Years ago I was helping out in a Sunday School class, and the teacher asked the boys and girls what I thought was an unfortunate question.
The Scripture passage that morning was from Joshua 3, when the priests carry the Ark of the Covenant into the Jordan and the river stops flowing so God’s people can slip into Canaan. The text actually says the waters stood “in a heap.” The people cross on dry land, according to God’s promise and Joshua’s prophecy. I remember standing there in the back of the classroom listening through the children’s ears to a story I’d heard dozens of times, when I found myself gobsmacked by craziness of it, by all those little details that make Scripture so compelling, so uncategorizable. The kids were paying close attention. The room was pregnant with awe. Then the teacher closed his Bible and asked, “Now, children, what are some rivers you have had to cross? How have you had to trust God like the Israelites did?” All at once, the spell was broken.
I had to hold my tongue, because I wanted to wave my hands and say, “Wait, wait! Can we just take a second and think about the fact that God dried up a river? That its waters stood in a heap? Isn’t that amazing? What does a heap of water look like, anyway?” Can’t the story, in other words, do its own work on us before we start applying it like good boys and girls? Of course there’s nothing wrong with application. But there is something wrong with turning a miracle into an object lesson before you’ve had a chance to consider the gobsmacking wonder of it.
The same is true of the best fairy tales. I don’t mean to say that they’re factual in the way Joshua 3 is factual. After all, part of the power of that story is that it actually happened. But when a child hears a fairy tale, they take it as seriously as fact. The first time I read from my own books at an elementary school I was unprepared for the earnestness of the kids’ questions, the way their brains seemed to crackle when I told them about the weird creatures and mysterious magic, the way their faces scrunched up when they detected some apparent inconsistency because I had left out a crucial detail. None of my grownup friends were half as inquisitive or shrewd about the world, about the characters, about the bad guys. Kids know how to read a story. They believe it—or at least they instinctively suspend their disbelief. Grownups have to try twice as hard to open themselves to a story because the soul-muscle of wonder has atrophied. We read to know, not to experience. We apply. And in doing so, we protect ourselves from being gobsmacked—or enchanted, or frightened, or awed, or moved to tears without knowing why.
Kids know how to read a story. They believe it—or at least they instinctively suspend their disbelief. Andrew Peterson
As important as it is to remain childlike when reading a fairy tale, it’s just as important when you’re writing one. When Madeline L’Engle talks about “serving the work,” she means allowing the story to grow into what it wants to be. We aren’t meant to lord our will over a story, but to nurse it into being, then to let it loose to play in the woods of imagination. Only then can it surprise us with that zing of delight and discovery that reminds the author that making is mystery. George MacDonald demonstrates that as well as anybody. His tales are as wild as the Scottish Highlands, as untame as his bushy beard, and though it can be a little disorienting to a modern reader, MacDonald’s fatherly voice is ever present, full of kindness and wisdom. It doesn’t always feel like he knows where he’s going, but you do get the sense that he’s being led. C. S. Lewis said that hardly any other writer “seems to be closer, or more continuously close, to the Spirit of Christ Himself.” If that’s true it explains a lot, because the Spirit of Christ is untame, too. Jesus said in John 3:8, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you can’t tell where it comes from or where it’s going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” Old George believed God loved him, and wanted you to know that God loves you, too. Love is the wind that blows through these stories, and love doesn’t always make sense to us. It goes where it pleases.
The Light Princess reminds us that the world is an unsettling place, and mystery clouds the corners of our days. That means strange and terrible things are bound to happen, whooshing in from the dark periphery without warning—like a witch’s curse, or one of the White Snakes of Darkness. But mystery also means that grace and light can come whooshing in, too, so you might as well keep an eye out. You might as well hope for a prince to wander in, fall in love with you, and lay down his life to make you whole, even though you don’t deserve it.
Well, that’s an unfortunate turn. I accidentally applied the story, didn’t I?
But I was gobsmacked first.