The Spiritual Meaning of Stories

More and more people are willing to accept the fact that fairy tales are not merely for children.However, there’s still often a stigma attached to stories as “not serious literature.” (Take this recent article, for example).  Tolkien argued against this elitism in his wonderful essay “On Fairy Stories.” C. S. Lewis wrote about it often as well. Lisa Cron writes about it in her wonderful book Story Genius (highly recommended!)

Recently, I came across a lecture on the spiritual meaning of stories, given by the wonderful Ivan Ilyin (my hero), an emigre Russian philosopher and writer, on the same subject. Here’s my translation of this lecture. Please note that this was delivered to a Russian audience, so the subject is necessarily about Russian fairy tales. But you can safely insert pretty much any other ethnic designation, and it’ll still work.

One more thing. His point about the folklore of a country springing up from the deep history of a nation–this is something very important for all of us Americans to think about, especially since so many of our cultural elites are more interested in putting down or even destroying our common culture (such as it is) rather than returning to it as well of inspiration. Something to think about.

The Spiritual Meaning of Stories,a lecture read in Berlin on May 3, 1934.

Spiritual Meaning of Stories

Whatever shadow may fall on your life–maybe you are worried about the fate of your country, or perhaps dark thoughts visit you concerning your own future, or maybe your entire life seems an unbearable wound–remember the Russian fairy tale. Listen to her quiet, ancient, wise voice.

Don’t think the fairy tale is a childish diversion, not worthy of the attention of a grown man. And don’t think that adults are smart, and children stupid. Don’t imagine that an adult has to “stupefy” himself to tell a story to a child.

Is it not perhaps the opposite? Aren’t our minds the source of most of our woes? And what is stupidity, anyway? Is all stupidity dangerous or shameful? Or is there perhaps an intelligent kind of stupidity, something desirable and blessed that begins with stupidity but ends with wisdom? Maybe there are two kinds of stupidity? One comes from blind self-contentment, the other from a healthy skepticism? One stupefies with pride and leads to vulgarity, while the other stupefies through humility and leads to wisdom…

This sort of stupidity, or perhaps better called simplicity, exactly describes all folk tales, especially Russian folk tales.

The fairy tale doesn’t insist on anything. It doesn’t intrude on anyone. It’s not in the least contrived. If you don’t want to listen, don’t! It’s like a flower, but not one from a cultivated garden. It’s like a wildflower in the field that sows itself, that roots itself, that pushes its own flower petals up toward God’s sunlight. This flower gives its own kind of honey, a wondrous and fragrant honey that only a simple and wise beekeeper can harvest.

Spiritual Meaning of Stories

The same is true of the spiritual meaning of the fairy tale. It’s like refined and sweet-smelling honey. If you drip it on your tongue, you’ll taste all the ineffable essence of Russia’s nature–the smell of the earth, the heat of the sun, the fragrance of flowers, and something else that is subtle and rich, something eternally youthful and yet eternally ancient. All this, in its ineffable taste and smell.

This fragrance has accumulated over hundreds of years inside the souls of people, inside Russian souls that have invisibly flowered and wilted on the plains of that wide land. The Russian fairy tale conceals within itself hundreds and thousands of years of its people’s spiritual experience. The history of the Russian people is only one thousand years old; however, the age of a nation isn’t limited by the memory of its history. After all, one thousand years ago, Russia only awoke to itself and began to think of itself as a nation, and only after it was baptized.

Russia retained little memory of its pre-Christian past. But this past, lost to its memory, wasn’t lost to the Russian spirit. Everything that happened before, lost to the memory, the Russian people took with them and carried into their history. This is not the Chronicle or the epic poem, not the life of a saint or a legend. This is the fairy tale.

Spiritual Meaning of Stories

No, none of it every actually happened. Never and nowhere did these princes and warriors live. None of these grey wolves or deathless spirits ever existed. None of these Baba Yagas or Zmei Goryniches or Ivan the Fools ever walked the Russian land. And only he who studies the science of history but cuts ties with the science of spiritual experience thinks fairy tales are stupid.

Only he who worships at the altar of facts and has lost the ability to contemplate a state of being ignores fairy tales. Only the one who wants to see with his physical eyes alone, plucking out his spiritual eyes in the process, considers the fairy tale to be dead.

Fine. Let’s call the fairy tale simplistic. But it is at least modest in its simplicity. And for its modesty, we forgive it its stupidity. After all, it takes courage to be so simple! The fairy tale doesn’t hide its inaccuracies. It isn’t ashamed of its simplicity. It’s not afraid of strict questions and mocking smiles.

Finally, we forgive fairy tales because they believe in their own way of seeing the world. The fairy tale considers the events of its own telling with reverence. It lives by its images and awaits its resolution, its final sigh, in the sincerity of those same images.

