Pinocchio

Pinocchio is a classic children’s tale, first written by by Italian writer Carlo Collodi in 1883. It is a story of puppet’s journey to become a “real boy” and is commonly counted among the most popular children’s tales of all time.

Indeed, the Disney adaptation in 1940 cemented its place in the hearts and minds of children across the world. However, like many fairy tales, myths and legends, the original story is remarkably dark and even sinister in parts. Moreover, many of the motifs and elements of the story hark back to deep and resonant mythical themes.

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The story begins in Tuscany Italy, where a poor and childless woodcarver Geppetto, is given a piece of wood that talks and weeps. He carves it into a marionette and calls the puppet  Pinocchio. Immediately the puppet shows willful ungratefulness to his “father” Geppetto, kicking him and running away.

Geppetto searches for Pinochio but ends up getting thrown into jail. The hungry puppet returns home and falls asleep in front of the fire. When he awakes and Geppetto returns from jail, they find that his feet have been burned off in the fire.

Ever loving Geppetto repairs Pinocchio’s feet and sells his jacket to purchase the puppet a book to attend school. However, the marionette’s mischief does not end here. On the way to school Pinocchio is diverted by a Marionette Theatre Company and sells his school book to attend. Here he gains five gold coins but instead of returning to poor Geppetto, the puppet is lured by a wicked Cat and Fox who try to extort him of his money and leave him hanging for dead.

Cat and Fox

Rescued by a fairy with Blue Hair, Pinocchio lies to her about his gold coins and famously his nose grows long. She urges him to be a good boy and sends him on his way.

The Cat and Fox return and succeed in stealing gullible Pinocchio’s gold and in his attempt to complain to the courts, he is thrown in jail. Further adventures have Pinocchio labouring for a farmer, shipwrecked at sea, captured by the Circus and turned into a Donkey.

All this time poor Geppetto has been searching for Pinocchio and himself ended up in the belly of a giant fish. Here, in the belly of the fish,  Pinocchio himself shipwrecked, finds his father and together they escape.

Blue Hair Fairy

Finally, humbled and repentant, Pinocchio works diligently, saves money and cares for his father. Visited by the fairy with the Blue Hair in a dream, Pinocchio finds that he has indeed become a “real boy.”

The story of an inanimate object’s metamorphosis into a being of consciousness and its consequent relationship with its maker is recurrent in mythical literature. From the Torah’s account of Adam and Eve in Genesis, to  Ovid’s Pygmalion, to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and to more modern iterations is sci-fi and fantasy Blade Runner each explore the nuances of the relationship between creation and creator in different ways.

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  • Can a maker imbue his or her creation with consciousness and life, simply by loving it enough?
  • What does true freedom and love between parent and child, between creator and creation really look like?
  • What is the consequence to a creator of a creation who is given life and yet is unloved?
  • What is the consequence to a creation of rejecting the creator and seeking its own path?

In many ways, the story of Pinocchio follows the classic tropes of a “hero journey”: the leaving of the familiar, the meeting with supernatural aids or mentors, the encounters with trials and enemies, the ordeal resulting in death and the final resurrection and return.

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Pinnochio’s story, like the story of Adam and Eve, begins with rebellion. Awake and consciousness, the first choices of this new being are ones of curiosity, independence, freedom and necessary rejection of the advice of both conscience [the cricket] and the father. However, this journey leads to strife, suffering, loss, imprisonment and even death.

Adam and Eve

His turning point is his encounter with his father Geppetto in the belly of the giant fish. Here Pinocchio, descends as though into death and rescues the father, returning him to life. Rising from the ashes of this death experience, Pinocchio is a different person – loving, humble, respectful and caring for his father. It is here that receives his ultimate wish from the fairy, his wish to become a “real boy.”

The classic mythological story, Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, shapes a similar motif when Luke Skywalker encounters his father, the Sith Lord, Darth Vader. Luke knows he will never become a true Jedi until he faces his father. When Luke faces Darth Vader and he resists the pressure to turn to the dark side,  he redeems his father, much like Pinocchio, redeems Geppetto from the belly of the giant fish.

