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.”