Bored by Joy: Fairy Tales as Appetisers for Beatitude: A Response to Matthew Moser

David Russell Mosley

Lent 5 April 2014 On the Edge of Elfland Beeston, Nottinghamshire Dear Friends and Family, Over at Christ and University, Matt Moser has written another post about teaching Dante to which I feel inclined to respond. Moser notes and laments that as he and his students (along with Dante) entered Paradise in the Commedia, the students found it boring. As Moser himself notes, this is somewhat to be expected. Even in the best translation, this is still a translation of sixteenth century Italian epic poem. Even the Paradiso is filled with political and contemporary (to Dante) commentary. This, however, was not the centre of their boredom, rather the happiness was. Moser goes on to relate his own acquisition of an appetite for joy which was kindled by a reading of The Lord of the Rings.

He remembers how he had to foster an appetite for joy just as he had to foster an appetite for classical music. Moser again asks the question of how do we do this for those we teach, how do we help them foster an appetite for joy? In my previous response to Moser’s challenges on teaching Dante, I suggested that living in such a way that shows our belief in a cosmos (unity, order, harmony, created). Today, I wonder if another possible answer, or first step is the reading of fairy-tales. Spending too much time talking about fairy-tales can make a person seem rather childish. But what was it Lewis said, when I became a man I ceased to think like a child, including the fear of being thought childish, or something to that effect. I want to suggest that perhaps beginning with fairy-tales and working towards heavier works like Dante might better train a student’s appetite for joy.

G. K. Chesterton writes in his book, Orthodoxy:

‘The things I believed most then, the things I believe most now, are the things called fairy tales. They seem to me entirely reasonable things. They are not fantasies: compared with them other things are fantastic. Compared with them religion and rationalism are both abnormal though religion is abnormally right and rationalism abnormally wrong. Fairyland is nothing but the sunny country of common sense’ (299).

For Chesterton, Fairy Tales taught him about this world, the fostered in him that desire for joy. For Lewis and Tolkien it was fairy tales coupled with the myths of the North, of the Scandinavian countries, the tales of Sigurd and Fafnir.These stories awakened a desire in these authors. This is the purpose of fairy-tales according to Tolkien: ‘Fairy-stories were plainly not primarily concerned with possibility, but with desirability. If they awakened desire, satisfying it while often whetting it unbearably, they succeeded’ (‘Tree and Leaf’, 63). This desire, Lewis would call Joy in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy. This would all suggest that to help our students or our children (or anyone for that matter) to gain a desire for joy, an appetite for beatitude, we should start them on the milk of fairy-tales before moving them onto the meat of works like the Commedia or even The Lord of the Rings Unlike Moser and many I know, I’ve spent my whole life reading stories like this. Tolkien was a part of my life from around the time I was born until now. Lewis I discovered in elementary school. I had resurgence of Tolkien when the films came out so long ago now and have never stopped reading The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings 2 or 3 times a year. Even now, I have begun reading The Hobbit, having already read ‘St George of Merrie England’ and Smith of Wooton Major to my unborn sons, hoping to infuse their lives with the sound of my voice and the majesty of Tolkien’s work. I don’t know how this will affect my children, but I know the effect it has had on me. Therefore I propose a return to fairy-tales. If in Tolkien’s day they had been relegated to the nursery, it seems as though in ours they have been relegated to the attic or the bin. Let’s fish them out, dust them off, and read them once again to prepare our desires for the greater works like that of Dante, and even more so for the Beatific Vision to come.   Sincerely yours, David Russell Mosley

11 comments on “Bored by Joy: Fairy Tales as Appetisers for Beatitude: A Response to Matthew Moser

  1. I really appreciated this article and would love to follow up on some of the links and references you have mentioned. This is a fascinating subject for me that I’ve been beginning to explore for a while, for example in these two posts from December: and I’m going back to uni in September to study for an MA in Creative and Critical Writing and I’m thinking of basing my final dissertation around the portrayal of Christian ideologies in fairy tale/fantasy/utopian literature. I found your article a good starting point for further research and would appreciate any further recommendations from you on this. 🙂

    • Sally,

      I’m glad you’ve found it useful. I’ll definitely check out your links in the near future. I love the sound of your dissertation. You’re definitely going to want to read Alison Milbank’s Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians, the book From Homer to Harry Potter, as well as George MacDonald’s essay on the Fantastic Imagination, Tolkien’s Essay cited above, Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, and some of Lewis’s essays as well (found in Of Other Worlds and Essays). You might also want to look at Coleridge’s work on imagination. I hope this helps.


      • Thank you David, this is a really rich and helpful selection of references which I will begin to investigate further as I move through my studies. I will keep in touch and keep checking your posts for further inspiration. Best wishes, Sally

  2. Yes, a really great piece! Very rarely can I enjoy and be informed while reading blogs; this was a fantastic supply of both joy and information!

  3. This is great, David, thanks. I thoroughly agree that fairy tales should be read early and often. That’s how it was in my life. It’s what prepared me, I think, for my encounter when I read LOTR. So as a clarion call for the reading of fairy tales, I wholeheartedly agree.

    What is difficult, I think, is teaching students who were not raised on fairy tales (or literature in general). Should every college class begin with a kind of remedial imagination work? How can should the college professor assume about her students and the literary world they have inherited by the time they are halfway done college? This is where it gets tricky, I think.

    • Matt,

      I completely agree. This post doesn’t necessarily help with your dilemma unless I were to suggest that all undergraduates had to take a class in Christian Imagination (which isn’t an awful idea). Another possibility would be to incorporate some of this into a written composition module which is often required for freshman.

      The bigger issue is, as you rightly note, what to do now. We can’t assume anymore that our students have been brought reading, as Lewis might say, the right kinds of books. I’m frankly not sure what the answer is other than to try to introduce them to the right kinds of books at some point in their education, hoping that it will plant a seed for later maturation. The other thing, of course, is getting the institutions at which we serve to see the importance of such work, ensuring that students do have to take a class in imagination or something similar. It certainly isn’t an easy thing to answer and would seem to suggest that it isn’t just Universities that need the kind of reform Christ and University tends to talk about but that schools (elementary, Junior/Middle, and High) as well as the Church and families need it as well.


      • Apologies for the serious typos in my previous comment. That’s what you get when you type on an iPad.

        I agree with your final point…all levels of education need renewal. The writers of C&U have talked about this behind the scenes. It’s something we’d like to explore more in the future.

      • See also book II of The Republic. Socrates: education of mind and character begins with “true stories and fiction. Our education must use both, and start with fiction…And we will tell children stories before we start them on physical training.”

  4. Reblogged this on Soliloquies and commented:
    A wonderful piece on the importance of fairy-tales.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s