Tag Archives: Faerie Stories

Queen of Hearts

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(This is a simul-post with Ignitum Today)

As we are sure you all have noticed, faerie tales are making a media comeback, bit by bit and day by day.  Not that they hadn’t, already, since Disney pretty much owned that part: they are just making their way into everything now.  Two Snow White films (Snow White and the Huntsman and Mirror Mirror), a Hansel and Gretel film (although let’s admit that one appeared to be nothing more than a pretext for another grisly action movie), and the upcoming Jack the Giant Killer (which looks more promising and actually quite interesting).  Best of all, however, is the ABC Family show Once Upon A Time, which both of us are completely hooked on and watch religiously every Monday when it comes out online.  It’s like a tribute to all faerie stories, playing our best-loved tales so straight that the truest themes show through: true love, redemption, hope, faith… and so on.  These themes lead us from the stories, through the culture which produced them, and back to the story which produced their culture: that of the Cross; more importantly for faerie stories, the story of the victory of the Cross–the Resurrection.

For those who aren’t familiar with Once Upon A Time, it is a  TV show which airs every Sunday at 8 (or is it 9?) on ABC Family.  The premise is that the world we know is not the only world that exists: it just happens to be one of the only worlds without magic.  An evil queen cast a curse on her own world, which contained many characters from many stories within it who all knew or knew of each other, and transported them all into Maine, in our world, where they lost their memories of who they were and loved and lived in a frozen state for 28 years, until their saviour came along and broke the curse with the help of a little boy who believed in fairy tales.  That is, in short, the summary of Season One, and Season Two (airing now) gets much more complicated, but many characters from many different stories all come together and become likely–or unlikely–friends.

Because of the nature of its content (faerie stories), Once Upon A Time has many themes upon which we could reflect and hearken back to the fact that faerie tales are rooted deeply in Christian culture.  Given the latest episode, however (titled Queen of Hearts, and we will give you no more spoilers), it is appropriate for us to consider the theme of hearts.

That doesn’t mean the muscle which drives your circulatory system, nor does it mean the cute little shape on the end of a Cupid arrow: it is the depths of our character, the whole of our personality and moral psychology.  It is the “place” which is the source of the actions we choose, the thoughts and feelings we entertain, and the direction we give our lives.  Most importantly, it is the place where we actively decide to follow or turn away from God.

That is the “heart” in Saint Augustine’s famous line, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you, o Lord” and in Pascal’s pithy observation, “The heart has reasons reason cannot know.”  It is the same meaning of “heart” referred to in the “Sacred Heart of Jesus”–and here is the key.  What is so special about a heart?  Only people have hearts.  Human persons and the Divine Persons both have hearts.  But nonetheless, only people have hearts.  Animals do not, and neither do plants.  It is debatable whether angels do, either.  But persons have hearts.

Hearts are the source of love.  Whether the heart itself is pure or distorted then dictates the kind of love capable by it.  Calling back to Once Upon A Time, there are two perfect counter-examples here: Snow and Charming have pure love for each other, while Regina’s love for Henry is rather distorted by the fact that she was never actually taught how to love (which is a topic for another, more spoilerific, post).

–Spoiler warning: Season Two spoilers below this point.  Continue reading at your own risk.–

Okay, now that you’ve had enough space to turn away if you have not yet seen Season Two, we return to our regularly scheduled analysis.  Somewhere in the midst of the first season, it is revealed that Regina has her own vault of hearts, where she stores the physical hearts which she has taken from now-helpless creatures and people.  Controlling the heart of a creature is somewhat elementary, albeit quite dark magic, since creatures can be easily trained.  It is the people hearts which matter most in the series and in the overall scheme of things.  When you control a heart, you control the whole person, even against their will; and sometimes, they won’t even know that you’re controlling them.

The inevitable twist in the storyline is that the vault of hearts isn’t Regina’s.  It belongs to her mother, Cora, who has been ripping out hearts since long before Regina was born.  Her obsession with power, control, and the idea that “love is weakness,” counterpointed against Snow’s love, compassion, and absolute adoration for Charming, epitomizes the time-honoured debate: is it better to rule with love, or with fear?  Cora’s MO is very clearly fear, to the point where she is almost controlling people to force them to love her.  She wishes to rule the desires of others, rather than allow them to freely choose to love.  In some sense, she is the evil inverse to the Virgin Mary, who is nothing but the purest love and compassion.  Cora’s pitiful attempt to rule the hearts of all around her by force is a striking contrast to the true Queen of All Hearts, reminding us that it is, indeed, better to rule with love than with fear.

So what might this brief reflection on a TV show villain lead us to conclude?  At least this: that the way to true happiness (another great theme of the show!) lies not with the rule of force, with trying to steal and cling to as many hearts as one can, but with emptying one’s own heart to fill the heart of another.

