Are American Fairy Tales Moralistic? (And If So, Why?)

Are American Fairy Tales Moralistic? (And If So, Why?)

Colleen Gillard wrote an article in The Atlantic discussing the difference between British and American children’s stories. The article (which might be mis-titled, since it’s not really about why British books are better, per say, but more about why British and American stories are what they are) addresses a few interesting topics.

Her basic thesis is that British children’s books tend more towards fantasy. Think Harry Potter, Chronicles of Narnia, The Hobbit, Wind in the Willows, etc. American children’s stories tend more towards moralism. American stories try to teach children what they ought and ought not do.

I have no standing to judge whether that interpretation is correct or not, but I do want to comment on her reasoning behind that interpretation. Gillard claims that American children’s books are moralistic because they came out of a culture founded by the Puritans and seeped in Christianity. The assumption being, of course, that Christianity de-emphasizes imagination and fantasy tales while elevating hard work. Or, as she says, speaking of why the British tell fantasies, “maybe a world not fixated on atonement and moral imperatives is more conducive to a rousing tale.” In an earlier part of the article, she points out several examples of the American tendency:

“Popular storytelling in the New World instead tended to celebrate in words and song the larger-than-life exploits of ordinary men and women: Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, Calamity Jane, even a mule named Sal on the Erie Canal. Out of bragging contests in logging and mining camps came even greater exaggerations—Tall Tales—about the giant lumberjack Paul Bunyan, the twister-riding cowboy Pecos Bill, and that steel-driving man John Henry, who, born a slave, died with a hammer in his hand. All of these characters embodied the American promise: They earned their fame.”

Supposedly, this vision of the American promise is in some way due to the Christian influence on America.

Again, there may be a lot of truth there. I’m not a child psychologist nor am I a mythologist. Yet I do think there is a misrepresentation–however unintentional–of Christianity at play here. See, the Gospel is the exact opposite of what she calls the American promise. The American promise says that “they earned their fame.” The Gospel says that you can’t ever earn your own fame, and if you do it won’t last.

Gillard seems to counter this: “Further, each side has opposing views of naughtiness and children: Pagan babies are born innocent; Christian children are born in sin and need correcting.”

But the Gospel story is the story of a child whose humanity was no different than mine. Yes, the child was God Incarnate, but he was a human child nonetheless. A child saved the world. That sounds far more British than American. Gillard says something similar about British fairy tales:

“Pagan folktales are less about morality and more about characters like the trickster who triumphs through wit and skill: Bilbo Baggins outwits Gollum with a guessing game; the mouse in the The Gruffalo avoids being eaten by tricking a hungry owl and fox. Griswold calls tricksters the “Lords of Misrule” who appeal to a child’s natural desire to subvert authority and celebrate naughtiness: “Children embrace a logic more pagan than adult.” And yet Bateman says in pagan myth it’s the young who possess the qualities needed to confront evil.”

But I would question that conclusion. In British fairy tales, is it really the children who save the world? It certainly isn’t in The Chronicles of Narnia. The children help, but Aslan saves the world. Harry doesn’t defeat Voldemort, in the end. It’s love that defeats Voldemort, a power Harry can’t control, something beyond himself. It isn’t dwarf children who rally and save themselves from Smaug, the evil dragon in The Hobbit. It’s Bilbo, a small, overlooked member of the party who is certainly no child.

Are there exceptions? Of course. Peter Pan seems to follow Gillard’s observations, as do Alice in Wonderland and others.

But the point is this: Christianity, properly understood, might not be so opposed to fairly tales as Gillard seems to imply. In fact, it might be more a fairy tale than much of the American literature Gillard argues it inspired. For isn’t the Gospel the quintessential fairy tale? A child from a far away land comes to fight the dragon and save those trying to fight the dragon on their own. A prince from Somewhere Else arrives to win back his true love from the evil witch who has imprisoned her. A lion becomes a lamb and allows himself to be killed before roaring back to life, defeating evil in the process.

The Gospel is hardly anti-fairy tale because it can’t be. After all, isn’t the Gospel itself, from one perspective, all the greatest fairy tales come true?

