I know this story — a retelling of Beauty and the Beast — is meant as a children’s book. But there’s something about a good book that can be the clearest window back into a reality that is often tarnished by everydayness. They help us love small joys and remember eternal things.
J.R.R. Tolkien talked about the “eucatastrophe,” or sudden turn of events from catastrophic to good, that ties together so many good stories:
“The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially ‘escapist’, nor ‘fugitive’. In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.
It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind, that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the “turn” comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art, and having a peculiar quality.”
Beauty is one of those books that lifts my heart and makes me suddenly catch my breath. The characters are lifelike, but Robin McKinley doesn’t try to be realistic the way we think of realism; it’s telling a story about true things like courage and love. Books like Beauty, I think, are the reason Tolkien said, “No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally – and often far more – worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond.”
C.S. Lewis was a master of stories that conveyed more than realism. His Narnia books were, at least for me, really an introduction to true things. It’s hard to miss, as you grow up, how very like Jesus the character of Aslan is. Children steeped in Narnia may be quicker to resonate with characteristics of God they first knew in Aslan. Good stories are like Narnia: they teach you to know true things better in the world for having known them in a story. Lucy learns this in the Voyage of the Dawn Treader when she learns she’s leaving Narnia for the last time:
“It isn’t Narnia, you know,” sobbed Lucy. “It’s you. We shan’t meet you there. And how can we live, never meeting you?”
“But you shall meet me, dear one,” said Aslan.
“Are — are you there too, Sir?” said Edmund.
“I am,” said Aslan. “But there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.”
― C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader