In the previous two installments of this series, I discussed how God gave us the instinct to create. The stories we tell our children give them the courage to face the dragons they’ll meet someday—but they’re not the only ones who need courage like that.
The world didn’t get less scary as I got older. Of course, I eventually discovered that there were rational explanations for rattling windows and shadows reaching up onto the walls, but sometimes the reality behind things is scarier than the fantasy. As a kid, I cowered under my pink-and-purple comforter fearing witches, sea monsters, and spiders. These days, every time I turn on the news I feel like doing the exact same thing.
There are those who say that fairy tales are a clever form of escapism. To some extent, our generation has owned that by claiming that books give us the chance to escape the reality we sometimes can’t face.
I don’t think fiction is escapism. In the words of J.R.R. Tolkien, “Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it.”
A good story can tear your heart out. Lives are broken, treasures are lost, and sometimes those we care about the most never make it to the end. But the best kind of stories, the really, really good ones, always have satisfying endings.
No, I don’t mean happy. Not all stories end happily, but the good ones end well. Things are lost along the way. That’s how life is. But in the final pages, the hero learns something valuable from this loss, and through it is able to appreciate what he’s gained.
Sometimes our lives are dark and scary, too. But why should the comparison to a fairy tale end there? We were made for something better—a light at the end of the tunnel, so to speak. In this way, good stories are echoes of reality. They whisper to us that death is not the end—that someday, there’s more. There’s a path that leads to the good ending.
“It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were, and sometimes you didn’t want to know the end, because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was after so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness will pass. A new day will come, and when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those are the stories that stayed with you, that meant something, even if you were too small to understand why.” (Sam Gamgee, movie version of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers)
The so-called “real world” would tell us otherwise. It would tell us that death is the end of everything, and that the meaning of life is whatever we make it.
I think that’s a lie. In stories we see the truth. Ironic as it seems, in stories we often see what is truly real.
“And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.” (The Last Battle, C.S. Lewis)
See, my disappointment at the end of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader was remedied eventually. Lucy, Edmund, Peter, Jill, Eustace, Polly and Digory did make one last journey to the land of their dreams—and found eternal adventures beyond all imagining. Their story gives me the hope that someday I’ll reach “Chapter One of the Great Story,” too.
I guess in a way, stories do help us escape. They help us escape the fears of pain, meaninglessness, and death. We were made for another world. Why is it so strange that we’re also predisposed to imagine them?