Let me tell you a story. Once upon a time, there was a lost child wandering in a wood, who stumbled across a path lined with signposts. Strange and wonderful names adorned these signs, names like Phantastes, Beowulf, Harry Potter, The Odyssey, Pilgrim’s Progress, and The Return of the King. The child, guided by the posts, set out along the path. By way of many adventures, they led him through the Dragon’s Den, into the foggy Foothills of Longing, and finally up to the Peaks of Joy, where he caught a glimpse of a far green country under a swift sunrise. He now lives happily ever after, pursuing that path to the heights he was made to explore.
This is the tale of many men and many women — those who have heeded the signposts of story on the path of life. Followed faithfully, this path can lead to the heights of happiness, what the poet calls “fullness of joy” and “pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11). C.S. Lewis perhaps best articulated his adventures on this road. He began the trek as a hardened atheist, but along this path of good stories, God led him to Jesus. And though he has long since passed beyond our vision, happily heeding the invitation of Aslan to come further up and further in, we can glean much from his journey.
Lewis champions all kinds of stories — fairy tales, myths, fantasies, biblical narratives, allegories, even histories — as God-given means of leading men and women Godward. And other Christians, like Tolkien and Chesterton, heartily agree, attesting to the enduring value of stories for both believers and unbelievers. So, how exactly do good stories serve as signposts, guiding us to the God we were made for?
Through the Dragon’s Den
First, good stories can guide us through the dragon’s den. Lewis once said that he wrote fairy tales because they allowed him to steal past the watchful dragons that stand guard over our hearts (On Stories, 70). Tolkien took the image one step further and argued that stories can also steal from those dragons. Tolkien recognized that, often, the more we see things, the less we see them; our eyes become hooded with the film of familiarity. For Tolkien, this leads to a kind of draconic possessiveness. We lay hold of things, claim them as our own, lock them in our hoard, and then cease to look at them. We become unwatchful dragons.
Thus, we need what Tolkien calls recovery — a renewed sense of wonder at the world. We need someone to raid our “hoard and let all the locked things fly away like caged birds” (On Fairy-Stories, 68). As it turns out, stories make excellent burglars. Like the warm breath of Aslan, good stories restore life to things that inattention has long since turned to stone.
Good stories, especially good fiction, create opportunities for us to come to grips with reality. As Chesterton might say, myths parade before us sheep with golden coats to astonish us that ours wear robes of white. Fairy tales brandish wooden wands sprouting magic spells so that they might land on us with wonderful weight that our branches cast leaves. Stories conjure up hoary Ents to remind us that our trees too are giants, telling ancient tales of earth and sky. Good stories signpost the riches of creation.
When all these gigantic treasures are dragged back into the Light, foiled by fantasy, they can awaken in us what Chesterton calls the ancient instinct of astonishment and dazzle us into gratitude. This impulse to give thanks acted as a signpost for the unbelieving Chesterton, causing him to realize that thanks must be given to someone. Gifts need a Giver. Magic needs a Magician. Creation needs a Creator.
“Like the warm breath of Aslan, good stories restore life to things that inattention has long since turned to stone.”
Stories can also recover things from the shadowy prison of abstraction. Through narrative, imagination can incarnate what reason excarnates. When you have stood beside Aragorn before the black gates of Mordor and seen the innumerable hosts of Sauron swarming like ants, good and evil cease to be simply ideas. When you’ve basked in the golden goodness of Aslan, you’ve seen a glimmer of the beauty of Jesus. In this way, stories can be radically iconoclastic, ridding our hoard of the little idols of God that we construct and creating imaginative space for the immense God of the Bible.
In short, stories help undragon us. They enable us to taste and see the goodness of good, and so fuel our desire for the God who is Good.
Into the Hills
Thus, good stories can cultivate holy longing. In his autobiography, Lewis recounts how stories often gave him a stab of desire, and in doing so, they served as signposts and foretastes of something “other and outer” (Surprised by Joy, 238).
Lewis knew by experience that the heart of man is haunted by a sense of homesickness — which Lewis terms Joy symbolized by a Blue Flower. Ultimately, Joy is a longing to home in the triune God, a far-off echo of the enormous bliss lost in Eden. Eternity smolders in our hearts, and though we cannot fully snuff out this longing, we do smother it. Part of the tragedy of modernity is that almost everything is aimed at weeding out the Blue Flower. God planted the seed deep in our souls, but we are poor gardeners. Even though all souls thirst for the living God, few of us are ever quiet enough to identify the ache.