This narrative trope is starkly paralleled in the Star Wars: The Force Awakens, in which acolyte to the dark side Kylo Ren faces his father Han Solo, and in an act which will make him worthy of the dark side, kills his father. With this initiation rite, he sets himself free from the tradition his father represents and graduates to the place of true dark lord.

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Pinocchio differs from darker tales such as Frankenstein and Blade Runner, which reflect on the despair and murderous ends sought by a creation spurned and unloved by its creator/ father. Pinocchio is loved by Geppetto and what holds him back from becoming a “real boy” is his own rejection of this love. His transformation comes through sacrificial reconciliation of himself to his father.

And so the biblical account of Christ, who is described as a second Adam, tells the story of a son who descends into death, to be sacrificially reconciled to the father. He reverses the alienation created by the first Adam, and leads humanity forward to ultimate metamorphosis into “true sonship” ….

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…from puppet to “real child”.

 

 

 

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The Force Awakens

In 1977, Star Wars – A New Hopelaunched a whole generation on a journey with a farm boy from a desert planet, to the discovery  of a mysterious destiny and a mysterious power, to meet a whole litany of curious friends and foes and to reveal a unique courage and mission to save the galaxy. 

Lucas was a self-confessed Joseph Campbell fan and his use of the Hero Journey to frame the Skywalker journey is marked. As such, it resonated with epics and classic tales told for generations.

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The next episode, The Empire Strikes Back took the same cast of characters into a deeper journey of love, loyalty and self discovery. Continuing with the Skywalker journey, the film dove into one of the most timeless horror motifs of fairy tale and myth – that of the murderous parent.

Grimm’s Tales abound with step-parents who would murder their child, lock them in towers, poison them or abandon them to witches and wolves. The most primal love story of parent-child is turned on its head as child struggles to find not only life but the meaning of love.

Return of the Jedi simply closed the chapter with Skywalker as he emerged from a crysalis of youth into maturity of a Jedi, facing not only his foes but his most dread fear. He overcame hate with compassion, dissolved darkness with light and again restored peace to the galaxy. It’s another Hero Journey extraordinaire.

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The most recent iteration, Episode VII, The Force Awakens, [2015], was a much feted reboot of the originals by wunderkind J.J. Abrams. The film, starring many of the original cast members, was however, a rather disappointingly repetitious revisit of the same mythical narrative tropes.

Nothing truly took the story forward.

It feels as if we are reliving “A New Hope“. We are introduced all over again to a disenfranchised orphan [this time a girl], and we follow her journey as she discovers a mysterious destiny and a mysterious power, encounters a whole litany of curious friends and foes and and discovers a unique courage and opportunity to face and thwart evil.

Not only did it repeat many elements of Episode IV, but the characters are only briefly developed and even the protagonist Rey is one-dimensionally perfect. She can fight, she can fly, she can wield the force without training, she is beautiful and good. One feels we are truly in a Disney movie with a modern day princess as our heroine. There is no petulant selfishness of Luke Skywalker nor his journey of growth.

Rey has no journey – she’s already amazing.

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The most interesting character is the son of Leia Organa and Han Solo – now the prince of the First Order. Professing allegiance to his grandfather, Darth Vader, Ben Solo seeks to grow his power and suppress his confused feelings of love or compassion. The ultimate test for this young Jedi is to sacrifice what is most dear to him, to prove power and vengeance are most justified.

This point of tension, reverses the narrative motif of The Empire Strikes Back. No longer murderous parent – we see the inverse – murderous son.

His journey is an ultimately human one, feeling betrayal he seeks to free himself to greatness by removing the father who disappointed him. The nuance of the Dark side of the force here is sharpened.

No longer do we see the dark side to be pure hate, fear, vengeance or lust for power, as established by the Anakin / Darth Vader story. No,  now it portrayed as a necessary and justified path to self fulfilment. 

