Spinning Straw into Gold

The Brother’s Grimm folk-story, Rumplestiltskin tells of a Miller who lies to the king, saying his daughter can spin straw into gold.

The miller, a foolish man, refers to his beautiful daughter’s blonde hair, which turns golden in the sunlight. However, the king is greedy and immediately summons the girl and locks her in a chamber to spin straw into gold on pain of death.

The poor girl sits weeping before the spinning wheel and pile of straw when suddenly a little man appears before her and asks her why she mourns. She explains her predicament and the little man offers to complete the challenge for her in exchange for a trinket – her necklace. Quick as can be, the little man begins spinning and sure enough turns the pile of straw into spools of fine gold strands.

spin straw into gold

The greedy king insists the woman repeat the challenge with more straw and more gold and again the little man appears mysteriously at midnight to help her. His request this time is for another trinket – her ring.

The third night, the king promises to marry the girl if she completes an even larger challenge. This night the little man appears and asks instead of a trinket – for the promise of her first born child. Rashly, she agrees.

In the morning the king marries her and the miller’s daughter forgets all about the little man and her wager with him. A little over a year later, the queen gives birth to a baby and one night when she is alone with the child the little man appears asking for his prize.

rumple

Distraught at her rash promise, the Queen begs for leniency but he will not relent. Finally, the little man makes an offer – if she can guess his name, she can keep the child. If she cannot, the child is his.

For three nights the man returns to her chamber as she guesses all the names she can think of. Every night she is wrong. On the day of the final visit a woodsman reports to the King and Queen of seeing a strange little man dancing in the forest, chanting about taking the Kind’s child and his name is Rumplestiltskin.

Armed with this knowledge the Queen addresses the little man who in a rage, stamps a hole in the floor and disappears forever.

alchemy

_________________________________________________

What kind of magic the little imp had that he could turn raw materials like straw, into gold? It is not clear in the tale but the imp wields dark enough magic to require a human life in exchange for it.

What is straw but the raw materials of life and what is gold but the value attributed to anything of value – a tradeable substance worth purchasing?

 alchemist

How does one turn the raw materials of life into great value? Well any craft or art does so.

A potter turns earth and clay into pots, vases and bowls which can retails for hundreds if not thousands. Carpenters can take offcuts of timber and craft beautiful pieces of furniture. Ironmongers turn ore from the rocks into swords and machinery.

How about wordsmiths, poets, story tellers, artists and musicians?

artist

The work of an artist is to take the raw materials of life – conflict, pain, doubt, sorrow, loss, heart break, fear, trials, growth and to spin these feelings into songs, stories, poems, plays, films and paintings. These works are worth gold – plentiful in value to the viewers, listeners, readers and collectors.

But often the cost of great fame and wealth for artists is the loss of some form of themselves, their integrity, their privacy, their soul. It is as though they sell their first born child for the wealth that art, the spinning of gold from straw, will bring them.

And the solution – to know the name of fame and glory – and to label it for what it is. This acknowledgement allows an artist to accept, their wealth did not come from self, but from a whimsical imp that would trade their soul for money. In knowing this, they redeem a part of themselves and can retain their sanity and soul.

Why do we love royalty?

When most of us live in democracies or at least come from the western tradition of the equality and empowerment of the individual person, why do we consistently elevate and idealise kings and queens?

Children’s stories, Hollywood films, the press – are full of princes, princesses, royal families! Even countries that supposedly don’t have monarchies, idolise their sporting heroes, their actors or elected presidents and their spouses.

disney princess

Why do we do it when it so clearly subjects ourselves to inferior status? Why do we seek to elevate humans and grant them almost immortal heights?

Kings and queens are truly no different to ourselves, except that they descend via legal birthright from wealthy and powerful individuals, some of whom took power by force and not by merit. 

