If You Listen Carefully, at the End You’ll Be Somebody Else

My grandmother is a storyteller. She has long, curly, red hair and flowers on her jeans. She looks at you like she knows a secret, and she does. If you think you’re too old to sit down and listen to a story from a woman with curly red hair and paint on her shoes, you are taking yourself too seriously. If you believe fairytales are a silly notion that you must abandon in order to become a well-adjusted adult, you are going to make a terrible adult, stunted in imagination and courage.

This is the secret my grandmother knows: there is much more to life than fact. Fairytales can teach us how to be brave in a way that no checklist can. Fictional stories are not a distraction from reality; they are a guide for how to function in our reality. Both the fairytale and our reality are full of pain, fear, and mystery. In The Red Angel, G.K. Chesterton reminds us of the merit of the fairytale, saying, “The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy-tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon…it accustoms him by a series of clear pictures to the idea that these limitless terrors have a limit, that these shapeless enemies have enemies, that these infinite enemies of man have enemies in the knights of God, that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear.”

When was the last time you heard about anyone defeating a dragon?  They still exist as they did in your imagination when you were young, but they look different now. They look like racism, exploitation, poverty, human trafficking, mental illness, sexism. The fact that there is, for example, no guaranteed solace for individuals living with severe schizophrenia or no final solution in sight to abolish child sex slavery proves to me that this world is much more insane than anything I’ve read in a book. And if you think these aren’t the dragons you personally are faced with, you are wrong.  Fairytales teach us that dragons that plague a land are the responsibility of all who inhabit the land. These dragons are to be defeated, not ignored or tolerated. The heroes we read about in stories aren’t just fighting personal dragons; they’re fighting dragons that are terrorizing their kingdom. Our favorite heroes—Bilbo, Frodo, Harry, Hermione, The Pevensies—all come to a point where they have to decide whether to stay in their safe part of the world or to pick up a sword or a wand and respond to the evil they see. Regardless of how these heroes feel, the realization comes that their “safe part of the world” won’t remain safe much longer if they stay. The real heroes know a person can never truly ignore evil. If he or she does, it will only grow.

Fairytales don’t just teach us that we cannot ignore evil, they also show us what slaying a dragon looks like. Slaying dragons is hard. The hero must make a decision that she or he will continue to fight evil each day, even in the mundane or hopeless times. Maybe in our lifetime we will not slay the dragons of poverty or human trafficking, because slaying those dragons might take longer than a lifetime. Maybe defeating evil systems looks like the tiny task of waking up in the morning and deciding to respond to the existence of evil on this earth with something other than despair, bitterness, or complacency. We can wake up in the morning and love the world all over again by partaking in a quiet, consistent faithfulness and hope. Maybe heroism can simply be to love as best we can and hope as best we can, following the Spirit as He makes us aware of the dragons that are in our world and how to respond to them.

Once we find our dragons and begin our fight, fairytales give us a correct view of what victory is. It is difficult to imagine what the final victory for us as Christians will be like. We see small victories all the time: a sick man healed, a broken family restored, a human trafficking victim rehabiliated.  While we wait for the final victory wherein Christ restores all things, it is easy to forget the importance of the small tasks on this earth. As readers, we know Voldemort has to be defeated, and we can see which of Harry’s actions lead to the defeat of Voldemort. For us, it’s more difficult to know the impact of our actions. Living each day in faithfulness to God and with love for our neighbor might not seem like doing anything important at all, but it is this little, daily faithfulness that leads to the true death of the dragon. The historical St. George did not slay a literal dragon: he was martyred in Rome because he refused to renounce Christ. There must have been a thousand opportunities between his conversion and death to choose a different path, but in the face of adversity he continued to choose faithfulness. I wonder if he realized that he was truly slaying the dragon of evil in holding fast to truth until the very end.

This is why fairytales help us in a way that other stories cannot. It is easier to choose love and faithfulness when we see that doing so is a step in the process of defeating dragons. When we can’t see the entire picture of reconciliation and restoration that we as God’s children get to participate in, the fairytale lets us in on someone else’s completed story of reconciliation, and reminds us that our individual lives are part of the story that Christ will complete one day.

At the beginning of Mahabharata, one of the great (initially spoken) Sanskrit epics of ancient India, Vyasa says, “If you listen carefully, at the end you’ll be someone else.” So I encourage you: if you want to be brave, listen. The stories will change you. The heroes will teach you, and you will be empowered with courage and a hope “that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear.”


Troll Valley: The Fairy Tale Grandma Never Told You

Editor’s note: See our interview with Lars Walker here.

Troll Valley is not your grandmother’s fairy tale, though it might be your great-great-great-grandmother’s fairy tale.  From the official synopsis:

Chris Anderson has everything. He’s the son of the richest family in town. He lives in a beautiful, loving home. He even has a fairy godmother. Chris Anderson also has nothing. He was born with a deformed arm, and when he gets angry he sees visions that terrify him. At the turn of the Twentieth Century, in a nation wrestling with faith and science, tradition and change, Chris will be forced to confront his own nature, and learn the meanings of freedom, love, and the grace of God.

If that sounds like a bold vision for a simple and relatively short work of fiction, it is.  But Lars Walker pulls off what few authors can. Especially for an essentially Christian story.  Most of what occupies the Christian Fiction shelf of your local bookstore is sappy, awkward, or just poorly written (like the screenplay of some shmaltzy Hallmark Channel movie).  The “Christian Fiction” of Lars Walker is anything but that. His series of novels about the conversion of the Vikings in the 11th-century is dark, gritty, and often bloody. Troll Valley is a bit tamer (which makes sense, given the lack of Vikings), but it packs the same deep emotional punch. You will be instantly drawn in, and you won’t want to stop until the story’s resolution.

Part of that is due to Walker’s writing ability. He spends a good chunk of the first third of the book describing life and work on a farm in Minnesota, including extended passages just describing food, without ever losing the reader’s interest. Walker also has the fascinating ability to be witty, even humorous, while dealing with the darker aspects of life and the human condition.

And then of course there’s the fairy part of the tale. As in his previous novels, Walker grounds the fantastic elements of the story in such solid realism that he can suddenly blindside you with the supernatural without ever pulling you out of the story or inviting your disbelief. Walker also draws his fantasy from ages past, especially the Norse traditions, rather than the post-Andrew Lang and post-Disney fairy tales that most modern folk now think of. Early in the story, Christian’s fairy godmother (yes, fairy godmother) tells him the tale of “Snow White Rose Red” (a retelling of Snow White, of course), which is as hilarious as it is twisted. Not even Santa Claus is safe from Walker, whose true nature as a powerful Norse spirit is revealed. Finally, the book’s primary antagonists are a group of tiny bearded creatures in red hats (called “red caps”). While that description doesn’t sound particularly frightening, I’m sure, Walker manages to create several intensely menacing scenes with these odd characters (ruining my childhood at the same time).

Near the end of the novel, a character stands up in front of his church and delivers what amounts to a mini sermon on the relationship of faith and works, the Law and the Gospel. In any other work of Christian fiction, this sort of thing would be forced and awkward, quite literally preachy. Not so in Troll Valley. Not only did Walker fully earn this moment, but executed it perfectly. For a Christian reader, it was a powerful and satisfying moment.

At this point you might be asking, “How can a book filled with fairy godmothers and evil little Norse spirits also have powerfully Biblical and evangelical themes?”  Excellent question!

Here’s your answer.