“You’re living in a fairy tale.” What a derisive phrase, full of the worst connotations. You’re hiding from reality, you’re running away, you’re lost in your own little world and you don’t care about anything or anyone else. Sometimes it’s not meant so badly; sometimes it’s said in a pitying way, of someone who is absorbed in their dreams, perhaps because the real world is too hard for them to face any longer. But no one ever says “you’re living in a fairy tale,” and means that as a compliment. But I would like to propose that they should.
I don’t mean to write a defense of fairy tales here, although that is sadly something that still needs doing. The attitude that’s been prevalent since the 18th century or so, that they’re just for children, unimportant fantasies, useless and unreal, really seems like it ought to have died out by now. Nevertheless, it’s still around. But fairy tales themselves have been defended more than adequately by the likes of Tolkien and Lewis. Instead, I want to present the idea that “living in a fairy tale,” in a certain sense, is more than just not wrong–it is the best thing a person could do.
As I’ve gotten older and matured, I’ve come to see the world in a much less rigid way than I did when I was younger. Where before I believed mostly in what I could see, or in conclusions which could be drawn from logical thinking, now I believe that the world is so much larger than anyone can ever know. I believe in a very certain kind of magic, and I shouldn’t be surprised to be strolling through a forest one day and meet up with an Elf or other Fae. Now that I’m older I’ve become brave enough to think that these things might be real. But more than that, I’ve come to see the beauty of the earth; the power and majesty of true love and the way it permeates life; the ultimate hopefulness of all things; the underlying strangeness and fey quality of the world we live in. The universe has become a much brighter place for me. I’ve put cynicism aside for the childish thing it is, and now my eyes are open to the wonder all around us.
Now, an integral part of a real fairy tale is its sense of wonder, but this is a very matter-of-fact wonder. There is usually not much rhapsodizing about it. Nevertheless, it is there, under everything, this sense that the world is strange and mysterious and wonderful, both beautiful and terrifying. And so, if one views life as a fairy tale he is living, than he can’t help but see the wonder in it, even as it becomes tragic and gruesome. He can’t help but see how events are interconnected, how everything seems to be forming one vast story, as he remembers an event from his past and sees how it foreshadowed his present circumstances.
Then, too, if life is viewed as a fairy tale, you are forced to start taking some parts of it extremely seriously, while other parts might be joked about which you would never have joked about before. I myself have often had trouble taking life seriously. I’ve made the mistake, more than once, of turning something somebody said into a joke, when they really meant it seriously. In fact, at one point, even a fairly recent point, I believed that it was silly to take life very seriously and the only way to get by was to joke about everything you possibly could without being incredibly offensive. But that attitude is starting to change. Now I think that life ought to be taken very seriously–but not all of it. As I’ve come to see life more and more as a fairy tale I’m living, I’ve realized that I just need to take different things seriously than are often touted as important. In a fairy tale, a promise is extremely serious. How many fairy tales revolve around a curse which comes into play because someone broke a promise? Finding and knowing truth is very serious, for any number of fairy tales involve an unmasking or revealing of someone’s true self. But if there’s one thing that viewing life as a fairy tale forces you to take extremely seriously, than it is this: consequences. Every action has a consequence, often an unintended one. In a fairy tale, this might lead to someone being turned into a frog or drawn-and-quartered. No choice should be taken entirely lightly; no consequence should be totally disregarded. For there is a price for everything, which cannot be put aside or ignored if life is taken to be a fairy tale. If life is viewed as a fairy tale, then you know that love is the very last thing to be taken lightly, for any spurned woman could turn out to be a dreadful witch, any brokenhearted man could be a werewolf. In a fairy tale some things are sacred mysteries, not to be unraveled; there is a certain sanctity to things, to wisdom, traditions, history, the land itself, the oldest pacts of nature and of the heart.
Living in a fairy tale forces you to look at yourself and at others differently. You are a hero or a villain, a champion of good or an evil sorcerer, and so is the cashier at the grocery store, the friend you play video games with, your boss, your teachers. People are so much more noble, so much brighter, so much braver. But they may also be ogres. The beautiful maiden who has taken your heart might be half-elven. The thuggish mechanic who cheats you every time you visit his shop could have a little bit of troll in him. You must see everything different; you must see that atoms are held together not by the electric force of protons and neutrons, but by magic. Every glade could be the site of a fairy revel.
To live life as a fairy tale, one must be both extremely serious and endlessly joyous; for the world is both incredibly unfunny and brimming over with the most wondrous things imaginable. The fairy-tale life embraces the duality of reality. And so, I don’t believe that it can really be said that “living in a fairy tale” is a bad thing. Living in a fairy tale is in fact a supreme acceptance of reality, but more: it is adding another layer of mystery and delight that reality would never have had without us.
The opposite of this is the cynic’s view, which is all too prevalent in today’s world, and growing stronger. It is the sneer of the nihilist thrown up against the laughter of the mystic. But there is a certain dreadful temptation in cynicism and the nihilism that underlies it. After all, if reality is senseless, if love isn’t real, if honor isn’t real, if there is no magic and people are nothing more than what they seem, then one can do whatever he wants. But how cold is his pleasure at the end of the day. Of course, cynicism is not, or not obviously, nihilism. To expect the worst of others and the world is not the same as to disbelieve in others and the world. But I would like to assert that cynicism is the child of nihilism. After all, if one always expects others to be bad, then he must have serious doubts about the reality of goodness, whether he acknowledges them to himself or no. Cynicism must ultimately lead to coldhearted acceptance of the lie that says the world is senseless and wrong. Now, I’ve flirted with cynicism in my day, but I could never truly believe that the only real things were the earth beneath my feet and the flesh of the body. Recently I decided to give up cynicism completely. And now here I am, and the world is so horrifying and so beautiful.
I don’t claim that this path is right for everyone, but I truly believe it is better to believe in magic, even if that magic is ultimately not real, and to live my life as if I were in a fairy tale, than to cling to material reality, to doubt the existence of love and truth, to view the world coldly, scientifically, and cynically.