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The Truth of Fairy Tales

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(This is a simul-post with Ignitum Today)

It may be a commonplace to call our age one that prides itself on freedom from the “miserable dark ages,” from obscurantism, superstition, and perhaps belief in anything beyond the inquiry of natural science; but while materialisms philosophical and commercial may seem to rule the day in much of the world, somehow the most popular stories remain those inspired by the visions of former ages: by thought-worlds too foreign and spacious for the physicalist or relativistic confinement cell.  Fairy tales continue to be retold– just think of Disney, the Shrek films, or the two Snow White films to be released next year–and new stories inspired by them emerge one after another.  How could stories like The Lord of the Rings receive such popularity and affection from an age that appears so thoroughly to despise all that comes from its world of origin?

Because fairy tales bear in their hearts something that satisfies our longings; they carry truths too obvious for the modernist to remember, and if we search them out we may learn something not only of them but of ourselves and the world we inhabit.

St. George and the Dragon (courtesy of Turrell Studio--click the image to see more)

“Fairy tales are more than true,” tells us G. K. Chesterton, “not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”  In other words, the bad news– the real threat of dragons– is already apparent; the good news of their defeat is the surprise. The dragons we know about already, lurking as they are both in our imagination and in the world beyond, or else there would be no talk of evil, of suffering and death.  The pagans of old knew about the dragons– they knew the brokenness of the world before they had heard the Gospel preached.  Pandora knew of it; the Stoic philosopher in his calm despair knew of it.  The good news that follows, that the Dragon has been beaten decisively, that was what no human heart could have conceived, beyond what all hopes could dream.

But it is in the promise of this hope beyond human conception that lies so much of the attraction of fairy stories. Of the many truths which fairy tales might hold up to modern eyes the greatest is that good will triumph–that the dragons can be beaten.  J.R.R. Tolkien coined a term for the in-breaking of miraculous good which triumphs over insurmountable evil precisely in the good’s hour of greatest weakness, the most unlikely ending to modern readers but perhaps for that reason the most satisfying: eucatastrophe, or “a good down-turn.”  The eucatastrophe of the fairy tale is the Good News: the dragon is slain, the princess rescued, the day won, and all live happily ever after.

This is no pipe-dream’s perfect ending, as readers of the Lord of the Rings will remember. The eucatastrophe of fairy stories as Tolkien interprets them (and as they themselves echo the Gospel) truly embody the idea of “earning your happy ending”; not, of course, that in the end “earning” the final, miraculous victory has much to do with it– or else it would not be miraculous. For the very place where the Gospels and fairy tales touch is in rejecting any carnal hope of worldly success in favor of that far more fulfilling victory which comes as unexpected gift. Yet it is unmistakeable that if there is some unique power that fairy tales still hold over human hearts it is because in them can be traced something of the same pattern that lies in the Cross and Resurrection.

By way of contrast, if the modernist carries his “real” beliefs to their logical conclusion, the ending to the story is dreadfully unsatisfactory and does not result in the cathartic “happy ending” characteristic of fairy tales.  An excellent and very real published example of this horrendous type of ending is the Series of Unfortunate Events.  Daniel Handler (pseudonym Lemony Snicket) is a self-proclaimed “secular humanist.”  Not to ruin the ending of the intriguing thirteen-book series, it will simply be mentioned that anyone who has read it can attest to the utter lack of catharsis and complete flop of the end of Book the Thirteenth.  Very few loose ends are tied up and even more are opened.  Unlike a story such as Heart of Darkness or 1984, where the ending leaves you uncomfortable and pondering, but you inevitably realize it could not end any other way, The End (Book the Thirteenth of A Series of Unfortunate Events) results in the reader wanting to rewrite the story to have… well, a fairy-tale ending.  An epic such as the Series of Unfortunate Events demands a fairy-tale ending–or at least one somewhat resembling it.

Like a dissonant conclusion to an otherwise harmonious melody, the lackluster ending to A Series of Unfortunate Events leaves with its impression of dissatisfaction a testament to the truth that gives fairy tales their enduring allure. What draws people to fairy tales is the promise of something more than disappointed expectations or the punishments of cruel vicissitude: the hope of a victory that breaks through from beyond the circles of this world and in reaching down to broken human beings offers them the guarantee of a new day more great and terrible than they can imagine.

It may be a commonplace to call our age one that prides itself on freedom from the “miserable dark ages,” from obscurantism, superstition, and perhaps belief in anything beyond the inquiry of natural science; but while materialisms philosophical and commercial may seem to rule the day in much of the world, somehow the most popular stories remain those inspired by the visions of former ages: by thought-worlds too foreign and spacious for the physicalist or relativistic confinement cell.  Fairy tales continue to be retold– just think of Disney, the Shrek films, or the two Snow White films to be released next year–and new stories inspired by them emerge one after another.  How could stories like The Lord of the Rings receive such popularity and affection from an age that appears so thoroughly to despise all that comes from its world of origin?

Because fairy tales bear in their hearts something that satisfies our longings; they carry truths too obvious for the modernist to remember, and if we search them out we may learn something not only of them but of ourselves and the world we inhabit.