John William Waterhouse, "The Lady of Shallot"

Fairy tales comprehend the fantastic amidst the harrows of death. The gruesome and the wonderful find in fairy tales places of equal measure, perhaps because fairy tales understand better than most art forms the terrible joy of beauty. In fairy tales, even beauty dies. But this is not the end.

G.K. Chesterton is famous for his defense of fairy tales in the chapter “The Ethics of Elfland” from Orthodoxy. In it, he argues that what he learned first and best he learned from fairy stories as a child. The outlandish world that is “elfland,” he says, is in the end but a pale shadow of the world in which we live. Its extravagance is an expression of the wealth of our existence, and its strangeness a caricature of our own. Elfland, he says, lays hold of the fierce wonderment not of some other world, but of ours. This makes fairy tales not a series of lies, but a series of truths. To quote Chesterton himself, “…nursery tales only echo an almost pre-natal leap of interest and amazement. 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.”

Chesterton sees in fairy tales some of the greatest testimonies to the wonder and horror of life. He perceives in them an unflinching honesty, a warmth that could be warm only if it is also brave. This attitude is at the heart of the sage lessons of fairy tales. There are many such lessons. “There is,” Chesterton says, “the lesson of ‘Cinderella,’ which is the same as that of the Magnificat —exaltavit humiles [he exalted the humble]. There is the great lesson of ‘Beauty and the Beast’; that a thing must be loved before it is loveable. There is the terrible allegory of the ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ which tells how the human creature was blessed with all birthday gifts, yet cursed with death; and how death also may perhaps be softened to a sleep.”

Let us take some time to review these three lessons, beginning with the last.

Walt Disney's "Sleeping Beauty" (1959)

According to Chesterton, “Sleeping Beauty” reminds us of humanity’s majesty and tragedy, our greatness and mortality. In fairy tales, death is almost always a central theme alongside glory: characters must be rescued from death, or redeemed from a fate quite death-like. The first, almost brutal insight of all fairy tales is that we all must have courage since we all must face death. Even the fantastic fairy world, with its striking beauty, experiences death. The figures who resist death for the sake of immortality must – like the queen from “Snow White” – inevitably become grotesque. Those who seek everlasting beauty are made ugly.

Fairy tales are, in a certain sense, primarily about beauty. They relate to us how every quality of the world strikes us with wonder, takes us aback, makes us gasp. Hans Urs von Balthasar, the Swiss Catholic theologian, will call this the ecstatic quality of beauty – what lifts us out of ourselves, almost as if startled, and draws us closer to it. Fairy tales and their strange journeys are about the ecstasy of beauty.

They are also about death. For all the heroic striving of the prince for his fair beauty, her beauty of itself cannot defend her from mortality. Beauty dies. Fairy tales know this better than anyone. Beauty is not in itself redeeming; it promises us things more lovely than the terrible creatures that haunt the shadows, and in this beauty’s demise only becomes more painfully tragic. It cannot escape. Sleeping Beauty with her fair and gentle voice is fated to touch the spindle of death. (Waterhouse’s Lady of Shallot appears to know this well.) We weep because the transcending reach of beauty appears to us as the final, most heart-rending cipher of our own futile cries. We perceive in the world a wonder that we can never grasp, something more than the world that we for all the magic in it cannot attain. Beauty cannot save us.

This is what helps to make sense of a very early work by von Balthasar entitled, Katholische Religion und Kunst [Catholic Religion and Art]. Written in 1927, when von Balthasar was only 22, the young man – not yet a theologian – places religion and art at odds. Art, he insists, cannot get us to religion. This is an idea borrowed from Søren Kierkegaard. Much as we would try to make art – and all things beautiful – a bridge to the supernatural, von Balthasar calls all such efforts futile. There is, he says, an “abyssal difference” (abgründige Vershiedenheit) between religious values and artistic values. He and Kierkegaard here are bowing to the simple fact that God utterly outstrips the world and all the things of the world, which the Greek philosophers and the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament both well knew. It is nevertheless startling to see von Balthasar, the great theologian of beauty, placing beauty under such sharp censure at such an early age.

It is, I believe, a stricture he retained. There is a difference, he will maintain decades later in Glory of the Lord, between aesthetic theology (which is trapped in worldly beauty) and a theological aesthetic (which draws its understanding of beauty from the ineffable God). The two must never be confused. They cannot be, because all earthly beauty dies, as fairy tales illustrate with such tragic clarity. The young von Balthasar’s reflection is already found in the old fairy stories.

Still, as Chesterton reminds us, death is softened to sleep. Death and beauty are not equals. But this softening is not yet what wakes beauty, as if the princess in living-death could attain her own rescue by virtue of her beauty. Beauty cannot save us – but love does. Sleeping Beauty’s charm does not let her rise again; it is the prince’s kiss that stirs her.