Very Nietzschean.

Interestingly the German philosopher Frierich Neitzsche’s ‘will to power’ was the bedrock and foundation of much of Hitler’s Nazi philosophy.

It will be interesting to see where the Ben Solo journey takes us in coming instalments and how the epic and mythic narrative types are deepened and extended.

 

 

 

 

A New Hope

As early trailers for Star Wars Episode VII ‘The Force Awakens’ are released, fever rises amongst fans worldwide.

It is the “originals” that most of us consider to be the greater films, Episode IV, V and VI, released in 70s and early 80s, for many of us, films of our childhood.

Will the new films meet our expectations?

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So significant were these films that they have marked a generation. The first release, Episode IV was entitled “A New Hope” and ever since then the galaxy long, long ago and far, far away has been a second home for many.

And a source of hope.

Why so significant? Why do these films, along with the recent success of Harry Potter books and films, and the enduring greatness of Tolkein’s books and films, rank so highly in the charts for commercial success?

Why have they imprinted themselves so profoundly on the popular psyche?

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Surely entertainment value alone cannot account for such significance!?

Joseph Campbell building on the work of Carl Jung, examined myth and narrative in the context of psychological theory. The ‘hero journey’ he defined, common to epic narratives, aligned with the human subconscious or dream journey, taking the voyeur through trials, to wholeness and health.

Unlike his contemporary, Bertrand Russell, Campbell praised the work of narrative to inspire hope.

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Bertrand Russell, however, renowned  20th century philosopher and staunch atheist wrote in his paper, A Free Man’s Worship :

That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins–all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.

Only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair …………

In Russell’s philosophical view, facing the reality of our insignificance is the healthiest and most real human endeavour, one more developed than any submission to gods of natural forces or ideals. To him any other belief was self-deluding fancy.

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Yet in the midst of such modern and post-modern thought, fantasy and science fiction narratives [arguably modern myths and legends]  continually call us to believe.

Deeply philosophical and spiritual in nature, these stories have us asking such questions of our existence as:

  1. Why is there something, rather than nothing?
  2. How can I know the world?
  3. Do humans have intrinsic worth?
  4. What is the significance of human suffering?
  5. Do we have anything to hope in beyond this life?

Narrative calls the viewer/ observer into a journey with the protagonist or hero, a journey which bestows upon the hero great worth and responsibility.

This worth, whether via royal or supernatural endowment, enables the hero to triumph over difficult and dark trials, with a promise of hope of restoration beyond.

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Joseph Campbell concurs with Carl Jung and others, that such a journey which restores the protagonist to “hope” is in fact the healthiest course for the human psyche.

But is this simply a case of “the benefits of religions for the atheist” as Alain de Botton would say?

Is it simply that, while “hope” is good for the soul so to speak, one cannot simply surrender a scientific or rationalist framework and so simply admire “hope” from afar?

Anaïs Nin recorded in her diary in 1943:

Stories are the only enchantment possible, for when we begin to see our suffering as a story, we are saved.

Believing we are, like the characters we love, simply part of a grand narrative – is ultimately redemptive.

But, one simply cannot BELIEVE in cosmic hope against all evidence or simply because it is of temporary benefit to emotional health!

Can we?

To Russell, hope beyond death is a false hope and so truth and freedom, he concludes, can be found in stark acceptance of this finite existence:

Brief and powerless is Man’s life; on him and all his race the slow, sure doom falls pitiless and dark. Blind to good and evil, reckless of destruction, omnipotent matter rolls on its relentless way; for Man, condemned to-day to lose his dearest, to-morrow himself to pass through the gate of darkness, it remains only to cherish, ere yet the blow falls, the lofty thoughts that ennoble his little day; disdaining the coward terrors of the slave of Fate, to worship at the shrine that his own hands have built; undismayed by the empire of chance, to preserve a mind free from the wanton tyranny that rules his outward life; proudly defiant of the irresistible forces that tolerate, for a moment, his knowledge and his condemnation, to sustain alone, a weary but unyielding Atlas, the world that his own ideals have fashioned despite the trampling march of unconscious power.

