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One of the great pleasures of parenting is reading stories to our children. For my kids, bedtime was story time. After tucking them in, filling their water cups and leading them in prayer, I'd often pull a book off the shelf and shift between narration and playful character voices until they drifted off to sleep. Most of us have fond memories of fairy tales, stemming from our own childhood. Beautiful princesses. Dragon-slaying heroes. Enchanted kingdoms and talking animals. But what is it that makes those classic tales so enduring? From generation to generation, from one culture to the next, why do certain fantasy stories stand the test of time? Could it be that those popular myths and fairy tales resonate with a deeper, truer story woven into the fabric of human experience by the author of our story? To find out, we talked with Jim Ware, who explores this subject in his book God of the Fairy Tale.

Plugged In: It's always a pleasure to talk with someone who understands the power of stories to shape us, both as individuals and as a culture.
Jim Ware: I really believe in that. Story is an elemental part of human psychology. We reveal a lot about ourselves by the stories we tell.

Was there a defining moment or a particular story that drove that home to you?
I just always loved books, and I loved stories. I remember reading Robin Hood when I was a kid, and King Arthur and His Knights, and that type of thing. I wasn't content to just read the story; I would have to go out and live it somehow. So summers I would spend the morning reading a few chapters of Robin Hood and then go out and shoot bows and arrows in the afternoon imagining that I was him. But I think that's an important part of stories: We live vicariously in them sometimes and they, vice versa, shape the way that we think and live.

What is it about fairy tales, fantasy and science fiction that make those genres so ripe for capturing the imagination?
I think because there are no rules. You can make the boundaries whatever you want them to be. You can let the imagination go wherever you want it to. You can create your own rules. Tolkien does that in his books. Then within those boundaries you can play out morals, values and basic beliefs in a different way. C.S. Lewis said the reason he thought a fairy tale was so powerful was because you're able to talk about these basic truths while looking at them through different eyes. In an essay he wrote on fairy stories he said he felt he could sneak past the "watchful lions" of people having their antennae out for religious ideas. And you see it as if for the first time. Which is a great thing, because we all need to see the gospel story as if we're seeing it for the first time. Sometimes we become inoculated and immune to it by hearing sermons over and over and over.

In your book God of the Fairy Tale you examine how certain stories, perhaps unintentionally, do convey eternal truths. Let's look at a few, starting with Cinderella.
That's a great one. There's a whole category of stories that fall into this group called "reversal tales." Cinderella is the person that nobody expects to be anybody. She's the one that's not really part of the family. She's sitting in the ashes cleaning out the fireplace. She's a nobody. Meanwhile, the stepmother and stepsisters are dressing up and going off to the ball. And in the end, she's the one who turns out to be the one the prince wants to marry. She becomes royalty. So everything's turned upside down in this story. That is really the story of Jesus.

Royalty clothed in humility. Christ fulfilled prophecy to the letter, yet constantly defied people's expectations, didn't He?
Jesus is not the knight on the white horse coming in to kick the Romans out of Israel. He's not the kind of savior the zealots were expecting to come. He's not the kind of savior we might be expecting to come today. When you look around at our cultural, political situation, we want someone to come in and turn everything over to us. Instead, Jesus is the baby in the manger. He's born in this backwater town that nobody ever heard of or cared about in the Roman Empire. That's what the gospel story is about—that reversal. It's a theme that runs all through Scripture, and I think the fairy tales that talk about this indicate that we, as humans, have some sort of a sneaking suspicion that this might turn out to be the case in life.

I also appreciated your explanation of how Hansel and Gretel reflects the cruelty of fallen creation. Want to explain that?
There's just a lot of meanness and harshness and cruelty there. And we've got this story about an old woman who wants to eat children. The babes are lost in the woods with no one to defend them, and they fall into this wicked old woman's hands. I see in that a basic truth that a lot of non-biblical thinking has forgotten about: The world is a bad place. The world is a fallen place. We have a lot of humanistic thinkers who believe man is basically good, and if we could just educate him the right way, get him into the right environment, make sure his needs are met—he has healthcare and food and all of these things—that the world would be great. But the biblical truth is, no, the world is a fallen place. The flaw is deep within man himself, and because of that the world is not safe. It's a place where we have to beware.

Even though it presents itself as a gingerbread cottage full of treats and candy.
Yeah, right, exactly. It can have that attractive veneer, but inside of that is death.

Hollywood has created the R-rated action fantasy Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, no doubt playing fast and loose with the original story. Now they're grown-up bounty hunters. As a student of fairy tales, what do you think of the way Hollywood is repurposing those stories for modern audiences?
They may be making better "entertainment" out of some of it. But I can't help feeling that we're losing the point in a lot of these modern stories. If Hansel and Gretel are grown-up bounty hunters, then they're not vulnerable in the same way that two little children are, lost in the woods. They're not in the same position that Hansel and Gretel were when they fell into the hands of the witch. And the same lesson isn't there for us, who are also like babes in the woods of this fallen world. So it depends on what you want out of the story. I think that there's a lot we'll be losing if we keep playing fast and loose with these tales in that way.

