Faërie Land Romance

“Their love is right out of a fairy tale, and I hope it never ends!” she says, staring dreamily at the new couple walking down the church aisle. The new Mr. and Mrs. are radiant, so happy an aura of joy seems to waft off them, and I find myself fervently wishing such a curse had never been laid on their heads. I am fond of tales of Faërie, and of fairy tales, I always have been. It is one of my favorite reads, when I can find a good one, and I’ve had some of the old innocent ones practically memorized (Howard Pyle’s were an especial favorite). It’s quite possible that is one reason when I grew up, Lewis, Chesterton, and Tolkien morphed naturally into place as favorite authors. All three have a great deal to say about the realm of Faërie, for they steeped themselves in the old stories, and understood them. Each of those giants of literature would warn you against such a statement poured on an unsuspecting couple’s head. Have you ever paused to think what you say when you look at a couple and wish them a “fairy tale romance”?

Have you read many tales form the land of Faërie recently? I mean the real things, not just the French Puss-in-Boots or stylized Cinderella kind, though those still have merit of a sort. The stories aren’t always happy. In fact, most often they are not. The tales are dark and dangerous and hard. The world of the Faërie Queen is not a place I would lightly wish upon another, not for all its beauty! And it is beautiful. The woods are mossy and deep, filled with white birch and sprawling hardwoods, sprinkled with birdsong of a quality we never hear in our mundane woods, as a fragrant breeze makes the leaves whisper. The breeze brings the scent of the delicate flowers growing over the sprawling grassy hills, criss-crossed with the merry rolling streams that seem to laugh as they cascade down countless waterfalls. Castles and cottages peep out here and there, and a hedgehog or thrush might wish you good day if you have ears to hear it. Yes, there is beauty there that seems to be hollowly echoed here in Earth’s most beautiful moments. But it is a perilous place. Malevolent satyrs lurk behind those trees; black dwarfs brood on vile schemes under the green hills; monstrous dragons lurk around corners, in league with villainous knights and evil enchanters. Do not venture there lightly. Once in Faërie you cross the border of ordinary reality and anything might be; and often isn’t what it seems. (If you ever meet an old person who asks a favor in Faërie, you had better be nice to them!) Frogs are princes, old women really fairies, and brass more important than gold. Appearances are often deceiving in the land of Faërie, and that can be perilous indeed. People talk of having an open mind here. But there, you had best be very careful how you ply your woodworking trade, or talk to the local stork, if you want to live in safety. To wish someone a “fairy tale romance” is to wish them danger, unexpected twists of often the unwelcome sort, and uncomfortable adventures.

But while appearances deceive in Faërie, some things are clearer there than they sometimes seem to be here. Good and Evil don’t fluctuate in Faerie; they sharpen. There are no postmodern “any truth goes” moments in Faërie. The laws of Faërie correspond to the moral laws (and most of the natural laws) of our own land, and from that they never deviate. Oh, the hero might do a spiteful deed now and then. But that is never seen as a good thing, and often ruins his life, or at least causes great pain and sorrow. The Red-Cross Knight almost drawn into the cave of Despayre is an example of the ruination it can cause; Despayre taxes the knight with all his failures and sins, and they are so mighty only Una’s hand and counsel staid the Red-Cross Knight from suicide. I love her words:

 “Come; come away, fraile, feeble, fleshly wight,

Ne let vaine words bewitch thy manly hart,

Ne divelish thoughts dismay thy constant spright:

In heavenely mercies has thou not a part?

Why should thou then despaire, that chose are?

Where justice grows, there grows eke greater grace,

The which doth quench the brond of hellish smart,

And that acurst hand-writing doth deface.

Arise, sir Knight; arise, and leave this cursed place.[1]

Here are words that ring as true in our land as much as there, and truths we should all remember in our darkest moments! There is much we can learn from those we might meet in Faërie. There we find people of high courage and great honor and sterling goodness. Sometimes they fail. But it is failure, and isn’t praised. Goodness is good indeed in Faërie. And badness is very bad. Evil stalks there. It comes in all shapes and sizes, openly and deceptively, just like here. And just like here, that causes darkness to run rife in Faërie land. Some have argued the evil disqualifies the tales from being read by good people. But I have to agree with Chesterton instead:

“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, because it is in the world 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.[2]

There is deep darkness running rampant in the land of Faërie. But we are given heroes and heroines who face it and fight it. There is an interesting thing that comes about from this. We see the qualities of the heroes and heroines only in the darker parts of their stories. You don’t know the Red-Cross Knight has such courage and fortitude until he is faced with the dragon. You don’t know Una has the strength of mind to withstand her trials until the trials come upon her. If the story went along smoothly and happily from start to finish, it would be comfortable, yes. But the characters would never grow into anything more than names on paper. There is no meat on them until we see their actions under dire times. When trials come, that’s when a person stands out as either hero or base villain. And that is when a hero grows. It is through the smaller trials (slaying Error and her young, learning he can be deceived by enchantresses, etc.) that the Red-Cross Knight comes to England able to slay the dragon. He started out on the journey with his mettle unproved, almost a boyish figure. By the end, you know this man has what it takes to win against even this foe. You learn through the journey in Faërie Land. It isn’t comfortable. It isn’t happy. But it gives the heroes and heroines the tools they need to face their final trial in the end.

