One of my favorites passages in Dante’s Purgatorio is when Dante finally reaches the summit of Mount Purgatory and enters the Earthly Paradise—that is, the Garden of Eden. It makes good theological sense that Dante imagines the topography of Purgatory this way. For having purged his intellect, will and passions from the ill effects of his sin, Dante is now wholly innocent again. He is like Adam and Eve before the Fall. And so it is appropriate that, before he ascends to the celestial Paradise, he be given a glimpse of heaven on earth.
In the Earthly Paradise Dante meets a beautiful lady named Matelda, who tells him that he has come to the place “fashioned to be the natural nest for man.” Matedla explains:
“The Highest Good, pleased in Itself alone,
made man good, and for Good, and gave him this
place as an earnest of eternal peace.
By his own fault, man did not dwell here long.
by his own fault, he took up grief and toil,
pawning his honest laughter and sweet play.”
The Earthly Paradise, depicted by Dante in lush, bucolic imagery, is “an earnest of eternal peace.” For all its beauty, it is still a mere forerunner of the beauty and peace that await Dante in Heaven. But in lines I especially like, Matelda adds this:
“A corollary granted as a grace.
It will, I think, be no less dear to you,
for I will walk beyond my promises.
The poets in their melodies of old
may have dreamed on Parnassus of this spot,
singing about the happy age of gold.
For here the human race was innocent;
forever spring, and fruit upon the vine.
This is the nectar which the poets meant.”
Images of a “happy age of gold” were a commonplace in ancient poetry (in Greek mythology, Mount Parnassus was home to the Muses). Matelda is saying that when ancient poets wrote of golden ages where all was Spring and innocence, they were in fact, whether they realized it or not, “dreaming” of the Garden of Eden.
It may be a stretch, but I believe fairy tales, or many of them at any rate, fall into the category of stories that depict golden ages, and thus are dreams of Eden—as well as of that greater Paradise of which Eden itself is but a dream. J.R.R. Tolkien, the Catholic author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, wrote a famous essay entitled, “On Fairy Stories.” In the essay Tolkien argues that, at its best, the fairy story or fantasy is far from being a flight from reality; it is, rather, a flight to reality. According to my friend Professor Brad Birzer, in his book J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth, Tolkien understands the fairy story as a pathway toward reality insofar as it
1. illuminates the vast inheritance our ancestors have bequeathed to us;
2. gives us a new sense of wonder about things we have taken for granted or which have become commonplace (Tolkien writes that fairy stories allow us to see “things as we are (or were) meant to see them”);
3. and provides us with a means to escape the drabness, conformity, and mechanization of modernity.
The desire to escape the nightmare aspects of modernity, Birzer warns, is not the same thing as wanting to escape from reality—quite the opposite, in fact. In the best kind of fairy tale, writes Birzer, “[w]e still deal with life and death, comfort and discomfort. We merely escape progressivism and the progressive dream, which reduces all of complex reality to a mere shadow of creation’s true wonders.”
The “progressive dream,” in which human beings reject God and seek to divinize themselves by mastering nature, is thus the very opposite of the “dream of an earthly paradise” that we find in the best fairy tales, such as those written by Tolkien himself. Is not a Middle-Earth after Sauron’s defeat, where the hobbits in Hobbiton can tend their gardens and eat their multiple breakfasts, where justice and peace reign in Gondor now that the rightful line of kings has been restored—is this not an image of a “happy age of gold”?
On this the holiest week in the Christian calendar, we call to mind another and far greater fairy story. Turning the above analysis on its head, the fairy story we celebrate this week is not a dream of some other, more real paradise. No, this fairy tale is the reality compared to which everything else in our lives is but a dream.
In Holy Week we celebrate the paradigm case of what Tolkien argues is the most essential element of a great fairy tale: eucatastrophe—a word that means “a good disaster.” The great fairy tales, says Tolkien, always show us a defeat that turns out to be the source of unexpected victory. In this way, the realm of fairy gives us a “fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world.” But the greatest eucatastrophe of all is of course the great defeat we recall in the coming days, a defeat that turns out to be, wondrously, the very means of Christ’s victory over death. Christ’s Passion, Death and Resurrection is the greatest of all fairy tales, precisely because it is the one fairy tale that happens to be true.
It was probably from G.K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man that Tolkien gained the insight that allowed him to say: “The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact.” Tolkien’s friend C.S. Lewis similarly affirms that in Christianity, “[t]he old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history.”
With the Incarnation of Christ, Tolkien further proclaims, “art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men—and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused.”
Our natural love of myth, of the fairy story, is a manifestation of our desire for a Reality that can only be fully satisfied in Christ. Yet this natural love of fairy tales, like every natural impulse, can fail to mature. In the same essay on fairy stories, Tolkien writes:
Fantasy is a natural human activity. It certainly does not destroy or even insult Reason; and it does not either blunt the appetite for, nor obscure the perception of, scientific veracity. On the contrary. The keener and clearer is the reason, the better fantasy will it make. If men were ever in a state in which they did not want to know or could not perceive truth (facts or evidence), then Fantasy would languish until they were cured. If they ever get into that state (it would not seem at all impossible), Fantasy will perish, and become Morbid Delusion.
One wonders whether our popular culture’s fascination with fairy tales is settled deep into such Morbid Delusion. Today’s LA Times ran a feature story on the current spate of fairy tale-based films. Now in production are not one but two Sleeping Beauty films, a Peter Pan origins film, a Hansel and Gretel, and not one but two versions of Snow White. This is not even to mention the Red Riding Hood currently in theaters, or the recent Disney hit, Tangled, an updating of Rapunzel. My family and I rather enjoyed Tangled; a little bit of innocent updating on a classic tale is no bad thing in and of itself. But I’m more suspicious when the updating involves more dangerous features of our culture. The injection of tired and muddled feminist themes into tales of the Brothers Grimm, as the LA Times article indicates we should expect soon in the theaters, is not the sort of dream one wants one’s screenwriters dreaming on Parnassus.
On a side note: Tolkien is on record as saying that it is best to leave fantasy to the imagination and the written word. To put fairy tales on stage or on a screen via animation must result in either “silliness or morbidity.” Needless to say, Tolkien was no fan of Walt Disney.
And yet—although in one sense one shudders at the prospect of what Hollywood is doing in this resurgence of interest in fairy tales, in another sense it is promising that our culture is still fascinated by them. In the LA Times piece we find the following observation by Kate Bernheimer, professor at the University of Arizona and editor of the journal Fairy Tale Review. Bernheimer is quoted as saying
that all sorts of zeitgeist reasons are behind the fairy-tale revival. She cites a need, in a technologically-crazed time, to reconnect with the nature of fairy-tale environments as well as the “uncanny pull that the ‘ever after’ holds in an age of extinction.”
During this Holy Week, perhaps we can also pray that the “uncanny pull” so many feel toward the “ever after” will lead to a deeper reflection on the paradises, earthly and heavenly, from which the fairy stories we enjoy get their point and purpose. For only when we realize that the myths we love have actually become fact, will our stories once again be healthy dreams of a real world where everything is “honest laughter and sweet play.”
* For quotations from and analysis of Tolkien's essay "On Fairy Stories," this post is deeply indebted to Brad Birzer's discussion in J.R.R. Tolkien's Sanctifying Myth. Also, the translation of the Purgatorio I use is that of Anthony Esolen.