Paintings on the Walls

Growing up is hard. Bones stretch, voices crack, hormones rage, and perspectives shift. This last change can be the most painful of all. My nephew turned eight last month and announced that he no longer believed in magic. And he cried. Many things are lost on the journey to adulthood, but the loss of wonder is one of the hardest casualties to bear. There is no room in the adult world for elves and fairies. When you’re a grownup, wardrobes are just for hanging coats.

I was a child that believed in magic. When I got older I stopped believing, of course, but adulthood came with a deep sense of loss. It was like most of the color had gone out of the world. Looking back, I sometimes wonder if it is irresponsible for adults to let children believe in magic. Fantasy stories are like works of art we paint to amuse ourselves and then hang on the bare walls of our mundane world. But when children look at these paintings, they see windows — glimpses into a land beyond our own — and they are filled with joy to think of a world outside these walls. No wonder they weep to learn it was just paint and canvas all along. Surely it would be better to never paint these pictures, or write these stories, or sing these songs in the first place. Why teach children to long for something that isn’t really there?

But what if a child’s mind is closer to the truth? After all, even when we’ve left magic behind, that longing remains. There is still a deep sense of something we have lost and hope to find again. C.S. Lewis calls it “Sehnsucht;” an “inconsolable longing.”

That unnameable something, desire for which pierces us like a rapier at the smell of bonfire, the sound of wild ducks flying overhead…the morning cobwebs in late summer, or the noise of falling waves. — C.S. Lewis

This yearning points our hearts towards the truth. J.R.R. Tolkien, in his essay “On Fairy-Stories” talks about myths and fantasy as echoes of reality, pointing to a true “eucatastrophe,” or happy ending.

The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. …and among its marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe. The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. — J.R.R. Tolkien

I think fantasy stories do more than fool children and break their hearts. I think they not only teach us to long for a land beyond, but are born out of that longing. They’re the songs we sing to remind us of home. By teaching me to yearn for something more, those stories were preparing my heart for the Gospel. Fairies may not be real. Magic may all be pretend. But there is a world outside, and not only are there windows in the walls, there is a door, carved from the outside-in.

I am grateful to have believed in magic. I hope someday my children do too. Because whether they intended to or not, those paintings on the walls taught me to watch for windows and to long for the land beyond.

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