A few nights ago, I started reading J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan to my kids. Before we were five pages into the story, my son asked the inevitable question: “Is Neverland a real place?”
Being a literature teacher, I knew that this was no insignificant question. Entire visions of the world depended on how I answered this innocent question. So I looked my son straight in the eyes and said, “You bet it is.”
Imaginary Is Still Real
I’ve fielded this question many times before, so I was ready for my son’s query, eager to shape his word with the vitally important truth that indeed, imaginary worlds are perfectly real. This declaration often gets me in trouble with adults of all types. Sometimes the ensuing conversation brings illumination, but more often than not they go their way and I go mine.
“Of course Neverland is a real place,” I told my son, “Wendy, John, and Michael are going to spend a long time there. And we wouldn’t have a book to read if Neverland didn’t exist.” This only encouraged the next question: “Can we go to Neverland, Dad?”
Just as confidently, I told him that we are going there that very night, if we stayed awake until chapter 4. We were going there in our imaginations.
In his brilliant essay “On Fairy Stories“, J.R.R. Tolkien explains how the writer of fairy tales must invent an imaginary world for his hero to have adventures in. This imaginary world is a necessary element of a fairy story. Because the fairy tale author had to create a world that would be simultaneously recognizable and foreign to the reader, the author had to create his new world very much along the lines of our own world. For this reason, Tolkien called such authors “sub-creators” since their act of creation so closely imitated the Creator. On the first visit Narnia, Neverland, and Middle Earth all seem to have been made ex nihilo, but the more time we spend there, the more recognizable and familiar they seem.
Eventually, we realize that the reason these imaginary worlds are so familiar, so delightful is because they amplify the pleasures and beauties of our own world. By stripping their imaginary worlds of inconsequentials, authors of fairy tales help us to see the realities of our own world with clearer eyes. Fairy tales function like the clever light in a master painting: by drawing our attention to overlooked details, we see them anew. We see them as they always are, but not as we usually see them.
The Purpose of Fairy Land
This new vision reveals overlooked beauty, and this beauty leads to delight and love. Thus, we fall in love with Narnia and Neverland, Middle Earth and Faerie Land, because they have taught us about our own, true home. If we are wise, when we put down Lewis or Barrie, our lives will have greater joy and nobility, having realized that Narnia is only Earth in microcosm. Middle Earth is only one side of True Earth; Perelandra is possible only because of the terrestrial Tellus.
This is the strength and beauty of fairy worlds. It is also their danger. Any visit to Faerie Land is meant to ennoble us for our lives on Earth. But if we linger too long in Faerie, we will grow too much in love with the art and scorn the reality. We will prefer the imaginary world instead of the real one–and instead of finding courage, we will become the worst kind of cowards. We will flee from the goodness of a paradoxical world that hides its goodness and beauty with modesty.
And so, I answered my son by telling him that Neverland is a very real place, the realest of all places. Neverland is our world–all its zany innocence and boistrous irreverence are the true impish nature of real joy and happiness. The courage and sacrifice of Middle Earth is the nobility of earthly mothers who raise kids alone, of those who labor at thankless jobs, of those who serve the ungrateful, and those who fight against injustice with their very lives. The clarity and goodness of Narnia are the natural results of a life lived in peace with God–with Aslan.
The True Fairy Story
My son went to bed that night very happy. The miracle he had hoped for had come true. His imaginary play had become solid and tangible: he really could fight against evil and defend the helpless.
I went to bed that night equally joyful, for my son was well on his way to understanding the Great Story: that not only the imagination but also the very being of God himself became solid, took on flesh, and transformed the entire fallen world into the haunting Land of Faerie.