When I was in high school, we had something modern schools don’t seem to have called study hall. During study hall, you were free to do choose what to do. You could study, do homework, sometimes even talk quietly. Me? I chose study hall in the library, where I could wander through the stacks, reading titles and book blurbs, looking for the next thing to read.
Our school library was a place of magic. It had high dark shelves filled with books on all sorts of topics. I would wander among them, lost in daydreams, wishing that I had a magic power that would lead me right to a book I would enjoy reading. I read all sorts of books during study hall: historicals, romances, mysteries, the occasional fantasy, but my favorite books were the fairy tales.
High up on a shelf were a series of books, each of a single color: red, blue, pink, gray—Andrew Lang’s Red Book of Fairy tales, etc.. This fantastic collection belongs to Annabel Gaskell
We did not have them all, and I don’t think I ever finished reading all that we did have, but I read a number of them cover to cover. I also discovered and read a wonderful book of Nordic fairy tales that included a number of stories of Cinder Peter* and what might be my favorite fairy tale of all, East of the Sun and West of the Moon.
* It was here that I learned that the familiar character Cinderella was really Cinder Ella—Ella who spends time in the cinders.
One thing I loved was reading fairy tales from around the world and seeing how much they had in common. For instance:
There is a Celtic tale of a man who came upon a beautiful woman bathing. Lying beside her was a cloak of brown fur. The woman was a selkie, a seal who had taken off her fur to enjoy the sun. The man grabbed the cloak and hid it. He took the woman home and made her his wife. She was a good wife and mother, but one day, while cleaning, she found her lost cloak, hidden in a box under some blankets. When the man came home, he found his children crying and his wife gone. She had fled, returning to the sea.
This tale is also told in the Scandinavian countries, only it is a swan cloak the man steals, rather than that of a seal. In Italy, she was a dove. In Africa, she was a buffalo maiden. In Japan, it’s a crane cloak; in the Americas, a bear cloak.
The story is told all over the world, always the details are the same, always as simple, only the animal changes.
This simplicity, which makes it so that I can tell almost the entire story in one paragraph, is one of the joys and mysteries of fairy tales. We go out of our way nowadays to write long descriptions, to make our writing “fresh”, to “show not tell”. And yet, fairy tales are almost entirely telling. They are age-old, and they stay exactly the same.
And yet, they are just as enjoyable now as they were three or five hundred years ago.
They are almost entirely pure story.
People nowadays often feel that fairy tales are tame, safe. People refer to “a child’s fairy tale” almost as a synonym for something simple and easy to believe. They are thought to be the most innocent and banal of stories. Or, it is a synonym for something wonderful, practically heavenly: “She felt as if she were living in a fairy tale.”
I can only image that people who say either of these things have never stopped to envision what it would actually be like to be in a fairy tale.
You would live in a cozy little place, a cottage or a shop or perhaps a fishing village. The world close by would be ordinary and safe, but just beyond would be the Wood. And this Wood…
The Wood is perilous!
There are tricksters and ogres. There are good princesses, but sometimes they are impersonated by bad ones. An old beggar lady might be, in truth, a beautiful enchantress, and if you treat her with disdain, you will suffer for it. But she also might be an evil witch, and, if you leave the path to help her, it will spell your doom.
For there is one true way that runs through the Wood Perilous, a narrow path, and if you stay on it, you will be safe. But how can you tell when to help the old lady and when to run?
When we are children, we think we are invincible. We think we are Mary Sue—the girl who can do everything and whom everyone admires. It does not occur to a child that she might not pick correctly when confronting the old lady, that she might confuse the enchantress for the witch or visa versa.
But at some point, we begin to mature. As I grew older, I began to wonder: how would a person know what was right and what was wrong in the Wood Perilous? It would take tremendous discernment to tell the good witches from the bad ones!
I still remember the day that I grudgingly admitted that maybe I would not automatically know. That maybe…even for me…the Wood was perilous!
And yes, in case you were wondering, this Wood is the same that Into the Word tried to take us into, but it failed. Somewhere along the way, the characters, and the audience, lost the path, because they circled back into our world—the daylit world of mundane problems and pointlessness, where marriages are not “happy ever after” and characters can die senselessly, rather than heroically, tragically, or deservedly—as happens in the real Wood.
People who like Into the Wood, Fables, Once Upon A Time, and the many other stories of this sort, tell me that these stories are mature. They are realistic. They have problems and dangers, unlike fairy tales….
I can only think that, back when they were reading their fairy tales, they were not really paying attention.
The Wood Perilous is far more terrifying than the mundane problems of our everyday life. But the difference is: in the Wood Perilous, dangers have meaning.
So I ask you, when the Degenerati promote the kind of fairy tale that end in the humdrum, what is it that they seek to remove from our lives?