Celebrity kings and queens hold power simply because of the combination of genetic prowess, beauty, great timing and the power of marketing.

brangelina

Historically, the tradition of royal lineage became enshrined as a birthright to the oldest child or oldest male child, simply to preserve peace. Leaders arose from within a tribe, usually a meritocracy of the strongest and smartest. When this leader died, the tribe suffered instability, even risked a bloodbath as the people decided on the next leader. Each man or woman feeling they had the “merit” to rule sought the seat of power, often by the sword if necessary.

kings 4

Rules of legitimacy settled the debate – the power, wealth, land and title went to the oldest child, whether they were fit to rule or not, whether they were of age or not. This ensured peace in the land for generations. A result of the Magna Carta and later Reformation and the ensuing religious wars, was to increasingly separate church  from state, and remove absolute power from monarchs, delegating decision making rights to the populace. 

Kings and queens of history have been a mixed representative of good and bad leadership – and yet we still idealise and idolise? Why? 

Nowadays, many royal famillies retain titles and land but no real political power. Their existence is maintained by incredible wealth, posterity, charitable work, and attractive young people.

kings

So why do we cling to royalty and continuously elevate them? What purpose do they serve in the landscape of our imagination?

I would like to posit a few reasons:

  1. We are social creatures and always seek to rank ourselves within our community. In any school group, workplace, team or tribe, a pecking order will emerge. Despite our intrinsic belief that all humans are created equal, we still settle into this rank and file almost intuitively. Looking to those of wealth and status is an involuntary obsession. 
  2. We are always looking for mentors or guides. Within our community, those older or more powerful are natural guides. The pecking order of point #1 above, becomes a natural source of mentor relationships and so we seek to immitate and fashion our lives around these guides.

What is interesting about the narrative use of princes, princesses, kings and queens is that it becomes clear we seek to identify with and BECOME royalty. So while we both rank ourselves and look to mentors and guides, what emerges from the psychological landscape of stories and narrative is the primal human desire to BE royalty.

kings 2

Arguably, democracy takes royal privilege and gives it to the common man and woman. A person in command of their own potential, someone part of a free-market economy can become anyone they wish. They hold the power to their own lives and owe no-one anything. In many ways, we ARE kings and queens.

And yet we remain imprisoned by our perception of rank and idolisation of those yet more powerful, more talented, more beautiful, wealthier and better connected.

kings 5

What narratives do is they propel us momentarily into who we could be or could become. We become the hero of the tale, the prince or princess who discovers their true royalty, their true status. Their struggles and crisis, followed ulitmately by their ascendency to a throne of influence becomes our own journey.

Into the Woods

The latest Disney holiday release, “Into the Woods” is interestingly, not a children’s film at all but rather an exploration of contemporary philosophical themes.

Written by Stephen Sondheim,  “Into the Woods”  initially debuted on stage in San Francisco in 1986 and since has won several Tony Awards, and toured globally. Despite its mature themes, in 2014, Disney pictures released a star studded version directed by a Rob Marshall to great critical and commercial success.

into the woods 3

The point of the musical seems less to entertain and beguile children, but rather to make a forary into post-modern thought. Admittedly, it does so lightheartedly and with flair.

Step one, de-sanitise the tale, return it to its gruesome original state and juxtapose it with other tales.

 

The musical tells the interweaving tales of Cinderella, Rapunzel, Red Riding Hood and Jack and the Bean Stalk and the characters sing and dance their way through the narrative with charming ease. Retainin the gruesome elements of the original Grimm’s tales means the ugly sisters chop of toes to fit shoes, Red Riding Hood is eaten by the wolf [and promptly revived by the gallant baker and his knife], and Rapunzel is banished to a swamp by the witch who has blinded her lover.

Step two, explore what happens after the characters attain their wishes, the post- “happily ever after”.

 

Once each character receives their wishes, and “happily ever after,” the narrative explores their subsequent unravelling. Cinderella’s Prince is adulterous, Jack’s giant ramgaes through the country in search of her lost harp and hen, key characters die off. Each of the characters begins to blame the other for the chaos.  The story moves from fairy tale into solemn reality……. things don’t always work out the way we think they will. The witch cautions them all to question their wishes, that each of them contributed to the demise by what they desired.

