Enchantment is the state of being under a spell, like magic. It’s the sudden realization that a grey day actually always was a misty day, and turning our heads sees the Lady of the Lake stepping out and holding out a sword.
Enchantment seems hopelessly passé, a relic of simpler, weaker minds. And yet… I hold that our grey-washed culture with flattened characters and simpleton movies are the problem.
But then, now and then, we are thoroughly enchanted by a series of movies that chart their own course. Movies or books or games that break the mold and speak to something deep and dark and unheard within us.
Some of these stories feel like searchlights probing the unlit jungles of our psyches, pouring oil on the abandoned wounds of our spiritual lives.
Our world has been flattened by titanic ideas, great one-eyed cyclops that fixate on a single thing and crush everything around them into sheep. But humanity refuses to be flattened. Flattening an idea means to define something in a single way. And then to refuse any other definition. It’s to gate and guard with big, brutal blocks of rejection any other explanation.
But stories don’t work that way. They’re hard to flatten. They work on us from the inside out. They begin from the inside out. Especially when some of the stories are so old, we don’t even know when they were first invented.
I see all fiction stories divided into Fairy Tales, Mythology, and Mystagogy. (Memoirs and non-fiction borrow and dip into them, but we’ll leave aside for now. They’re usually either too self-aware, or not self-aware enough, or wedded to a pet theory to prove a point.)
Mystagogy means ‘interpretation of mystery,’ and is the word I’m using here for spiritual stories, lives of the saints, parables and prophecies in Sacred Scripture.
These three kinds of stories are connected, and actually follow a progress of human development. Each one has an extremely important role to play. And there’s a reason why they’re usually structured the way they are.
Watch a chat between myself and Katy Campbell on this article:
A book called ‘The Uses of Enchantment’ by Bruno Bettelheim explored the impact that fairy tales had on helping children recuperate from traumatic, childhood events. Opinions on the book remain divided, but from what I can tell, the author’s method of analyzing the psychological impact of the characters in the fairy tales is valid.
Jordan Peterson’s work as a therapist deepens my conviction that deep, latent truths exist hidden within these simple-seeming stories.
The great tragedy of the fairy tale is the idea that they are ‘consigned to the nursery,’ only for little children. To find JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis praising ‘fairy’ as a formative thing for humans, means we need to rethink them.
“Some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.” C.S. Lewis, ‘The Lion the Witch, and the Wardrobe’
This means there’s a layer of complexity that only adults can unlock, after decades of experience. Living life is itself a key to understanding.
What does re-wilding mean? It means to restore something to its natural, uncultivated state. It especially refers to gardens and nature, allowing the re-introduction of animals and original species without human interaction. It is intended to allow the reflowering of an uninterrupted habitat.
Rewilding is not always a happy thing. It’s not always a safe thing. It can bring wolves, and black fungus, and disease, and blight. But it will also clothe rock with moss, reseed fields, and return the ancient order of things. Nature has a law of her own, and she balances blight and bright without an eye for morality.
I think we need to re-wild enchantment. Not ‘use’ it. That’s my contention with the title of that book – it feeds into the idea that we can somehow get ‘beyond’ the limits of our own being, and weaponize it, or bend it to our will.
Carl Jung would be adamant (from what I can tell) that we are not masters of our inner world. At best we express it blindly, and must learn to understand it.
Rewilding enchantment means to stop assuming we can subdue and dominate all life. That we can track and measure and record the ghosts of our psyche, the fields of expression, and the deep meaning that emerges when we least expect it.
Truth be told, we never had that much control over it all. We just told ourselves we did. And then marveled at how our culture and children and selves went to seed, and all the un-integrated areas of our being went unloved and unanswered.
We need to regain the humility to sit before the great gods of this world, the hierarchies of angels and elves, to understand that we are Priests in a Cosmic Temple. We are gifted life, and tasked to ground ourselves in it.
Let’s talk about the difference between fairy tales, mythology, and mystagogy.
First, what is a fairy tale? There are a million of them, told in every culture. But they usually have a little formula that makes them easy to tell apart from other kinds of stories.
