Philip Pullman’s collection of Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm is excellent, which means you may not want to read it to any very young children. Here, a child having his head cut off but returning as a supernaturally strong bird to crush someone with a millstone counts as a happy ending. But by the time the kids are ready for the bloodymindedness of these stories, they’ll also be old enough to appreciate Pullman’s commentary.
Pullman follows each story with a few notes on similar stories, additional information about how the Brothers Grimm pieced the tale together, and, occasionally, his own opinions on how he would or did improve the story a little in the telling. In his comment on “The Girl with No Hands,” he expresses frustration that the heroine is accompanied throughout her journeys by an angel. Unlike the strange powers and authorities that appear elsewhere in the volume, the references to God strike him as ridiculous and alien to the world of folk tales.
And whether or not you agree with Pullman about the plausibility of God in our own world, he’s not far wrong about fairy world. Fairy tales are typically fairly pagan in their telling. “The Girl with No Hands” is the only story in the volume that incorporates a holy actor. Although other stories may have characters say their prayers or have a priest as a peripheral character, the religion referenced is so vague as to be contentless.
So why does God feel so far from the magical world? Fairy tales are, after all, not anarchic; there is a strong moral component to many stories (the virtuous third son succeeds where his vice-ridden brothers have failed; secret sins are revealed grotesquely). In addition to law, there is some kind of law keeper, since justice is never more than a few pages away. Even as the physics of fairyland are alien and unpredictable, the just outcome is sure.
It sounds quotidian and dull to say you must not be cruel to the three old men because their human nature demands respect (and your own humanity demands you not deliberately coarsen it). It is more romantic to say that you must not be cruel to the three old men you meet in the wood because they may cause toads to fall from your mouth. In fairy tales, the natural law is enmeshed with the supernatural, which makes it just eldritch enough to be compelling again.
As G.K. Chesterton says in the chapter “The Ethics of Elfland” in Orthodoxy, “These tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green. They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water.” The supernaturalization of the natural order doesn’t leave a space open in fairyland for the supernatural in our world to be translated over. Pullman is right that the appearance of God in fairy tales is jarring; it is because He has lent His wonder to the everyday. We don’t have the conceptual imagination to slot Him in above the supernatural.
In the stories of the Brothers Grimm, the protagonists start in the world of magic. But, as readers, we are much more like Alice or the Pevensie children. We fall through a portal and must eventually return home, a little wiser for our journey. The fairy gold traditionally turns back into mulch and leaves, so what are we to carry back with us?
The structure of fairy tales is so much a part of our cultural vernacular that many storytellers are afraid to simply repeat the old patterns. Common knowledge of the structures gives us the freedom to ironize or subvert them (and Terry Pratchett’s Witches Abroad does this very well). We’ve all spent enough time in fairy-land to be genre-savvy.
But that means we are fluent in the natural law. We roll our eyes as a character reaches for the gilded cage he was expressly told not to touch, because we know exactly how the story must go from that point forward. We can carry that narrative awareness back to our own lives and notice, in horror, that we have a great deal more in common with the foolish elder brothers than with the eventual hero. But we already know what path the youngest brother follows; we can start to set our feet in his footsteps.
In “The Ethics of Elfland,” Chesterton says that perhaps God alone “is strong enough to exult in monotony.” He doesn’t desire any deviation from the Good for the sake of variety. If our senses of the Good have grown dull, we can cross over to fairy-land to find it foreign enough to astonish us. And if we’re still too jaded to enjoy the stories simply, we can find a child to listen while we read Pullman’s stories aloud.