Careful the wish you make
Wishes are children
Careful the path they take
Wishes come true, not free
Careful the spell you cast
Not just on children
Sometimes a spell may last
Past what you can see
And turn against you

Perhaps the most profound lines come in the closing song:

Careful the tale you tell
That is the spell
Children will listen

 into the woods 2

Step three: Redefine the very notion of knowing and meaning.

 

The characters chant to each other:

Wrong things, right things…

Who can say what’s true?…

Witches can be right, Giants can be good.

You decide what’s right you decide what’s good

The story closes with half the fairy story characters dead or disappeared, and the remaining few, huddled together in the woods, to hear the story from the beginning. They are adrift in a world without certain meaning and outcomes and must define meaning for themselves together. The find comfort in each other and not in the narratives they have imagined.

into the woods 5

So what?

 

Doctor of Philosophy and Catholic commentator, Taylor Marshall in his blog review,  labels the story “pernicious” and outlines the philosophic nominalism evident in the narrative. For him, the moralism evident in which the characters are cautioned to make their own reality, is deceptive. Instead, he cautions that in fact “rationalism” and discovery of “what is” is in fact the fittest form of human endeavour. As sojourners here, our job is to discover the world, it’s rules and paradigms, the order that God has placed and to abide by this order. http://taylormarshall.com/2014/12/into-the-woods-movie-a-dads-critical-review.html

I find his reasoning misses the mark.

Fairy stories have always been ground for phillsophical and theological debate – rich with imagery they naturally speak to the dream and the psyche. They play an important role in our subconscious development. It’s important to know that you can overcome the giant. It’s important to know that while there is wickedness in the world, that goodness still prevails. It’s important to know that love saves and that goodness is redemptive.

However, fairy stories, for their simplicity, can be oppressive too.  Is wickedness so black and white? is the witch always wrong  or is she a person too with a story to understand? Should girls be waiting for a prince or there is there another narrative girls can listen to? Does a requited love story always bestow the end of all unhappiness upon a girl or boy? Can our wishes for wealth, greener pastures, beauty and so on – lead us into more trouble than we know?

“Story is a spell and we should be careful what we tell,  because children listen” !!

Definitely !!

“Be careful what you wish, wishes are children, they come true”.

Absolutely !!

There is ground to question the narratives we absorb year after year. However, what “Into the Woods” shows us is that by dissolving meaning, we dissolve the grounds for narrative itself. The characters cannot ascertain whether the giant is “good” or “bad” and so slay her out of their immediate need. The cling to each other in the woods, a community adrift finding solace, and meaning  in each other.

The true end point of post-modern thought is absurdism. There is no more story to tell because there is no meaning to speak of. We’re just “Waiting for Godot.”

Instead of deciding this,  I would urge the characters of these fairy stories, to not define their own meaning but instead to break out of the story they are trapped within to find a GREATER story and a GREATER meaning. If we as readers find tales we read too limiting in moralism, in their two dimensional villains and stereotypical endings, we need to read MORE narrative, and absorb MORE and broader definitions of meaning, not less.

Narrative by nature, says something, and asserts meaning. Meaning is required for crisis and catharsis. Without these we have no stories to tell, no songs to sing.

Stories are wishes, wishes are children, we should be careful what story we wish, what spell we tell, because children believe them, because they come true. The stories we listen to define us and our perspective on the world. What we believe, we become.

I know a story where the wishes of the two protagonists, unravel the whole of human history requiring a promised hero to save them, a king, a prince to arrive and deliver them. This story covers thousands of years and weaves its way through civilsations and empires and finds itself in a regional outpost, a backwater, where a young man from a country village gives his life up for his nation. And saves the world.

That is a GREAT story.