Fairy Tales are not cautionary tales that show an example. They are not fables that teach a moral. They are not spiritual stories that lay out a path. They are not mythical origins of a people, or stories of purpose.
Fairy Tales aren’t about fairies, but about the realm of Faery. That liminal place beyond human sight that exists deep within us, and in which we are immersed, like an ocean.
These tales usually are about nameless characters, sometimes children, tasked with chores and great adventures. They are rigorously numerical, and they often follow the stereotypes of human behavior and activity, known as Archetypes. They’re often rich with religious meaning. The characters change into all kinds of animals, die, self-sacrifice, and endure.
But at the end of each tale, the character learns a truth, and returns to being human.
These stories are deft tales of psychological and spiritual meaning. The characters are often unnamed. That way children, or listeners, can see themselves in that situation, can identify the events with themselves.
Dreams are ‘adventures’ in the symbolism of human nature, filled with ideas that can have a universal meaning, or specific meaning to the person. For example, woods and oceans often mean The Unknown. Sometimes it can mean safety, rich with life.
That’s the challenge of symbols, they can only be known in a context. They’re factual, but not the same unchanging fact.
Fairy tales give the listener insight into how human nature should act, and should respond. Sometimes the characters go through dark periods, unable to see the answer, unable to take action. But then a fairy godmother, a talking horse, or a creature from this Land of Faery prompts an insight. And the character grows, takes action.
They are meant to be templates of action that we think on in our daily lives. That’s why the same story is retold a million times. While it can be misunderstood and politicized, the way many have been today, we continue to return the origins of these stories. Because they are timeless, non-personal reflections of our inner life.
Perhaps these should instead be called ‘Numinous Tales’. Because they continue to reveal and unlock new facets of truth in every new decade we live.
- More often than not, these numinous tales are about characters who make bad choices, and must overcome them. Or they cleverly split our inner selves into several characters – our right and left minds into brother and sister. Our potential choices and timelines lived out through a trio of brothers. Our differing spiritual states embodied into a pair of friends.
- Many, many of them are about interaction with the numinous. With angels, elves, sprites, witches, prophecies, ghosts, the fallen… everything that sits on the edge of our vision, and vanishes when we look at it.
- Many are about how we relate to ourselves, discover our own dignity, our own capacity for resilience and influence. How we relate with reverence, fear, humility or wise action to the other beings who fill our world.
From what I can see, a core concept in fairy tales is the growth and change of a character. The return home after a long journey, to realize that the self has changed. The self has grown. The same person is present, but they are no longer who they were at the beginning.
This takes us to the next step; mythology.
“The dominant feeling a myth conveys is: this is absolutely unique; it could not have happened to any other person, or in any other setting; such events are grandiose, awe-inspiring, and could not possibly happen to an ordinary mortal like you or me. The reason is not so much that what takes place is miraculous, but that it is described as such. By contrast, although the events which occur in fairy tales are often unusual and most improbably, they are always presented as ordinary, something that could happen to you or me or the person next door when out on a walk in the woods. Even the most remarkable encounters are related in casual, everyday ways in fairy tales.” Bruno Bettelheim
Myths explore how individuals answer the call of their culture.
While some myths are about origins, or ritual explanations for natural events, we’re talking about something different.
We’re thinking about what it means to be a person, a hero, challenged to take action within the morals of our culture. We are no longer children. We have formed our sense of identity. Now that sense is put to the test.
Mythic stories are often wide and epic in scope, with heroes, heroines, talking animals, gods and angels, demons and dragons, great themes of light and dark.
Myths are about the contact between our center and our culture, often to discover that we have fallen short – short in our idea of ourselves, and short in what reality is. As a genre, the myths themselves are largely ignored, but they are the foundation of almost every fantasy story, superhero story, frontier fiction… anything heroic.
They can be as immersive and original as Tolkien, as allegorical as Lewis, as intentionally detailed as Sanderson, or as world-blending as Rowling. Heroes can be irrevent as Tony Stark, loyal as Captain America, broody as Batman, lighthearted as Superman.
