Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Fairy tales...

"Fairy tales  are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten." G.K.Chesterton

Once again, this is a post that has been a long time in the imagining. I wrote a post, not that long ago, about the recent increase in the amount of fantasy fiction in our bookshops and on our reading lists. It was called Happily Ever Afters and its basic premise was, that the reason for the increase in the amount of fantasy fiction at the moment is a response to people's desires to escape their own dreary existences into the imaginary worlds conjured by our favourite authors. I've always loved reading fantasy fiction, for this very reason. In fact, this is most of the reason for my love of reading in general. It's probably the reason that a lot of people like to read. We always prefer the image or the illusion to what is real. One of the therapists at St Andrew's told me about this cartoon (I tried to find the image but couldn't - Google has failed me). In the cartoon there were two escalators. On one escalator there are several men and they are all looking to the side at these posters on the wall. It's the same poster repeated the whole way up the wall and it shows an image of a pretty, semi-clad woman, advertising something. On the other escalator, in the opposite direction from that in which the men are all looking, is a beautiful, real live woman - completely naked. But the men don't notice because they are all too busy looking at the image. After the one therapist told me about this cartoon, another therapist said to me - in a rather exasperated tone - "It's not real!" Well that was the point. This all came out of a conversation that a few people, myself included, were having about 'lists' for our ideal partners and fictional characters that we found attractive. I remember studying existence as a precept in Philosophy once; the idea that a thing is made better by its existence and that, it can only be the greatest thing if it actually exists because the greatest thing that can be imagined isn't the greatest thing because it could be made better by being in existence. The point is, something that is real, is always better than something that is imagined, because it is real. But this is confusing logic, so is it any wonder that people seem to prefer the ideal over the real?

This is why we like fairy tales and novels that follow the fairy tale format. The idealism of fairy tales, and of a lot of fiction, is what makes it so very appealing to the human nature. From my perspective, I see five main precepts of the fairy tale format:

  • People are either completely good or completely evil - the hero(ine) is always a paradigm of good
  • Our foes - dragons - can be beaten
  • Good vs. evil - good always wins in the end
  • The girl always gets her Prince
  • They all live happily ever after
These all seem rather idealistic. For a start, no body is either completely good or completely evil. People don't actually work that way. We all have good points and bad points and a lot of these, if not all of them, are based on external perspective. What one person sees as a good personality trait, another might find incredibly annoying. As for the hero/heroine being a paradigm of good; well we've already established that no body is completely good, even the hero. In terms of mental health, being considered as having a 'hero' or 'saviour' complex, is a bad thing. We can't know how much of the trouble faced by the 'damsel in distress' is real, and how much is simply perceived. Also, in extreme cases, the 'hero' will cause/inflict suffering in order to then be the one to remove that suffering and 'save' the 'damsel'. As a Christian though, I feel the need to point out - that I believe - that, though no human is capable of being a paradigm of good, Jesus is completely good and He is our Saviour. So perhaps this aspect of the fairy tale format can be seen a being symbolic of a greater truth; that of Jesus Christ as the Messiah. 

The second of these precepts seems more realistic. The quote, from Gilbert Keith Chesterton, at the start of this post talks about how fairy tales, though fantastical and not containing real life possibilities, do hold some universal truths. Chesterton says that, "Fairy tales... tell us that dragons can be beaten." Dragons may be mythical creatures but, in fairy tales, they could be seen as symbolic of real life foes or adversaries or even obstacles. In fairy tales, the dragon always gets in the way of the hero, and it is the job of the hero to overcome this obstacle in order to reach the prize - usually a princess who has been locked away in a tower somewhere. Just as the idea of a hero, who is a paradigm of good, could be a symbol of a greater truth; so could the idea of dragons. In life we all face obstacles and challenges and adversaries. And we know that it is possible to defeat these. It is the basis of every motivational speech ever written. The dragon may not be real, but the thing that it symbolises is and the truth displayed in fairy tales - that dragons can be beaten - is also very real. From a Christian point of view, again, this is a truth also displayed in the Bible. (I am not suggesting that the Bible is a fairy tale, though some of you may wish to believe that it is.) I believe that the Bible is the truth and the Bible tells us of how our adversaries can be defeated and how we get the strength to beat them from God - as long as it is God's Will. 

