Tell Me a Story
I have always loved fairy stories. When I was younger, my mother passed on to me her 1967 copy of The World’s Best Fairy Tales printed by Reader’s Digest. It was an 800-page, red book with gilded pages, and I read it so much that the binding began to fall apart, and the pages lost all their gold edging. It had all the old favorites: The Little Mermaid, Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, Snow White, Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty, Twelve Dancing Princesses. It also had stranger, lesser known stories that I found fascinating: The Goose-Girl, The Colony of Cats, Little One Eye, Little Two Eyes, and Little Three Eyes, Bluebeard, and The Red Shoes. The stories were beautifully re-told using the original, typically more grim details and plotlines (as opposed to the glossy, tamed Disney versions), and each story had a single, old-fashioned illustration.
I also fell in love with C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia and J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, becoming totally immersed in their worlds. When I was 10 or so, the first of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series came out, and I devoured those, as well. Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted, Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain series, and Edith Hamilton’s Mythology were also favorites that I read and re-read ad nauseum.
I created my own fantasy world mixing parts of all these other worlds and named it Ttelweh. I spent hours playing outdoors in the woods and creek behind our house, pilfering my father’s machete to hack trails through the undergrowth and aiming at tree trunks with a bow and arrow. I picked my mother’s flower beds bare, turning flowers upside down to pretend they were fairies, imagining their delicate petals were beautiful dresses. On the rare occasions I was indoors, I spent my time drawing maps, developing a special language, and writing Ttelweh’s history and mythology, my work, in my young mind at least, rivaling Tolkien’s The Silmarillion in detail and girth.
I wished so ardently that these stories were true. The real world seemed dull and lifeless: dirty and industrialized, an endless drudgery with no cohesive aim, point, or unifying themes. There was no beautiful story arc tying us all together, ending in a satisfying triumph of good over evil. Instead, it seemed to me, even from a young age, that we were all just disconnected individuals, struggling along alone amid chaos, going nowhere.
And yet, every now and again, whatever veil that separated our world from those more fantastical realms seemed to grow momentarily thin, and glimmers of another reality briefly peeped through. I would catch a glimpse of something beautiful – perhaps a single ray of sunshine, a clump of ferns faintly stirred by a breath of wind, a mossy bank – and I would imagine that if I could just reach that place at that exact, perfect moment, I would fall through a portal into another world. But no matter how quickly I moved, as soon as I reach that spot, whatever faint magic had glimmered would dissipate, and it became nothing more than another, ordinary backyard in south Alabama.
I grew older, entering my teenage years, and those glimpses behind the veil became harder to discern amidst the noise of the world. I left Ttelweh behind. By the time I entered my freshman year of college, it had been years since I read anything deeper than Cosmo magazine, and the characters of those books comprising the shallow “sex and shopping” genre became my literary companions and idols. I traded magic potions for cheap alcohol, tales of true love for lust, and Aslan’s deep magic for parlor tricks: parties, designer clothes, popularity. Endlessly searching for something real to grab on to, I bought in to the lies of the world, believing that the fantasy worlds of my youth were only that: mere fantasy.
Like Susan Pevensie in The Chronicles of Narnia, I was “interested in nothing now-a-days except nylons and lipstick and invitations.” Those friends who remained deeply religious I thought boring and dull. "What wonderful memories you have! Fancy you still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children," Susan says in The Last Battle, echoing my own thoughts. As Polly Plummer says of Susan, "She wasted all her school time wanting to be the age she is now, and she'll waste all the rest of her life trying to stay that age. Her whole idea is to race on to the silliest time of one's life as quick as she can and then stop there as long as she can."
The old feeling in myself, however, that something magic was just around the corner, barely out of reach, never left. It took eleven years and a great deal of heartache along the way, but I finally did reach that magic portal: in the Catholic Church. In her, I recognized all that I loved so much about the old fairy stories and ancient myths. Truth, Beauty, and Goodness, the familiar themes of self-sacrifice and good triumphing over evil, and the well-trodden story lines of unlikely heroes defeating dragons despite terrible odds were all there, told as one seamless love story. Except this story was no mere fantasy, and the Truth was even better than I could have imagined.