And there are many others. Star Wars. Harry Potter. Game of Thrones. Narnia.
Mythic tales are usually flattened into ‘pre-scientific origins of a people,’ or explanations for weather. Usually people who say these things haven’t read enough of them. Or they’ve only read comparative summaries.
Others have dismissed them as ‘lies breathed through silver’, or the antics of demons. These aren’t fair either.
Myth is much more. In fact, our entire world of story that we surround ourselves with is basically mythology. We live mythology constantly.
So what is mythology?
It is the step beyond the fairy tale. It is a story that makes our interior life external. It embodies what we can’t see in our spirit and psyche. It’s our personal drama, explored within the context of our culture.
It is like a ‘sacrament’, making visible an invisible reality. It holds up paths of action, reveals great relational truths, and connects the individual with the strangeness of creation.
Mythical characters usually have names, unlike most fairy tales. Myths often probe a deeper , more definitive question. “I should be ‘like’ Hercules, or Loki, or Anansi.”
Fairy Tales reveal the normalness of the person, the individuality of the child, the identity emerging from a confusing inner life.
Myths chart the next step. What do we do with our selves? What do we do with our time? Essence and time creates our arrow of destiny, and the call to adventure. The call to explore and express the limits of our being.
Myths come to us from the deep and tortured and brilliant religious traditions of the past. From the depths of pyramids and temples and oracles, we are given stories of gods bartering with elves and dwarves, of creation moments, and endings. They are wracked with hybrid beasts and puzzles and intentional numerology and constellations.
Myths are the fairy tales of the world around us. Myths help us begin to understand that creation is filled with the same forces and fields we find within ourselves. The journey into ourselves happens hand-in-hand with our sacred pilgrimage of life together as community.
The gods and their antics stand for deep truths, usually hidden behind silly-seeming adventures. In that sense, we must see they all have a hidden meaning. They can be enjoyed and laughed at and thrilled at by ordinary folk.
But they can also unlock deeper psychological and spiritual truths.
Myths ride the line between the human psyche and how it emerges from the tapestry of spiritual realities, how we resonate with and are informed by gods, angels, demons, elves, dwarves, animals, stars, and the Great Abyss of Being in which everything thrives.
Our First World West is starved of mythology. We tell ourselves we don’t need them any more. Ironically, we simply live out myths blindly.
In America, we are bound by deep myths. Our culture and country is defined by the founding myths of our origins; the Robin Hoods, rebellious Loki, or Jack and Beanstalk tales. They capture a sense of rebel heroism that rises up against oppressive father figures. We believe in building a Round Table of unity that binds free folk together.
But we don’t have a common sacred tradition. Our religious culture has been emptied out and starved of humanity.
We’ve agreed among ourselves that the only myths we can endorse are spiritual stories from Sacred Scripture.
But as history shows, they’re not enough.
How can they be? Stories of spiritual adepts and spiritual realities are the full flowering of the fairy tale and the myth. They cannot be understood without these human aspects.
Because understanding is something only humans can do, to ‘stand under’ these things. If we are unprepared, and don’t know it, we aren’t capable of unlocking the meaning.
Superheroes today are a modern mythology. They are for us what the gods were to the ancient people. They are expressions of a people, of a cultural ideal, of a subculture’s dreams. They make visible what is invisible to the normal human mind.
We look at them, and love them for what they reveal about ourselves. And we mimic who they are, because they are symbols. They are more than mortal men.
Look at every movie in the Netflix lineup, or on DisneyPlus, or Hollywood’s century of filmmaking. All of them are mythology.
All of them ask who am I, how should I act, how do I respond, why should I do something. We watch them and upvote them depending on how they resonate with us, on how they reveal us to ourselves.
Netflix’s Top 10, and the enduring classics from our century, are revealing a new mythology for our age, the mythology of the Every Man, where not just the royalty and the priests are favored, but we are all gods (Psalm 82:6).
But without mystagogy, or sacred stories, myth remains forever the call to adventure without a clear sense of the destination.