The third on that list is that, in fairy tales there is always a battle - be it an actual physical battle or a, more subtle, battle of wills - between good and evil and that good always triumphs over evil. This again might seem unrealistic. We see wars going on in the world today where evil is winning. Battles in court where justice isn't done and a guilty party - the villain - walks free. Battles in our own lives where the part of us telling us to do the harmful, dangerous thing wins out over the part that is telling us not to. I am all too familiar with that last one. It often feels like, actually, evil is winning and there is nothing we can do about it. I have felt like that on countless occasions; for long periods of time. In this aspect, fairy tales are idealistic. They promise that good will always win and at times, in real life, this seems impossible. But fairy tales don't simply tell us that good always wins, they tell us that good always wins in the end. It's about the bigger picture. In fairy tales, the heroes face obstacles and adversity, and it may not always appear like they will win and they don't always win easily. And there's usually a twist, where the hero loses, before the final battle and the hero saves the day and good has triumphed over evil. Life is full of small battles, battles that aren't always won. But in the bigger picture good does win, in the end. At least this is what I believe. (I realise that there has been a lot of Christian reading in this but please bear with me.) God has won. By sending us His only Son to die on the cross for our sins, He won the battle against evil. Christ defeated death and is alive. 

Number four. The girl always gets her Prince. Well this isn't realistic. Some people do remain single for their entire lives. Some people marry and then discover that they've married the wrong person. The divorce rate in the U.K. alone has increased massively and was at 42% in 2011. (This had actually decreased from 45% in 2005, but is still higher than in many years previous.) In fairy tales there is also the rather unrealistic idea of 'fate' bringing together the girl and her Prince. The events are written so as to reach the desired conclusion of the Prince falling for the girl and marrying her. But most people don't ascribe to the idea of 'fate'. Most people would say that there isn't just one person out there for everyone and that you just have to find them. I mean, mathematically speaking, the chances of meeting the one person on Earth, out of all of the billions of people, who is specifically designed for you are ridiculous. It just wouldn't happen. But then there's the idea that life is written in a way that means that you will find that one person. Most people definitely wouldn't believe that. It infringes upon their right to free will. But in the church, it is believed that, if you are meant to marry, God knows who you will marry and how you will meet them. I say 'if you are meant to marry' because the Bible does tell us that some people are meant to remain single. But the majority are meant to marry and, as marriage is so important in the church, marrying the right person is massively important. But God gives us the person we are meant to marry, in some way, at some point in time. As for the 'right person' being a Prince (or Princess); they may not actually be royalty but the 'Prince' in the fairy tale is just another symbol. A symbol of the ideal person; the ideal person for you. They may not be a Prince in the strictest sense but if they're the right person for you, they kind of become your Prince in a way. 

Finally, I reach the end of the fairy tale and there is just that one line. That one line that gives us all a hope for the future; 'And they all lived happily ever after'. People say that this is unrealistic; that there is no such thing as 'happily ever after'. It's kind of the same argument as the one about good triumphing over evil, in a way. We cannot know what the future will hold and it may not always be happy. We will still have dragons to defeat and battles to win. But overall, the future could still be happy. Our happiness has a lot to do with how we view the world and how we view our own experiences. I haven't always been happy. I'm not sure if I'm exactly happy now; though, I'm definitely content. But I do hope that, in the future, I will be happy; that I will live happily ever after. Now, the cynics among you might believe me to be naive - but I am far from it. I have experienced things, that I won't share on this public platform, that have completely destroyed any innocence and naivete I might once have had. But in therapy I learnt about the choices that I have and about how I can choose to just focus on the bad things in life and be miserable, or I can choose to look at the good things and be happy. Having spent years being miserable, I desperately wanted to be happy; I just didn't know how to be - I had forgotten how to be happy. But now that I know that happiness is a state of mind and that I can choose to be happy, based on how I view the world and my experiences, I know that actually 'happily ever after' is possible. Because I can make it possible. It might not always be easy. And I might not always be happy. But, going back to that 'bigger picture' thing, I can make my future happy, overall. And, one last little note. With God, happily ever after is definitely possible. Because He gives us eternal life. "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life." John 3:16. 

Fairy tales may not be real but they can display some very real truths...

Currently listening to: Laura Marling - Rambling Man

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