Coming home after a night out, mind on anything else, I somehow stumbled into a very specific memory, for probably the first time in years: The day I took my third-grade teacher Mrs. Bell aside, the next year, and shared with her my concerns that Aslan might possibly be Jesus.
I’d trusted Mrs. Bell implicitly with stories ever since the time she burst into tears at the end of Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes—she got it. She was a subject of Terebithia, if you know what I mean. So when she said, essentially: “Yeah, it’s called an allegory. Please don’t ruin it for everybody,” I was disappointed. To me at this age, it was the Santa Claus conspiracy all over again, more of the same. I trusted her, and she’d turned out to be just another Episcopalian robot, I mumbled to myself. “Here it is again: The Machine.”
That year they made much of CS Lewis’s inscription to his goddaughter, something like, “To Lucy, who will eventually get old enough to respect fairytales again,” which, in addition to being the exact kind of twee nonsense that hacked me off anyway as a child, was also prime evidence that the whole thing—meaning my life; books were my life—was another massive trick on behalf of the Big Jesus industry.
I remember too, expressing vivid concerns, probably around this same time, that the creators of Elfquest were probably Christians, too: Everything that I loved, vide L’Engle, eventually turned out religious—and therefore suspect; therefore cruel—in the end. It didn’t occur to me then that I was putting that particular cart before the horse, or that in fact the only thing I really liked was crypto-Christian stories, by Christian authors, who knew me well enough to know I didn’t want to hear about it.
But previous to all of this, thanks to pagan parenting, Jesus was just a character, literally just another historical figure, like my heroes Harriet Tubman and Margaret Mead from the Value Tales books I adored.
In fact, thanks to an offhand comment from a museum docent, I spent several years under the impression that Jesus was a wartime contemporary of Hannibal, whom I loved because he rode elephants into battle, and Napoleon, who at some point during all of this—either out of boredom or sheer bloody-minded treachery—shot the nose clean off the Sphinx, with a musket.
So it wasn’t until a long time later, after fighting Narnia a hundred times and reading each and every one of the Lev Grossman books on the day they came out, no matter how much I disliked them, that I realized she was right.
She was right, and we all seem to have forgotten it—if you take out the purpose of a fairytale, in your well-meaning attempt to update or reboot it, you are going to create exactly what you’re agitating for: a cartoon universe where everything is equally meaningful, in which Luke Skywalker does battle with a karate-kicking Prophet Muhammad, Jesus flies around fighting with Iron Man, and what they stand for—or mean, to the deeper part of you—stops being real.
When you are very excited about being An Atheist—which is different from simply not believing there’s a real live God, which I do not—you could see everything that way: Math. Once a lion has hurt you, you’re only interested in fighting the tame ones.
For me, it became very important early on that I draw and maintain distinct lines between what is “real,” mythologically, and what are merely stories about mythology. Identifying and separating out the real is a completely personal, completely subjective process. Hobbits: Not Real—but Númenor is Real, and Atreyu is Real. Harriet the Spy and Morpheus the Sandman are Real; Aurora is not Real, but Sleeping Beauty is very Real. (Until her recent film, which at least got close enough to touch some of the old magic, Maleficent wasn’t Real, but now she might be.)
Ariel is Real, although the sequels are not. (Prince Eric: Not only Real but crucial, if you get me.) Captain America and Superman are Real; Dr. Strange is not particularly Real. Hermes, Ares and Dionysus were always Real, but Zeus and Apollo and Hera weren’t Real for a long time. Hal Jordan is Real but Kyle Rayner is only kind of Real; Jean Grey was always Real, but Cyclops and Emma Frost fought very hard to become Real. Labyrinth is more Real than I’m comfortable with, to this day; double that for The Last Unicorn. Frozen pretends not to be Real, but it’s the Realest damned thing I’ve ever seen.
I’m sure the particulars would be different for everybody, is my point: Your totems are yours. But when I talk about hating fairytales, which I have heard can be confusing, that’s what I mean: You can manipulate them, make them more or less true—and odds are that this has taken place, which is why they aren’t to be trusted; why it’s easier to say I hate them than to explain which ones I hate and why, on a personal scale that applies only to me and is constantly shifting—but ultimately, it’s the gut that determines it.
Or more properly: When they are about “Us,” and not about us: The very real Us that includes everybody, even “Them.”
Or I guess, when they’re about your relationship to those things, to magic and strong feelings, whatever forms divinity takes, is. Because I can’t think of anybody I know that loves Aslan—or Jesus, or television, or America—the particular way that I do, which is to say: Exactly as much as they distrust them. It always seems to be one or the other, which is the war we fight now, and I can’t help but think that’s the dumbest possible option.
Because whatever the story is—whatever the allegory, whether it’s religion or fairytale or something newer—you only hit magic when you find yourself in that hazy, technically infinite space between your best and your daily self. Not just the lifehacks offered by trite morals, or cautionary tales—Hans Christian Anderson and Oscar Wilde get away with being Real; Ursula K. Le Guin and Jane Yolen couldn’t stop if they tried; even postmodernists like Sheri Tepper and Neil Gaiman can nail it, when they let themselves—but the actual connective space, the width of a spark, between yourself right-at-this-moment, and yourself at a peak moment of discovery, joy, or compassion.
All that’s really required of us—from the stories, religious or otherwise, that already know how we spend most of our lives, between the two; from those stories that are Real—is to remember that place exists, which is to say: How to find meaning in a world you know doesn’t have a lot of meaning to offer, but a ton of everything else. All of it which proves, eventually, Real. Even the stuff you don’t want, or believe ever could, be. All the things and people, the parts of yourself, that you’ve said No to.
We shed the concrete—animals marching, two by two—and the ignorant—poor Susan Pevensie, cast off for wearing lipstick, a daughter of her era—and the monstrous—fundamentalism, misogyny, hatred—and are left with something very true, and pure, and bright. Sometimes it doesn’t take much, sometimes that magic’s all there is, and you don’t have to work at all. But one way or another you get through the forest, through all those grasping trees, and out into the meadows, and you get a chance to take a breath and get clean and start all over again.
Further up, and further in.
Geek Love is a column on the art of politics, the affliction of writing, and the care and feeding of your geeks. An earlier version of this essay appeared on jacobclifton.com.
Top image: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005)
Jacob Clifton is a former Television Without Pity writer and Gawker editor. His favorite religious characters are Serafina Pekkala and Marilla “To despair is to turn your back on God” Cuthbert, Eustace Clarence Scrubb is his favorite Narnia character, and his favorite television show is, either against all odds or inevitably, The Magicians.