But good stories can remind us of the restlessness that besets our souls. Thus, many find their way into the foggy foothills of desire through the pages of great books. You need look no further than the astonishing success of the Harry Potter series to prove this. Harry proclaims to all who have ears to hear that modernity still yearns for something more — something that even the Room of Requirement cannot satisfy.
The best storytellers know how to fuel this holy longing. Tolkien, the maker of Middle-earth, defines a successful story as one that “awakens desire, satisfying it while also wetting it unbearably” (On Fairy-Stories). Jesus himself, the master storyteller, understood this narrative power and so wielded fantasy to this effect, regaling his listeners with tales of buried treasure and quests for legendary pearls.
Lewis’s imaginative mentor, George MacDonald, armed all of his fiction with the stab of Joy. For MacDonald, the best thing good stories can do for a man is “not to give him things to think about, but to wake things up that are in him.” And so, in all his subcreation and storytelling, MacDonald made it his aim to “assail the soul of his reader as the wind assails an aeolian harp. . . . [For] if there be music in my reader, I would gladly wake it” (A Dish of Orts, 239–40).
Given this emphasis, it should come as no surprise that when, as an atheist, Lewis first read MacDonald’s enchanting tale Phantastes, he was overwhelmed with a sense of longing, dazzled by what he would later identify as holiness. He recounts, “I saw the bright shadow coming out of the book into the real world and resting there, transforming all common things” (Surprised by Joy, 181). Lewis began to see the meaning of his insatiable longing, the tune of the song of his soul. And MacDonald’s fairy tale served as his alpine guide, leading him ever up.
In good stories, we hear rumors of glory, hints and bright riddles of the Home we were made for. And it is good to be haunted by this yearning, for above the mists of myth and the veil of story lies the goal of all our longing.
Up the Mountain
Finally, when good stories have raided the Dragon’s Den and guided us through the Foothills of Longing, they lead us yet further up. As the horns of elfland sing, for a moment the fog parts, and we are given a stunning vista of happily ever after.
Tolkien names this visionary virtue the Consolation of the Happy Ending, and he held it to be the highest good of good stories. And this happy ending is no mere wish fulfillment. For Tolkien, in a well-told tale, the happy ending echoes the gospel. It does not diminish the reality of sorrow and suffering. In fact, sorrow and suffering set the stage for the story’s most powerful moment.
Precisely here, when the tale turns, when against all odds and all hope evil is overcome, “a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world” breaks through the cloud of story and lights up the breathless reader (On Fairy-Stories, 75). Tolkien calls this moment eucatastrophe — literally a good catastrophe. And for him, every thunderbolt of eucatastrophe in subcreated stories reflects the Great Eucatastrophes of the incarnation and resurrection, giving us a glimpse of the staggering heights of triune joy.
Who, indeed, can be unmoved when Frodo, after facing the fires of Mount Doom, gets his first glimpse of the Undying Lands? “The grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise” (The Return of the King, 1,030). And what attentive reader does not feel the thrill of hope and yearning that jolts the heart at the mere mention of Aslan’s country?
Like Samwise finally returning to the Shire, we may turn the final page of a good story and, with a deep sigh, say, “Well, I’m back.” We may indeed be back, but not all of us. Something remains in the Otherlands. We left a splinter of soul in Lothlorien, a piece of heart in Narnia. We will never be free from Faerie. We carry with us the scent of the Blue Flower. And that homesickness reminds us that we are made for another world.
The magical lands of story can serve as a placeholder for the better country we are bound for (Hebrews 11:16). They can stretch our imaginations further and further in anticipation of our future home — a home that no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor heart imagined (1 Corinthians 2:9). But oh, there have been hints. We have heard echoes. We have caught glimpses. We’ve smelled the Blue Flowers of Eden, and now we can never finally be content with the here and now.
Good stories are signposts — alpine guides leading us up the path of life. Like Lewis, we can follow them past dragons, over hills, and high up into the mountains. In the pages and paragraphs of great tales, we can hear the voice of our Aslan echoing off the mountain walls, bidding us to come further up and further in. Will you heed his call?