Above the Gates of Hell

This is Anthony Esolen, an English professor and Dante scholar/translator, on the inscription above the gates of hell in Dante’s Inferno:

“I have long thought that the most chilling words upon the portal of Hell are not those that shut the door on the fulfillment of human longings: ABANDON ALL HOPE YOU WHO ENTER HERE. These crush with their finality, but they do not possess the shocking irony of the simple signature of the architect: DIVINE OMNIPOTENCE CREATED ME, THE HIGHEST WISDOM, AND THE PRIMAL LOVE. Of course, it is a Trinitarian signature. Still, the sonorous ending on amore, Love, should give us pause. How can Love fashion a realm of groaning and wailing, of utter agony and alienation? Theology can take us far: the just punishment of the wicked, says Thomas, is an act of charity toward them (justice and charity cannot finally be at odds), even when that punishment does not or cannot result in their correction. At the least it restrain them from deeper depravity. One may suppose, too, that punishment respects the dignity of the sinner, to grant him what his own disordered love has merited and has longed for. For such a lover, the only place more agonizing than Hell would be Heaven. Indeed, the one place hotter than Hell is Heaven, as Dante imagines it: without grace, the fires of Love in Paradise would be unendurable. Perhaps, then, the inscription over the gates of Hell is meant to teach as much about Love as about Hell. For Love, as Dante saw, is no mere sentiment, no habit of ease. It is a consuming fire.”

Three Quotes for Christmas

Three Quotes for Christmas

Here are three short passages from a fairy tale, a story, and a prophecy to celebrate Christmas: the day when the fairy tales, stories, and prophecies came true.

From The Lord of the Rings, after Sam is rescued from Mount Doom and wakes up for the first time.

Full memory flooded back, and Sam cried aloud: “It wasn’t a dream! Then where are we?”

And a voice spoke softly behind him: “In the land of Ithilien and in the keeping of the King; and he awaits you.” With that Gandalf stood before him, robed in white, his beard now gleaming like pure snow in the twinkling of the leafy sunlight. “Well, Master Samwise, how do you feel?” he said.

But Sam lay back, and stared with open mouth, and for a moment, between bewilderment and great joy, he could not answer. At last he gasped: “Gandalf! I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue?”

From Andrew Peterson’s song, “Gather Round, Ye Children Come:”

Gather round, ye children come,

Listen to the old, old story,

Of the power of death undone,

By an infant born of glory.

And from Isaiah 42:1-4:

Behold my servant, whom I uphold,
    my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my Spirit upon him;
    he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice,
    or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
    and a faintly burning wick he will not quench;
    he will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not grow faint or be discouraged
    till he has established justice in the earth;
    and the coastlands wait for his law.

The Possibility of Redemption

The Possibility of Redemption

Lest you think I’m going through a voluntary Ancient Classics phase, this is another paper I wrote for school. I’ve enjoyed going through Greek literature, especially seeing the development of various themes. The Aeneid is, of course, Roman literature, but it shares much with Greek culture. This paper picks up on some of the themes of my paper on time and eternity in The Iliad.

Flannery O’Connor once said that, “redemption is meaningless unless there is a cause for it in the actual life we live, and for the last few centuries there has been operating in our culture the secular belief that there is no such cause.” The Biblical story, and indeed many stories throughout history, have viewed redemption of one kind or another as necessary because the world is not the way it ought to be. For example, Marxist revolutionaries believe the world needs redemption, though to them “redemption” is revolution. But the reason they believe this is necessary is a perceived flaw in the world. There are classes, and in Marxism there ought not be.

If there is nothing wrong with the world then there can be no redemption, for what is being redeemed? What is being set right? The Aeneid by Virgil and The Iliad by Homer approach the world in two different ways. Both grant that the world is full of tragedy, but Homer views this tragedy as natural. It is sad but it is not wrong. Virgil views tragedy as pervasive but unnatural. It is everywhere, but it is wrong.

Homer’s philosophy can be most clearly seen when great tragedies occur. When Achilles and Priam are mourning the deaths of friend and son Achilles declares, “the Immortals spun our lives that we, we wretched men/live on to bear such torments–the gods live free of sorrows. (24.613–24.614)” Such fatalism is prevalent throughout the story. Indeed, the entire poem is set in light of “the will of Zeus…moving toward its end. (1.6)”

From this there are a few implications that could be drawn. It’s obvious that the Homeric worldview is fatalistic, but note the response of the characters within the Iliad. Achilles declares determinism, but he doesn’t decry this as fundamentally wrong, unfair, or unnatural. To put it simply, it’s just this way.

