Sit down. You have a decision to make./ One way will be thorny and full of pain. One way will be orderly and full of pain./ Eventually the heart will be empty and open/ and then you will give back the pain....—Terry Ehret, “Behind Broken Hill Temple”, from Lucky Break
Driving home from yet another evening parent meeting, I catch out of the corner of my eye a deer daintily side-stepping into the brush. The thin flicker of white rimming the black dagger of her tail mirrors the lit borders of the clouds, all of us bathed in that ethereal blue of back-roads on a half-moon night. I’m thinking about REM, specifically Peter Buck writing, “To me, Losing My Religion feels like some kind of archetype that was floating around in space that we managed to lasso.” Because the kids are home with Grandma, I can crank it up and lean over the steering wheel, afford a swerve as I search the sky and ponder a discussion thread concerning fairytales posted recently on She Writes (http://www.shewrites.com/) that was initiated by writer Allyson Lang (who posts at www.northsidefour.blogspot.com).
Do you read fairytales to your children—given the manner in which female heroines are portrayed, endangered, damaged, in need of rescue? And how might our boy and girl childrens’ psyches be affected? These and other questions were considered.
I am barely emerging from the “blind symbiotic cocoon” passage of motherhood during which one is in the business of teaching one’s child to construct boundaries while still being, as a parent, somewhat merged with that child. My youngest weaned, I’m surprised to find one of my dearly held assumptions morphing: I no longer believe my children will emulate everything they hear, read or see.
I’m not advocating over-loading one’s two-year-old with fairytales. Every parent has to sort out the right time and place to introduce certain stories. But I fare better trusting that my children’s psyches come equipped for dealing with our state of humanity, planetarily. I’m praying they come into their incarnations wired to survive. Eventually they’ll have to sort through the various group-thinks of our people.
As I pull up the steep, uneven, pitted gravel lane to my house, CD skipping furiously at the last lunge over the deepest pothole, the list of questions goes on. What are we attracted to in fairytales, repelled by, and why? What might be to our specie’s advantage to living steeped in certain agreements about which roles each sex will play? Where is the source of one’s power? Why is it so easy to give away?
And, why so easy to sit in the van, alone between the dank trunks of the redwoods, watching for signs of light through the upstairs blinds, pretend I’m not home yet, listen one more time to Man on the Moon, wonder which songs will obsess my children when they are teenagers.
Thinking about the teenage years (my own) I’m grateful for the grim brutality portrayed in some fairytales (take Bluebeard, for example) for the simple message: you too can survive this or that horrific situation (male/female skirmish, child/parent/relative passage, or some other tale of abandonment or betrayal). I remember as a preteen (burgeoning with the siren’s vibrancy of youth) encountering predatory sexual male behavior (from boys wired with an equal ferocity for the hunt) and how fairytales helped me breathe… precisely because they take the amorphous emotional treacheries we all must navigate and pour them into 3D form, that once named, you can ride along with the heroine and contend with (battle, evade, or succumb): a failed magician, a Sea Witch, a pair of addictively beautiful red shoes capable of dancing their wearer to death.
Clearly, I’m not talking about Disney’s oversimplified versions of fairytales either. As a nineteen year-old exchange student in Denmark, I read H.C Anderson’s Den lille Havfrau (Little Mermaid) in Danish. So rich, in which the choice to trade one’s voice for legs to win a landbound lover is not rewarded—the little mermaid suffers very real consequences. While she garners a dance, a little time with the object of her desire, she does not get to stay on and live happily ever after, but evaporates in the morning to the voices of her sisters singing her soul a pathway to the stars.
Or at least that’s the version I remember, puzzled together with my newbie exchange student’s handle on the language. The shock of the little mermaid’s demise—that depth of sorrow, reflected a far more accurate truth about one aspect of the female experience, often unmapped, unacknowledged. Offset, for me, by the spiritual comfort of the sisters’ voices bordering her journey into the next realm.
And now as a mother, I’m grateful for the whole cast of characters misbehaving in fairytales in varying degrees. For their universal appeal, with the unfortunate hero or heroine suffering a fatal flaw, some common-sense block or predisposition to thinking the best of others…which is the case with most of us ambling through our childhoods. For some fraction of a decision, then, you might side with a “lesser” character, until your moral compass “trues.” At any rate, I love how you get to sort it out in the quiet of your own heart.
When my daughter was 7, my brother’s sweetheart Maria (formerly employed in the comic industry) brought us Rod Espinosa’s The Courageous Princess, a 235 page graphic fairytale starring Mabelrose, a tomboy of a princess who finds herself in the snare of a dragon named Shalathromnostrium. Shal ruthlessly lectures the captive Mabelrose at one point, “No one will rescue you! Not now, not ever. No one will rescue a second class princess from a poor kingdom…You will learn to like living here…You will be mine for a long time.” And…as you can guess, Mabelrose has to draw on her own strength and intelligence to escape and find her way home.
We enjoyed Espinosa’s vibrant colors and his dramatic pacing, from panels of starlight and vast aerials above the thundering waterfalls to a close-up of Mabelrose sleeping in the safety of a tree house in the kingdom of Leptia. You see Mabelrose nestled in the folds of a purple blanket, her legs curving to fit the oval room, books and sewing baskets tucked into shelves made of the tree’s twisting inner branches. In the same black backdrop of the panel, is the forest’s eye view of the bedroom, just a dim orange glow emanating from the porthole window spanning an empty knot in the trunk.
I have no idea how the next generation will re-interpret fairytales, but I love that I can either go to the bookstore (or more likely Google) and scope out alternative choices for my children, or get busy and join the conversation, take some responsibility (lasso my own archetype), by writing something myself.
Not long before I was scheduled to fly back to the states after my stint as an exchange student, my host-sister Ulla and her family took me to see H.C. Anderson’s humble home, and later, in Copenhagen, to a harbor, where just above the slate gray water line, sat a small, unimposing statue of the Little Mermaid. In my mind, she soared colossal, rivaling the Statue of Liberty. In reality, she can’t be more than three feet or so tall, and, I imagine, facing east for love of sunrise.
The Courageous Princess: http://www.antarctic-press.com/