Saturday, July 25, 2015

The Best Stories

"What good are fairy tales if we can't find our way?" - Ransom Riggs, Hollow City

As the peculiar children in Ransom Rigg's series are desperately trying to find a way to save someone they love, several of the children keep reading a book of fairy tales that apparently contain important truth. One of the children complains that the tales are useless. As far as he can see, they are lost; they need concrete truth, not fanciful stories.

It's a valid concern, but not a sound one (as Hollow City eventually shows). Not all truth is didactic and plain. Some of the most important truths are conveyed to us through fictional stories. Look at the parables Jesus used: a man was walking from Jerusalem to Jericho; a woman with ten silver coins lost one; a rich man stole a poor man's lamb.  None of them were 'true' in the sense that they actually happened to a particular person, yet the were all true in a way that transcended the story itself. A story that begins "once upon a time" does not always mean falsehood is about to follow; in it's best form, it presents true embedded in a timeless kind of story - if we take the time to find it.*

So what good are fairy tales if we can't find our way? I would argue that the goodness and truth of a well-told tale (and I am broadening this term to mean any type of fictional tale, fable, parable or story that creatively imparts truth about life) is actually most valuable when we can't find our way. However, for this to be true, three key elements need to be in place: truth, honesty and hope.


“In a utilitarian age, of all other times, it is a matter of grave importance that fairytales should be respected.”  Charles Dickens  __________________________________________________


The classic fairy tales, which were originally written for adults, were often based on actual events (for example, Snow White, Rapunzel, Hansel and Gretel, and Cinderella). These stories were full of horrible things, but they highlighted good and evil in a way that was meant to be instructive. The original Sleeping Beauty offers a typical example.
“In one of the very earliest versions of [Sleeping Beauty], published in 1634 by Giambattista Basile as Sun, Moon, and Talia, the princess does not prick her finger on a spindle, but rather gets a sliver of flax stuck under her fingernail. She falls down, apparently dead, but her father cannot face the idea of losing her, so he lays her body on a bed in one of his estates. Later, a king out hunting in the woods finds her, and since he can’t wake her up, rapes her while she’s unconscious, then heads home to his own country. Some time after that, still unconscious, she gives birth to two children, and one of them accidentally sucks the splinter out of her finger, so she wakes up. The king who raped her is already married, but he burns his wife alive so he and Talia can be together. Don’t worry, the wife tries to kill and eat the babies first, so it’s all morally sound.”  - The Disturbing Origin of 10 Famous Fairy Tales 
As brutal as this story was, seeing the moral contrast in the characters established a template for the readers: be just, true, faithful, and kind in a world that often is not. Be the hero, not the monster. G.K Chesterton gave a thoughtful analysis in All Things Considered: 
“It is surely obvious that all ethics ought to be taught to this fairy-tale tune; that, if one does the thing forbidden, one imperils all the things provided. A man who breaks his promise to his wife ought to be reminded that, even if she is a cat, the case of the fairy-cat shows that such conduct may be incautious. A burglar just about to open some one else's safe should be playfully reminded that he is in the perilous posture of the beautiful Pandora: he is about to lift the forbidden lid and loosen evils unknown. The boy eating some one's apples in some one's apple tree should be a reminder that he has come to a mystical moment of his life, when one apple may rob him of all others. This is the profound morality of fairy-tales…” 
Stories that refuse to speak truth about life fail to prepare us for the world as it is. When I saw Vince Gilligan in a live interview, he noted that the script writers for Breaking Bad met constantly to answer the question: "What would actually happen to everyone around him if Walter White did this?" They they wrote real life consequences into the story. They let people harvest what they planted. Breaking Bad was a hard show to watch, but it may have been the best morality tale on TV in recent years.

True stories help us find our way. They may be non-fiction accounts of one person's history; they can also be fictional accounts that illuminate the metanarratives that flow through all of our lives.


“If you happen to read fairytales, 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 nurserytales.” ~ G.K. Chesterton  



The best stories are neither fatalistic nor naively optimistic. In the 1800’s, the original fairy tales underwent significant changes that made them more didactic, proper, socially acceptable, and appropriate for children. Perhaps because impressionable young minds were now the target audience, the stories became cleaner, with lines clearly drawn.  Villains were punished even more harshly. Virtue was rewarded more bountifully.

In one sense, this was an age-appropriate shift. However, this sanitization of life brought with it an unintended consequences: removing the caution from cautionary tales tends to distance us from reality rather than prepare us for it.** An honest ending became a happy ending. The vagaries, messiness and injustice in the world was eventually replaced by a predictable and just ending.

