The *in* thing
So, there’s Once Upon a Time, Red Riding Hood, Tangled, Snow White and the Huntsman and now Hansel and Gretel. Fairy tales are in. But fairy tales were always the in thing. There are feminist takes and post modern re-tellings and grunge and hyper-homogenised commercial versions. All worthwhile. And there’s plenty to say about ’em, even these. Yet few focus attention on the spiritual dimensions of Fairy Tales. That’s ok in a way, because the very nature of these stories is that they can be anything to anyone. They are rich.
However, we are poor if we don’t make the effort to see their spiritual power. I’m not talking about religion. I’m talking about the power of story telling to say what we are and how we can know it. It is this aspect of Fairy Tales that I learnt in the first year of my degree too many years ago to recall in full. And it seems too few are getting the education I was privileged to obtain. So here goes.
What fairy tales are
I’ve said this before, but Fairy Tales are wisdom, delivered orally, (mainly) by wise women, to their communities. Each generation hands this wisdom down to the next. Elements change, but their importance doesn’t. Primarily, they communicate(d) knowledge of cosmological significance, about the development of the soul and the soul’s place in the cosmos. They were ideal teaching tools because they could be re-crafted for particular audiences, remembered with ease and, for each listener, what they understood of them was dependent upon their personal spiritual growth and morality as a member of the community. These stories were not especially meant for children, but also, they weren’t not meant for them – spiritually evolved children understood exactly what they were about.
What, metaphysically, do these stories show us? Firstly they demonstrate that this world, as any scientitian will say, is not just what you can see. There is the realm of the ascendant or knowledge, or light, heaven or truth, there is the every day fluxy world of time and change and there is the underworld, a realm of death and decay, secrets and darkness. These tales show us there is the world of ignorance, the world of learning and the world of the awakened. Each have their merits and lessons, and each is a state of being. Each story reveals ways to navigate between these realms, which is nothing short of how to navigate life and death.
There are beings that inhabit every realm. Some move between all three worlds. They are either like Hermes – divine beings, or guides, or tricksters who have other goals than merely helping humans. There are beings of truth, there are beings of shadow and there are those who are concerned about humans and those who are not. Then there are special humans who attain wisdom or an ability who can also visit each of these realms, they are shamans, guides, god-mothers, witches, the old and wise or gifted or gravely ill or very young. Sometimes they help others (shamans) sometimes they can travel just for themselves. And finally there are the humans who undergo – Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, Snow White – they are us.
Why the need?
Change is a natural constant in all life, so humans need ways to deal with it, but, like butterflies, the story of change is not what you think it is. Each story deals in some way with transformation – from ignorance to becoming to being. Fairy Tales do this using the language of symbols and metaphor, where this journey of the soul can be presented as from Ugly Physical Duckling to the awareness of self as Realised Spiritual Swan. These Fairy Tales are also ways of providing what we need to cope and learn about all sorts of change, whether that the physical changes such as puberty or death or social states like marriage, or mental states. They can help us accept our destiny as individuals caught up in change, but also as Spirit, which is beyond change.
Stories are their most useful when they use metaphor because they are flexible, can travel and appeal to the human imagination. Humans like working things out, multiplicity and can’t resist mystery but always appreciate meaning. So it is a sad development of the modern world that so many can’t appreciate multiple levels of meaning in stories. Ancient story tellers didn’t use literalism. Poetry, song, myth and tales are the province of multiple meanings and interpretations because that is who we are. Every human is a complex player in their own life – daughter, lover, writer, worker. Just so, every story is layered. Skilled teachers have multiple strategies to deliver each lesson, the same goes for stories. As a side note, please don’t reduce stories – don’t reduce people – to one narrow literal interpretation.
Let’s get specific
Let’s take wolves and bears. They are night creatures or animals that hibernate and thus belong to the darkness, which is night-time, the absence of awareness of the transcendent, and also the underworld. They are not necessarily evil. As the Homeric Hymn to Demeter and the Myth of Ishtar suggest, no one can visit the underworld and be unchanged by it, in fact, such visits also transform the world. Wolves encourage us to face our inner void, they are not just about the carnality of nature, of raw physicality, but about the body’s ultimate destiny as a thing doomed to decay. Yet in visiting the night realm, we are reminded that the sleeping wake and that even Persephone and Ishtar return to the world with the spring, and being thus awake, awaken the world, as avatars/Bodhisattvas. The point is that there is a return journey, and perhaps the ultimate darkness (death) is another phase a being undergoes.
Wolves also speak to humanity as beings who form communities but can also live alone, as such, they are metaphors of the soul’s search for its home among it’s like. Furthermore the lone wolf and the lone woodsman are redolent of community fears about ‘the otherness’ of strangers, thus, they represent the special otherness beyond the everyday world – the otherness souls feel when embodied – or the conviction this physical world is not the only one. The uninitiated (asleep) fear them as they fear what they have yet to experience. Bears, again, are seasonal creatures and cave dwellers. Night and the cave can be viewed as symbolic of the womb – the mystery of life that forms (sleeps) in darkness, which again is a symbol of the spiritual journey from night (Plato’s Cave of Shadows plays with this idea) into knowledge and hence into light. In this, darkness is not evil, but necessary, we can’t be born into the human world except through darkness and seems to indicate the same at the end of life. Fairy Tales imbue the natural world with meaning and use the natural world, because we forget now, but used to know, that humans are a part of the natural world and are animals caught within its cycles of birth, life, death and decay.
I’m not saying anything new here. Every person moved by a story beyond the obvious emotionality of it senses this somehow. And all the Myths we are familiar with? I don’t deny aspects of their possible historicity (ie Euhemerism) – but this only demonstrates an earlier point – humans make stories to bring meaning to events. It’s what we do.
Anyway Myths are stories made large, and while we love our Heroes and their Dragon Slaying Dramas, the Fairy Story speaks to us on a level that make the domestic Heroic and recognises that the everyday world poses dangers and challenges to the soul’s journey.
I’ll explain this again. The differences between Myth and Fairy Tale are mostly of scale and use. The great task to slay a dragon and become King is epic, it can be presented on a stage and styled for an enactment in honour of the Gods in their temples – they are for ‘holy days’. Fairy Tales, in a way, are more important, because, with their stories about kids collecting fire wood (for example) they use commonplace examples that demonstrate our Quest in Becoming happens every day in all sorts of circumstances and each of us mere average mortals is the Hero/Heroine of our own journey.
Suck it and see
Don’t take my word for it. Read the stories with eyes open for symbols. See a ladder or a tree? They are conduits between spiritual stages. See that coal or slipper or animal, think about everything they are associated with and their function. Everything means something and something and something else.
What others say
Again. Don’t take my word for it. Read what others have said about Myth and Fairy Tales. They are not the ‘lies breathed through silver’ that CS Lewis was so dismissive of. So I recommend..
The White Goddess, Robert Graves, not because he is always accurate, but because of the spirit of his inquiry and revelation.
Anything by Joseph Campbell – because really.
Jung. Because he kinda gets it.
Mircea Eliade. Because knowledge.
The Poetics of Space – Gaston Bachelard.
Read poetry. Look at art.
Read Novalis, or if not, try Tolkien and Borges or Herman Hesse.
Finally, a message to my lecturers from back when. If I forget everything else, I won’t forget the things you helped me remember, and in my writing my goal is always to demonstrate this. With much fondness to Long Ago and Ever After.