*I am presenting in two parts over the next two weeks an essay I once composed on the topic of childhood fancy, beginning with the magical realm of faerie.*
The last time I saw an elf dancing under the moonlight in the cool of a spring evening must have been almost twenty years ago now, and for a man in his late-twenties that is an very long time. There was an age, of course, when the fair folk were as common as butterflies in summer or golden leaves in fall, even if they have always been rather shy. But now it seems that the last of them have been driven away and those few that remain reveal themselves only to children, knowing that the young of our own kind will be praised for their imaginations rather than believed for the truth of their reports.
Then there were the sea nymphs, water sprites who waited for my sisters and me every year at the beach resort, eager for new games in the shadows of dusk. The dryads too invited us to swing in the branches of their trees, gamboling without a care in the world.
But then I grew up.
And the natural world seemed to lose its magic. The trees were only trees, the sea a mass of water from which I could not drink. The elves crept back into their burrows, sprites fled into their ocean caves – or maybe I drove them away as a rational mind replaced the childhood fantasies that gave those early years their meaning. It is one of the curious things about adults that we always want to know how and why, where a child will often just accept. Or if the child asks his parents, he will be content with the most imaginative of stories. Who among us has not heard of storks being the suppliers of the world’s human newborns, a sort of transport system winging in babes from realms unknown? The simple truth is that children love the mysterious, and while they may show a dogged enthusiasm in trying to understand the wonders of the world, they are fully willing to understand one mystery in terms of another.
There is a well-known story – I do not know how true it may be – of a young girl in an art lesson. Her teacher asked what she was drawing, and the girl’s response was, “I’m drawing a picture of God.”
“But nobody knows what God looks like,” replied the teacher.
“They will in a minute,” says the girl.
As delightfully silly as this whole episode may seem to us on the far side of twenty-five, or thirty, or forty, it illustrates the point that mystery is part of a child’s life and that a child sees no problem in attempting the impossible. It is the loss of this love of mystery, the loss of this celebration of not knowing, that saddens me in a profound way. I do not mean to herald general ignorance as a trait worth pursuing, but I do mean to call into question modern man’s dogged pursuit of understanding every tiny facet of his world. Finding the cure for cancer is all well and good, but do we really need to understand how the hummingbird manages to beat its petite wings so rapidly? I would argue that it rather reduces the awe factor.
If we think about the hummingbird’s beauty through the two major concepts of life origins, we find some startling realities and differences in our perception of the bird. From an evolutionary point of view, we might say that the bird evolved this way for such and such a reason of survival; a creationist would praise the craftsmanship of God for building such a creature. Neither side of the argument, however, has a really good answer for the why.
Science, regardless of whether one believes in chance-processes or in Divine design, can only answer the how. As for origins as a means of explanation and reason, Evolution can at best only answer from necessity, for by its own definition of the origins of species, those things that are superfluous are cast aside – or ground out of existence by stronger beings. Its why is pure logic and suvival. Creationism, for all its celebration of God as an artist, can really offer no better explanation than just that: that God is an artist. Part of the West’s culturally understood definition of art is that it is superfluous and ultimately unnecessary for survival; it is a luxury.
Children, I think, understand this elusive concept far better than most adults. There is something elfish about the whole affair, something magical, something faerie. We can imagine that, were hummingbirds native to Europe, Aesop or some other story-teller would have a fantastic origin tale to explain how the hummingbird came to beat its wings so speedily. And that fable, for all of its fancy, would likely resonate with people on a far deeper level than any of the scientific explanations on offer today.
To be continued…