Once again, this is in a sense understandable. Bedtime stories for kids are supposed to help them sleep, not keep them up, right? Yet the over-sanitization of stories told for hundreds of years was not without consequence. Taylor Swift - whom I did not expect to quote in this article - offered an insightful commentary on what happens when the modern fairy tale fails to convert the complexity of the world:
“When I was a little girl I used to read fairy tales. In fairy tales you meet Prince Charming and he's everything you ever wanted. In fairy tales the bad guy is very easy to spot. The bad guy is always wearing a black cape so you always know who he is. Then you grow up and you realize that Prince Charming is not as easy to find as you thought. You realize the bad guy is not wearing a black cape and he's not easy to spot; he's really funny, and he makes you laugh, and he has perfect hair.” 
Three hundred years ago, a genuine fairy tale would have prepared her for the false charmers and the true princes. She would have known to throw the frog against the wall rather than kiss it and let it sleep on her bed. But most of the stories we grow up on today do the opposite.

C.S. Lewis wrote in one of his essays that there was danger in protecting children from the reality of death, violence, wounds, adventure, heroism, cowardice, good and evil, since "it is so likely that they will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. . . Let there be wicked kings and beheadings, battles and dungeons, giants and dragons, and let villains be soundly killed at the end of the book.”

Saccharine tales told with the best of intentions fail us, whether we are children or adults. They set us up for disappointment. When we are not swept off our feet by our true love, rescued magically from poverty and shame, able to tame the mysterious monster (or transform the toad) who loves us, or have a kiss sweep us off our feet, we assume something has gone wrong. Anything less than an unsullied happy-ever-after is unacceptable.

Meanwhile, in the real world, there are still trolls under the bridge, frogs who just keep croaking,  monsters that only appear to be our friends, and wolves that lurk in the woods of our family, school and church. Honest stories prepare us for this.

They reveal human nature (James Lee Burke's novels). They talk about a culture that views people as commodities (Unwind). They show the actual impact of family dysfunction (August: Osage County; The Judge), racism (District 9), economic inequality (John Q, Elysium) and war (Saving Private Ryan). They aren't perfect stories, but at least in those areas they seek to be honest.


"Fairy tales were not my escape from reality as a child; rather, they were my reality -- for mine was a world in which good and evil were not abstract concepts, and like fairy-tale heroines, no magic would save me unless I had the wit and heart and courage to use it wisely." Terri Windling, "Surviving Childhood"



Neil Gaiman wrote in Coraline, “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” We see this approach reflected in some of the most popular entertainment today. The Babadook tells a tale of grief and abuse (yet ends in hope); Warm Bodies reveals the horror of people giving in to the worst part of their nature (yet shows us the hope of genuine love); The Walking Dead shows us a world in which people are just something to be consumed (yet shows the value of justice, mercy, and integrity). G.K. Chesterton noted, 
"Fairy-tales do not give a child his first idea of bogy. What fairy-tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogy. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy-tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon. Exactly what the fairy-tale does is this: it accustoms him by a series of clear pictures to the idea that these limitless terrors have a limit, that these shapeless enemies have enemies, that these infinite enemies of man have enemies in the knights of God, that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear...fairy-tales restored my mental health." 

Tolkein wrote in The Consolation of the Happy Ending:
The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous ‘turn’ (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially ‘escapist,’ nor ‘fugitive’. In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. 
It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophy, of sorrow and failure; the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glance of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.
Can stories help us find our way? Absolutely. If they are true, they guide us. If they are honest, they reveal the world to us. If they are hopeful, they point us toward the reality of the greatest story ever told.

That is the best kind of story.


* HT to Karl Meszaros and Michael Hilliard for some good insights that I shamelessly incorporated.

**Currently, the common understanding is that Superman and Batman shouldn't kill. Many were upset with Superman's' killing of Zod in Man of Steel because that is just not what Superman would do. That is how they wanted their heroes to be. However, this is very much at odds with the original vision. In many of Superman's early stories, he would do things that led to the death of villains (for example, he would throw somebody over the edge of a building). In Batman's 1st issue, he beat a villain until the villain fell over a railing to his death. Batman then said that "he got what he deserved."

It’s not hard to see how this reflects the times in which the stories were created. The 1930's was not all that far displaced from the Old West. Wyatt Earp died in 1929; Superman was created in 1938. It’s no wonder so many of the early heroes practiced "frontier justice" when the heroes who came before them were the cowboys. In the 1930's, when Superman and Batman were created, people expected that the villains would die. Not anymore. We want Batman to defeat evil villains without killing them.

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