Unless one finds an ounce of empirical evidence for the breaking in of dream into history, and of narrative into real life!

Scholars consider the Christian narrative to make such audacious claims through the historical birth, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

An earlier post attempted to excavate some of the historical evidences for the validity of this claim by first century eyewitnesses. For the sake of brevity, we will not here seek to repeat.

Nevertheless, in the Christian narrative, as C. S. Lewis writes, “myth meets history”. No longer a theoretical hope, nice-to-believe but incongruent with lived experience, “myth broke through into time and space” endowing humanity with intrinsic worth and showing ultimate reality, God to suffer with us. This process, turned back death and sorrow and restored life.

This truly is A New Hope! 

The World of Story

Beneath the entertainment and diversion of narrative and art lies a great power – the power to tell a truth or truths.  Many of us would watch a film or read a book for an escape from the real world, but there are in fact much greater and deeper purpose to story and art. 

Post-enlightenment theory and post-modern philosophy would have us believe that “there can be no certainty in an objective reality or morality.” The only certainty we can have is our own existence and experience.

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In contrast, for narrative to work, a story must exist within a world built upon various rules: a historical, political, geographical, and moral framework, one fit with religions, fate and destiny for characters and a trajectory and denoument for the plot. The hero belongs to this world and explores it, constrained by its rules and limitations, struggling against foes therein, travelling through its landscape and striving to find catharisis and resolution.

Immersion in a narrative world for the contemporary reader, is immersion in a world of objective meaning, against which the protagonist can struggle to find themselves. By following the protagonist through this  world, the reader can find some foundation from which to understand their own world, a world often too terrible and great to understand alone through one’s subjective lens.

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The Hero Journey

This blog often rests on questions of the power of story and how story is architected. A few posts have dwelt on the role of the protagonist as avatar of our dreams and the power of stories to assist in deep self undersanding. Stories have a way of walking us through crisis to catharsis in a way that is restorative to our soul.

A narrative pattern that underpins many great stories has been identified by anthropologist and literary historians as The Hero’s Journey. Articulated best the American scholar Joseph Campbell in his work, Hero with 1000 Faces, the Hero Journey can be identified within most great drama, storytelling, myth, religious ritual, and psychological development.

It describes the typical adventure of the archetype known as The Hero, the person who goes out and achieves great deeds on behalf of the group, tribe, or civilization. By following The Hero, the avatar, the individual lives, dies and is redeemed to the tribe, a new person.

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Its stages are:

  • THE ORDINARY WORLD.  The hero, uneasy, uncomfortable or unaware, is introduced sympathetically so the audience can identify with the situation or dilemma.  The hero is shown against a background of environment, heredity, and personal history.  Some kind of polarity in the hero’s life is pulling in different directions and causing stress.

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  • THE CALL TO ADVENTURE.  Something shakes up the situation, either from external pressures or from something rising up from deep within, so the hero must face the beginnings of change.

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  • REFUSAL OF THE CALL.  The hero feels the fear of the unknown and tries to turn away from the adventure, however briefly.  Alternately, another character may express the uncertainty and danger ahead.

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  • MEETING WITH THE MENTOR.  The hero comes across a seasoned traveler of the worlds who gives him or her training, equipment, or advice that will help on the journey.  Or the hero reaches within to a source of courage and wisdom.

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  • CROSSING THE THRESHOLD.  At the end of Act One, the hero commits to leaving the Ordinary World and entering a new region or condition with unfamiliar rules and values.

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  • TESTS, ALLIES AND ENEMIES.  The hero is tested and sorts out allegiances in the Special World.

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  • APPROACH.  The hero and newfound allies prepare for the major challenge in the Special world.