When Hector bids goodbye to wife and son he expresses his certainty that Troy will fall, but there is nothing wrong with this. It is tragic, but it is not wrong. But on further examination, of course this is the way it is. The Homeric mythos tells us that the Fates have predetermined everything from the beginning. What they decree is reality. Everything that happens must ultimately be natural because there is nothing else. There is no transcendent standard of “natural,” no Edenic paradise to appeal to. There is nothing to compare this world with.

Virgil paints a different picture, again most evident in tragedy. Take, for example, the story of Nisus’ and Euryalus’ slaughter of Turnus’ troops. These two young soldiers venture out, seized with courage, to slaughter the Latian troops while they lie drunk. After killing many soldiers they are themselves seen and killed. Turnus plants their heads on stakes as they attack Aeneas’ troops the next day. What is the reaction of the Trojans? Think, for a moment, what the reaction would be in Homer’s world. The Trojans would be saddened. They would weep, perhaps they would swear revenge. But they would not be shocked, and they would feel no deep-seeded “wrongness” in the event.

“On the rampart’s left wing–the river flanks the right–

the hardened troops of Aeneas group in battle order,

Facing enemy lines and manning the broad trench

Or stationed up on the towers–wrung with sorrow,

Men stunned by the sight of men they know too well. (9.536–9.541)”

This is not the Homeric response. There is shock and horror here. A similar reaction occurs when Aeneas encounters Dido in Hades. For the first time he realizes her demise and responds with nothing less than agony, declaring that he never intended to hurt her in this way (6.521–553). Virgil even describes her death as an “unjust fate (6.552).”

To put it simply, something is wrong in Virgil’s world. Aeneas shouldn’t be searching for a home, Creusa shouldn’t be killed, Dido shouldn’t be wracked with suicidal grief. This is not the way the world ought to be.

This leads to a large difference between the Homeric and Virgillian approaches to tragedy. Homer views it as natural, Virgil as unnatural. Homer views it as amoral, Virgil as immoral. Homer’s characters expect it, Virgil’s are shocked by it. Both writers recognize that tragedy is, in fact, tragic, but only one recognizes that tragedy is wrong.

But this is far more than a simple philosophical difference. Why does The Iliad have no happy ending? Why is injustice not avenged? Why does the war continue? Perhaps it’s because Homer simply decided against ending the war. But, might there be no happy ending because there can’t be? After all, if there were true peace then there would be an ideal with which to compare the horror of war. Tragedy would be tried and found wanting–peace would be declared “right” and war “wrong.” Homer can’t write a happy ending in The Iliad because the Iliad’s worldview doesn’t allow for happy endings. Or, to put it differently, The Iliad has the happiest ending possible within its worldview.

Why can Virgil end his story with the restoration of justice? Because there is injustice. Aberrations can be remedied, errors can be fixed, wrongs can be righted. But if there is no aberration, no error, and no wrong then there can be no solution. Justice can’t be restored because injustice never occurred.

In terms that O’Connor might like, the beauty of redemption is possible because of the horror of the fall. There has to be a need for redemption or the term is meaningless. Virgil’s world has that need, Homer’s does not. Or, to put it another way, Virgil can hope for restoration, Homer cannot.

A Simple Story Told Well: Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur

the-good-dinosaur-storyPeople expect a lot from Pixar movies. They expect them to be visually amazing, emotionally compelling and engaging for all ages. They expect them to deal with serious themes, to confront hard topics head-on, and to leave viewers thinking. When a Pixar movie does something less than that, it’s normally panned.

The problem is that sometimes stories don’t need that. They don’t need to have deep themes or intense emotions. Sometimes simple stories are enough.

Let’s be clear: I didn’t think The Good Dinosaur was great. It isn’t another Up, and it isn’t even another Inside-Out. But it is good, and it is worth watching.

The story follows Arlo, a young dinosaur who, after his father dies, sets out to make his mark on the world. The mark metaphor is given a tangible manifestation in a tower that Arlo’s dad built before he died. On the tower are the pawprints of his father and mother, and two siblings, all of whom have “made their mark.” Arlo wants his pawprint to join theirs.

Here, I feel, is the biggest difference between The Good Dinosaur and the majority of Pixar movies. The characters in most Pixar movies have tangible goals–Carl wants to get to Paradise Falls, Woody and Buzz want to get back to Andy, Joy wants to get back to headquarters so she can solve everything–but those goals are tweaked. Round-about halfway through many Pixar movies, the goals change. The change is subtle, but its real.

