Finding God in Fairytales

As a child, I blurred the lines between fiction and reality. After reading twenty of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books, I imagined that every step in the garden was part of a Great Adventure, and looked for clues for treasure everywhere: in twigs and castles.

I fell in love with novels, which is to say, I fell in love with travelling to other worlds. As the eldest, I had the privilege of the top bunk, but with no bedside table I propped my pillows up with ten books at a time, so I would never be marooned without a book.

I switched on my light late at night and continued to fly round fairy castles, tramp through smugglers’ underground tunnels, or make internal lists of what I would need in order to survive on my own, if the need arose. Tinned food. Methylated spirits. A rope. Those seemed to be the principle survival kits in life. I was prepared for whatever life threw at me.

***

I grew up, and by the time I was in my twenties, serving as a church minister, I was almost embarrassed by my English Literature degree, when so many other ministers had been busy gathering their theological knowledge for decades. Reading stories was seen as a frivolous indulgence, an escape route for lazy minds, when I could have, by now, become fluent in biblical greek.

It was only when I became housebound with chronic illness that I returned to stories in a big way. I was a new mother with a new baby and a new disability, unable to leave my bed. How can anyone entertain a gurgling baby for hours a day, if they are not armed with fairytales? As it turns out, in an emergency, a stack of books is of more use even than methylated spirits and tinned peaches.

With each story, one after another, we left the beige room and travelled into magical worlds where animals talked, eggs grew and hatched, pots of porridge flooded whole villages, foxes chased chickens, who in turn fooled foxes.

My real world had faded, and turned into a prison. I needed a bigger world, with possibility. My baby needed distraction, but I needed fairy tales to escape in.

I had thought I was too old for fairytales. Instead, I discovered, as CS Lewis promised Lucy, that there is always a time as grown-ups when we need to return to fairytales.

***

Stories reveal our world to us, and perhaps never better than when they present us with a world alien to us. When I was grieving my health, I found my tears in David Copperfield. When I was overwhelmed with love for my newborn son, I cried through the final page of Julia Donaldson’s Monkey Puzzle. When I grew frightened of how I would look after my baby, I read Dr Seuss’s “Oh, the Places You’ll Go’ and wept for the possibility of hope. In my search to make sense of my new world, God gave me fictional worlds to exercise my battered resilience in safety.

***

Stories reveal our world to us, but they can also even help reveal God to us. A preacher once told me that, when it comes to God, most people’s minds are not repositories for facts and words, but picture galleries, full of images. So many of us have inherited a faulty picture of God in our minds, and we need to know what a loving, good God really looks like. As every good preacher knows, we need to know the Bible, but we also need illustrations of what God’s nature looks like.

When they are at their most pure, stories point to hidden truth. Tolkien actually went so far as to say that every good story reflected the Best True Story – which is to say every good story reflects in some way the story of God.

Jesus was both the Word and Image of God. We need preachers who can expound the Bible, but we also need storytellers, who give us truth in parallel and parable.

For months after I became so ill, the Bible was a battle to read. The words and long sentences no longer made sense to me cognitively, and all Bible stories had fragmented in my head. But like the clues I had craved as an eight-year-old embarking on an Adventure, God was in my reading. God was in the fairytales. 

God showed up in stories – as a mysterious but good lion, as the bishop in Les Miserables, as a kindly Christopher Robin to a very bewildered Pooh Bear, as the best Marmee a girl could have. God will always speak through the Bible, but sometimes, in mercy and goodness, he speaks in our own language, too.

The God who could speak through wind, fire and donkeys spoke to me through novel characters and cartoon pictures. It was the very healing I needed.

***

I am no longer a child, but I still look out for clues, and I am still having a Great Adventure. I’m still a preacher-girl, by calling, but today I preach principally in stories and metaphor. I’m still a Bible-teacher, but now whenever I explore the Bible, I dig under the skin of the characters, and look at the Bible-world anew, as though I am discovering it for the first time. It is not the memorised verses that call to me now, but the stories of those ancient disciples, who stumbled and faltered, and found God.

