By Dr. Charlie W. Starr
Let’s get one false view out of the way up front—that fairy tales are happy stories and life isn’t happy. Anyone who thinks this hasn’t read many fairy tales. They may end happily ever after, but they begin terribly. Still, what about this idea of the happy ending?
Things don’t always end happily for good people. An average guy stands up against a corporate giant who has stolen his life’s work and loses. Plenty of men never find their sleeping beauty; plenty of women never find their charming prince. But if God causes everything to work for our good (see Romans 8:28), then nothing can lead to a bad ending for those who love him.
Fairy tales have an author, a purpose, and a quest that is clear. The prince knows what he has to do to save his people. The hero knows where he has to go to bring hope. A magical creature appears to the hero to guide his way. Supernatural intrusions keep characters on the right track.
Life, on the other hand, seems to be a whole lot of not knowing what’s next, what to do, what matters, and what our purpose is. There isn’t a wizard, fairy, or talking unicorn around to guide us or work a miracle for us when we need one, and we don’t know if the story is going to end happily. Here I think the problem is one of perception.
Because we know the fairy tale has an author, we tend to think the author is likely to make things turn out okay. Reality has an author too, and he intends the same ending for us—we’re just not looking at it the right way. Magic is more obvious in fairy tales, but Christians have no reason to believe that angels aren’t watching out for us, God doesn’t speak to us, or miracles no longer happen.
The fairy tale ends after we read or watch it, but real life goes on. At the end of a fairy tale, the heroes live happily ever after in that same age and place. In the life you and I know, we may have moments of victory, we may have moments when we conquer evil, but then we go to bed, get up in the morning, and it’s Monday.
However, the only real difference here is one of length. The story is over after we put the book down. The story of our lives, however, keeps going on. So we can often feel cheated when we have a moment of bliss or a great victory, and then something terrible happens in the days that follow. But, again, this is all about perception. The story we’re living is much longer than any book; it’ll take 80 years to finish, and only after that will we get to our happily-ever-after ending.
What fairy tales don’t teach us (with some exceptions) is that we can’t live happily ever after in this world—we have to go on to the next in order to do so. And the doorway to that world is death. For those in Christ, death gives way to new life, and we will truly live happily ever after. But we won’t go back to the life we lived in this world, and that’s the difference between fairy tales and reality.
One more difference is that fairy tales often include the destruction of evil through the power of the hero. He slays the dragon or kills the villain. The Christian vision of the hero includes courage, taking on mighty tasks, and facing evil. But it also includes self-surrender, turning the other cheek, dying to self, facing humiliation for the sake of Christ, taking up one’s cross, and, at its highest, martyrdom. No greater love exists than to give one’s life to save another (John 15:13).
At Gethsemane, even on the cross, Jesus could have destroyed his enemies. He chose to submit to them and die instead. This kind of surrender occurs in fairy tales from time to time, but it is rare.
It’s important to recognize the differences. But it still seems to me that the similarities between fairy tales and reality as God sees it (and we ought to), are greater.
Dr. Charlie W. Starr teaches English, humanities, and film at Kentucky Christian University in Grayson, Kentucky.