Fairy Stories in a Secular Age

The Grey Havens, by Alan Lee

The Grey Havens, by Alan Lee

Charles Taylor wrote that we live in the secular age.

In his gigantic tome, Taylor does his best to "sketch the modern consciousness"; what it feels to live, move, breath, and hope in this world of ours. Taylor says that our view of the world is marked by secularity in three distinct areas of our experience.

Natural world: it is a machine.

Self: isolated from deep connections, community, and narrative meaning.

Time: no sense of meaning or arch.

Charles Taylor calls this the “Immanent Frame.” By this he means that our experiences in the secular age are enclosed by the idea that immanence is all there is… that there is no such thing as transcendence.

We instinctively feel this is wrong, that there is more to life and reality than this grey picture of the world. In the words of Chesterton, it appears that “they have explained the whole world and the whole world is not worth explaining.” So we experience what Taylor calls “Hauntedness”… the feeling that there is much, much more in the world.

But, our experience is so shaped and contained by the immanent frame, by the persistent feeling that the immanent is all there is, how would we even begin to get out of it?

As a Christian, of course I think there is much, much more beyond the walls of this world. But sometimes we need help along the way. We may be stuck in the immanent frame, but it is like a window: we can see beyond it. We just need help smashing the window.

Fairy stories help us do that!

This week's podcast looks at how fairy tales can help us reshape our experience of nature, self, and time.

1. Literary : The Man Who Was Thursday

Gk chesterton


journalist, essayist, novelist.

journalist, essayist, novelist.

These tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found out they were green. They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember for one wild moment, that they run with water.
— Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton
Chesterton wanted his literature to help people encounter the wonder and strangeness of being alive. He does this particularly well in his bizarre novel The Man Who Was Thursday. In this book, he disorients the reader in ordinary moments to reorient them to the splendidness of life.
The Man Who Was Thursday.jpg

chapter one...

All heaven seemed covered with a quite vivid and palpable plumage; you could only say that the sky was full of feathers, and of feathers that almost brushed the face. Across the great part of the dome they were grey, with the strangest tints of violet and mauve and an unnatural pink or pale green; but towards the west the whole grew past description, transparent and passionate, and the last red hot plumes off it covered up the sun like something too good to be see. The whole scene was close about the earth as to express nothing but a violent secrecy. The very empyrean seemed to be a secret. It expressed that splendid smallness which is the soul of local patriotism. The very sky seemed small.

By describing an ordinary, if beautiful, happening in the natural world (a sunset) in this violent, strange manner, he reminds how wondrous this ordinary experience is. He shocks us out of complacency.

And this is surely true of our world: read about physics and you’ll realise the world is much more like Chesterton’s description than a bland and mechanistic, flat scientism would indicate.

By the fairy world operating by rules of its own, it reminds us that our own world is charged with mystery and intrigue and beauty.

A chip in the immanent frame!

2. Musical: Dear Wormwood

The oh hellos

Oh hellos.jpeg

There is beauty in the way of things...

This album recounts the journey of a person making decisions about their life. But in opposition to the individualistic, isolated self experienced in the immanent frame, this album presents a dynamic, connected self whose decisions are accountable to a higher power and narrative.

It places an ordinary person in the context of myth. 

It does this by...

1. Narrative: casting the story of an ordinary person in the language of myth.

2. Music: casts an emotional and environmental spell

Dear Wormwood
By Oh Hellos

3. Visual: The Lord of the Rings

In Lord of the Rings, almost every single character comes up to the edge of doom, and of death, and has to decide if living well and righteously is still worth it. And the thing which moves the brave ones forward is hope. Tolkien believed that hope was one of the gifts that fairy stories can give us through the eucatastrophe: the good ending.

Eucatastrophe: The good catastrophe, the good turn in the story.

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
Starring Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Liv Tyler, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin

In fairy stories, we encounter the idea that our lives are a story, that it could mean something, that our actions have eternal consequences, that we have reason to hope. This is the greatest blow to the immanent frame.

The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending; or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially “escapist,” nor “fugitive.” In its fairy-tale — or otherworld — setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.
— J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy Stories.

I hope you enjoyed this week's podcast. Don't forget to subscribe on iTunes!

May your week be full of Eucatastrophes. And may you know the hope of the ultimate Eucatastrophe!



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I am honoured to be joined by my friend Boze Herrington. Boze has a brilliant mind, a delightful wit, and a kind heart. He writes historical fiction and mystery novels. His writing has been featured in many prominent publications including the Atlantic and the Guardian. He is perhaps best known on the internet for his twitter account "Sketches by Boze"s (a clever pun for Dickens lovers) where his tweets could delight and amuse any literature and imagination loving heart. The best place to get to know him is through his twitter which you can find at the link below.

Many of the works mentioned in today's podcast are free online. Check out the links below.

Joy Clarkson2 Comments