My Favorite Fairy Tale

 Some 30-plus years ago, I preached a sermon on Colossians 1:13-14: “He [the Father] has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the Kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”

In thinking about what it meant to be rescued and transferred from one Kingdom into another, I decided to use as an illustration my favorite fairy tale, “The 12 Dancing Princesses.” This is not the most well-known of fairy tales. It has never been made into a Disney movie. But it has been written and re-written and updated in many ways. The story is that there was once a King who had twelve daughters of whom he was very protective. Every night he would lock them into the long bedroom in which they all slept; every morning he would come and release them. But what he did not know was that every night another door would open in the floor of the princesses’ bedroom revealing a stairway to a magic kingdom where they would dance all night.

 As a child I loved this story because my parents sent me to bed much earlier than I thought sensible, and I longed to have a door in my floor so that I could go out and play. I knew nothing of dancing; that was not the appeal of the story for me. But when I was wakeful in my bedroom, hearing the voices of children outdoors in the twilight, I thought it would be wonderful to be able to have a magic door that would let me out.

Eventually the King discovers his daughters misbehavior because their dancing is so vigorous that each of them wears out a pair of slippers every night. Once this loss of footwear is brought to his attention, he realizes that his precautions have been ineffective. And so he announces that whoever can solve the mystery of where the princesses go at night and – more importantly – stop them from going there may marry the eldest and be the next king. Many young princes try and fail; in the darkest versions of the story they are killed for their failure. Eventually an old soldier recently released from the king’s army comes home to the kingdom and decides that he will also try to discover where the princesses go at night. The tricks the princesses used to hide their activities from the young princes don’t work on this far more savvy and cynical man. He manages to follow the princesses into the magic kingdom. He watches as they dance, each with her own prince, and he steals tokens from the magic kingdom to show the king. The removal of those tokens disrupts the magic and closes the door to the enchanted world forever. The soldier marries the eldest daughter, and they settled down to rule the kingdom.

Although this was my favorite fairy tale I did not like the ending, and the older I got the less I liked it. It seemed to me that this oldest daughter should have refused to marry the sensible, world-weary soldier. I thought that she should have had a Puddleglum moment in which she rebelled against the destroyer of all her happiness, the one who had closed the door to the better world. She should have said that even if she could never find her way back, even if she would never again dance with the prince of her own choosing, she would prefer to search for that kingdom rather than live peacefully in the one in which she found herself. She should have said that she would live as a citizen of the enchanted kingdom even if it had been destroyed,. But there is no version of the story in which she says anything of the sort.

In my sermon, I suggested that the message of the fairy tale is a message that we continue to receive from our culture. Despite the trappings of enchantment in the fairy tale, the message is decidedly disenchanted. The story is telling us that going out dancing all night and dreaming of magic kingdoms is all very well for children, but that grownups need to sleep at night and get up for work in the morning , since they have jobs to do. The story is telling us to commit to this world and stop dreaming of a better one. I did not notice it when I first preached this sermon, but the story as I understand it speaks in the voice of C. S. Lewis’s “Disillusioned ‘Sensible Man’”, who experiences longing for another world when he’s young but then “settles down and learns not to expect too much and represses the part of himself which used, as he would say, ‘to cry for the moon’” (Mere Christianity, ch 10, p. 136). The story tells us that the desire which no kingdom in this world can satisfy is a longing for something non-existent, and that maturity consists in letting go of such dreams.

But this is quite the opposite of what Paul is saying in Colossians. Paul says ‘no’ to this sensible understanding, telling the Christians of Colossae that becoming mature, wise, and full of knowledge requires acknowledging that we are citizens of another kingdom, a kingdom of light ruled by our great Prince and Bridegroom. This other kingdom is the real world, the world of life. Apart from Christ, we are living in a kingdom of death, a world that is a shadow of what God designed it to be. In Christ, we have been set free from captivity to that death and given citizenship in the true creation that He is remaking. Later in Colossians he asks, “Why do you live as if you still belong to this world?” (2:20).

The reason I remember a sermon from more than thirty years ago so clearly is that, after I preached it, I thought, I should write that story with a better ending, and I started writing it down. One of my colleagues once told me that he thought most professors have a novel in a drawer somewhere, and this is mine. I work at it from time to time; I think of it quite often. One summer about fifteen years ago I even spent a month workshopping it. Perhaps I’ll finish it in my retirement.

Whether or not it’s ever written, the presence of this altered fairy tale in my imagination keeps me aware of how many voices there are in our world telling us that there is no kingdom of light, that the beauty we sense tugging at us is an illusion, whereas the world of darkness, privation, and ugliness is fully real. All around us we hear the message that it’s possible to be “too good,” that we should be willing to compromise, that we need to get busy building a sensible kingdom right here through our own efforts rather than dreaming about some shining city that can’t possibly exist. But Christians who stand in the Augustinian traditions (which is a lot of us!) know that evil diminishes and damages reality; it does not establish it. Evil is never generative; it can only destroy. We know that the only possible source for reality is God, the truly Real One.

Lewis says that the way of the Disillusioned ‘Sensible Man’ would be the best way if this life were really all we have. But what if it is not? In that case, he says, “I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside…” (MC, ch 10, p. 137). We keep that desire alive by paying attention to reflections of God’s glory in each other and in the world around us. Glimpsing the in-breaking of future glory gives evidence that the kingdom of light is real and that it is where we belong.

But most of all we keep the desire alive by fixing our minds on the most Beautiful One, Jesus Himself, in whom God’s glory (i.e. God’s particular sort of beauty) is fully shown. Jesus is already enthroned as the ruler of this kingdom of light. He is already administering the kingdom of which we are citizens.. “So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on the things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory” (Col. 3:1-4).