Often it comes through the main character realizing that they’re pursuing the goal improperly, or have misunderstood its significance. Carl realizes that getting to Paradise Falls, while perfectly fine, is really a refusal to move on and love someone else. Woody and Buzz realize, in Toy Story 3, at least, that they shouldn’t trying to get back to Andy, but to get back to some child. Joy realizes she can’t solve the problems, Sadness has to.

Nothing like that ever happens in The Good Dinosaur. Arlo tries to make his mark. That’s the movie.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with that. But going in you, the viewer, have to understand it. I don’t think this is Pixar’s deepest movie. It’s a simple movie about a young dinosaur trying to make his mark and teaching a cave-boy about the importance of family along the way.

The animation is gorgeous, the scene where Arlo tries to explain family without words (since Spot, the cave boy, can’t speak) is touching, and the animation is gorgeous. Did I mention the animation is gorgeous?

Simply put, The Good Dinosaur is good. It’s simple, it’s well told, and that’s it. There’s nothing wrong with that, and it can be enjoyable as long as you know what to expect going in.

Light Which Space Cannot Contain

“But when I love You, what do I love? It is not physical beauty nor temporal glory nor the brightness of light dear to earthly eyes, nor the sweet melodies of all kinds of songs, nor the gentle odor of flowers and ointments and perfumes, nor manna or honey, nor limbs welcoming the embraces of the flesh; it is not these I love when I love my God. Yet there is a light I love, and a food, and a kind of embrace when I love my God–a light, voice, odor, food, embrace of my inner man, where my soul is floodlit by light which space cannot contain, where there is sound that time cannot seize, where there is a perfume which no breeze disperses, where there is a taste for food no amount of eating can lessen, and where there is a bond of union that no satiety can part. That is what I love when I love my God.” –St. Augustine, The Confessions

Right Now Is All That Matters, or, Eternity and the Present in The Iliad

Right Now Is All That Matters, or, Eternity and the Present in The Iliad

This post is a paper I wrote for school, hence the more formal tone.

First John begins with a startling juxtaposition. “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life… (1 John 1:1)” The juxtaposition is this: that the eternal being who “was from the beginning,” has entered time and space and is the Word of life who tells us that “our joy may be complete. (1 John 1:4)” The Gospel presents a hopeful world in part because it declares that there is something beyond the here and the now–eternal life coming from the eternal Savior Jesus Christ.

The Greek epic The Iliad displays a different world, one in which hope is fleeting and tragedy is the only inevitability. This despair is a major theme within The Iliad and it stems from the Homeric concept that there is nothing beyond the here and the now. Against this, the Christian worldview provides a deep and lasting comfort.

As W.H. Auden says, “The world of Homer is unbearably sad because it never transcends the immediate moment.” Auden is right, of course, but there is a nuance to add. Within the Homeric worldview, the gods do transcend the present. Despair stems from the fact that no human can hope to achieve this same transcendence. Auden calls this a tragic “flaw in the nature of existence.” What, exactly, is this flaw? Why does the worldview of The Iliad lead to such despair? What, if anything, does Christianity offer to the characters of The Iliad?

The problem becomes evident in the 6th line of the poem. Homer says that the violence and death caused by the rage of Achilles was “the will of Zeus…moving toward its end. (1.6)” From the outset the poem is set in light of Zeus’ final plan. What happens is ultimately due to the orchestration of the gods.

But as the rest of the poem displays, this is not new information to any character. Greek and Trojan culture has a fatalistic outlook. The characters toil and fight for their cause all the while knowing they are subject to the whims and wishes of the gods. Agamemnon is forced to retreat during a rampage because, “Zeus who rules the world/forbids me to battle Trojans all day long. (11.324­–11.325)” Glaucus before plunging into battle, declares,

“Ah my friend, if you and I could escape this fray

and live forever, never a trace of age, immortal,

I would never fight on the front lines again

or command you to the field where men win fame.

But now, as it is, the fates of death await us,

thousands poised to strike, and not a man alive

can flee them or escape… (12.374–12.380)”

Neither Glaucus nor Agamemnon hope to escape the fate of the gods. They do not hope because they cannot. Zeus’ plan will be accomplished regardless of their actions, and fate will have its way. Though they yearn for peace and life they can have none because they are trapped by their mortality. Their lives–with all their hopes, dreams, fears, and joys–are mere pawns in the hands of the gods.

