snowhite in the woodsWhen people say, “That’s just a fairy tale!” they mean that what the person believes is a naive illusion, a lie told to the self. But this is the opposite of the truth. Fairy tales succeed because they wear the clothing of simplicity and innocence, when they are in actuality deadly serious. Fairy tales are ironic. In many tales there is a character with a name like “Dummling” who turns out to be the hero. The stories themselves wear the guise of such foolishness. They do this because telling the truth can be dangerous. The only member of court who could speak truth to the king was the jester, the fool. As George Bernard Shaw said, if you are going to tell the truth, you better make it a joke.

Rather than being shallow fantasies to entertain the kiddies, fairy tales describe the human process of development in all of its mystery. They tell us the harsh facts of our beginnings, how we come to find ourselves in trouble in our lives, and they provide the only viable way out of life’s dilemmas.

They reveal their message in symbolic form because the conscious mind resists and rejects what it cannot easily incorporate. They speak to what every child knows in his heart, but all are afraid to say. As grown ups, we have all too often forgotten these realities, and we dare not admit them now. We have relegated this knowledge to a hidden place, the place where our heart resides beyond our access.

Fairy tales address our deepest existential challenges. They aim to answer the question of how to have, as philosopher Paul Tillich calls it, the courage to be. How do we live fully in the face of the threat of non-existence, insignificance, and moral failure? As Bruno Bettleheim said in his classic book on fairy tales, The Uses of Enchantment,

“The fairy tale takes (our) existential anxieties and dilemmas very seriously and addresses itself directly to them: the need to be loved and the fear that one is thought worthless; the love of life and the fear of death.”

Fairy tales address the problems of human life and relationship. The stories tell us that we are all wounded in the core of our being. The result of this woundedness is that we are all distanced from living out what Aristotle called our entelechy, that which we are meant to be. This is what it means to have a lost heart. The stories tell us how we came to be wounded in the first place and how this has led to a loss of connection to our essential selves. They remind us of what we have lost and how to find our hearts and bring our essential nature back out into the light again.

How have we become so wounded? The psychological pioneers Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung tell us that fairy stories reveal the truth about our inner lives. What these pioneers on the quest for the secrets of human nature could barely admit to themselves was that they also revealed the truth about our outer lives and our most important relationships. They reveal the archetypal patterns of the struggle between generations, between parents and children, that has plagued humanity and been repeated over and over back to the murky recesses of our most distant past.

Freud would have us believe that the story of Oedipus is all about the fantasy of the child wanting to kill the father and bed the mom. But Freud leaves out the essential beginning of the tale. The story starts as all the hero myths do. The father is threatened by the birth of the child, because there is a prophecy that the appearance of the prince means the end of the king. So threatened, the king does all he can to rid himself of the threat by having the boy killed.

The dangerous truth that fairy tales reveal is that our beginnings are fraught with peril and danger, and almost always at the hand of a parent. In Beauty and the Beast, Beauty’s father gives his daughter away to a beast to save his own skin; Hansel and Gretel are sent into the forest to starve; Cat-Skin’s father aims to marry his own daughter; Cinderella lives a life of ignominy and shame at the hand of her stepmother; the examples go on and on.

In contrast to our sentimental beliefs, the relationship between parent and child is not made up exclusively of love. Instead, parents, on a level far below their awareness, and influenced by the depth of their own woundedness, are fundamentally threatened by their children. The prophecy that each oracle reveals in the myths is that the appearance of the child means that the wheel of time is turning. It is only a matter of a few cosmic instants before the parent loses his or her beauty and power and succumbs to death, and the child achieves dominion over the realm. The appearance of the child foretells the parent’s doom.

The tales tell us that this is the natural flow of life. Unfortunately, most grown ups have a hard time accepting this reality. To the extent that we cannot accept this, we are out of harmony with what the Chinese Sage Mencius called the Heavenly Mandate. When we live in harmony with this mandate and accept the natural flow of life, we make way for the next generation wholly and completely and all is right in the world. When we resist against this flow then our hidden aggression against our children comes out in various ways and we cause harm. If we do not accept our own death, then the next generation does not have their turn to advance the human experiment. We hurt our children, and the result is that they lose their hearts.

Part Two will appear tomorrow.

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