Scottish playwright J.M. Barrie began his novel Peter Pan with a simple, heartbreaking truth: that all children—save one—must inevitably grow up. At the age of two, his heroine, Wendy Darling, learns of this as she is playing in her family’s garden and hands a flower to her mother, thus stopping her in her tracks. “Why can’t you remain like this for ever!” Mrs. Darling cries as she puts her hand to her heart. From “henceforth,” Barrie wrote, “Wendy knew that she must grow up.” Surely, we all learn this truth when we are two, Barrie concluded, for “two is the beginning of the end.”
In her recent book, Enchantment: Awakening Wonder in an Anxious Age, writer Katherine May proposes an alternative to this inevitable end. Addressing a “bone-tired people who no longer feel at home” on earth, she invites us to live with more curiosity, tenderness, and awe, affirming our deep-seated hunger for meaning and connection. As a child, she tells us, “enchantment came so easily,” marking each and every day with “quiet traces of magic.” Yet up against the pressures of adulthood and the frenetic pace of modern life, she buried these traces as something to be ashamed of. Losing this magic was “what I had to do in order to grow up,” she writes. “It took years of work, years of careful forgetting”—so much so that she never realized what she was losing.
It is perhaps impossible to read May’s book without reflecting on one’s own childhood. Like May, magic came naturally to me as a kid—I believed in fairies, mermaids, and the souls of trees and would talk to flowers and the sun as though they were my friends. Growing up, I would spend hours in the woods outside my home, creating fantastical worlds so to escape the scarier world that awaited me inside. Despite everything, I was convinced that the world was imbued with a benevolent force, which filled my heart with something known yet wild. As I got older, however, my trust in this force began to weaken. “Why doesn’t God perform miracles anymore?” I asked a priest after September 11, just weeks after my tenth birthday. If the God of old could part seas and heal the sick, then why couldn’t—and why didn’t—he stop something so terrible? Two decades have since passed, and still I remain caught in this limbo, suspended between my belief in magic and what I fear my belief says about me—that I am naive, stupid, or perhaps completely out of my mind.
If the God of old could part seas and heal the sick, then why couldn’t—and why didn’t—he stop something so terrible?
In his book on the subject, Berkeley professor and psychologist Dacher Kelter defines “awe”—used interchangeably here with “wonder”—as the emotion we experience when presented with something that transcends human understanding. When we experience awe, all vanity and cynicism vanish as the walls that separate us dissolve into what feels like a thick, golden liquid, renewing us from the inside out. Mysterious and fleeting, this awe reawakens what G.K. Chesterton once called our “ancient instinct of astonishment.” If only for a moment, it enables us to remember what we have forgotten—including the things we forget that we have forgotten.
As humans, we are born with all the necessary ingredients of awe, including an inquisitive mind, a lack of inhibition, and a fascination for all that surrounds us. This appetite for awe is something that children’s books both harness and encourage. Derived from the German Wundermärchen, these “wonder” or “fairy tales” present worlds marked by prophecies, spells, and enchanted forests, where fairies, wizards, centaurs, and elves are as real as you and me. Generally, children have an easier time inhabiting such worlds. In his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” J.R.R. Tolkien conceded as much, writing that all those who enter “the Kingdom of Faërie should have the heart of a little child.” Yet even Tolkien believed that fairy tales had been mistakenly associated with children, having been “relegated to the ‘nursery’” after being declared “unfashionable” in literary circles. Using “adult” as imprimatur, the critics of Tolkien’s day accused fairy tales of giving children an impractical—and thus unhealthy—impression of the world they lived in. The sooner young readers abandoned fantasy as a genre, they argued, the better their lives would be.
Most of us can remember a time when we were told to “put aside childish things,” exchanging the magical for the real. Yet this trade comes at a high price. As “we move from the childhood world of play and daydreams,” wrote Madeleine L’Engle in A Stone for a Pillow, we “stifle our sense of joy and wonder,” finding security in cynicism and distrust. Regrettably, this shift is happening earlier and earlier. Across the country, art and music classes are being slashed from school budgets as curricula are being swallowed by assessment, generating precipitous declines in the number of young readers who reportedly read for fun. With every minute scheduled and every interaction digitized, children are being given fewer opportunities to cultivate their natural penchant for wonder, particularly as our world descends into patterns of further warming and extinction.
