• Amy MacKinnon

Beginner’s Guide to Finding the Christianity Hidden in Fairy Tales and Fiction

Updated: Aug 27, 2021

(I will occasionally be updating and adding to this post so check back for the most recent updates!)


I’m sure you’ve seen at least some of Disney’s animated versions of fairy tales.


And as much fun as they can be to watch, if you’ve read the classic versions of fairy tales then I’m also sure you’ve noticed some of the differences between those stories and the Disney versions (click here on comparing the classic versions of the fairy tale stories with the Disney versions).


In the first animated versions of those fairy tales that Disney made, they kept many of the Christian elements in their versions of the stories, and that was intentionally done on their part.


Once you know what to look for, you can see those elements everywhere—even when an author doesn’t intend to include them in the story. It’s not just having Jesus or Moses as a character in a story. I would even say that unless you’re telling a story that’s intentionally about Jesus or Moses, they shouldn’t be characters in the story at all!


You can’t do them justice, and it makes for a not-very-good story


But it’s not always easy to see the Christian elements in stories, especially when they’re not as blatant as they are in some of the morality tales, or where the story is more like a thinly-veiled lecture by the author (but where there is no "delight" in the story).


The classic fairy tales certainly have those elements, but how can you tell that they were intentionally written as Christian stories? And how can you see that in other stories?


That’s what I’ll show you how to do in this post!


First, Fairy Tales aren't just for little kids—everyone should be reading fairy tales! I explain why here: Why Read Fairy Tales. If you're wondering what a fairy tale is, and how it's different from stories that look like fairy tales (but aren't), click here: Fairy Tales, Cautionary Tales, and Myths


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I have a number of links below where you can read a short summary version of different stories that highlight some of the Christianity that's in those fairy tales. In the stories that I’ve selected it’s really easy to see the Christian symbols and elements once you’ve learned how to see them.


There are a lot of ways that authors incorporate Christianity into their stories so below the list of summaries you’ll see these topics:




Summaries of Popular Fairy Tales


I wrote a series of posts to show the "big picture" of how fairy tales are inherently Christian stories. They're very brief summaries and were written to focus on their Christian foundation so that you can get an idea of how those authors used Christian elements and Biblical references in their stories.


Take a look:


Cinderella: A Christian Fairy Tale by Charles Perrault (aka "Mother Goose")

Snow White by the Brothers Grimm

Beauty and the Beast by Charles Perrault

The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen

Sleeping Beauty by the Brothers Grimm

Hansel and Gretel by the Brothers Grimm

The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams



Disney and Fairy Tales


Whenever Disney releases a new movie that's based on an older fairy tale, there's always a comparison between the Disney version and the “real” version. The comparison is often pointing out that the Disney version is nowhere near as good as the original. That's a problem for several reasons.


The “original” version isn't the version that we see published, unless the author wrote original stories.


Hans Christian Andersen wrote his own stories, but most of the other fairy tales that we're familiar with were not original stories.


The Brothers Grimm, Andrew Lang, and Charles Perrault (aka "Mother Goose") each published their own collections of stories using versions that were based on traditional folklore. They then adapted and edited those stories for their audience.


Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were studying the changes in language through the oral tradition of storytelling, so they were well aware of the tradition of storytellers making changes to an existing story and of the variations that are made in different times and places. Here's the Wikipedia page on them, but I also highly recommend the book, The Owl, the Raven, and the Dove: The Religious Meaning of the Grimms' Magic Fairy Tales, by the Jesuit priest G. Ronald Murphy. The link is to the page for that book on Goodreads.


Changing some details in a story or emphasizing certain aspects of a story over others at different times is what good storytellers always do. The reason is that they are telling the story for the audience in front of them so they make whatever adjustments or adaptations they need to in order for their audience to understand what's happening and why.


Disney does the same thing....


Some of the fairy tales are original stories, like The Lion King, while others, like Cinderella and Snow White, are based on older written versions and adapted for their audience. Click here for more on how to reconcile the different versions of stories told by Disney.


