Scoop of the e-e-evening: The Natural History of Make-Believe

I recently finished The Natural History of Make-Believe, by John Goldthwaite—just the kind of juicy-dry study I love. Juicy, because he probes the inner workings of fairy tales heirs, and dry, because … he probes the inner workings of fairy tales heirs. Goldthwaite tends to prattle on when the reader would rather get on (100 pages on the subliminal Alice in Wonderland, for example), but in spite of that I gleaned several new opinions and gobs of interesting quotes.

In the same breath, I chucked Goldthwaite’s stuffy analysis of C.S. Lewis. Honestly, hasn’t all that “self-absorbed misogynist” stuff been hashed out a hundred times? It’s beyond me how millions of children can adore his Chronicles when, apparently, Lewis was just using Narnia as a vehicle for his poisoned pen.

But on to a (rather extended) sampling of my juicy notes and quotes:

Magic realism … when the miraculous becomes real by association with the mundane and the mundane is transformed by its association with the miraculous.

With the advent of the fairy godmother, we have crossed the threshold of the church … a composite of Christian and pagan elements.

Where the light of agape is occluded, Poetic Genius will be found floundering in the dark, spitting out scorn and non-sense.

To awaken rather than impress the meaning … what the reader sees is not a rite but a wonder.

Because it presents the child with a portrait of a world he is, in real life, only just coming to know, every book teaches a new way of thinking about that world. The question is not whether a book teaches but what and how and whether its intent is to humanize a child or merely to socialize him.

Didactic purpose in children’s stories (see the Lobster Quadrille, porpoise=purpose): inevitable inclusion vs. intrusion. Very fine line.

Such a belief, that the world is Sustained in its travels, is the one just warrant for inflicting pain in a children’s book—for only by its felt presence can the pain be borne.

The business of fantasy authors is the business of miracles; their problem, in an age of rapid secularization, is how to redefine miracles so as to preserve them for the sake of the story. For what do you tell children when your instincts are for whimsy but you are either without a faith or no longer certain of the underlying warrant for dealing in miracles in the first place?

Feodor Rojankovsky: telling the truth like a tale, telling a tale like the truth.

Allsense, a gift of understanding, a confirmation to the meek and the powerless that they are alive in a world that is indeed invested with the imminence of wonder, which we call mystery, and the imminence of joy, which we call gladness. If these two imminences do not intimate the One imminence of a creative and self-revealing God, furthermore, they must by definition be specious and the miracle stories conveying them vain and sentimental entertainments.

Author as godparent … if an author can discharge his role with a sympathetic wink and a push of the swings (like Perrault), so much the better. Never, however, should he deceive himself that because his tale is only a make-believe for children there is nothing more involved than a jolly hour or two at the playground.

Every work of make-believe announces to a credulous audience that the world is possessed of a quality that is beyond empirical knowing.

The only lasting justification for make-believe literature is the redemptive grace of agape, through which the world, with all its perils and squalor, may be revealed to children as a comic arena socially and a terra incognita invested with true mystery and true light.


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