The small, ragged girl sat sobbing beneath the low branches of an olive tree. Her life had changed dramatically and she was learning quickly how cruel this world can be. Her outrage having spent itself in tears, she began to pay attention to the songs of the sparrows perched in the tree above her. The more she listened, the more it seemed they were all singing the same song. And the more she listened after that, the more it seemed that they were singing the song for her, and that she could understand it.
They sang about her father, who was a king in a faraway land. The verses said that she would not see him for a long time but that he would be watching over her and would not let her come to terrible harm. In the meantime, she was to learn to be good and strong, truthful and kind, even when those around her were not. When people were unkind to her, she must forgive them because they didn’t know that her real father was a great king. Her father would come for her one day and make everything better, and they would be together forever and perfectly happy.
The sparrows sang the song several times until they were sure that the girl had memorized it, and then they told her to sing the song every day and any time she felt sad. And she did. At least until she became more grown-up and put away such childish stories. But long after she had forgotten her father was a king, she faced the world with an expectant hope, and she tried to be good and strong, truthful and kind, even when those around her were not.
Now imagine for a moment that the sparrows had told her a different story: that the fate of the entire world rested on her shoulders, that she must have as many experiences of every kind as she could, that it was okay to lie, to cheat, and to be cruel so long as she did so for the right cause, and that the most she could hope for in life was a fleeting romantic experience. How different she would be, how different her choices and the path of her life.
That would be the kind of life that Philip Pullman’s story imagines for her. For more on Pullman’s false story, see the articles by Pete Vere and Sophia Sproule.
We often hear that there’s no sense getting worked up about something that’s “just fiction.” But Jesus taught primarily through parables, stories, “fiction.” Stories matter. Indeed, in the Incarnation, a story too good to be true became fact.
By the way, the story about the girl is historically true as well as being true in the deepest way: There is such a girl and she did have such an experience. She remembered it again after she was baptized, when she officially became the daughter of the King who had watched over her all those years.