Lewis wrote of his character, Susan: “The books don't tell us what happened to Susan. She is left alive in this world at the end, having by then turned into a rather silly, conceited young woman. But there's plenty of time for her to mend and perhaps she will get to Aslan's country in the end... in her own way.” (From Lewis’s Letters to Children, 22 January 1957, to Martin). A real-life Susan, I had, indeed, found my way back to Aslan’s country, in my own way.
What was it about the fairy stories that spoke to me so forcefully as a child and called me still as an adult? And not just me, but countless humans throughout the ages, from the dawn of time? What is it that makes these tales and archetypes so compelling? Even more interesting, how is that so many of these tales contain great similarities that seem to defy time and culture?
For example, every culture has some form of myth describing the creation and eventual destruction of the world (known as the Cosmogonic Cycle). The Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh and the Mayans both tell stories that greatly resemble the Biblical account of the Flood. Hindu, Norse, and Greek mythology have tales of gods disguising themselves as men to enact justice. The ancient Egyptians, Sumerians, and Romans all have resurrection myths that contain striking parallels to Christ’s resurrection at Easter. In fact, Joseph Campell dedicated an entire book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, to this idea of comparative mythology, chronicling the “Hero’s Journey” and the Cosmogonic Cycle as a universal motif.
Reflecting on this, it would seem that there are no new stories. In fact, I would go even farther and suggest that there are no “stories” at all. Instead, there is really only one story, the greatest story, and it is the Christian story of salvation. Of course, the details vary greatly among the countless man-made iterations of the One Story. But what makes any iteration of the One Story great – what makes it a classic, an epic, a tale that stands the test of time – depends solely on the degree to which it reflects the Truth, Beauty, and Goodness of the One Story.
Atheists, of course, will use these facts in reverse, arguing instead that the existence of strong parallels between ancient myths and Christianity show that Christianity itself is nothing more than just another myth and an amalgamation of the sorts of tales humans have been telling for eons. I suggest, however, that these earliest myths were simply an attempt to describe and satiate that God-shaped hole that lies within each of our very beings, and these earliest myths were humanity’s way of groping for Him in the dark. The degree to which they guessed correctly is a grace from the Author of the One Story, preparing mankind’s hearts to recognize the Truth in the One Story as it unfolded.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms that man can come to some sense of God through the use of natural reason alone, for “[t]he desire for God is written in the human heart, because man is created by God for God” (CCC, no. 27). St. Augustine knew this well, exhorting his listeners to “[q]uestion the beauty of the earth, question the beauty of the sea . . . question the beauty of the sky. . . . All respond, ‘See, we are beautiful.’ Their beauty is a profession. These beauties are subject to change. Who made them if not the Beautiful One who is not subject to change?” (St. Augustine, Sermon 241, no. 2). “In many ways, throughout history down to the present day, men have given expression to their quest for God in their religious beliefs and behavior: in their prayers, sacrifices, rituals, meditations, and so forth. These forms of religious expression, despite the ambiguities they often bring with them, are so universal that one may well call man a religious being.” (CCC, no. 28). I suggest here that men have given expression to their quest for God in their stories, as well.
In 1931, C.S. Lewis arrived at this same conclusion – that all stories are simply iterations of the One Story – with the help of his friends J.R.R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson. In fact, it was this idea that finally convinced Lewis, an atheist from the age of 15, of the Truth of Christianity. Lewis wrote in a letter to his friend, Arthur Greeves, “Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened: and one must be content to accept it in the same way, remembering that it is God’s myth where the others are men’s myths.” (Lewis’s Letters, 18 October 1931, to Greeves).
The One Story is True, and the Author was calling to me through the stories of my childhood, preparing my heart for something even greater. Now when I catch glimpses of another world in the world around me, I know that it is not magic, it is grace. And instead of a mere portal, I see the Author, Himself. We aren’t lone ships, passing in the night, as I had feared from a young age. We are all woven together in this One Story, and we each have a part to play. Though we may be buffeted by terrible storms, there is a point to it all, and there is a satisfying ending. Good will triumph over evil. If you have strayed into foreign lands as Susan and I did, let me invite you now to come back home to Aslan’s country. Let me tell you a story.