Do you ever wonder about Santa’s elves? In the German folkloric tradition, Jacob Grimm tells us that the elves accompanying the kindly gift-giver were there to threaten, beat, or kidnap naughty children. These creatures were associated with the “house-spirit” or “kebold-elf” which could be good or vicious. There are many traditions around the world concerning the characters who accompany good old St. Nick and they span the range from devils to saints.
Grimm further divulges German tradition through Knecht Ruprecht who accompanies Saint Nicholas just as “St. Peter, did when journeying with Christ.” Ruprecht’s role in folklore is correspondent with that of Black Peter, who for generations of children in the Netherlands has inspired good behavior through fear. As he accompanies St. Nicholas, Ruprecht carries a walking stick and a bag of ashes and is attended by fairies, creatures with blackened faces garbed as old women. As the tradition goes, Knecht Ruprecht asks children if they can pray, and if they can he gives them treats, and if they cannot he thrashes them with his bag of ashes and leaves them useless gifts like sticks, stones, and lumps of coal.
Among lesser things, Christmas time calls elves to mind and elves call to mind the fairy tales. Fairy tales have captured the imaginations of nearly all children for time immemorial. Children take to the uncanny mysteries of the fairy tales like fish to water, and innocence bears enchantment without the need to dominate it by means of empirical understanding.
But such proud beasts can men be, that we enter a stage beyond childhood of sophomoric superiority, when we conform to Tocqueville’s observation and “readily conclude that everything in the world can be explained, and that nothing in it transcends the limits of the understanding.” Perhaps Mark Twain best exemplifies this perfidious phase with his observation of his own father: “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.” This ill-fated stage of disbelief holds us until by some grace we are freed from the dragon-like grip of self-certitude and once again made ready for the magic of fairy tales.
A great lover of fairy tales himself, C.S. Lewis wrote his dedication of The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe to his god-daughter and told her: “My Dear Lucy, I wrote this story for you, but… you are already too old for fairy tales, and by the time it is printed and bound you will be older still. But some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.”
In J.R.R. Tolkien’s brilliant essay On Fairy-Stories, he elucidates the nature of fairy tales. He explains that they “are not about fairies or elves, but stories about Faerie, the realm or state in which fairies have their being. Faerie contains many things besides elves and fays, and besides dwarfs, witches, trolls, giants, or dragons: it holds the seas, the sun, the water, and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, mortal men when we are enchanted.”
Tolkien clears up many misconceptions about fairy tales. One might have the impression that the fairy tales are stories of the supernatural, but Tolkien explains: “For it is man who is, in contrast to fairies, supernatural; 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”
Tolkien calls the land of Faerie the “perilous realm” and warns that “in it are pitfalls for the unwary and dungeons for the overbold.” Those who dare to enter the land of Faerie ought not to do so lightly, for as Bilbo Baggins said in The Lord of the Rings, “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” The classic fairy tales have the potential to sweep us off our feet and they often do, to places whence we are not likely to return unchanged.
A word of caution: At first fairy tales may seem strange and off-putting, similar to the natural reticence that might well up in a city-slicker attending a gypsy bazaar or a Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. The “very richness and strangeness” of the land of Faerie “tie the tongue of the traveler who would report them.” Persevere beyond the initial stages of natural resistance and you may soon find that you are privy to a world that, as Tolkien said, “is a land full of wonder, but not of information.”
The land of Faerie prepares the mind and the soul to recover that faculty that allows for the discovery of mysteries which lie beyond human understanding. The classic fairy tales are a natural pathway to the cultivation of marvel and surprise, and they can become a means by which we begin to orient ourselves properly toward an appropriate appreciation of creation and our place in it. Although the land of Faerie is not supernatural, reading the fairy tales is a workout for the soul, a preparatory step to begin to develop the ears and eyes to hear, see, and understand the Logos, the supernatural one who created all the lands of the universe. In sharing these timeless tales, we inadvertently prepare the ground to begin to comprehend the true meaning of Christmas—the Advent of Christ, the source of all stories, all enchantment, and all truth.
There are few better gifts we can give to our loved ones than to help them to prepare the soil of the inner landscape to receive the magic seeds contained in the fairy tales that have the potential to grow into a forest of enchantment. Frequent visits to the “perilous realm” can assist greatly in preparing this soil. An excellent place to begin the journey is with the following books: Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Hans Christian Anderson’s Fairy Tales, The Fairy Books of Andrew Lang and Italo Calvino’s Italian Folktales.
This Christmas consider bringing the timeless fairy tales to your children, your siblings, your spouses, and even to your friends, and travel with them into the hazardous territory of Faerie. The Christmas season is a wonderful time to share fairy tales with the entire family, yet they are also gifts that last for time unmeasured.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.