The Darkness of Faery

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”

gk chesterton

‘Ubermensch’ and what story teaches me about power

I have noticed as I get older, I become more empowered. This comes from multiple sources – as I age I become more comfortable with myself and less doubtful and self conscious. As I gain years, I learn more about the world and understand how things sit and how science works. I gain a certain perspective and acquire a certain cynicism, and all of this gives me a vantage point from which to approach life.

It’s curious to me that many people equate this personal journey with the turn of history. I hear, “we are so much more enlightened these days”.  Does this evolution within myself truly mirror social and historical cycles. Indeed, Europe emerged from the dark and middle ages into a scientific, artistic and cultural renaissance around the 14th c AD. The religious wars that ensued endowed Europe with caution and cynicism of the validity of religious beliefs, finding peace in humanism, rationalism, education. Growing scientific awareness, improved human conditions and greater peace in the land during this period instilled Europe with the supreme confidence of the 18th and 19th Century. In this time Darwin published his treatise on Natural Selection, artisans approached ever more impressive and realistic renditions, education and literacy levels spread throughout Europe with the rise of capitalism and democratic governments. Mechanisation brought about factories, cars, aeroplanes and weapons of war. Human confidence was at an all time high. By the end of this period we find the advent of a certain kind of confidence embodied in Friedrich Nietzsche and his work “Ubermensch” [the Super Man] and his catch-phrases “will to power” and “God is dead.”

ubermensch

 

However, what is often missed from these comments is that this rise and fall in confidence has existed as long as humanity has existed and in fact is cyclic or parabolic. The turn of the 20th century, wars, genocide, global warming etc. have all contributed to a plummeting sense of confidence in humanity and pure scientific rationalism, and a rising tide of interest in spirituality.

Our journeys are unique, yet curiously alike. We can all relate to the feeling that God is disinterested in the suffering of humanity and the fate of the planet. God does not deliver a destiny to us on a plate; it is ours to create. The tools are within our hands and if life is running stale it is only my fault. My decisions matter and my struggles make me.  As for who I marry, what career I choose, whether I suffer or gain, God does not really care. God is not there. The world is a mass of science and matter. As we emerge from youthful faith, we can feel along with Marx that “religion is the opiate of the masses” and a fairy story to fright good people into compliance. Life is wilder, stranger, meaner and more unpredictable than religion and religious people would have us believe.

Such belief brings a melancholy and loneliness, but also a sense of power. ‘I am not beholden to a mystical destiny. I hold the future in my hands. It’s me or no one that decides. I bear my suffering and also my future success or failure in my hands, alone’. The sense of power that this independence brings is curiously liberating.

In all of this tide of change,  fairy story itself remains constant in its messages to us of the bigger picture.

When Frodo, the smallest of all creatures, the humblest of beings in the epic narrative, Lord of the Rings, takes the ultimate weapon of power, he has one duty –  to destroy it. The ring can control and corrupt any of it’s holders but the little Hobbit has resisted it longer than normal. Even he struggles and falters in the delivery of the ring to its doom. Once destroyed however, the world can rebalance. As though discharging an intense voltage, the power can run back into all the nooks and crannies of life where it can nourish instead of consume.

harry2

When Harry attains the wand of ultimate power, the one to wield dominance over all creatures, he does the only thing good and just, he breaks the wand and drops it into a crevasse. Harry’s struggle with the wicked Voldemort has shown him the amassing of power brings death and consumption. The small acts of good people make the world a good place and power dispersed is the only way to foster this goodness.

From these tales I learn that:

  1. In my journey I gain power. Either by age, learning or decision. However, increased power does not make me free. It simply makes me more a puppet to power. The illusion of freedom is in fact veiled control. I become an element moved about in the waves of history. Soon I’m surrendered to a imprisonment of power and require deliverance.
  2. True heroic acts and true history is moved forward by the smallest of characters and the smallest of acts. The good and true is brought about by everyday people and their faith in love and good deeds. Therefore, the power I attain as I grow is only to in turn give away to those who would use it to generate more life. To amass power in the belief I’m alone in the universe is simply to be consumed and controlled by this power.
  3. Those who believe in God might well be like children who believe in fairy tales. But God works through the little ones and their small faith.