Over to you: 

  • Which fictional stories and images have helped you better connect with God? 
Tanya Marlow

Tanya Marlow

Writer at Thorns and Gold
Tanya Marlow was in Christian ministry for a decade and a lecturer in Biblical Theology, until she got sick, and became a writer. She likes answering the tricky questions of faith that most avoid, and writing honestly about suffering and searching for God. Tanya has written a short book on Ruth and Naomi’s story in the Bible, interweaving it with her own journey. You can buy it here: Coming Back to God When You Feel Empty
Tanya Marlow

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  • Abbie Robson

    I don’t know about connecting with God necessarily, but I’ve always felt an affinity to Katy in What Katy Did. I used to be somewhat haphazard, with a life full of drama, and was then forced by health issues to look at my life a bit differently. As I’ve got used to my new limitations I’ve become quieter, calmer, safer with myself, and (some of the time) closer to God.

    • veronicazundel

      I totally loved the Katy series, especially What Katy Did at School – fabulous fun.

  • I love this. ” most people’s minds are not repositories for facts and words, but picture galleries, full of images. ” YES. And it just now occurs to me that the things I find most striking, most nourishing in the Bible are all in terms of images and stories.

    And this is so validating as someone who loves stores, especially fairytales. Growing up I always felt a bit like reading Tolkien was not quite as good as reading the Bible. But I love that the more I learn in life, the more I understand how important stories are.

  • Jean S

    This is beautiful – I just forwarded to a long-time Right-Brained friend of mine who reads theology like I read stories. You just summarized in several paragraphs something I have been trying to get him to understand for 15+ years. Brilliant. Thank you!

  • veronicazundel

    Thank you for this, Tanya – very apposite as I work on a series of poems (for my MA in Writing Poetry) based on fairy tales. There is only one sentence I would quibble at: ‘God will always speak through the Bible, but sometimes, in mercy and goodness, he speaks in our own language, too’. If ‘our own language’ is story, then the Bible is in that language too. It is a collection of stories, and it is by trying to make it into a set of propositions that we have made it alien and boring.

  • Betsy Blatchley

    Thank you for this. In 2014 we did our whole summer all age series on ‘God of the Fairytale’ – uses stories and films to explore deep biblical truths in a fun and interactive way. I Loved it (and the congregation seemed to too). Audio books were a lifeline when I was bed bound with ME and later for rest times – an escape into another world but many truths. I LOVE children’s books – and collect authors like Noel Streatfeild, Pamela Brown, Mabel Esther Allan, LM Monthomery and so many others.

  • This is so important! I can catch myself reading too much nonfiction, trying to learn more. But I learn so much from those fairy tales and stories. I appreciate this permission to find God in the beauty of a well-told story.

  • Mark Allman

    Tanya,

    I love to read and love the worlds reading takes me to. Worlds where I learn about things, about issues and about myself. Reading opens up possibilities in my mind that did not exist before. Most of what I have learned in life I learned primarily through what I have read. I still love to get lost in a book and travel new places I never knew existed.

    I believe we reach and connect with people through stories. I believe people deeply want their story known. They want to be known and not judged. We need to encourage people to tell us their stories for then we find what means the most to them; what they love; what bothers them; where we can connect. A recent song I heard for the first time called The Story by Brandi Carlile has these lyrics “But these stories don’t mean anything When you’ve got no one to tell them to.” People want to know they mean enough for you to know their stories.

    Tanya, you are a story teller extraordinaire. Some of your best are The Box; On Love and Sunglasses; I am from, My flute: a love story; and Love is in a Midnight Blue Towel. Stories that need to be reread again and again. You are still a preaching lady through your amazing stories woven from your life. You point to God and you give others hope and encouragement.

  • Debbie Anne Winn

    Thank you for sharing this. I have been writing fairy stories for a couple of years now, and giving them to friends. I am just at the point where I am considering getting some published. It’s good to know that adults still read them. X

  • Tanya, this is so good! And I agree that we are never too old for fairy tales. Stories are such a great medium for revealing truth and helping to bring understanding and comfort. I always love to read your words, Tanya. They are also magical! 🙂 Blessings to you! Love you!