Adventures in Elfland

I had no plans for Labor Day and decided to find some woods to wander in. I checked Google Maps for green patches near my house and found one I hadn’t yet visited. After a short bus ride, I cut through neighborhoods new to me—wide rolling streets and small brick houses, vine clad and overshadowed with huge trees I don’t know the names of—and made my way into the park.

The park follows a meandering river through a developed and densely populated area. I was surprised, then, by how quickly I got away from the traffic noise and houses. Pretty soon it was all brown undergrowth and tall trunks and sweeping vines and purple leaves pressed into mud on the path. I crossed a creek and saw a family of deer upstream. One doe kept a nervous eye on me as long as I stood there, but the younger deer went on jumping around on a rocky bed in the middle of the creek, nosing each other and the doe that was maybe their mother. More deer grazed on the bank, and I caught sight of a few young bucks further off, their budding antlers blending in and out of the tree branches.

Roads cross through the park every few miles, but for the most part, you hear only wood sounds—crickets and the low hum of other insects, wind in the tree-tops, gravel crunching underfoot, scattered bird calls, and maybe the rush of water over some small rapids. A kind of silence fills the forest—not the silence of an empty room, but a richer and livelier kind of quiet.

The longer I walked, the more the quiet settled in. I am thankful that I live in a place where trails like this are so accessible. Sometimes, the brain just needs a break from all the bustle. My thoughts wandered with my feet, and I started imagining these woods to be woods in different stories. Maybe that mossy patch is like the one where Tom Sawyer sat, plotting his adventures. Or those gnarled roots along the river bank: they look like the ones Frodo fell asleep on, under the spell of Old Man Willow along the banks of the Withywindle. Black riders could be peering down that hillside. Or maybe Rat and Mole could go punting down that little creek, and find the island of Pan hid in the tall grass ahead.

When I first entered the park, I was trying to shake off a little of that moving sidewalk feeling—where you seem to be slowly and mechanically propelled forward through neutral, non-committal space. But imagining stories happening in the wood helped to wake me up. Suddenly, the wood became mysterious. And full of things to notice and be surprised by. The act of imagining these stories did not serve as an escape from reality—instead it helped me see and wonder more at what surrounded me.

This all reminded me of something G.K. Chesterton wrote in his book Orthodoxy. In a chapter called the Ethics of Elfland, Chesterton describes what he calls “a certain way of looking at life, which was created in me by the fairy tales, but has since been ratified by the mere facts.”

Chesterton observes that “all the fire of the fairy tales is derived” from a kind of “elementary wonder.” We all like love stories, he says, because they appeal to our instinct of sex. And we all like astonishing tales because “they touch the nerve of the ancient instinct of astonishment.” The primacy of this instinct is proved, he argues, by the fact that “when we are very young children we do not need fairy tales: we need only tales. Mere life is interesting enough. A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door.”

Astonishing tales—hobbits talking with Ents and Rat boating with Mole and Hansel and Gretel escaping the witch and Jack climbing the beanstalk and Curdie confounding the goblins—help us remember and recover our elementary wonder at the world:

These tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green. They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water.

For Chesterton, the ancient instinct of wonder contains “a positive element of praise” which comes prior to any specific religious formation. He says it is a difficult feeling to express, but that nursery tales and fairy tales gave him a sense that “life was as precious as it was puzzling. It was an ecstasy because it was an adventure; it was an adventure because it was an opportunity . . . The test of all happiness is gratitude; and I felt grateful, though I hardly knew to whom.” Chesterton concludes that life “is not only a pleasure, but a kind of eccentric privilege” to which the proper response is humble thanks.

And that’s where my wandering mind ended on Labor Day: in thanksgiving for our lives that are puzzling and precious and take place in a world as mysterious as any fairy tale.

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