Think twice next time you wish someone a fairy tale romance. But after thinking twice, you might still be willing to wish it for them. The land of Faërie is a place of beauty, adventure, knights and ladies, untold marvels. This earth is filled with the unexpected and adventures that will make us grow and change. Why not wish a couple wonder, sterling goodness, and the occasional unexpected ally in the journey? To wish someone a fairy tale romance isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But it isn’t to wish them a Cinderella-like ball scene. Even in her story both her parents died, and she went through some pretty rough moments. And after she rode into the sunset with her prince her tale went on. We never hear of that part, except the simple phrase “she lived happily ever after.”

That’s the bit people scoff at most in this cynical day and age, the “fairy tale ending.” But in the end, isn’t that what the Bible leaves us with? It begins, “Once upon a time God…” Darkness, evil, goodness, they all crowd into that book. A hero arises there like none you will ever find in even the best of books; but alike to all true heroes nonetheless, because to be a hero something must be akin to this One Great Man. He walks a dark path indeed. But in the end, “He lived happily ever after” (though perhaps falling short of the aweing theological realities) can be very truly said of this account. A fairy tale? Good heavens, no. There is nothing make believe about this account, not a whit of it. My point isn’t that. As Tolkien points out when trying to define what a fairy tale is:

“Supernatural is a dangerous and difficult word in any of it senses, looser or stricter. But to fairies it can hardly be applied, unless super is taken merely as a superlative prefix. For it is man who is, in contrast to fairies, supernatural (and often of diminutive stature); whereas they are natural, far more natural than he. Such is their doom. The road to fairyland is not the road to Heaven; nor even to Hell, I believe, though some have held that it may lead thither indirectly by the Devil’s tithe.[3]

The land of Faërie is not a tale leading to heaven or hell, but only stories. Yet you see how fairy tales draw on the truths laid out in that greatest of books for their very structure. They utilize the realities and moralities that is the constant in all of God’s universe. Dark journeys and unpleasant turns await someone in a fairy tale life. But if they are relying on Jesus, the true Hero, for the saving of their souls? Well, then the ending will indeed be fairy tale-like. All God’s chosen children will live happily ever after. Happily ever after does exist, and cultivating longing for it in a little child, or any of us, is not a bad thing; so long as you are very careful to also cultivate the knowledge of its true source. That is one of several examples of a certain kind of truth to be found in the land of Faërie, and I believe it is worth looking for. Lewis has this to say on the merits of a good fairy tale:

“At all ages, if [fantasy and myth] is used well by the author and meets the right reader, it has the same power: to generalize while remaining concrete, to present in palpable form not concepts or even experiences but whole classes of experience, and to throw off irrelevancies. But at its best it can do more; it can give us experiences we have never had and thus, instead of ‘commenting on life,’ can add to it.[4]

We see ordinary things made un-ordinary when we look into a fairy tale. Wonder has the chance to strike at our hearts again. Is the place safe? Certainly not. But don’t be too frightened to step into the land of Faërie. Keep your wits about you, your courage high, and your faith strong, and you will win through in the end. Things can be learned from perilous places where it will never be learned from the comforts of a couch. I even have a quote up in our bedroom, just a little vinyl lettering thing above our dresser:

“Once in a while, right in the middle of an ordinary life, love gives us a fairy tale.”

I’m sure when most people see it, they think I look on it with the dreamy-eyed stare one sees at weddings. Really it steels my heart, gives a daring twist to the lips, and bids me grasp my dagger tight as I wonder what’s around the corner. Love is what gets a person through Faërie land. Love for a spouse, a homeland, and most of all the one true God. It takes courage and love and wonder to live in a fairy tale.

Be careful what you wish on someone. Faërie is not a land for the faint of heart. Fairy tales are wonderful. But they are filled with wonder precisely because they have adventure and the unexpected; and adventures are neither comfortable nor safe.

The Fall of Harrenhal by Rene Aigner©

[1] Edmund Spencer, from Book 1 of The Faerie Queen

[2] G.K. Chesterton, from Tremendous Trifles

[3] J.R.R. Tolkien, from his essay On Fairy-Stories

[4] C.S. Lewis, from the essay Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s To Be Said