The first fairy tale movies that Disney made were:

  • Snow White and the Seven Dwarves

  • Cinderella



Their version of Snow White was based on the version by the Brothers Grimm, and their Cinderella was based on the version by Mother Goose (Charles Perrault).


Those two classic versions were intentionally published as Christian stories.


The first Disney versions of those stories retained that Christian foundation, even though Disney made a lot of changes to their versions of the stories.


It’s pretty common for people to compare the Disney versions with the classic stories, but it’s often done to show that the classic stories are better.


However, there are a lot of people—especially very young and little people—who really like the Disney stories. So instead of comparing and contrasting the Disney version with the older versions I would suggest that it’s better to look at them as different stories instead (click here to read how to do that), and then evaluating each one on its own merits.


The collections of fairy tales that were originally published by Perrault, the Grimms, as well as Hans Christian Andersen, were all intentionally written as Christian stories.


That’s true for The Little Mermaid as well, which was an original story written by Hans Christian Andersen. The Disney version is truly a completely different story, even though it retains some of the surface elements from Andersen’s original story. A lot of the Christian elements were removed in the Disney version of The Little Mermaid. The same is true for Frozen, which was very loosely based on Andersen's Snow Queen.


But that’s not always easy to see, especially if you’re just looking at the surface level of stories.


So how do you know that the classic fairy tales were intentionally written as Christian stories? What about including Christianity in stories other than fairy tales?


Why Authors Use Christianity in Stories


Good stories are always about change and transformation, which is partly why a good story always incorporates death.


Yes, really. Everyone who is born, will die.


For human beings, the question isn’t about whether or not we’re going to die, but what happens when we die?


If there are consequences for our actions in this life, do any of those actions and consequences have an effect on what happens to us after we die?


For Christians, the answer is a definite “yes” to both questions because we have the revelation from God that tells us enough about that to guide us.


For those who aren’t Christian there may be a different view of the afterlife, but there is still a recognition of the fact that we die. This is why a good story incorporates those ideas even if the author isn’t Christian or isn’t writing for a Christian audience.


The author may even have a symbolic death and resurrection take place in the story, because that’s an important part of the transformation that takes place in a good story.

There are some elements in stories that are specifically Christian, or at least part of a Christian culture, that you can find in good stories even when the author doesn’t intend for the story to be specifically Christian.


C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Flannery O’Connor all thought that the stories that were written as specifically Christian stories, were often not very good stories at all! In many of those stories, the author was writing a sermon or teaching a lesson instead of telling a story.

Teaching Christianity is very important, of course! And using examples in the form of a story can be really helpful in explaining the point of the lesson.


But teaching and storytelling are not the same thing!


Sermons have a very important place in the practice of Christianity.

So do stories, which is why so much of the Bible is written in the format of a story.


Calling a sermon a story does a grave disservice to both sermons and stories. Flannery O’Connor was definitely not a fan of authors who wrote sermons disguised as stories! She also had some pretty harsh comments for those giving sermons and disguising them as stories.


In a story that is intentionally Christian, it’s pretty easy to spot the Biblical elements and symbols that are in those stories.


In stories that aren’t intentionally Christian, you can still see Christian elements and symbols used in those stories if you know what to look for.


How Do Good Stories Use Christianity to Tell Their Tales?


There are a lot of different elements that point to Christianity in stories. Some of them are specifically Christian, like when the author incorporates something from the Bible, uses specific symbols, or names characters after people in the Bible, saints, or other historical persons.


We’ll start with the Bible references in stories, and then go into using symbols


Bible references



There is always a need for a savior because we live after the Fall, and that is reflected in various ways in fairy tales and other works of fiction. There are two very common scenes at the end of a good story:

  • A wedding

  • A community gathered together in celebration


Weddings and Happily Ever After


No one gets married and then lives happily ever after in this life. We live after the Fall, so there will always be some kind of suffering as long as we're alive (which good stories help us to address and overcome).


So why are weddings and living happily ever after Christian symbols?