So von Balthasar will see in the fairy tale “Sleeping Beauty” the great allegory for human knowledge, which is not complete until someone else enters the picture – allowing the knower to “wake” like Sleeping Beauty from the slumber of partial subjectivity (Theologic I). He will preserve the greatest pride of place to a mother’s smile, which greets her young child as a grace and awakens him in love (Love Alone is Credible), and which introduces him to a wild world of meaningful images, to a world alive with mystery (Theologic II). According to Balthasar, love is a grace – which means it is given to the undeserving, and vivifies the undeserving – and in all its analagous forms it serves as the key to unlocking the mysteries of human life and the being of the world. Love awakens beauty, as in a mother’s smile, but it also loves what is worthy, as in “Sleeping Beauty.”

According to Chesterton, this same mystery about love is upheld in “Beauty and the Beast.”

Walt Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" (1991)

Chesterton’s emphasis in the fairy tale is on how love makes us worthy; in his words, it makes us lovable. This means we must love before someone is really lovable, as Belle learns to love the Beast despite his fearful appearance. But it is not as if Belle loves the monster for being one; she finds in him someone who is not a monster, and indeed he isn’t. He is revealed to be far more than that. He is already, though trapped in enchantments, one who is at least potentially love-worthy. Her love makes him what he is, and more than what he is. That is, one worthy of love.

The strange collision between beauty and the ugly would find in von Balthasar an almost lavish reflection, or perhaps an extreme one (Theo-Drama). A consideration that threatens always to split at the seams. He looks upon the cross and sees the glory of God revealed in the horror of death and descent. Christ, von Balthasar would argue time and again, is the Gestalt (form) of God and the world: this means that Christ gives meaning and order to the world, and reveals to us the depths of God through the Incarnation. In observing the cross, however, von Balthasar utters the strangest description: Ungestalt, un-form, non-form. The cross is formlessness, obscurity. The Holy One is marred and immolated. And this – this! – reveals to us the form of the glory of God.

I do not say that von Balthasar’s description of the cross is a fairy tale. Not, at least, in the sense that it gives us the fantastic to hide us from the truth. Fairy tales do not do so in the first place; as I have said, they know the terror of life with more clarity than we do. Still, von Balthasar is not writing a fairy tale because he is not speaking in allegory. Fairy tales give us meaning allegorically; von Balthasar is doing something else.

That “something else” does nevertheless have a fairy-like quality, one with a family resemblence to Chesterton’s idea. I say this because Balthasar’s marriage of Gestalt and Ungestalt, beauty and the ugly, bears deep sympathies with the old story of “Beauty and the Beast.” It is possible, in other words, for the hideous to really be made beautiful by love – but only if it is also love-worthy. Christ for von Balthasar appears to adopt both positions, the beautiful and the hideous (the latter reflecting our appearance rather than his, though he makes it his). Such is the meeting-place of “Beauty and the Beast” and von Balthasar: that, for love’s sake, by love’s power, the hideous does not remain so.

But we are not done with Belle and the Beast.

The genius of the Disney version of the tale, the insight that enlivens the animation and helps to lift up the essence of the old fairy story, is that due credit is given both to Belle and the Beast. Her love makes him lovable – making him, literally, human again – but it is really he that loves her first, and Belle in her way learns love from the Beast. Both are made more beautiful, then, in their respective turns. Love is greater than each.

Fairy tales hint, in an almost coy act of openness, that there must be something greater. Love is often the “solution” in a fairy tale, but here I say it is really the hint. The extravagant insinuation. Remember, love is better than both Belle and the Beast. Each must be humble, and this humility admits – at least incohately – that fairy tale magic and fairy tale love have their limitations. There has to be a greater love, else the ordinary would not be so strange. What I mean to say is this: just as earthly beauty cannot redeem us, so earthly love cannot redeem us either. Fairy tales know this. “Happily ever after” is antiphon to a beginning, not an end.

So we must be humble, and know that God exalts the humble. This is Chesterton’s lesson in “Cinderella,” where we see love and poverty really united. Cinderella rises out of the ashes because she is pure of heart, and knows the joyful fire of poverty from the hearth she sleeps alongside. Hers is the grandeur of poverty, and this does not leave her even when the prince finds her – after all, it is what he loves in her. The fairy tale knows this.

Poverty is the redemption of beauty, since finally now beauty knows what it lacks and thus can receive what is not its own. The fairy world is wonderful, one might say magical, because it is poor. Because it knows in some secret way that it cannot reach the glory of God, but that God condescends to reach it. This is how the fairy world is so alive. Von Balthasar will say that the whole world, every inch of it, can attest to the glory of God – and that fairy tales express this by having every creature capable of speech. The fairy world is alive.

Our world, too, is alive. As fairy tales so elegantly explain. Alive and dangerous and poor. And beauty is poor. And God redeems us all through poverty.