I stumbled across the following quote last summer, and it has been rattling around my brain ever since:
"Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already . . . Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon. Exactly what the fairy tale does is this: it accustoms him with a series of clear pictures to the idea that these limitless terrors have a limit, that these shapeless enemies have enemies in the knights of God, that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear." - GK Chesterton, Tremendous Trifles (emphasis added)The first reason I couldn't get this quote out of my head is that Mr. Chesterton summarized my thoughts on fairy tales (and, for that matter, great fantasy in general) much more eloquently than I ever could've put it. But the second reason that I couldn't forget it is because of the example he uses. St. George is one of those stories that I know any good bookworm with an interest in history, religion, fantasy, and myth really ought to be familiar with (on about the same order as the Arthurian legends) and yet the only thing I knew about it a year ago was that a.) George fights a dragon, and b.) I really ought to become acquainted with Mr. Spenser at some point. So . . . last September I tracked down a copy of Book I of The Faerie Queen.
It took a while to get through it. (As in, 5 months. sigh. I miss the luxuries of high school, like having time to gobble up a good fantasy romp in a week.) But taking it slow gave me plenty of time to ruminate over the whole thing. Also, as it happened, the day after I finished reading the poem another mom on a forum I frequent asked some questions about this book. I was still basking in that afterglow one experiences at the end of a great story, and couldn't help responding:
"As far as the symbolism goes, each book in the Spencer's poem features a knight who is on some sort of quest, and each of those central knights represents a particular virtue. George (who Spencer simply calls "Redcross") is identified with Holiness.
"The idea is that only a pure and true knight can defeat the dragon, which is why Princess Una had to travel to the Fairy Queen's court to find her champion. But, as it turns out, George is not strong enough/good enough on his own, and throughout their journey he fails at a number of tests that are placed in his way. (Lust, Pride, Selfishness, etc.) It is only through the help of Una and Prince Arthur (a sort of Christ-figure who reoccurs in each of the six books) that he ever even meets the dragon. This litany of failures ends when he faces Despair, and is rescued from certain doom yet again by Una's intervention, after which she takes him to the House of Holiness. They spend several days there and Una introduces the knight to Humility, Reverence, Faith, Hope, Patience, and Charity. The sisters take him to meet the Hermit, who shows George a glimpse of a beautiful and far-off city - the New Jerusalem.
"It's only after these encounters that Redcross is ready to face the dragon, and even then he can't defeat it relying on his own strength, and Una cannot save him this time. Redcross comes to the end of himself, finds the Living Water and the Tree of Life, and finally defeats his adversary.
"It's a beautiful picture of spiritual warfare; of righteousness/holiness imparted through grace, rather than our own merit; and of God using broken vessels to achieve his purposes. In fact, it's explicitly stated (in the Living Water passage) that the dragon couldn't kill George because God was controlling the outcome."
It is beautiful, isn't it? (Spenser's symbolism, that is. Not my writing. I have two preschoolers and 1-month old and this draft has been sitting in my "drafts" pile since mid-February.) A servant-leader battles against (as Chesterton put it) "limitless terrors," placing his confidence not in his own strength, but in the grace and sovereignty of God. Sometimes he has to fight what appears to be the same battle all day long, just to wake up the next morning and fight again. But ultimately, good does triumph over evil. It's a gorgeous story.
We all have battles to fight. Maybe not in shiny armor and pointy swords, but that doesn't make them any less real. Our adversaries may not look like dragons - right now one of mine (laziness) happens to look like a pile of dirty dishes. (Speaking of battles that have to be fought day after day after day . . .) But just because they don't look terrible doesn't mean they aren't dangerous.
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, and also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak. - Ephesians 6:10-20, ESVThis is what I want for my kids. I want them to stand firm in the face of evil, secure in the knowledge of who God is and who they are in relationship to Him.
Now (ahem) . . . I have an appointment with the kitchen sink.