“…he will fill himself with the life-blood of everyone that dies, and swallow heavenly bodies, and spatter the sky and all heaven with blood. Because of this the sun will lose its brightness, and winds will rage and buffet to and fro.” – Snorri Sturluson explaining Managarm in the thirteenth century.
“His prayer was scarcely ended when her limbs grew numb and heavy, her soft breasts were covered in delicate bark, her hair became leaves, her arms branches, and her swift feet were rooted in the ground, while her head became a treetop. Nothing of her was left, except her grace, her shining.” – Ovid explaining the development of the laurel crown.
As wonderful and as magical as mankind’s technological advancements may seem at times, there is still a mysticism penetrating the heart of our existence that can only be plumbed through the spirit. There is light and shadow interweaving itself endlessly through the conscious and subconscious mind. We are fearful and fearless, we are happy and sad, we are confident and paranoid. We, as individuals, are a world unto ourselves. And in this world, a thousand voices wander, all of them trying to make sense of what is seen and what is unseen.
Many, as they grow older, refuse to acknowledge the unseen. They shun it. It is not there, not a part of their world. And yet, alone, in that hidden world of theirs beneath their skin, they feel that spirit moving. Confidence suddenly shape-shifts to doubt for no apparent reason. Bravery recoils at a loud noise. Joy turns to grief when nothing happens but silent reflection. The human condition is more than mere digits on your hands and thoughts in your head. It is wonderful and grave, bright and dreary.
“Fairy tales begin with conflict because we all begin our lives with conflict.”
– Jack Zipes
I personally feel that people who avoid fairy tales, suppress the conflict warring within themselves. They don’t want others, in this world, to know this battle rages. They think there is strength in wearing a mask.
“No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true.”
– Nathaniel Hawthorne
As Polinius’s advice to his son Laertes in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “This above all – To thine own self be true.” When we become so earthly as to hide the passion roaring inside us, we become more joyless than we know. Nothing ever satisfies. We are always discontent. Never really happy. Always looking for greener pastures.
“In an utilitarian age, of all other times, it is a matter of grave importance that fairy tales should be respected.”
Utilitarian means ‘aiming for usefulness rather than beauty.’ It is the battle cry of the rational, reasoning man to craft for the usefulness of man, removing from it, all reverence for the art, the time, the passion and beauty invested in it. It is the conveyor belt that spits out cheap products for financial gain when, at one time, a craftsman labored skillfully, for hours, building just such a product.
When I attend the MPM – Milwaukee Public Museum, one of my favorite exhibits is the Southwestern Native American display where they have (I believe it is Navajo) rugs hanging up. They said it would take the women crafting it nearly a year to make. All the details were so precise. So much love and zeal into something that would be both useful and beautiful. The world does not operate on that level anymore. There is no way such crafts can be fashioned anymore, for the time it takes could not possibly be compensated properly. The fairy tale, a work of fiction, often draws us back to the ideals of honor and integrity missing in the world.
“Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living, it’s a way of looking at life through the wrong end of the telescope.”
– Dr. Seuss
Inside of us, deep down in the heart, the desire for magic still exists. We want it to be true. We know it to be true. Children have not yet learned to discount this desire. As Chesterton said, they know dragons are real.
“Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.”
– G.K. Chesterton
And this is what happens to us as we grow older and mature. We suppress our belief in dragons, not that we don’t believe they exist, but because we start believing they can’t be defeated. We find out how real evil really is in the world, and we conform to it. Fairy tales are the hope that says, “Do not conform. Evil can be defeated.”
“Think of every fairy tale villain you’ve ever heard of. Think of the wicked witches, the evil queens, the mad enchantresses. Think of the alluring sirens, the hungry ogresses, the savage she-beasts. Think of them and remember that somewhere, sometime, they’ve been real.”
– Jim Butcher
That is the crux of the war that rages inside of us. Do we combat evil or conform to it? And if we fight it – How? What are our weapons? Who are our allies?
“Fantasy is hardly an escape from reality. It’s a way of understanding it.”
– Lloyd Alexander
As readers and writers of fiction, of fantasy, of fairy tales, we are actually exploring morality, the morality we want without a mask. The real self. Are we brave enough to show our faces, as we are, human, frail, mortal. We are not always brave. We are not always zealous. We are not always strong.
“… you will observe that one idea runs from one end of them to the other – the idea that peace and happiness can only exist on some condition. This idea, which is the core of ethics, is the core of the nursery-tales.”
– G.K. Chesterton
Don’t get me wrong. There is a lot of bad fiction out there, a lot of boilerplate, conveyor belt fairy tales pumped out quickly by greedy artists investing little to nothing of their own heart in their work.
When I read, when I write, I’m looking for the Navajo rug. I want to feel something, become emotionally involved. I want my morals, my ethics to be tested as I read. I want to be unmasked.
“Magic never solves the problems – we have to do that on our own.”
-Charles de Lint
For me personally, while there are unicorns and dragons, crystals and talisman, nymphs and specters running mad through a story, I’m identifying not with them but the human elements of existence. The bold idea that we can face down our own fears in life, rise before dragons and slay them. We all have dragons in our lives. We all have challenges. Fairy tales remind us that we can conquer them. There is always hope.
“If you want children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”
– Albert Einstein