In myth, these stories are less about discovering identity, like they are with fairy (numinous) tales. They are about the ‘use’, the integration, the implementation of that identity.
How that identity meets the trials of life. How that identity builds up culture.
Myths don’t often change, don’t often have internal journeys of conversion. They are archetypes in action.
That’s why we need sacred stories as the next step in our journey.
There are three kinds of stories: fairy tales, myths, and ‘mystagogy’. Or sacred stories.
What are sacred stories? They are the mystical kind, the kind that goes deepest and highest in our capacity to understand.
This tier of taletelling are the mysteries, the stories of direct contact with sacred, sacramental, and spiritual realities. God, Heaven, transcendence, revelation, prophecy, lives of the saints, and so on.
These stories are like the koans of the spiritual world. A koan is “a paradoxical anecdote or riddle, used in Zen Buddhism to demonstrate the inadequacy of logical reasoning and to provoke enlightenment.” The saints were full of them, especially the early fathers and mothers of the Church.
“The Catechism describes mystagogy as a “liturgical catechesis that aims to initiate people into the mystery of Christ” (CCC 1075). Mystagogy leads us from the external signs and rituals of the liturgy to the inner, spiritual meaning of the divine life they signify. Mystagogy is the form of catechesis that helps us unpack and explore the spiritual treasures contained in the sacraments by continuously reflecting on their meaning and significance in our personal lives of faith.” – Catholic Apostolate Center
The lives of the saints, stories in Sacred Scripture, parables and prophetic memoirs must be understood on many levels. Sometimes they contain truths that can’t be explained. They can only be lived.
They are the next step beyond fairy tales and mythology.
Fairy Tales generate awareness of the magic and intensity of our being. Mythology grounds us in the awareness of our context, of the complexity and aliveness and purpose of reality. Mystagogy connects us with the greatest truth, like a child seeing the glowing tip of diamond pushing into our reality, and beginning to understand that we are looking at only the tip of a titanic iceberg.
Mystagogy is about the revelation of mysteries. “There is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries,” (Daniel 2:28).
We do not exist apart from God
But something we begin to understand is that there are no objects in God, and God is not an object to us.
An object is something distinct from us, that we come to know, that it outside of us. A subject is something internal that we generate or are aware of, in our being. We turn objects into subjective awareness in our minds.
But everything is subject within God. And God is not an object of our minds.
God does not exist distinct from us, like a chair on the other side of the room. We are subject within him. We are distinct from his personality and divinity, and called to accept him, to live him, to participate in his divine life. To be gods. This is what theosis means.
That’s why mystagogical stories, like the lives of the saints, are even harder to penetrate than myths.
Far too often, sacred stories are simplified to share with little children. But saints stories are anything but simple. They’re anything but safe.
They are the frontier of human fierceness and failing butting up against the relentless love of God. They are the dark morning of Jacob grappling with an Angel and breaking his hip for a blessing.
They’re full of horror, violence, depression, anger, mistakes, misapplied virtue, misunderstood truths, and terrible cultural pressure. And they’re also full of light, heroism, hunger, joy, and everything good from the Father of Lights.
Being aware of a saint’s story is like knowing about a fairy tale. We’ve heard the superficial retelling of events.
But fairy tales, myths, and sacred stories, are gateways to a deeper frontier – the much needed Dark Night of the Soul. That edge of the abyss of human existence where we step off into God with a full and willing trust. Where faith replaces feelings, and hope transcends reason.
That’s where the saints live. That’s how they understood their calling, their journey, their sacred pilgrimage.
Why sacred stories matter
These saints become more than themselves. More than their own lives. They incarnate mythical themes, fairy tale archetypes, layered and layered with meaning. And still, they are only human, and we are meant to understand them in the totality of their journey.
Some meanings are only visible when we’re young, because that is the stage of our inner development. But 40 years later, we return to the same story, completely renewed inside. And the story reveals insights we weren’t capable of seeing before.
Lives of the saints and the parables of Sacred Scripture are not tales to be enjoyed. They are paths to be lived. Not everyone will take to every path. Some paths are passed, or past, trekked for a different time and people.
