Sunday, October 9, 2011

“Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to Be Said”

Today I’m attending a girl’s rite of passage. The girl’s mother invited each guest to counsel or encourage her daughter through any number of written forms. What about a fairy tail? Having loved them all my life, but having never written one, I visited an expert through his essay titled as above.

C.S. Lewis begins with a distinction between the author as Author and the author as Man.
In short, the Author is the artist and the Man is the critic. Each has his reason for writing an imaginative work. If only one is present, the book will not be written. If the first is lacking, it cannot. If the second, it should not.

The Author’s mind bubbles with story material. The ferment longs for a Form. The boil paws to get out, nags all day, gets in the way of eating and sleeping. It looks like being in love.

The Man turns down the heat. Perhaps gratifying this impulse will not fit in with all his other wants and responsibilities. Perhaps the project is too frivolous and trivial from the Man’s point of view. Or perhaps, best of all, it is good and edifying in every sense.

If the Man consents to the Author, the next question is what Form to give the story. Lewis’s mind bubbled with mental pictures—a faun in the snow, a queen on a sledge, a magnificent lion. These images began to sort themselves into events demanding no love interest and no close psychology. The Fairy Tale was the Form that excludes these. “And the moment I thought of that, I fell in love with the Form itself; its brevity, its severe restraints on description, its flexible traditionalism, its inflexible hostility to all analysis, digression, reflections, and ‘gas’” (p. 37). Even its limitations on vocabulary attracted him as does the hardness of stone, a sculptor or the difficulty of a sonnet, a sonneteer. The Author in Lewis was having a fine time.

But the Man in Lewis had his turn. Was the story worth the time and pain? Could it be edifying and good? He thought yes: stories of this kind might help him “steal past” his inability in childhood to feel about God and the sufferings of Christ as he had been told he ought to feel. He believed there were others who were likewise paralyzed, even as adults. Lewis believed that casting the whole subject of Christianity into an imaginary world and stripping away Sunday School associations might allow God and His Christ to appear in their real potency. The Man had his reason for moving forward, but these would not have occurred without the ardor of the Author.

This was not popular thought in Lewis’s time. The Fairy Tale had been relegated to children’s literature as old furniture, to the children’s nursery, not because the children like it but because the adults ceased to like it. But since Lewis never spoke down to children and never wrote below adult attention Lewis’s fairy tales garnered delighted readers of all ages.

The Fairy Tale may say best what’s to be said: “At all ages, if it is well used by the author and meets the right reader it has…power [to overcome inhibitions]: to generalize while remaining concrete, to present in palpable form not concepts or even experiences but whole classes of experience, and to throw off irrelevancies. But at its best it can do more; it can give us experiences we have never had and thus, instead of ‘commenting on life’, can add to it” (p. 38).

So while the Author in me stirs a boiling brew, the (Wo)Man in me paces the floor.

Sound familiar?

Lewis, C.S. “The Fairy Tale May Say Best What’s to Be Said.” Of Other Worlds: Essays and Other Stories. Ed. Walter Hooper. London: Geoffrey Bles, Ltd., 1966.


  1. Weird, we both used the same quote (my post yesterday has the C.S. Lewis quote lol). Good post :)

  2. In your first paragraph, do you really mean "tail"? Is that you thinking tail instead of perhaps TALE, or the young girl's mother's misspelling? A bit confusing. . . Anyhow, being a life-long C.S. Lewis fan, I read on. GREAT use of his Fairy Tale essay! Thanks for the inspiring reminders!
    Gramma of an 8-year old g'daughter whose favorite stories are fairy tales :-)