“History often resembles myth, because they are both ultimately of the same stuff.” ― J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-stories”1
As a non-believer, one of my favorite go-to accusations of Christian or Jewish beliefs was to say that the Bible was ‘a book of fairy tales.’ This effectively disarmed any argument about what is contained in the Bible, since one could not use the text to support their beliefs, as far as I was concerned. It was faith against reason, and faith certainly didn’t make sense to me. Yet, I have come to realize that there was a third option. Biblical stories could be examined through both lenses, as a place where fairy tale meets reality, a place where the two touched, a border between the tangible and the intangible. I accused the Bible of being a book of fairy tales, but never stopped to ask myself, “If the Bible is a book of fairy tales, does that necessarily mean it lacks value as such?” Is there no value in taking away the historical, not getting bogged down with details, and viewing stories as an overarching truth?
As a Catholic, of course, I am in no way suggesting that the Bible is fairy tales or fables or merely symbolic stories in its whole. There are many historical events contained in the book, and the cornerstone of our entire faith rests upon the historical Resurrection of Christ. What I am suggesting is that we meet people where they are in their approach to the Biblical texts. I would even extend that to say that perhaps we, as Christians, may find some use in viewing the Bible from a ‘fairy tale’ perspective from time to time. The term ‘fairy tale’ can have a myriad of different meanings, so for the purposes of this article, I am using the term extremely broadly to mean a story that is a fantasy, or at least not strictly historical. ‘Fiction,’ I suppose, would be an easier term to use, but a fairy story is much more than just fiction, and so I feel it more accurately describes the issue at hand. ‘Myth’ may also be a fitting term.
Fairy tales are stories that reflect life via an overarching theme. It could be argued that fairy tales contain more truth than historical accounts. They combine various specific situations in life that are encountered across time and space and present them as one tale so that we may glean a lesson from the events. This has immense value in the effort to convey wisdom. Even more beautifully, it bridges the gap between the faithful and unfaithful. One does not need to be a Christian to enjoy a fairy tale and receive the wisdom contained therein. Atheists as well as Christians can find Bible stories useful for this very reason. The Bible is the culmination of human wisdom over all of human existence. If one approaches Biblical stories from this perspective, it is irrelevant whether particular stories are historically factual. This is true for both the faithful and the unfaithful. As Catholics, we do not regard, for example, the story of Moses as being historically inaccurate...but that does not mean that viewing the story as a ‘fairy tale’ would have no value. The story of Moses contains an overarching theme and symbolism that can be applied to various situations. We can learn from the story both as history and as a ‘fairy tale.’
As a non-biblical example, we can look at Hansel and Gretel. Children are lured in by the temptation of a house of candy, only to find that it contains a witch bent on their destruction. This story is a fairy tale, but it is also most certainly true. Do we not find ourselves lured by temptation, only to find that we are ensnared by something evil? Are there not ‘houses of candy’ and ‘witches’ in our lives? Pinocchio is another good example. A wooden doll leaves the protection of his father to navigate life, only to be caught in snares of the wicked world. He is naïve and doesn’t realize his error until he begins to grow the ears of a donkey. They both find themselves in the belly of a whale and must face the ultimate challenge to get back to a rightly ordered world. Do we not find ourselves naively caught up in selfish actions, only to come to a crossroads where we must decide to become either a jackass or a ‘real boy’? This story is not fiction but is instead a higher truth that is applicable to everyone, everywhere, at every time. So, too, are any of the biblical stories. This is the beauty of fairy tales. This is also the beauty of the Bible.
The Bible is an example of fairy tale touching reality. It is where God meets man. It is the realm between heaven and earth, where the hearts of man reside. The unfaithful can glean wisdom from viewing the biblical stories as purely fairy tale, while the faithful can see examples of where this overarching fairy tale wisdom became reality. The faithful can marvel at the lives of Jonah, David, or Jacob as men. The unfaithful can marvel at these men’s situations as parallel to their own struggles: we have all found ourselves in the belly of the whale, succeeded with brains over brawn, or wrestled with God. To view fairy tales as fiction is a mistake. Fairy tales are a higher truth. To accuse the Bible of being ‘a book of fairy tales’ is of the highest compliment. We would all do ourselves a great service to view the biblical stories in this light and, as Catholics, marvel that this book contains real-world examples of where fairy tales came to life in history. As for the unfaithful, they would do themselves a great service to read these ‘fairy tales’ and the wisdom contained within them, even if they are not viewed as historical or factual.
There is no gap between the unfaithful view that the Bible is ‘a book of fairy tales’ and the faithful view that the Bible contains historical accounts. Faithful and unfaithful alike can stand on the same bridge, between heaven and earth, where men’s hearts live, in the world where reality meets myth, in the land of fairy tales, where God and man touch and timeless wisdom is gained.
J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-stories", Essays Presented by Charles Williams, (United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 1947).