"There once was a boy named Eustace Clarence Scrubb and he almost deserved it.”
So begins C.S. Lewis’ classic, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, about a boy who read “the wrong sort of books” cast on board a ship heading for the end of the world. He spends most of the voyage lecturing on the nature of the world, complaining about his circumstances, and denying everything he couldn’t explain until he is turned into a dragon. So one may ask, "What is the right sort of books?" and "Why should I read them?"
Fairy tales show us the nature of man and our place in a world we don’t understand.
In Dawn Treader , Lewis addresses a world losing its wonder, producing children of information who revel in “pictures of fat foreign children,” but lack the ability to imagine taking their place. Books have become more informational without considering the best way to convey information. We read to understand the world around us, but if we are told mere facts without regard to relationships, we cannot grow.
Fairy stories teach us to look deeper than the surface, pay attention to the details, place ourselves in other people’s shoes, and, most importantly, see human nature for what it is. Fairy tales are not well constructed lies intended to mislead vulnerable children. They are creative tools that help explain the world where children find themselves.
Fairy tales are not only for children.
Grown-ups are the products of their childhoods. If they didn’t learn the universal truths found in fairy stories while they were young, perhaps they can value their counsel in their adult lives. In Tolkien's seminal work, The Lord of the Rings, the one ring is known to be the source of evil. In his earlier work, The Hobbit, the ring, while suspicious, is a trickster’s tool. There is a foreshadowing of the evil it will bring as Bilbo compromises his integrity to keep it hidden. What is known to be ultimately evil is seen as superficially good. The same complexity applies in our lives when we do, or see, good things done because it suits the person’s purpose, not his character. While it is easier to look in depth at an old ring, we must also understand being manipulated by it. Gollum, Bilbo, Frodo, and Sam experienced this, seeing their best selves and their actions enveloped in fear. As we read their stories, we can see how their lives were shaped by their choices. We can understand how a man can become so obsessed with success that he loses the family he was working for.
Fairy tales are not a study of heroes, but the surprise of grace.
In The Lord of the Rings, as in Dawn Treader, we see the crux of the matter when the characters must battle their own base natures to complete the quest. Frodo must not claim the ring and use its power. Eustace must overcome his greed and arrogance, the dragon within, to overcome the dragon without. And ultimately, they fail. Frodo reaches Mount Doom and can’t go on, forfeiting the ring to Gollum, whose insanity literally pushes him over the edge. Eustace can’t scour his soul nor his skin when he is given the task of redeeming himself. Aslan has to do it.
While Tolkien and Lewis both experienced this grace in their own lives, those who have not still write stories of value. The grace of God surprises us again with authors who write about redemption without being redeemed themselves. The imago Dei, image of God, is in everyone and we can’t resist expressing His nature in our best works. Frankenstein shows desperation for a Creator. A Tale of Two Cities has redemption in death. Poe shows us the battle with the conscience and our need for a Savior.
We need to strike a balance between reading storied and living history. If children are taught history is dull, they will live dull lives. If we give them stories that resonate and show them history is full of people they understand, they can live great lives as well. In the words of C.S. Lewis, “Someday you will be old enough to read fairy tales again.”