Death and Resurrection: Patterns in Folklore and Fantasy

Fairy Tales God Myth and Legend

“The world is full of resurrections. Every night that folds us up in darkness is a death; and those of you that have been out early, and have seen the first of the dawn, will know it–the day rises out of the night like a being that has burst its tomb and escaped into life.”
— George MacDonald

Recurring themes abound in fairy tales and fantasy novels, and many have theorized why stories of similar types exist across cultures. Some have attempted to explain this by claiming that they rise from a collective unconscious that embraces universal archetypes, but Scripture supports the idea that most of these common themes spring from patterns written by God on the human heart. It attests that “since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made.” (Romans 1:20)

Of course, this speaks of the created order, but I think “what has been made” also could include stories crafted and passed down for generations, tales that in some form testify of the qualities and nature of God. Admittedly, many of these are a dim reflection, but they still contain a glimmer of truth.

One of these pervasive patterns is that of death and resurrection, a common motif in fantasy novels and fairy tale alike, and one with clear Scriptural parallels.

In the oft-told tale, Sleeping Beauty falls into a slumber akin to death. For a hundred years she lays so, until a kiss restores her life.

In myths of old, the majestic Phoenix rises from the ashes of death, a newly born creature, full of strength and vitality.

In the Lord of the Rings, Gandalf sacrifices his life for his companions, and then receives it anew…and in the restoration comes greater power.

In such tales, we perceive shadows of the greatest Story yet told. Often the tellers of such tales reflected truth unaware, for not all of them shared a Christian perspective. In fact, many of them worshiped pagan gods and walked in great darkness. Yet even so, something woven into them by their Creator bore witness to truth. So whether intentional on the part of a writer or not, these echoes of something grand and wonderful in folklore attest to a Creator and have potential to prepare the heart to receive full truth (as they did in the case of CS Lewis).


  • Maria Tatham
    November 17, 2011 - 11:06 pm · Reply

    Sarah, have you watched the new ABC series Once Upon a Time (on Sunday nights)? In it, Snow White tries to restore her husband, whom she believes is dead, to life with a kiss such as he had given her? In thinking about this, I’m reminded of the Lord breathing life into Adam, after forming him from clay.

    Thinking about how fairytales, legends and myths may show a part of the truth isn’t something I’ve done. Thank you–it’s another aspect of living symbolism.

    • Sarah Sawyer
      November 18, 2011 - 12:36 pm · Reply

      I have watched the Once Upon a Time show, and so far I’m really enjoying it. I appreciate the fresh take on familiar fairy tales, and the fact that they’ve kept everything clean (up to this point).

      The moment Snow White believed her husband dead was a touching one, all the more so for her attempts to restore his life. And you’re right, the kiss of restoration does remind one of the life God breathed into Adam. Great point!

      • Maria Tatham
        November 18, 2011 - 5:34 pm · Reply

        Sarah, what’s also striking about the series is that wrongdoing is wrongdoing. Cinderella blames herself for her predicament. The scene in which Rumplestiltskin kills Ella’s Fairy Godmother, then entices her into his awful pact, was really well done and telling about who the writers believe should be blamed when people do wrong. Also, we never really get to see her awful family, and this is also a cue that the writers are clear about what happened in this contract with the Enemy.

        Speaking of Cinderella, some versions clearly show that they are not on board with God’s Story. Many of them show vengeance along a spectrum: from Happily Ever After’s poetic justice, to (I believe it’s) Grimm’s iron shoes. No forgiveness or clean slate. But the whole idea of being lifted up from the ash heap to reign is clearly His story.

        • Sarah Sawyer
          November 21, 2011 - 6:37 pm · Reply

          Yes, the lines of good and evil are clearly drawn, as befitting fairy tales in general. There are some very memorable and truth-filled lines from the show. I’ve been impressed so far, and I hope they continue to do a good job!

          It’s interesting you see Cinderella stories as being about vengeance. In most of the ones that come to mind, I think of it more as divine justice. Though God freely offers forgiveness, there is a point where judgement occurs, and many of the Cinderella stories seem to indicate that, since retribution doesn’t come from Cinderella, but forces outside her acting in judgement.

          Now when you look at more modern versions, like the film Ever After, it does become slanted more toward vengeance than justice. It’s intriguing how themes change over time and are even viewed differently depending on the reader. I suppose the fact that they are multi-layered stories has allowed fairy tales to endure. 🙂

  • Maria Tatham
    November 21, 2011 - 9:21 pm · Reply

    Sarah, I think you’re right. Cinderella isn’t about vengeance but justice, or mercy and forgiveness. The more modern Ever After is slanted toward vengeance. For though the destiny of the Stepmother and stepsisters is poetic justice, if we’re simply looking at it as a piece of literature, as a reaction to injury it is vengeance that is meant to last. There’s no sense that their destiny will change in time.

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