Recently Cynthia Chung had a very engaging conversation with the Unreliable Narrators on the subject of C.S. Lewis’s science-fiction trilogy. The podcast can be listened to here:
Lewis himself was interested in exploring the idea of a ‘good spell’ vs. a ‘bad spell’ in the third installment to his science-fiction trilogy titled “That Hideous Strength,” referring to the advent of 20th century ‘modern’ science which was increasingly moving away from the idea that a human being or any living creature had a soul and thus was to be no longer considered as something partaking in the sacred; replacing this understanding with the view that all life was merely a mechanical part within a machine.
This new view of humankind would ultimately place whoever was in control of the so-called machine on the level of a God. This was seen by Lewis as not very different from the story of the alchemist Faustus who was willing to enact any violation upon nature he required so long as he thought it would bring him further power. Thus, this idea of a ‘modern’ science was viewed as not so different from Faustian dabbling in the darks arts, what could be regarded as black sorcery; for the term magic, Lewis writes, arose in our lexicon upon the historical advent of ‘the sciences.’ However, the sciences can also be used for the good, what one could also term a form of ‘magic.’ This was an understanding centered around the recognition that there was indeed a Creator, that this Creator was in fact a benevolent one, that there was such a thing as universal laws or principles and that humankind was created in such a way as to partake in the divine, albeit imperfectly.
Scientists with this viewpoint, such as a Leibniz, were ‘good magicians’ so to speak, and used the power of the sciences to uplift humanity rather than drag it down. [For more on Leibniz, who was one of the greatest scientists of all time, and how he viewed the universe and thus the nature of humankind see Cynthia Chung’s lecture ‘Leibniz vs Newton: A Clash of Paradigms’]
It is for this reason that the Rising Tide Foundation would like to share a very beautiful essay written by the Unreliable Narrators which continues on this vein and discusses this idea of what is a ‘good spell.’
Casting the Good Spell: Is Christianity a Fairy Tale?
By the Unreliable Narrators
When people want to criticize Christianity, one of the things I have heard them do is dismiss it as a “fairy tale.” Some Christians may take offense at this because they understand a fairy tale as to mean something that is not true. People become incensed, insults are exchanged, and the conversation is over in two minutes. But I don’t find the accusation inflammatory at all, perhaps because I understand fairy tales differently. What really is a fairy tale?
When you ask most people what a fairy tale is, they will point to a series of conventional images: namely, cottages, castles, princes and princesses, witches, giants, ogres, evil spells, dragons, and of course, fairies. They also may point to the conventional opening and closing: “once upon a time” and “happily ever after.” But modern people make the mistake of lumping castles and princes together with witches and dragons as the primary ingredients of a fairy tale. They do not take into account that when the original Grimm Fairy Tales were being produced and circulated in medieval Europe, people saw castles and dragons very differently. Castles were real, dragons were not. The setting of a fairy tale at that time would not have been remote to them. You didn’t say “once upon a time in a faraway land, there was a scullery-maid with a cruel step-mother, and one day her fairy godmother granted her a wish to go to the ball in a magic pumpkin.” German peasants at that time actually had cruel stepmothers—that part of the story wouldn’t have been considered “fairy tale” material. That was just normal life. It wasn’t until they got to the pumpkin bit where things got really interesting.
We have Disney to blame in large part for the popular misunderstanding of fairy tales. We assume that a fairy tale must be about a princess living in a castle, when originally it might as well have been an ordinary person living in a house. The original fairy tales of medieval Europe consisted primarily of ordinary people encountering extraordinary things. It was a venture into the perilous realm, and the promise of “happily ever after” was not guaranteed.
If we take away castles and nobility as the primary qualifications for a fairy tale, then the patterns which define the fairy tale become more apparent. When we look for the common pattern, what we do see in almost every fairy tale is the weaving of a magic spell. The story begins with a spell or curse laid upon the land, or upon a person. Sleeping Beauty is cast into a deep sleep. The arrogant prince is turned into a beast. The word “spell” is of Germanic origin and translates roughly as “news”, “story”, “speech”, “account”, or “tale”. The current meanings of the English word “spell”—that is, to cast a spell or to spell out a word—originate from the same source. We also use the word “spell” to mean a period of time, as in a bad spell of weather. The evidence is inconclusive as to whether this last meaning of “spell” is related to the other two, but it did also originate from Old English, so I think the argument can be made.