When I consider a baby born in a barn, a carpenter in a backwater of the middle east, a man broken and dying between two criminals – I see how God works. Through the small, the humble and the good – power is broken and returned into the nooks and crannies of life where it can nourish instead of consume.

 

 

 

Reading the Bible as Literature

In an earlier post, I essayed about how meaning in the Book of Job can be excavated by understanding the genre as a form of late 2nd and 3rd century BC  satire. This literary understanding of Job should shake few orthodox believers since few scholars posit that Job has much historical merit. Even Calvin did not put any historical weight to Job rather stating that Job was a literary piece.

This begs the question, what can be gained by reading the Bible as literature? And what can be lost?

tower of babel

Much of the bitter debates between science and faith stem from a scientific reading, or attempt thereof, of Genesis 1-3. Problems, arise from placing historical merit to genres such as apocalyptic [Daniel, Revelation]. Literary-critical readings of the ancient texts have attempted to excavate and construction process of each text, assembling fragments of early texts and detecting seam-lines between these and newer segments, seeking to map the hand of later editors or ‘redactors’.

Is there merit in assuming that for scripture to be credible, it must have poured in one sitting into the mind of the author and transcriber and onto a scroll, much like Muhammed’s reception of the Qu’ran in a cave centuries ago? Does the hand of editors, the assemblage of various genres and the combination of historical events with literary and theological meaning undermine the merit of scripture, infallibility, inerrancy and so forth? What are the implications of  genre [generic?] readings of scripture?

The heart of such questions comes down to this – do the above questions, undermine the truth of Christ’s life, death and resurrection, the cornerstone of Christian beliefs? If the earlier passages are various forms of methaphor, simile, parable, fable, legend and poetry – can we put any historical, scientific and factual weight into the existence of Jesus and the value of his teaching?

Jesus myth

C. S. Lewis wrote extensively about myth and the gospels, owning that the  crucifixion, while being a historical event [Cornelius Tacitus in his Annals, xv. 44: Christus … was executed at the hands of the procurator Pontious Pilate], this doesn’t preclude its subsequent mythologization. But neither does it negate its historicity. The accounts of Jesus life and deaths assert that  is that the ressurection was a specific historical event in which humanity finally gains a fulfillment of its ancient desire for eternity:

The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens — at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical Person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle.

Myth became fact, essay published in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, C. S. Lewis, Walter Hooper (Editor), Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company; Reprint edition (October 1994; original copyright 1970 by the Trustees of the Estate of C. S. Lewis). 

Lewis essentially surmises, that all the ancient poets, artistcs and mystics, dreamed of a solution to the human dilemma, and painted word pictures to express this resolution. When Christ lived and died, he simply fulfilled these predictions, in historical time. This is the truest case of characters walking out of dream into history, out of narrative and into time.

jesusresurrection_2

JRR Tolkien says as much,  stating that  the difference between the ‘fairy-story’ (or for Lewis, ‘mythic’) elements of the Gospels and other fairy-stories,  is that the Christian story ‘has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfilment of Creation’ (‘On Fairy-stories’, 62). In a letter to Christopher his son,  he clarified:

Of course I do not mean that the Gospels tell what is only a fairy-story; but I do mean very strongly that they do tell a fairy-story: the greatest. Man the story-teller would have to be redeemed in a manner consonant with his nature: by a moving story. But since the author of it is the supreme Artist and the Author of Reality, this one was also made . . . to be true on the Primary Plane. (Letters, 100–101)

The glory of the gospel story therefore is that it is the ‘true’ myth, myth become fact, fairy-story incarnate in primary reality. As Tolkien concluded in his essay, ‘this story is supreme; and it is true. Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men—and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused’ (‘On Fairy-stories’, 63).

And so, with tender reading, the Bible yields much to the reader and love of both myth and history.