A marriage is the most common of all the symbols used in the Bible to describe the relationship between God and His people, in both the Old and New Testaments.


Sometimes there’s an obvious Christ figure, like a prince who is the “son of the king” who either saves his bride or brings a woman into the royal family by marriage.


That marriage is symbolic of going to heaven and becoming part of the Bride of Christ, which is the Church (Eph 5, Rev 19:7-8; 21:1-2).


That’s what the “happily ever after” ending of stories really is: the eternal union with God in Heaven.


That’s not just in fairy tales though! In other stories that symbolism is used at the end as well. You can see that in:


Bad Marriages


Sometimes the marriage is a bad marriage, or an “anti-marriage.” If it’s one of the characters in a marriage that’s bad, it may be that the person represents the serpent in the Garden of Eden. That person would lead the spouse and others astray, which is what Cinderella’s stepmother does.


Sometimes the characters are abusive in some way, but that character is a person who chooses evil and symbolizes a rejection of God in their spousal role:


The Community


A wedding at the end of a story is usually part of a community celebration, but the gathering together of the community has a different symbolic meaning than the wedding but they're closely related.


There are sometimes two types of gatherings that are in contrast to each other. One group is gathered together in peace and happiness, while the other is grumbling and complaining while they suffer or are just plain miserable.


Sometimes there is a lack of community when there is someone who has rejected joining the community of people, and instead is alone and suffering.


This symbolizes the end of the world and the NEW Heaven and Earth.


Here’s why:


Sin is in some way a rejection of God, because God is goodness itself. This is why no sin can enter heaven. Whenever there is division among us it is always because of sin. That can be:

  • My sin

  • Someone else’s sin

  • Original Sin


God created us for union with Him, which means there should also be unity among the people He has created and gathered together. The Biblical meaning of “church” is the gathering of God’s people by God. The word used for that is “ekklesia” from the Greek, “ecclesia” from the Latin.


The word “church” in English comes from the German word "kirche," which refers to the building that we call the church.


Whenever there is a lack of unity, it is always due to sin of some kind. It is in and through the Savior that we are united, but the completion of that union happens only in heaven.


Because no sin can enter heaven, we need to be purified of our sins before we are able to enter. That means repentance of our sins and receiving God’s forgiveness.

This is why you see evil conquered in the end of stories and people gathered together in celebration (happily ever after!) while sharing a meal which often includes eating and sharing bread (Eucharistic imagery).

You can see that in:




Symbols


The simplest definition of a symbol is something that stands for something else. But a symbol is not simply a replacement for what the author really means—it opens the imagination and deepens the meaning of the story because a symbol always has multiple meanings.


How those symbols are used in stories is determined by the author.


For example, fairy tales always end in “happily ever after” because that’s an essential part of what makes them fairy tales! A story that looks like a fairy tale but doesn’t end happily ever after is a cautionary tale (click here for Fairy Tales, Cautionary Tales, and Myths).


What that ending actually looks like in the story can vary depending partly upon the beliefs of the author, and partly on the story-line itself.


That “happily ever after” ending of the stories is symbolic: it represents the end of the world when God comes as the Just Judge, and the creation of the new heaven and earth, but it specifically refers to those who are in union with God in Heaven.


The Final Judgment. That is when you see God’s Divine Justice, but you don’t always see a specific character representing God as the Judge in the story—what you see are characters either suffering or celebrating because they are now experiencing the consequences of their actions.


Justice is the virtue that gives to another what is due. This is why we repent of our sins and pray for God’s mercy and forgiveness while we are still alive, so that we’re not subject to God's Divine justice for what we deserve as the punishment for our sins.


This is why the endings of stories include justice and mercy for those who either remained good or repented, and God's just punishment for those who refuse to repent.


In the Grimms’ version of Snow White the evil queen refuses to repent and this is why she suffers so horribly at the end—she’s metaphorically in Hell because even at the end when she was offered mercy, she rejected Heaven.