Sacred stories are the clearest contact with the truth, like the council of Moses sitting beneath the translucent sapphire floor of Heaven on the top of Mount Sinai, warmed by the Burning Bush, and breaking bread with the blurred glow of God. Everything is a symbol that only living people can understand.
They are more than the final layer, the cherry on the cake. They are the background and foundation, from which emerge myth, and condense into fairy tale.
All three kinds of stories have deep meaning, and can be paired with an aspect of human development. Childhood, teenagers, adults.
Children and traumatized people need the kindly invitation of fairy tales, these ‘love gifts’ of culture and humanity. Teens and young adults need the orientation and relational nature of the myth. When ready, adults begin to see that all these stories are fragments of a mystagogical reality, and see how their own lives are the tracing of a new symbol.
These stories build on each other, like building bricks, like the days of creation. Layer builds on layer.
Imagine you only have fairy tales – the unending fascination with one’s interior life. Without myth calling us into a common context, and mystagogy grounding us in divinization, we continue to wander the haunts of our inner wilds.
Imagine what happens if you only have myth – the constant awareness of exterior meaning. Without the fairy tale confirming your own value, and the mystagogical to orient how everything comes together, you get the Ancient World. Millenia of oppression and slow improvement for royalty, with little to no value for common humanity.
Imagine if you only have mystagogy – saints’ stories and Sacred Scripture. Without a sense of self, or a sense of context and purpose, we can only see externalized teachings and adventures. Technically, those who try to live only with mystagogy will be the worst off. The inner life will be blind, and we will only see an exterior world. We will try to elevate the saints to mythical status. We will love beautiful things, and not understand them, and weaponize them, because weapons are how we dominate the exterior world.
But, praise God, it’s not actually possible to fully segregate these types. That is what culture is; the interblending of these layers. Our mystagogy informs our myths, and gives life to our fairy tales.
This is why I’m calling for a re-wilding of enchantment.
We are each a twist in the fabric of Creation’s tapestry, made up of colors and threads and themes that far exceed our individual moment. Our beings are born from the primeval ocean of the first Day of Creation, the great Abyss over which the Holy Spirit nurtures, like a brooding hen. Our lives through childhood to adulthood follow the paths of the following days, or rather, the following complexification of Creation.
We become aware of spirit and matter, light and dark. We participate in the dance and danger of animal life. We are crowned with conscious humanity, the mysteries of Christmas and Easter. And then God and angels fall silent and step back, leaving us blinking in our adulthood, waiting to see what we will do with our own creativity and freedom.
I say ‘step back’, but that’s not true. Instead, they conceal themselves. They hide from view. The fairies at the bottom of the garden become bark and leaf and evening breeze as we get older.
Day 7 is God’s phase of rest. It means the responsibility falls to us to continue the mission of building the Kingdom of Heaven, bringing it to life with our creativity and insights. “In his heart, Frodo begins to understand. The quest will claim his life. You know this… you have foreseen it. It is the risk we all took.” Galadriel
Enchantment is the delight we feel at a beautiful thing. It is a lulling of some parts of us, while other parts leap and dance like David before the Ark. It can be terrifying because it is the brink of a journey with no guarantee. And it is the joy of confidence in a loving God who respects, guides, and powers our freedom.
For far too long, our literature has been throttled into submission, and greyed out to toe a line of flattened ideas, starved of faery, dismissive of myth, distrustful of mystagogy.
But human nature is wild and dangerous and beautiful. No matter how we try, it refuses to be coddled and codified and calcified by someone else’s weakness. By someone else’s poor handling of faery, myth, and mystery.
That’s because we are all grounded in God. And that’s why we resonate with movies and books and games. Because the truths of our being are always there, even if we’re blind to them. The longer we go blind, the less human will our culture be. The harsher will be the course correction when our inner humanity rages to reassert itself.
But if we can rewild ourselves, calmly sit before the mysteries of God and creation, mediated to us through our beautiful and dangerous Catholic Faith, then we just might become better human beings.
And find ourselves writing better stories.