Do you ever marvel at how dark fairy stories are? The original Grimm’s tales have been sweetened and sanitised in their modern versions for Disney picture books. In Cinderella, the ugly sisters chop off their own toes to fit into the glass slipper. In Snow White, the huntsman brings a deer liver to the wicked Queen in a golden chest and the woman eats it, believing it to be the girl’s. When Snow White marries Prince Charming, the wicked Queen is invited to the wedding where she is punnished by having to wear iron-hot shoes and dance untils she drops dead.
Is it better to have children’s stories without witches and wizards, goblins, dragons, devils, monsters or ghosts? Should children face death, abandonment, exile, slavery or worse ? G K Chesterton gives the best explanation of how to view darkness in fairy stories:
Fairy tales then, are not responsible for producing in children fear or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. 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 for a series of clear pictures to the idea that these limitless terrors had a limit, that these shapeless enemies have enemies in the knights of God, that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear.
GK Chesterton, Tremendous Trifles (1909), XVII: “The Red Angel”
“So these Kings and Queens entered the thicket, and before they had gone a score of paces they all remembered that the thing they had seen was called a lamp-post, and before they had gone twenty more the noticed that they were not making their way through branches but through coats. And the next moment they all came tumbling out of a wardrobe door inthe the empty room, and they were no longer Kings and Queens in their hunting array but just Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy in their old clothes. It was the same day and the same hour of the day on which they had all gone into the wardrobe to hide.” – C. S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.
Old English faery tales tell the opposite scenario, a young maiden is carried off into the land of faery, and lives there a while. Upon returning to her home, she finds her mother and father long dead and years passed, even though for her the span had been but a few short months. This common motif in narrative is an interesting feature. Stories take us on a journey, and while the world around us might tick by to the solar clock, our soul can travel through an age long quest and return to the planet, so to speak, changed and transformed – and surprised the world is still as it is. The doorway story simply captures that with a metaphor of traveling between two worlds.
Ever notice that intense emotion heightens a feeling of time?! An epic day such as a family wedding seems to fly by in a blur, yet each moment seems burned in the memory. A car-crash or fearful experience seems to slow time down immensely. Watching the kettle boil, slows time down. A day at work or being busy and distracted, speeds time up. For children, time is counted in sleeps until a big day. For adults, each year is remarked upon “Is it Christmas again? how time flies by!?!” And the older you get, the faster time seems to fly by.
I once fasted for 21 days. The experience was a fascinating experiment of observing time passing. The act of not eating brought on aches and pains, fatigue and boredom. Mostly it helped me detox, rest and consider life deeply. Time truly slowed down to a point that half an hour meditation yielded more than a day of busy activity. I distinctly felt that I was traveling. I felt my soul time in relation to solar time had shifted, that I was journeying through inner experiences at a more intense pace than normal. The only other time I’d experienced this was to go on a journey through a good story.
If youth equates to a more vital soul time – children experience days and weeks very profoundly – and old age equates to less vital soul time – adults remark on years and even decades passing in a flash – they what does this tell us about story? Einstein’s theory of relativity states that the speed of the individual traveling will affect their experience of time. Rather than time being a constant by which we measure reality, time shifts relative to the speed of the traveler.
I don’t believe the secret to immortality lies in story telling or story reading – but I do know that reading stories, takes the reader on a journey through inner experiences, and speeds up time again relative to the solar clock, returning them to a vitality of experience akin to being a child.