Of course, even today, childhood continues to offer a layer of protection. It is only as we get older that we risk falling into a void that whittles the world down to a single dimension. Confined to this void, we prioritize rationality while rebuffing emotion as subjective and immature. Fashioning ourselves as masters of the universe, we strip people and things of their ancient meaning until we are nothing but particles of dust.
With every minute scheduled and every interaction digitized, children are being given fewer opportunities to cultivate their natural penchant for wonder, particularly as our world descends into patterns of further warming and extinction.
There are many who regard this fall as not only inevitable—as Barrie wrote in Peter Pan—but also necessary and good. In the 1970s, psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim theorized that adults who believe in magic had been forced to grow up prematurely, leading them to cling to the “childish” notion of an enchanted world. As a young man, C.S. Lewis similarly maintained that fairy tales were “lies breathed through silver”—that is, until he met Tolkien. A fellow professor at Oxford, Tolkien believed that stories containing magic mirrored a “splintered fragment of the true light,” behind which “real wills and powers exist, independent of the minds and purposes of men.” While fallible, these stories were touched by something true and sacred that served to bring man into closer communion with the divine. One night as Lewis and Tolkien were walking around the grounds of Magdalen College in the fall of 1931, Lewis finally got it. With his epiphany came a heavenly “rush of wind, which came so suddenly,” sending “so many leaves pattering down that [he] thought it was raining.”
With Tolkien as his guide, Lewis realized that it was a mistake to associate fairy tales with not growing up, just as it was misguided to think of children as alien creatures who are somehow separate from the rest of the human family. It was (and is) typical for adults to talk about their love of fairy tales with shame and self-deprecation, having been instructed to put juvenile things aside. Yet as Lewis saw it, a fear of being childish was a mark of childishness, not adulthood. He believed that human beings are the total sum of our years—a mixture of experience and innocence—much like a tree is the total sum of its rings, each as important as the last. “Arrested development,” he wrote, “consists not in refusing to lose old things but in failing to add new things. . . . I now enjoy Tolstoy and Jane Austen and Trollope as well as fairy tales and I call that growth: if I had had to lose the fairy tales in order to acquire the novelists, I would not say that I had grown but only that I had changed.”
A fear of being childish was a mark of childishness, not adulthood.
Years later in A Stone for a Pillow, Madeleine L’Engle would echo Lewis’s point, describing a letter from an eleven-year-old reader who asked, “How can I remain a child forever and not grow up?” In reply, L’Engle wrote, “I don’t think you can, and I don’t think it would be a good idea if you could. What you can do, and what I hope you will do, is remain a child forever, and grow up, too.”
Like Lewis, L’Engle believed that to be a grown-up was to inhabit the world not as “an isolated fragment of our own chronology,” but as a full human being, as childlike as we are adult. Cumulative and dynamic, this fullness invites us to dwell in what the poet W.H. Auden once called a “secondary world” that buzzes right beneath the surface, transcending what we can touch or see. Through their work, the creators of Wundermärchen manage to fuse our primary and secondary worlds, casting the earth not as a rocky, soulless mass but as “a mighty matter of legend.” Both on and off the page, they permit us to think of the world as a wonderful and enchanted place while silencing those who view magic as deluded or infantile. As a great defender of wonder, the poet W.B. Yeats wrote openly of the “fairy populace” of Ireland’s hills and woodlands, just as Lewis confessed to having seen mountains that made him feel “at any moment that a giant might raise his head over the next ridge.” The view was so breathtaking, he wrote, that “only giants” would do.
Fairy tales have long been accused of “tricking” children while reinforcing our human propensity toward self-focus, escapism, and delusion. In response, Lewis argued that fairy tales are far less likely to deceive readers than stories that profess to be real. Relative to novels and other “realistic stories,” he maintained, fairy tales are significantly more “life-like,” insofar as they reveal “human life as seen, or felt, or divined from the inside.” In his autobiography, Chesterton likewise called fairy tales “entirely reasonable things” that support a “first and last philosophy”—a philosophy that has been “ratified by the mere facts”—while Tolkien claimed that fairy tales actually renew our sense of reality by allowing us to explore the universe’s full “depths of time and space.” “The keener and the clearer is the reason,” he wrote, “the better the fantasy will it make.”