To approach a broader definition of a fairy tale, then, two concepts must be understood. First, fairy tales need not be circumscribed the stereotypical aesthetics of Disney films, but rather can be defined more broadly as any story which involves a spell, a curse, or an enchantment. Secondly, the kind of spell involved includes but is not limited to magic spells. When we strip away the superficial and formulaic décor which we arbitrarily assign to the stereotypical fairy tale aesthetic, we find many stories (and many genres) that could potentially fall under the category of fairy tale despite the fact that they are not recognized as such by Netflix or Amazon Prime.
Take, for example, a classic superhero origin story such as Spider-Man. Peter Parker, an ordinary, insecure high-school student, becomes the web-slinging hero of the city due to a mutant spider bite. Peter Parker’s transformation is not explained in fairy tale language—there is no magic potion or witch’s curses—but rather is glossed over in scientific lingo as the alteration of the cell structure in his body. Of course, the pseudo-science that backs up the origin of Spider-Man is just as implausible as a witch’s curse, so why call one a fairy tale and not the other? A fairy godmother turns a scullery-maid into a princess, a genetically altered spider turns a high-school boy into a superhero. Both of them are supernatural in that they are beyond the natural, despite the fact that the latter is putatively “science fiction.” There are many stories which are in fact fairy tales even when the language of the story describes it as something else. The story may be nominally labeled as true crime, romance, horror, mystery, thriller, historical, science fiction, or even realist. But if the story deals with some phenomenon that cannot be explained by natural laws, we are not in Kansas anymore. We are in fairyland.
We could go on to talk about superhero movies as a prime example of the fairy-tale-in-disguise, but for me that is too obvious. To really have fun with this idea you have to look for stories that don’t appear on the surface to be fairy tales at all. If Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was being totally realistic, he would likely have admitted that Sherlock Holmes could never have made such ridiculously elaborate deductions without ever making a single mistake. Unless, of course, he was magic. Or what about Christopher Nolan’s Inception, a story about an international band of dream thieves who can enter into your mind and plant ideas in you? The film calls them “extractors” but aren’t they really just sorcerers casting spells?
Ok, so a fairy tale is a story which involves a spell. Fair enough. But that definition risks being too broad. We could call anything a fairy tale under that definition, and perhaps we would be right. But there is a difference between fairy tales per se, and great fairy tales. When we look at the fairy tales which become classics, we see a new element introduced. A story with a spell may qualify as a fairy tale, but it is not, in the traditional sense, an epic fairy tale. When we look at fairy tales cast in the epic pattern (for example, Star Wars) it usually consists of spells that are understood in a landscape of good and evil. There is not just a spell, there is a bad spell. The bad spell must be broken by a good spell.
Before James Cameron broke box office records with Avatar (obviously a fairy tale) the highest grossing film of all time was his previous film, Titanic. Can we detect a fairy tale in this story? A story about an aristocratic young girl (the princess) who is forced to marry a man she does not love (the curse) rescued by a poor dreaming artist boy who teaches her how to fly (the good spell)? James Cameron is not the most successful filmmaker of all time for nothing. He did not construct these stories by accident. He knew that the most powerful story that can be told is the fairy tale.
What about another great classic, The Sound of Music? Fraulein Maria (the princess) becomes the governess of a family under the jurisdiction of a stern father who forbids music (the curse). But Fraulein Maria has a mysterious power. She can wish away thunderstorms by singing about her favorite things. She can turn musical notes into bread and jam and drops of golden sun. She turns house drapery into royal robes. Fraulein Maria speaks words and things happen. She casts the good spell on them, and the curse is lifted.
What is a fairy tale? It is the story of a people who were rescued from a terrible spell. What then, are we to make of a story like Christianity? It is the story of a people destined for the underworld, and a God-man who swallows up death in victory. The word for “good news” in the Greek New Testament is euangelion, or “the good message.” When Christian missionaries brought Christianity to Europe, they translated this word as the gōdspell, which is where we get the word “gospel”. Christ was the king who cast the Good Spell and lifted the curse of the world. Christianity does not need to be defended from the accusation that it is a fairy tale. Of course it is a fairy tale. It is the best fairy tale there ever was. The only thing that makes it different from the others is that it is actually true.
For more on the Unreliable Narrators visit the website here.
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