Along those lines, the female characters in these updated versions seem to be more dominant and proactive. They don't need to be rescued anymore. While there's something to be said for empowering our daughters, is this renewed fascination with fairy tales reflective of audiences' changing tastes?
On one hand, I would say it simply reflects the fact that we're human. We connect with these tales because, unlike a lot of fiction written by contemporary authors, these things have been shaped and honed over centuries of time, passed on from one hand to the next. So they represent things that are basic to the human psychology—basic needs and desires. One of the stories I talk about in my book is The Golden Key by George Macdonald. He has this great image of a key that needs to fit a lock. All of us know we're supposed to fit somewhere. Or Saint Augustine said there's a God-shaped vacuum in our hearts. There's a key that needs to fit that, but we don't know what it is, so we invent these tales and live these fantasies trying to find out what that is. That basic kind of a thing is why we still connect with these stories.

And on the other hand…?
There is some adjusting of stories for modern audiences. And I think there can be some positive factors to the feminization of heroes. For example, on ABC's show Once Upon a Time, all the heroes are women. They're these tough, two-fisted swashbuckling types who don't need a man to rescue them. But we're losing something there, because there's this great image in Scripture of Christ as the bridegroom and the church as the bride. And we, being in the feminine role, are dependent upon Him to be our savior, our rescuer, our redeemer. So when Snow White or Sleeping Beauty in the original tale is dependent on the prince to come and save her and wake her with a kiss, to me that's a great image of all of us humans sleeping the sleep of death, and we need the Savior to waken us with the kiss of His love. If we throw that out totally, we're missing a huge part of the story that we need.

That's a great point. Would you agree that, even though we often think of the Walt Disney versions of these stories as being the "real" ones because we grew up with them, he's just as guilty of revisionism. After all, Disney softened up stories he felt were too Grimm.
In the original Cinderella story, it's not quite the way you find it in Disney. Some bad things happen to the wicked stepsisters and the stepmother. If you look at The Little Mermaid, there's a theme of "redemptive suffering" that appears in many of Hans Christian Anderson's tales. In the end, she has a chance to save herself. She's under a curse, in a way. She wanted to become human and find out what that's like, but in order to do that, she has to give up the immortality she would've had as a mermaid. Well, she's given a chance to go back into the sea and regain her immortality, but the condition of that is that she needs to take a knife and kill her husband, the prince. She chooses not to do that. She throws the knife overboard, and Anderson ends the story by saying that she became foam on the surface of the sea. That's not the happy ending that we're used to.

Another big movie scheduled for 2013 is Jack the Giant Slayer. Something about the source material inspired you to include that one in the book as well.
I talked about Jack the Giant Killer as an image of the Redeemer. Jack goes into the castle wearing a cloak of invisibility and slays the giant, and releases the captives. That reminds me a lot of Narnia, where the White Witch has put all of these creatures under a curse and turned them into stone, and Aslan goes in there and sets them free. This is a great picture of Christ setting us free from the curse of death.

Back in 2006 you also wrote the book Finding God in The Hobbit. Is it true that J.R.R. Tolkien considered Bilbo's story a fairy tale, essentially?
Yeah, he said that. Tolkien was a myth-maker, and he created a vast mythological world of his own based on things like Norse mythology, the Finnish mythology of the Kalevala, but The Hobbit is a story that grew up on the edges of that vast world. He meant it more for his children, and he called it a fairy tale. It began one day when, on the back of a student's exam paper, he wrote the words, "In a hole in the ground lived a hobbit…" And out of that came this tale, which was connected to his bigger cycle of stories.

Tolkien liked to coin words. Can you tell us about the term "eucatastrophe" and how it relates to our ability to find God in stories?
That's the reversal we talked about. A catastrophe is a disastrous kind of event that turns everything over and changes everything. The eu at the beginning means "good." It's a good catastrophe that changes everything for the better, but it's unexpected, as a catastrophe always is. And Tolkien said that this element is central to a lot of fairy stories and traditional tales and myths. Cinderella's a great example. Another one Tolkien liked to talk about is called The Black Bowl of Norway. There's a story called East of the Sun and West of the Moon. In all of them, things get turned upside down in the end. And that's the Gospel story.

And yet families need to be discerning. Powerful stories can also be destructive, can't they?
People familiar with fantasy literature at all probably have noticed that it tends to diverge into two different streams. A writer named G.K. Chesterton talked about this in terms of mythology. He said there were both the "good" myths and the "bad" myths. Sometimes this human longing that we're expressing in our stories is like that key I alluded to. We don't know quite where to find the key that fits the lock, so we start groping in different directions, looking for answers. Some myths, Chesterton said, are groping in the right direction, and there's a light about them. But other stories twist more in the direction of grasping for power, which is what magic is really all about. The magical world is a manipulative world where, by saying the right words or casting the right spell, I can get what I want for myself. I've also seen rows and racks of fantasy books in stores that veer off into something sensuous and erotic, and there's a darkness about them. This type of thing can go both ways. Fantasy stories can be used well or ill.

Published January 2013

If you found this article interesting, check out Fairest of Them All