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  • THE ORDEAL.  Near the middle of the story, the hero enters a central space in the Special World and confronts death or faces his or her greatest fear.  Out of the moment of death comes a new life.

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  • THE REWARD.  The hero takes possession of the treasure won by facing death.  There may be celebration, but there is also danger of losing the treasure again.

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  • THE ROAD BACK.  About three-fourths of the way through the story, the hero is driven to complete the adventure, leaving the Special World to be sure the treasure is brought home.  Often a chase scene signals the urgency and danger of the mission.

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  • THE RESURRECTION.  At the climax, the hero is severely tested once more on the threshold of home.  He or she is purified by a last sacrifice, another moment of death and rebirth, but on a higher and more complete level.  By the hero’s action, the polarities that were in conflict at the beginning are finally resolved.

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  • RETURN WITH THE ELIXIR.  The hero returns home or continues the journey, bearing some element of the treasure that has the power to transform the world as the hero has been transformed.

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 So when questioned why you enjoy story so much or whether reading is wasting your time, simply reply that you are working on your emotional, psychological, spiritual, social and even physical health.

More stories please !

Fiction cannot be False

The power of art is to speak the truth. In fact, it is of utmost importance that artists treat their work and their subjects as real places with living beings. Audiences detect fakes – even within fantasy worlds. How curious, right? Ethan Gilsdorf affirms my views in his latest review of  “The Hobbit: Battle of Five Armies” in Wired this week. He scathingly decries Jackson’s prequels as “losing the plot” – literally. He writes:

J.R.R. Tolkien once said that “believable fairy-stories must be intensely practical. You must have a map, no matter how rough.” But in Peter Jackson’s new and final Hobbit film, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, which opened Wednesday, there is no map. There’s not even a plan. We veer far not just from Middle-earth, but from all plausibility.

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Gilsdorf continues to list sequence after sequence of mind bending CGI chases and escapes. He lists among them, rabbit-drawn sleds, physics-bending chases along wooden catwalks and bridges within the Goblin caves, fights sequences which resort to three-stooges antics and pratfalls, river barrel rides resembling a theme park ride, and a silly elf-dwarf romance planted surely to appeal to teenage girl audiences  – and many others which undermine the credibility of the films.

You can’t fault Jackson for his physical world-building. The attention to detail—every set, every special effect, every prop and suit of armor and ruined town, every last smouldering candlestick and dragon scale—is unparalleled. Middle-earth feels real. But in these Hobbit movies, the more important thing to get right is situational realism: How the plot turns, what the characters do, if they move through space in a believable way. All this is thrown out the door. The sincerity of Thorin and Bilbo’s struggles is completely undermined by the story’s blanket disregard for physics, logic, and credibility. Gone into the ether is Tolkien’s gentle, thoughtful, and more plausible children’s tale.

The new Battle of Five Armies, stoops to even lower lows in Gilsdorf’s mind, to reach new levels of computer generated “kinetic fury”, more like “Mortal Combat” than an epic masterpiece of literature or film.

“Without the cooperation of the Tolkien estate, there can’t be more films,” Jackson said at a press conference after The Battle of the Five Armies‘ world premiere in London. At the moment, Tolkien’s heirs don’t seem eager to sell the movie rights to any of his other works. Like the Elves who depart Middle-earth for Valinor, it seems that Jackson’s hold over Tolkien’s will someday fade.

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Not unlike George Lucas’ efforts to revive Star Wars,  Jackson it seems has largely messed it up for die-hard fans, with shallow characters and an over-reliance on CGI and effects. Modern fantasy has its roots in classical myth and legend, something Tolkein knew intimately. He respected ancient literature and language and sought to create a mythical saga that rivalled the greats.  The time he spent crafting languages, a depth of history, genealogies, sub cultures, geographic believability and a political and economic environment,  all created architecture for his characters to live and breath real lives.

