Friday, January 15, 2010
For we have not by following cleverly devised myths, made known to you the power, and presence of our Lord Jesus Christ; but we were eyewitnesses of His greatness. For He received from God the Father, honour and glory: this voice coming down to Him from the excellent glory: This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye Him. And this voice we heard brought from heaven, when we were with Him in the holy mount. And we have the more firm prophetical word: whereunto you do well to attend, as to a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts: Understanding this first, that no prophecy of scripture is made by private interpretation. (II Peter I: 16-20)

‘Is that story true?’ many a round, cherry little mouth has asked me.
Whether it was a younger sister I strolled with hand in hand through a gold-hued field of tall grass, a few young boys crouched around the mossy bank of a pond, little cousins reclining on a couch in the sitting room, or a small child sitting next to me on the bus, I would always arch my eyebrow at this query after one of my winding yarns. ‘Of course it’s true!’ To hesitate with children is to die. No being on Earth is quicker to sense hypocrisy or tentative reasoning than a child of man. Nothing but the best feigned indignation against one’s veracity being suspected and the most audacious assertion that one’s tales are in fact annals of history would hush a child’s suspicions. Even so, I would still see them screw their mouths up in a pout and glance over their shoulders with a scrutinizing, ‘I wonder…’

Is this wrong? I can imagine a few Scholastic eyebrows rising as I call to mind St. Thomas Aquinas’s position on ‘jocose lies.’ I have to confess (and I know I’m not the only one) that I have often involuntarily justified some of the masculine disdain for feminine reasoning. Nearly always, I jump ahead with my intuition when I come into contact with a problem. My reason has to struggle to catch up with it, often with a great deal of clumsy tripping that always makes me game for anyone’s wit in conversation.
Fibbing to children for the sake of their own amusement is one such instance where I refused to admit it was wrong, even with no logic to justify my position. The rationalization came later, and with the assistance of more articulate persons than myself.

First, there is a dichotomy in fantastic stories. It is difficult to see where children draw it, but it is evidenced in their reactions on seeing 'the man behind the curtain.’ I have witnessed bitter tears drawn from children who prematurely learned that Santa Claus died circa 483 A.D. in Italy—probably not having ever owned any reindeer and the only visit he ever made to a chimney being to drop a few pouches of coins down the smoke-stack. I have hardly ever seen this reaction when a littlie learned that Easter bunnies don’t lay eggs or that the tooth-fairy doesn’t exist. Perhaps others may observe that the reverse sentiment is true in their experience, but that is not to the purpose. The fact remains that in the same children of the same ages very diverse reactions are elicited.

The contrast between horrified bewilderment and stoic resignation is severe, and it does not always have anything to do with the superiority of the tale or the lovability of its characters. Some children even latch onto a story knowing from the beginning that it is a dream and love it still with a fiery intensity. Tolkien—ever the apologist of infant savvy—took issue with the author (or collector) Andrew Lang’s argument that fairytales:

…represent the young age of man true to his early loves, and have his unblunted edge of belief, a fresh appetite for marvels. ‘Is it true?’ is the great question children ask. (Fairy Books, Introduction)

With the merciless acumen a Tolkien reader has come to expect from the man that had the audacity to confess disappointment in Shakespeare, the Don tears this innocuous statement apart:

It seems fairly clear that Lang was using belief in its ordinary sense: belief that a thing exists or can happen in the real (primary) world. If so, then I fear that Lang’s words, stripped of sentiment, can only imply that the teller of marvellous tales to children, must, or may, or at any rate does trade on their credulity…What really happens is that the story-maker proves a successful ‘sub- creator’. He makes a Secondary World…Inside it, what he relates is ‘true’: it accords with the laws of that world…The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken…You are then out in the Primary World again.
(On Fairy-Stories: Children)

Then it isn’t really lying after all? Children know immediately what a myth is in their hearts, and they understand that what the author relates inside his own world is proper to that world? Looking to experience to test the hypothesis, it initially seems absolutely true. When little girls are told that mermaids have dark hair the colour of seaweed, they don’t often wrinkle up their noses as they would on seeing someone with green hair. It is a mermaid, and it’s perfectly fittng for them to have green hair.

On telling my little second cousin a story about a monster that had to devour people alive after his teeth had been broken, she gasped in horror, asked many questions, but later reversed to her former play without unperturbed. She even presented her own emotionally animated version of the story to her parents, as if at the age of three she knew that it was only a story and one that she could make her own. So there is no Man in the Moon, no Easter Bunny, no wicked faërie that steal newborns, and no werewolves living beneath the mossy pile of old uprooted railway tracks in the glen, and the best part is that children never really believed there were. Certainly, they acted as if they did, but that was only in the sphere of Pretend. After all, children with make-believe friends are hardly mentally ill.

However, what of the children who do weep on hearing the truth about Santa Claus? Nineteen years ago, I barely escaped a spanking for informing my little sisters of the location of his relics, they were so upset. And what of the moments where, even after telling little ones that wicked, watery Burda doesn’t exist, they still look about fearfully every time they walk past that muddy corner of the pond?

