In past years, I have given several addresses on the importance and use of fairy tales. My views are based mostly on J.R.R. Tolkien’s famous essay, “On Fairy-Stories.” Tolkien had actually made a scholarly study of fairy tales, which he published between the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. Fairy tales, which also include myth and many other types of fantasy literature, have certain unique characteristics that have a capability to provide healing and comfort to those struggling with stress, separation, and depression. These characteristics include escapism, supernaturalism, and a happy ending. Let’s discuss each of these briefly before turning to the matter of how this helps service members.

Escapism is the quality of temporarily leaving reality by entering into a foreign or fictional world. In Tolkien’s day, the term “escapism” carried certain psychological baggage. Materialists generally argued that the proper duty of mankind was to live in the real world and always have real conversations and experiences. Those constantly escaping from reality suffered from mental illness. This might be true in some extreme cases, but for most people it is a method of coping. After working all day, the first thing most people want to do is escape into a movie, television show, or book. Whether the foreign world is a fictional world, a foreign country, or a historical era, the effect is the same. It immerses the viewer or reader temporarily into a place outside their daily lives. It distracts them from the suffering and stress of their own world. Such a use of escapism is quite healthy and normal.

Supernaturalism is the use of supernatural elements – angels, fairies, magic, or even incredible science – to change the outcome of the story. Typically, the supernatural forces intervene for the good of the characters, but sometimes they are a threat. Once again, some have objected to the use of supernaturalism as a weak plot device that does not accord with reality. Yet the supernatural elements remind us that there are always powers outside of ourselves that protect and help us. All of us feel helpless at times and cry out for someone to save us from our suffering, whether due to separation or death. The supernatural elements in the fictional world of books force us to “suspend disbelief,” as the poet Samuel Coleridge argued, and accept for the sake of the story that there actually are powers outside of ourselves. This is the power of the “fairy” part of fairy tales.

The last element is a happy ending. All fairy tales have a happy ending. “The good end happily, the bad end unhappily. This is what fiction means,” Oscar Wilde once wrote. Tolkien used the term eucatastrophe, which he defined as a sudden plot twist that results in the happy ending. It was a characteristic of all classical fairy tales. The prince marries the princess. The dispossessed son comes into his inheritance. The father comes home from war or is released from prison. The evil stepmother moves to another land. Everything turns out alright in the end. It is what makes the story all worthwhile. In fact, this is one of the reasons that I dislike so intensely modern fiction. Who wants to invest hours reading a book only to have the characters end unhappily? It can sometimes be cathartic, but it often ends up being discouraging if that’s the only kind of story you read. If you want to see people suffering in a story all the time, all you have to do is tune into the news. The fairy tale takes us away from all of that.

Now, there are many types of literature that use some of these elements. Westerns, historical fiction, and even science fiction immerse us in other worlds. Fantasy, myth, legends, and spiritual stories often contain supernatural elements. Some might even argue that futuristic science can provide a supernatural element when it intervenes in a story. There are many types of fiction stories that end happily, although they may lack the sudden eucatastrophe. What is unique about the fairy or fantasy story is the combination of these elements. Few other types of literature can claim the same.

Hopefully, the reader can now see how this benefits service members and their families. During absences, families, and especially children, come under a lot of stress. They often need to escape for a moment from their suffering. They need to know that there are higher powers they can turn to that can help them through their circumstances. They need to know that everything is going to turn out alright in the end and that their families will be united at last. These are critical beliefs to maintain some kind of sanity during deployments. Sometimes counseling can provide these things, but for some people it is ineffective because they already have their walls up by the time they talk to a counselor. Fairy tales work because readers become immersed in the story and let down their guard. It is in such unguarded moments that the suggestions of eventual peace and happiness can make it through. So if your children are having problems due to your absence, try a good book.


© 2017 J.D. Manders


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