When we read, watch or listen to a story – we inhabit the story. For many audience members, this inhabitation is not merely an escape for 2 hours on a holiday but a journey they will be willing to make again and again if the world is crafted carefully for them to be believable and the journey of the protagonists a journey that brings them self realisation, courage or peace.

May we have more fiction that tells the truth.

The Wicked Step Mother

Have you ever wondered why fairy stories feature so many wicked step mothers?

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The recurring feature of a widower with children,  bereft of a mother, springs up in children’s tales with alarming frequency  and proceeds to unfurl a nightmare of a new wife and her murderous schemes on the children.

Snow White who faces murder at the hands of the woodsman commanded to bring her heart in a box.

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Hansel and Gretel who are led into the woods to be abandoned and trapped by a cannibalistic witch.

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Rapunzel who is locked in a tower by a jealous stepmother to live in solitary confinement.

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Cinderella who is locked in a dungeon by her stepmother to serve the family as a slave ………

Other stories feature children alone in the world facing murderous grown ups wishing to exploit, imprison or eliminate them.

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In 2015 I am marrying a man with four children and face the duty of step-parent. What does this mean for me and my relationship with them? Are we doomed?

I don’t believe so.  In true form, fairy stories speak of  a reality more spiritual in nature.  Reading between the lines, a mother represents to children true unconditional love. When she dies they are left with a loving father who is  helpless to care for them in the same motherly way. His choice to remarry exposes the children to one who does not have their best interests in mind, one who does not love unconditionally.

The relationship of children to adults, especially parents is an interesting one. In a sense, children are a motif of one’s mortality. As they grow and learn, the adult ages and declines. Their ascendancy signals the adults descent from beauty, health and vigour. This very motif is shown in Cinderella,  the wicked step mother’s vanity emphasised  in her magic mirror’s declaration she is no longer the “fairest in the land”. What greater threat to a woman to no longer be beautiful and desired?  What greater threat than the younger and more beautiful youth ready to take her place.

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This motif is shown in more ways that simply fairy stories but plays out in power plays between humans of all ages and genders. The Mean Girls of high school bully those younger to establish primacy and control of the alpha males and jocks at school.  The “queen bees” belittle and control their own flock of followers to keep a pecking order and establish dominance.  Almost a carnivorous cannibalistic dynamic is created, in which the younger threatens to take the seat of power and the older seeks to exploit and maintain control at all costs.

Indeed, parenting is one of continual death to self and sacrifice of self for children. It’s a dynamic that is directly contradictory to the above dynamic. A parent willingly gives up their own place in the world to make way for the children – they give time, money and care to make sure the children have the best start in the world. For the biological parent this is both selfishly motivated – it is a sign of one’s genes continuing in the world, one’s seed flourishing. But it is also a signal of true love.

Parenting gone wrong is then the purest symbol of evil. And it’s not limited to wicked mothers or step mothers……..

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Look at Darth Vader !

So what can I learn about being a good step parent [or parent for that matter] from these stories? I’m reminded of the following account from Matthew 20: 20-28.  Jesus describes his own death and this conversation proceeds.

A Mother’s Request

20 Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favour of him.21 “What is it you want?” he asked. She said, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.” 22 “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said to them. “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?”“We can,” they answered.23 Jesus said to them, “You will indeed drink from my cup, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father.” 24 When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers.

 

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Understanding Jesus to be a king, the mother has asked what every mother wants for her children – to have the best. She wants them to be favoured and preferred. But what she asks she does not understand.  In seeking favour in her terms, she seeks dominance, control, primacy and power. A seat of influence for her two boys.

Jesus asks the men if they can drink his cup. Having just described his death – he speaks of the nature of his love for humanity. As a true lover, he lays down his life that the children will grow in life. Will they do that? Can they do that?

25 Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 26 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Jesus talks of the rulers of the Gentiles who “lord it over” the people and who “exercise authority” over them. His command to his followers is to become a servant, become a slave to others. To follow this king and to sit at his side equals laying down your life for others.

And this is the true love story