Fairy tales are sincere, and so we forgive them. Like sparks that fly from a bonfire and light up the darkness, so also the vision of stories flies up directly from the hearts of the people, from their loves and hatreds, from their fears and hopes. Having flown up from those depths, stories illuminate the grayness and darkness of everyday life.

The themes of these stories reside in the wise depths of human instinct, somewhere deep inside those holy depths, where the knots of national essence and national character reside, and where they await their final resolution, completion, and freedom. No proud man, no coward, no faithless, crooked soul can plumb these depths of national-spiritual experience. Only the trusting, sincere, contemplative simpleton, brave in his poetic seriousness, can reach those depths and come out from there rich with fairy tales.

For such a man, these fairy tales are not fabrications or tall tales, but poetic illumination, essential reality, even the beginning of all philosophy. Fairy tales don’t become obsolete if we lose the wisdom to live by it. No, it is we who have perverted our emotional and spiritual culture. And wewill dissipate and die off if we lose our access to these tales.

What is this access to fairy tales? What must we do to make the fairy tale, like the house on chicken feet, “turn its back to the forest and face us?” How can we see it and live by it, how can we illuminate its oracular depth and make clear its true spiritual meaning?

For this, we must not cling to the sober mind of the daylight consciousness with all its observations, its generalizations, its “laws of nature.” The fairy tales sees in a different way from the daylight consciousness. It see other things and in other ways.

It sees less, because it only sees short, simplified, concentrated fragments from the lives of heroes. This brevity is the result of a creative reduction. The story can be told in twenty minutes, but it encompasses twenty years, perhaps. After all, as the storytellers said, “quickly is the story told, but slowly does the story unfold.” The fairy tale’s brevity is artistic. Its simplicity is stylized. Its concentration is symbolic. For the fairy tale is a fragment of national art.

The story itself is already art. It conceals and reveals in its words an entire world of images, and these images symbolize profound spiritual states. But at the same time, the fairy tale is not quite art, because it is alive, for it is passed from teller to teller, and has no single, complete, concrete version. Anyone has the right to tell the fairy tale in his own way, as he sees fit. Therefore, the fairy tale is a kind of national theme for personal dreaming.

This makes the fairy tale like myths, and like songs, and like decorations on embroidery or on the roofs of those fanciful Russian houses. The myth says to the poet, “Take me into your contemplation and give me a final form and body.” And Homer, Ovid, Goethe, Wagner, and Pushkin all answered the myth. The song says to all singers, “Take me with your hearing and your soul and sing me from your own depths, as God inspires you.” And all minstrels, minnesingers, harpists, and folk composers answer the call.

Spiritual Meaning of Stories

The decoration says to the master artisan, “Here I am! Describe your way of life through my tracery.” And all folk artists, woodworkers, ironworkers, from Siena to Archangelsk, answer the call.

This is the psychological place of the fairy tale. It is a kind of art similar to myths, songs, and decorations. It comes from the same place as dreams, premonitions, and prophecies. This is why the birth of a story is at the same time artistic and magical. It not only tells a story, but it sings it into being. And the more a fairy tale sings, the easier it enters the soul, and the stronger is its magical force to calm, order, and illumine the soul. The fairy tale comes from the same source as the songs of mages, with their commanding power. This is why stories repeat phrases and images so often.

This is also why the greatest Russian poets, Zhukovskii and Pushkin, sang their favorite stories in verse, imbuing the national myth with the force of magical song and ordering the fairy tale into the perfected and unchangeable decoration of their words.

But the fairy tale sees a great deal morealso than the daylight consciousness. Nature and its daylight consciousness have their own essential inevitability and their own natural impossibilities. But the fairy tale is limited neither by inevitability nor by impossibility. It has its own“inevitabilities” and “impossibilities.” These are different, spiritual, internal, mysterious.

The fairy tale doesn’t submit to the laws of nature or gravity or time or space. It only submits to the laws of creative imagination and the laws of the national-heroic epic. It submits to the laws of magic. It is laid down by the laws of prophetic dreaming, inspired ecstasy, and illumination from contemplation. These laws are mystical. You can sense them, but you can’t easily formulate them. Their power, however, is eternal and world-creating. These are the things that make a fairy tale life and breathe.

So, don’t listen to a fairy tale in the bright light of day or with your prosaic and wing-less consciousness. Listen to a fairy tale in the evening or at light, in the magical darkness that removes familiarity from things and gives them a new, unexpected, mysterious form. You should listen to fairy tales with the dusky consciousness between sleeping and waking. Listen from the depth of your unconscious mind, where your soul lives like a child, where it’s childishly “stupid” and isn’t ashamed of its stupidity, where it enters into the story with complete seriousness and a passion of hope and despair, not even remembering that it’s all make believe.

There, you’ll find life itself- the battle, the victory, and the end.


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