As opposed to inflating our egos—and separating us from reality—magical tales take us outside ourselves, bringing us into fuller communion with God, nature, and each other. Like any awe-inspiring experience, Lewis wrote, “[The fairy tale] arouses a longing for [the reader] knows not what. It stirs and troubles him (to his life-long enrichment) with the dim sense of something beyond his reach.”
Contrary to what we might expect, this longing does not leave us feeling cheated or resentful. Certainly, the reader of fairy tales does not despise the real world after reading about a magical one; rather, she loves it even more, now that she is better able to see the enchanted in the everyday.
Lewis applied this thinking to his creation of Narnia, which he filled with magical characters who broadened our conception of the possible, having been liberated from the prison of the pragmatic. By immersing the story of Christ into a world of talking animals, white witches, shining lampposts, and endless snows, he restored it to its original significance, allowing us to rediscover its power and—yes—its magic.
Of course, by entering the worlds of Narnia and Middle-Earth, we do not escape pain. On the contrary, pain is the very crucible of the fairy tale. Tolkien wrote openly that his passion for fairy tales was spurred by his experiences on the frontlines of the Somme. Much like life, his books invite us into a world of “ever-present peril,” where joy and grief are each as “sharp as swords.” Far from taking us out of reality, Lewis wrote, The Lord of the Rings “teaches us that Sauron is eternal,” and that “the war of the Ring is only one of a thousand wars against him.” In doing so, it frees us from that purgatorial middle ground between blanket cynicism and uncritical optimism, empowering us to hang on to something more lasting and more real.
As of today, I am just one month away from welcoming my first child—a daughter—into this world. As expected, I have become preoccupied with many of the adult aspects of parenthood, making sure I understand how to care for a creature who will be so fragile and helpless, at least for the first few months. Yet as her due date approaches, I find myself wondering whether there is a way to be both “grown-up” and still open to the new, the inexplainable, and the miraculous. Regardless of what it says about me, I never want to lose what Katherine May calls the “ability to sense magic in the everyday.” And nor do I want my daughter to. How beautiful would it be if every person lived according to what Rachel Carson once called “a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life”—a sense of awe that would reawaken our love for what W.H. Auden called not just the “bush and brook,” but the “gods of the bush and brook.”
One’s belief in magic is not so different from one’s belief in God, who might be called the author of the greatest fairy tale ever told.
Just think how much better we would care for our world and the creatures in it if we believed it was infused with a little magic.
With each year, I am more convinced that one’s belief in magic is not so different from one’s belief in God, who might be called the author of the greatest fairy tale ever told. As Tolkien reminds us, the story of God (in whatever form he takes) contains “many marvels” that are “peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving.” But it also contains meaning. “If there is a purpose, there is a person, and if there is a story, there is a story-teller,” wrote Chesterton—particularly if said story rests on something “incomprehensible.” As we open ourselves to awe, our attempts to understand the divine must remain dynamic and childlike, with each encounter like a new birth—a second chance at life. It is why we honour biblical figures who were receptive to awe even as they remained “grown-up” in every other sense. It is also why we profess the need to become like little children in order to enter the kingdom of heaven.
Is the kingdom of heaven a place, a feeling, or a state of mind? That no one knows. Yet there is something about magic and fairy tales that feels close to it. Perhaps they are reminders of what we have lost. Or perhaps they are tools to redeem what we have lost. To believe in fairies, giants, and secret portals; to recognize loved ones we’ve lost in foxes and butterflies; to see God in the eyes of a beloved dog, a newborn baby, or a stranger on the bus—all these are ways of remembering and reconnecting, for our sake as well as that of our world.
“We tell stories about monsters and magic . . . but really we are finding a way to understand,” Katherine May tells us in Enchantment. Now more than ever, we need to double down on this magic, not as a way to become less adult, but as a way to become who we were always meant to be.