In the versions of Cinderella by the Grimms and Charles Perrault, the stepsisters come to different ends. The difference between the two endings is that in Perrault’s story, they repent and live happily ever after. In the Grimms’ version, they are definitely not sorry for what they did. That’s why they suffer so much in the end of that version of the story.


In Hans Christian Andersen’s The Red Shoes, all the ballerina cares about is dancing. She does not care about the suffering that she causes others.


Truly nothing mattered to her except dancing.In the end she gets what she wants: all she does is dance, but she’s dancing her way straight into hell.




The Use of Magic in Fairy Tales


Magic in stories is a very serious issue for Christians for a very good reason! In real life, magic is often associated with demons. However…it isn’t always associated with demons or evil—even in real life. It can be used to talk about magic tricks by performers, among other things (click here to download the free PDF: The Bible, Magic, and Fairy Tales where I explain more about that).


When magic is used in a story, whether that use of magic is good, bad, or neutral depends on the story and how the author uses magic in that story (click here for the series of posts on magic in stories, including those by Lewis and Tolkien).


According to Tolkien, Faerie is “most nearly translated by magic” but not the magic of the alchemists, and not the magic that’s associated with demons.


The problem with the alchemists was not their attempts to transform base metals into gold and silver—that’s similar to what is studied and practiced in chemistry. The problem was that they wanted to take on the power of God over life and death, which was symbolized by the transformation of base metals into gold and silver by the philosopher’s stone.


That kind of magic is also very different from the magic that magicians and witches use in real life. That magic is done with the aid of a demon whether the practitioner realizes it or not.


Click to enroll in "Magic in Middle Earth, Narnia, and Hogwarts"
Click to enroll in the digital course: "Magic in Middle Earth, Narnia, and Hogwarts"

The kind of magic that Tolkien is talking about is an inherent part of the world of Faerie

Fairy tales don’t often have fairies in them, but they have magic in some form. It may be an object, like a table that sets itself, or an animal that can talk, people who can grant wishes or make impossible things happen.


If the story is taking place in what seems to be reality, but there is an element like an inanimate object that is odd in one of those ways, or is sentient, then it’s either because the characters have entered the world of Faerie, or because something of Faerie has entered into our world.


In many stories, the border between our world and the world of Faerie is very thin


There are several posts, and series of posts, on magic in stories here:


For a general description of how magic works in fairy tales, read the post, Magic in Fairy Tales


The Lord of the Rings isn't a fairy tale, but it definitely takes place in the world of Faerie, which is a world of magic. In this post, I give a brief explanation of the magic in J.R.R. Tolkien's world of Middle Earth: Magic in The Lord of the Rings and Magic in the Hobbit


In The Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis definitely includes magic! And it's not always bad, either.


Harry Potter is also a fairy tale, and if J.K. Rowling hadn't used the elves from the Shoemaker and the Elves as characters in the story (like Dobby), she could have called Harry and his mom, Lily, elves or fairies. Both Harry and his mom are changelings (or cuckoos in the nest) in the series.


Since many Christians have very serious concerns about the series--especially the magic in the series--I created a series of posts addressing that issue here


To learn how Christians can reconcile the use of magic in the stories by all three authors (Lewis, Tolkien, and Rowling), each of whom was/is a professed Christian, there is a comparison of the use of magic in each of the three series of stories here.


Additional Resources:


How are Fairy Tales Christian?


Why Did Cinderella Wear Glass Slippers?

Charles Perrault, aka Mother Goose, added the famous glass slippers to the classic fairy tale, and this post explains the symbolism of the glass slippers.



 

Digital Courses Offered on

Finding the Christianity Hidden in Fairy Tales and Fiction



Magic in stories, especially the Harry Potter series, has been an issue for many Christians. In this online digital course, you'll learn how each of the authors: J.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and J.K. Rowling, use magic in their stories.

Click here for more on this course





In A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens takes us through the transformation that all Christian stories do. In this course, you'll see how Dickens intentionally used a Christian foundation to tell this wonderful story

Click here for more on this course

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