Perhaps this is nowhere more poignantly evident than at the death of Hector. Athena deceives him into believing that a Trojan warrior, Deiphobus, is by his side as he charges the raging Achilles. She disguises herself as Deiphobus and claims to have come to help him because “the heart within me broke with grief for you. (22.288)” She urges him on, promising to fight side by side against Achilles. Emboldened by this promise Hector charges, but when he calls to Deiphobus for another spear to throw at Achilles, Deiphobus is nowhere to be found.

“yes, and Hector knew the truth in his heart

and the fighter cried aloud, ‘My time has come!

At last the gods have called me down to death.

I thought he was at my side, the hero Deiphobus–

he’s safe inside the walls, Athena’s tricked me blind.

And now death, grim death is looming up beside me. (22.349–22.354)”

Why can’t Hector simply turn and run? He answers the question.


this was their pleasure after all, sealed long ago–

Zeus and the son of Zeus, the distant deadly Archer–

though often before now they rushed to my defense.

So now I meet my doom. (22.355–22.359)”

The moment is charged with despair and tragedy. Hector all alone, the bloodthirsty and near-unstoppable Achilles approaching, is deceived by the gods he worships. He has no chance of escape. Death surrounds him, and his only prayer is that his battle with Achilles will be remembered.

John’s gospel begins similarly to his first letter. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (John 1:1)” The characters in The Iliad would share this idea. There are gods who exist immortally. There is something beyond the here and the now. But the Greek and Trojan worldview lacks what comes next.

“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. (John 1:14)” Their worldview lacks any hope that they can transcend the present moment, or that they can be rescued from the fate that controls their every move. As Auden says, in this world “one is happy, one is unhappy, one wins, one loses, finally one dies. That is all. (Auden 18)” Within the Homeric worldview mortals are locked in their mortality. They cannot escape it. They must fight with everything in them to be remembered for there is nothing more that they can do. The immortals are comfortable to watch at a distance without offering a way of escape. While the gods work within the here and the now, they never enter it, so to speak. They never subject themselves to it. The eternal and the temporal remain two separate realms. One does not enter the other.

Homer scholar Margo Kitts points out the small comfort offered by this worldview. Commenting on the death of Hector she says, “Hector immediately grasps that he was tricked by Athene and that the gods are calling his death (22.297 – 299), but he heroically faces his fate, at least briefly (22.303 – 305).” In the face of this fatalism Homer offers “divine and human care as some small compensation for the lack of human autonomy and for the constraints of fate.”

But this is fickle hope. Divine care is no more than a whim, as another writer observes.

“For while men often petition their gods for favor, few mortals actually confidently expect their god’s beneficence. A man is happy to receive the kindness or protection of the gods, but is not surprised if the gods do not respond, or indeed if those same gods choose deliberately to harm him.”

The Iliad itself reveals that human care is no better. When Hector speaks to Andromache after returning from the battle she pleads with him to stay within Troy. Hector refuses, knowing first that he must defend his wife and son, but also that he has no hope for victory or survival (6.481–6.600). All too soon his care will pass away.

This is the flaw in the nature of existence that leads to such unbearable tragedy. To return to First John, the Greek gods are “from the beginning,” but they have not been heard or seen or touched, and they certainly offer no word of life to complete the joy of mortals.

This is not to say that Greek culture is deistic. On the contrary, the gods are extremely involved in everyday life. But the gods never subject themselves to the here and now. They are bemused spectators who, at best, jump into the fray for fun. Even proud Achilles understands this: “the Immortals spun our lives that we, we wretched men/ live on to bear such torments–the gods live free of sorrows. (24.613–24.614)” This is a worldview devoid of lasting hope. The eternal sits comfortably to the side, and no temporal being can ever transcend the present.

Christianity offers an antidote to this despair because it declares that the eternal has entered the temporal. Current circumstances are not the sum total of human existence because the Word has offered the words of life. Jesus says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. (Matthew 11:28)” Mortality is not an inescapable trap within Christianity. There is no need to fight to be remembered because eternal life can be gained.

The Iliad recounts a terrible war. The Homeric worldview offers no hope to anyone within the war. If they do not win glory they will be forgotten. They cannot transcend this moment of battle. Christianity offers a radically different hope. It declares that eternity has entered history and a greater war has been won. Now, for those who follow Jesus, there is hope beyond this moment–hope that tragedy will give way to joy, that suffering will be conquered by happiness, that death will surrender before life.