My cousin Jennifer and I remember the time we ate weeds that greatly resembled one of Rapunzel’s salads in an illustrated volume of fairytales (for we had concluded with five and four-year old logic that her diet must have effected such exquisite hair growth). Thanks to the tattling of a neighbour’s boy, we spent the whole afternoon guzzling pints of milk with my mother on the phone with Poison Control. Even if these bizarre instances are only found with abnormal children, i.e. the ‘exceptions that prove the rule’ (such a hateful saying), the children’s abnormality must be accounted for in itself.
Do 5% of fairystories actually exert spells so forceful they force their way into the ‘Primary World’? Or is it a defect specific in the child and as abnormal as it would be in an adult?

Lucy Maud Montgomery—the beloved author of children’s books—had a less rigorous opinion on the child's mind than Tolkien. Every single work she ever produced was in effect a study of aesthetic philosophy, and all her books held to the argument that living a life in union with the Beautiful was only truly possible by remaining childlike.

As John Banim observed: ‘there is a world of difference between “childlike” and “childish.”’ So much in fact, that they represent two poles of man’s spirit at that stage. The latter is to be shrugged off more readily than an insect’s grotty, old exoskeleton and the former is to be clung to with unwavering tenacity.

Now in Maud’s novels, the children are more likely to wish tales from fancy to reality, and to never let go of the fantastic. Hence the young Davy’s interrogation in the third volume of the Anne of Green Gables series:

‘…Say, what is echo, Anne; I want to know.’
‘Echo is a beautiful nymph, Davy, living far away in the woods, and laughing at the world from among the hills.’

‘What does she look like?’

‘Her hair and eyes are dark, but her neck and arms are white as snow. No mortal can ever see how fair she is. She is fleeter than a deer, and that mocking voice of hers is all that we can know of her. You can hear her calling at night; you can hear her laughing under the stars. But you can never see her. She flies afar if you follow her, and laughs at you always just over the next hill.’

‘Is that all true, Anne? Or is it a whopper?’ demanded Davy staring.
(Anne of the Island: Chapter XXII; Spring and Anne Return to Green Gables)

Though Anne threw her hands up in despair that Davy couldn’t distinguish between a lie and a fairytale, she was likely forgetting an instance in her own childhood where she walked through a perfectly harmless wood nearly paralyzed with the fright inspired by her conjectures concerning the place. She had come out of that experience resolved to ‘ “be contented with everyday life.” ’

Lucy Maud Montgomery herself was very harsh on her characters who persisted on holding onto dreams and fancies instead of embracing the reality before them. Anne was almost severely punished for not seeing in chummy Gilbert the other half of her soul. Pat of Silver Bush bore the full brunt of idolizing her magical home. Emily of New Moon alone seemed to understand the true part that the faerie world plays in that of the concrete (though she had many faults of her own). She observed, as did Maud, that:

It has always seemed to me, ever since early childhood, that, amid all the commonplaces of life, I was very near to a kingdom of ideal beauty. Between it and me hung only a thin veil. I could never draw it quite aside, but sometimes a wind fluttered it, and I caught a glimpse of the enchanting realm beyond—only a glimpse, but those glimpses have always made life worthwhile. (The Alpine Path)

I remember a suspiciously Platonist priest, who used to call peculiarly beautiful places (mountain balds, mossy begs, rocky caverns, verdant glens, etc.) ‘thin places’--the space between our deceptively accessible, concrete realm and an other world being markedly slight at such points. It was not that these fair, little spots were perfected by the addition of faërie influence, but that they were already more hauntingly lovely than we could understand. They referred to another excellence even beyond themselves.

In Maud’s exquisite, childlike vision of the world, we see that there is a need for all the things we love and haunt us in lore to be at least a reflection of a reality beyond this mortal veil. G. K. Chesterton often observed that our very disappointment with the non-existence of ‘turnip ghosts’ was proof that there must be, somewhere, real ghosts. The very absurdity of the fantastic is due to its aping the realistic. Even shielding one’s eyes from biographical information about Tolkien, it is blatantly obvious that his Secondary World is modelled event for event, tenet for tenet, on what is—for millions—the true story of the Primary World.

Even as one acknowledges that the Seven Days obviously represented ages and not seven twenty-four hour periods, or that Job’s tale was entirely allegory, the gist remains that the events of Revelation must be true. Aristotle said that poetry was a reproduction of real life, altered slightly to ‘instruct and entertain.’ Poetry then must have some basis in real life. If the endless procession of morality tales and fables is to take any effect on the listener, the related incidents, though unnecessary to cool reason, must have happened in some way, somewhere.

If man is expected to live his life not first for himself, but for the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, then there had better not only be these three things, but Someone else who could set the example. Humble Peter, the childlike Apostle, whose enthusiasm always outran his prudence, understood this yearning very well. He addressed it directly in his second letter.

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Fae Truth by Rachel Rudd is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
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Domine, spero quia mundum vicisti. Lord, I trust that Thou hast overcome the world. Panie, ufam, żeś pokonał świat.
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