One of the great insights of G. K. Chesterton is that of wonder. Surely, he is not the first to notice the unique contribution of wonderment to our understanding of the world, but he has certainly articulated it better than most have ever done. Chesterton’s basic insight is that it really is not logical that the world is the way it is – it might have been very different, and yet it is as it is. In the chapter titled The Ethics of Elfland from his great book Orthodoxy, Chesterton says,
My first and last philosophy, that which I believe in with unbroken certainty, I learnt in the nursery. I generally learnt it from a nurse; that is from the solemn and star-appointed priestess at once of democracy and tradition. The things I believed most then, the things I believe most now, are the things called fairy tales. They seem to me to be the entirely reasonable things… Fairyland is nothing but the sunny country of common sense. It is not earth that judges heaven, but heaven that judges earth; so for me at least it was not earth that criticised elfland, but elfland that criticised earth.
For Chesterton, fairy tales are not as nonsensical as they might appear to us “grownups”. Fairy tales may contain many strange things – a cow jumping over the moon, a giant beanstalk that reaches into the clouds, a frog that turns into a prince – but they never contain logical contradictions. In other words, two elves riding on two unicorns to meet four other elves mean that when the meeting takes place there will be six elves and two unicorns in one location. Two and four still make six. The idea of unicorns may seem strange, but the existence of unicorns is not impossible precisely because we can imagine it. What we cannot do is imagine two elves plus four elves making zero elves. And it is here that a significant insight is gained.
How is it that there are things that can never be, such as 6+3=1 or dry water, but there are other things that could be, yet are not? Our world might have been a very different place. It is not a logical necessity that grass should be green or that horses should have four legs. Why couldn’t grass be orange or horses have six legs and we have four! The only reason we think grass must be green and that we humans must have two legs is because that is the way our world is, but this is no justification for their logical necessity. Perhaps fairy tales are really no stranger than our reality. In fact, we might say that it is strange that there are no elves or unicorns. If we lived in a world full of elves, the stories we tell our children might well include strange tales of tall, clumsy creatures called human beings. And what’s stranger still is that these human beings actually come in such a wide variety. Some are white, some are black, some are reddish-brown, some have large round eyes, some have short squinty eyes, some are tall, some are short, and on it goes. How strange indeed are these things called human beings! Just think what else might not have been. The sun comes up every morning and its long procession through the sky is concluded each day with the procession of the moon. But why might it not be something entirely different? Why should there be a sun at all? Why not a continuous procession of the moon and all the earth be nocturnal? How beautiful that would be, but our world is stranger still.
Indeed, fairy tales are no stranger than our present world. As Chesterton wrote in his Autobiography, “Existence is still a strange thing to me, and as a stranger I gave it welcome”.
Think about it.
If we would only look at the world as we did once upon a time in a nursery or in our parents lap while they read to us about Jack and his beanstalk; to see the world through the eyes of a child, filled with wonder, we would then see the world as it truely is.