists).* I believe you meant to say that Chesterton was coherent =D. In seriousness, What you were trying to convey by “circular,” I believe, was that you think his argument takes the Assumption: “God exists” only to come to the Conclusion: “God exists.” But if you think this is the basic argument of the book, you, to put it bluntly, missed the point. The book is pretty much one, big, jolly, “Reductio ad Absurdum.”He essentially “bites the heels” of other rival philosophical systems, shows the innate absurdity of each, i.e., that determinism completely undercuts the justice system, and from there, goes on to explain how all of this intellectual searching brought him back to Christianity, the only system which he found to be the most existentially, and philosophically ( It provides answers to Epistemological, Metaphysical, Ontological, and Ethical Questions) complete.

    With this brief background, I think you might be able to see the relevance of “The Ethics of Elfland.” This chapter reveals some of the basic axioms** (intuitions, if you will) Chesterton held, which lead him to reject the other philosophies and accept Christianity: it is foundational to the book. As the main point of the chapter is to reveal Chesterton’s belief that Life is beautiful and full of Wonder, one can now easily see how he would be attracted to the Judeo-Christian Tradition, which teaches that, “We must see the hand [to avoid confusion, Will] of God in all things, and this should bring us joy.”

    Hope this helps a bit!

    Side note: If you want to read some heavier, philosophical defense of Christian belief, May I suggest “Warranted Christian Belief,” By Alvin Plantinga :D

    • Just as Richard Dawkins’ or any other Naturalist’s work revolves around the fact that God DOES NOT EXIST. If this is your criterion for ‘circularity,’ then we are all screwed!

    **That life and people are wonderful. Keep in mind the bleak background of philosophical pessimism that dominated the contemporary academic milieu.

  13. Sorry, that was more to Travis, but Bipolar, you might enjoy the book I referred to at the end!