Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Fairy Tales and Mental Health

The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason. –GK Chesterton

People who see Fairy Tales as a means for escaping “reality” have never read one, or, if they have, didn’t understand what they were being shown. For example, wicked witches, rulers, and invisible forces are encountered in most every chapter, as are their antidotes (ethical behavior), counterparts (brave Knights), and destroyers (Christ figures). In my own experience, I have learned far more about the nature of evil and the power of goodness from such stories than from many of the sermons I have heard over my lifetime. Far from producing in the reader various forms of neurosis or psychosis, the truth is, as Chesterton states: “The fairy-tale is full of mental health.”

Consider the realities of Faith, Hope, and Love, as demonstrated in Fairy Tales.

Faith I have heard countless parents say that they would never permit their children to read Fairy Tales as such stories embed fears that would haunt the child for years to come. Fairy Tales, however, do not introduce the reader to previously unknown horrors. All children are fairly sure there are terrible creatures in their closets and under their beds. What Fairy Tales do for us is impart a belief that there are more powerful forces in the world than evil.

In Tremendous Trifles, GK Chesterton writes, “Exactly what the fairy-tale does is this: it accustoms him by a series of clear pictures to the idea that these limitless terrors have a limit, that these shapeless enemies have enemies, that these infinite enemies of man have enemies in the knights of God, that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear.”

Fairy Tales elicit faith in the face of terrible ordeals. This faith, however, is not rooted in this world but in another. Many of the characters we meet here suffer temporal defeats and die, yet they die with faith that evil will not have the final word on Creation or mankind. 

Hope In most all Fairy Tales, there is the miraculous turn of events. Where there had been failure and sorrow there is now victory and joy. In words coined by Tolkien, “dyscatastrophy” becomes “eucatastrophe.”

“The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous ‘turn’ (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially 'escapist', nor 'fugitive'. In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.” (On Fairy-Stories)

As we read of the hero or heroine’s battles, we experience their fear and dread. And then, just before the Final and Great Catastrophe occurs, “a ‘turn’ comes, a catch of the breath, a lifting of the heart,” (Tolkien) There is always hope, both in this life and in the one to come.

Love Fairy Tales display the reality that true love is transformative. Kiss the frog and he will turn into a handsome Prince. Kiss Snow White and she will cast off the evil Queen’s enchantment and awaken. Lay down your life for love’s sake and the land that had been cursed, whereby it is “always winter but never Christmas,” and Narnia is delivered. Once love does all that love will do … “And they lived happily ever after.”

Copyright, Monte E Wilson, 2014

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