Has there ever been a story more true than The Little Mermaid?
Our heroine is a girl, young enough to be under her father’s protection and authority but old enough to question her father’s wisdom, longing for another world she can’t quite access except in her imagination. Longing not just to see this world but to be a part of it, to change fundamental things about herself in order to enjoy what she imagines to be the pleasures of this other world. Longing for it so much that she collects souvenirs of this other possibility and accepts even the most ridiculous explanations about their origins. Longing for it so much that she could just, well, burst into song.
So when an opportunity to enter this world comes knocking, even though the cost is great and the temptress who knocks is too terrifying to be trustworthy, our heroine opens the door anyhow. And she walks through to find that the life she wanted was indeed everything she had imagined it would be but she’d had no idea what the temptress was actually after. Our heroine, who by this time we’ve come to care for very much, is just an unsuspecting pawn in the hands of a power-hungry force that grows too large to reckon with. The Tempter, it turns out, was willing and able to give our heroine anything she wanted because she wasn’t after the heroine, but after the power of our heroine’s father.
This is a true story! It is a story that plays itself out in hearts all over the world every day because it is a story of temptation. It is a story of the power of a hoped-for illusion and the willingness of the human heart to nurture this illusion until it grows too large to be ignored or denied any longer. By the time opportunity provides a doorway, well, temptation has already paved the way and there is no doubt how the story will end.
I don’t care how many numbers you add up or molecules you can name, there is no fact on earth as true as this fact: We will all face temptation, and how we handle that temptation determines how we will respond when the inevitable opportunity to sin arrives.
While I want my children to be well-versed in the facts of science and history and math, I want more for them to understand the capacities of the human heart. And that is why I love stories, even princess stories.
I, like many enlightened moms of my generation, questioned the wisdom of inviting princess merchandise into my home. It seemed so, well, tacky for one thing. And I wondered if I wanted my daughters to aspire to something so unattainable as “true love’s kiss” and all that. But, like most of us, I wound up realizing that even my high-minded ideals were no match for Disney’s marketing department. The princesses won. They were in my house before I knew where they came from and it didn’t take much for me to realize my kids were too young to appreciate my ideological battles anyhow.
But as I’ve welcomed princesses into my house, I’ve actually begun to appreciate them. God created the world, and those who do creative work that seeks to represent the world as we actually experience it end up reflecting fragments of God’s intentions for the world. The best part is, my daughters ENJOY these stories. So rather than passing along my ideology by means of lecture and explanation, I let the stories tell her.
This week when my five year old began to express concern that her “brain is telling her to do naughty things,” I could talk about temptation by talking about the Little Mermaid who has become for us a concrete and shared representation of an abstract idea that even a five year old can understand. Better yet, we can talk about the sneaky snake and the garden of Eden, and the snake will seem all that more sinister for her having known the fear of Ursula. (Because as Christians our whole world view is codified in narrative! How brilliant! But more on that later…)
This is not the only reason to let her watch movies or read books—there are many more reasons I’m not elaborating on here—but it is one reason. And a pretty good one, I think.
I allow the stories she loves to teach her things about our world that cannot be apprehended through her five senses. We live in a world that is wonderful to see, touch, taste, hear, and smell but we all know that there is much more that transpires here. Perhaps our sense of wonder, our ability to ask “What happens next?” should be counted among our most vital senses because it allows us to know things that are (I would argue) even more true than the material world… including fairy tales.