Fairy Tales and Myths
As explained in this previous post, I accept J.R.R. Tolkien’s and C.S. Lewis’ take on the meaning of myths and the nature of fairy tales. Since Tolkien and Lewis were two of the most brilliant storytellers in the last few centuries of the English language, their insight into fairy tales, myths, and stories is worth considering. I think they would love the modern movie Elf.
Tolkien and Lewis explained that a fairy tale is simply a story that involves a regular person in the regular world who is suddenly and unexpectedly thrust into a supernatural event or world or activity. Thus, someone who can suddenly see spirits, as happens to some people from time to time, can be said to live in a true fairy story. They are minding their own business and suddenly, they are thrust into a supernatural world. That’s all a fairy story is.
Tolkien and Lewis also conceived that myth is a fairy story that conveys some deeper truth with power, although for the most part aren’t real. Check this site out for deeper analysis. Most myths aren’t real or aren’t true history, but they still convey some kind of truth. The myth that is true and real, of course, is told in the Bible.
When contemplating stories, it’s important to realize that the storyteller is not the arbitrator of the interpretation of the story, unless the storyteller is telling an allegory. Many story tellers don’t know where their story comes from or, after they start writing it, don’t know where it’ll end up. It takes on a life of its own. Tolkien explores this concept in On Fairy Stories and Leaf By Niggle.
I’m convinced that God works on the hearts and minds of many non-believing storytellers.
When you become aware of the cosmic conflict of the Kingdoms and open your eyes to the supernatural, you begin to see revealed in many stories the yearning in hearts for a God who loves them and wants to change and rescue them. You begin to see mythic truths being revealed in all sorts of fairy tales.
Elf: Fairy Story and a Myth
One of my favorite Christmas movies, Elf, seemingly has nothing to do with the true meaning of Christmas, and the judgmental religious part of me always found it a little offensive. Couldn’t they mention baby Jesus just once?
But last weekend my gorgeous wife and I were wrapping Christmas presents and watching Elf, and I saw it as for the first time: I saw the hidden truth it was conveying.
SPOILER ALERT. If you’ve not seen the film, don’t read any further.
In Elf, a human named Buddy is raised in the North Pole, and when he turns 30, Santa sends him magically to New York a few days before Christmas to meet his biological father for the first time. In New York, he cheerfully springs upon his unwitting father and joyfully professes his love to him. He also meets a beautiful but jaded young woman named Jovie, who refuses to sing in public, although she has a gift to sing. At one point, he sees people gathering to meet Santa, but is appalled that it’s not the real Santa, and he protests. I think the line, “You sit on a throne of lies!” cracks me up the most, but again, there’s hidden symbolism being conveyed!
Buddy’s father, Walter, is a callous, selfish and spiritually blind businessman who has lost the joy of why he works. He rejects Buddy’s love and furiously banishes Buddy, who begins to think he doesn’t belong in New York anymore.
However, Santa appears and reaffirms Buddy’s identity and he instantly regains his cheerful disposition, and Buddy again works Santa’s will, and Walter repents, to Buddy’s joy.
Meanwhile, the magic of Buddy’s love and grace begin working on Jovie, who starts singing in public, but Buddy’s love and grace are extended by her stepping out and taking a big risk: through Jovie’s singing in public, all of New York City join her. Buddy’s love and joy spreads everywhere until at last, even Walter joins in, and at that moment their collective faith empowers Santa’s magic to continue affecting the world for good.
The True Meaning of Christmas: God’s Kingdom on Earth!
And I thought this didn’t convey the true meaning of Christmas!? Egad, it conveys the true meaning of Christmas far more than almost any other Christmas movie out there!
Elf is a fairy story. A regular family is suddenly thrust into a supernatural world; they initially think the man who intrudes their lives and says he’s from the North Pole and was raised by elves is insane. They come to realize he’s not. In every sense of Tolkien and Lewis’ conception, Elf is a fairy story.
Elf is not a literal allegory, but its symbols conveys truth and thus is a myth. The movie demonstrates what God the Father in Heaven accomplished and is accomplishing and will accomplish by sending his Son to earth.
If not, watch the movie again with the idea that Santa is God the Father, the North Pole is Heaven, Buddy the Son, New York City as the Earth, Buddy’s dad as Israel and the young woman as the Church, and you’ll start to get it. Keep in mind, it’s not an allegory, so the symbols don’t hold entirely. It’s a mythic fairy tale.
The Biblical Truth
The New Testament demonstrates that God the Father sent the Son to Israel, who largely rejected him. Those whom accepted God’s love and grace through faith became the Church, which God tasked with filling and changing the world with the Good News of God’s amazing love and grace and with the rule and reign of God – the Kingdom – coming to earth. Ultimately all of Israel will be saved and the entire world filled with the Holy Spirit and God’s rule and reign, changing the earth into the Temple of God.
Now, look again at the synopsis of Elf and the symbols. Can you see the Gospel story?
Recall the “North Pole” at the department store. This is symbolic of the Temple in the Bible, which is where Heaven existed on Earth, or at least was supposed to exist. When Jesus entered the Temple, he had some choice words and violent actions to reflect his view that the Temple had become a den of thieves, rather than a house of prayer; the Temple welcomed the god of money rather than the God of Israel.
Buddy comes to the North Pole and when he learns Santa is coming the next day, he expressed utter joy, love, and excitement. I reckon this is how Jesus felt about his Father, don’t you? I sometimes wonder if I should look more like Buddy excited about Santa when I enter a worship service, looking to welcome God’s presence.
Buddy explains to the store employees what the culture of the North Pole looks like: singing to welcome the Spirit. Get it?
He says it’s full of joy and happiness, sugar and excellence.
Buddy decides the department store version isn’t good enough, and works hard to make it shine. He wants it to be just right for Santa.
When the fake Santa comes in, everyone is satisfied, except Buddy. “You sit on a throne of lies!” It’s a great scene, and reminiscent of Jesus driving out the money changers.
Jesus Cares About Everybody
Later, Walter’s son admonishes his dad: “Buddy cares about everybody, but you only care about yourself!” This is the story of humanity!
Walter repents, asks Buddy’s forgiveness, and accepts and returns the love of Buddy, leading to faith in Santa and the Christmas Spirit spreading.
It’s a mythic retelling of the Gospel story. 1
Should you get your theology from Elf? Don’t be ridiculous. It’s a fairy story, yet it hints at the truth, doesn’t it?
- Whether or not the storytellers intended it is irrelevant. Only in literal allegories does the storyteller exercise tyranny of story interpretation over the audience. ↩