Old Tales for a New World

Classic Arts Features   Old Tales for a New World
The "uses of enchantment" in the wake of September 11.

There was an excited four-year-old bouncing in my lap the morning we watched the space shuttle Challenger vanish before our disbelieving eyes.

Few, if any parents, get through the experience of raising children without wishing they could take back one particular day, or even one particular hour, in order to shield our youngsters just a little while longer from the unsuspected terrors lurking outside the door.

Yet September 11, 2001, raised these concerns to an unprecedented national level. Adults and children of all ages were bombarded with a stream of horrifying images for days and weeks on end; images one couldn't escape from by changing channels, or explain away as the result of a tragic error or random natural disaster.

The truth was simply too awful to digest and too compelling to ignore: thousands of mostly ordinary people intentionally murdered while pursuing their everyday lives. In the face of such appalling circumstances, we found ourselves hard-pressed for satisfactory answers to fundamental questions such as, "Why do they hate us?" "Could it happen here?" and, above all, "Could it happen to me?"

So, like the wise but equally helpless generations that preceded us, we sought solace for our kids and grandkids in the realm of fantasy and fairy tales: Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, and now, at The Dallas Opera, Hansel and Gretel.

One of the oldest of literary genres, crisscrossing every culture and nationality, fairy tales seek to teach and comfort as well as to entertain. They almost single-handedly preserve the power of our vast, complex oral traditions. Unless we're completely oblivious, we're not immune to this power, even in a secular, digital age.

Much of what we know about the Western oral tradition, post-Chaucer, is contained in the extraordinary compendium of 210 folk stories and fairy tales published in three volumes by the Brothers Grimm between 1812 and 1815. Fine linguists and scholars (in 1852 they began work on a 32-volume German dictionary that was completed a century later) the brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm spent years tramping the European countryside in order to record the folk stories of remote villagers and farmers, tales that had been passed, lovingly, from generation to generation. Even at that early date, the demands of the new industrial economy were disrupting the old societies.

The Brothers Grimm worked as a team, with complementary yet entirely different approaches to the material they encountered. Jacob was relentless in his pursuit of accuracy and meticulous detail; Wilhelm, on the other hand, seemed more concerned with shaping the stories for maximum impact and enjoyment while remaining true to the source. The push and pull of their combined personalities worked, as they say, like a charm.

Poet W.H. Auden may or may not have overstated the case when he declared, "these tales rank next to the Bible in importance." If you stop to consider your earliest recollections, chances are, the first stories you remember being told were tales from the Brothers Grimm. These dark adventures with their sardonic humor frequently allow children to outwit their elders, vanquish evil, and prove themselves in ways that are nearly impossible in the natural world. Is magic really so far-fetched an explanation when life itself seems altogether mysterious and unaccountable?

The late Bruno Bettelheim, an Austrian Holocaust survivor well-known for his landmark (albeit controversial) analysis of the importance of fairy stories, The Uses of Enchantment (1976), wrote that such tales allow a child to master not only the "real dangers his parents tell him about but those vastly exaggerated ones which he fears exist." These would include the fear of separation or abandonment (which accounts for the disproportionate number of orphans in the fantasy world), the fear of death, and the fear of being misjudged or unloved.

Fairy tales articulate for children the troublesome feelings many youngsters are unable to express, with the added comfort of revealing that such fears are perfectly normal and shared by others. As Bettelheim succinctly points out, "That which cannot be talked about cannot be resolved." And, in fact, child psychologists agree that scary stories do more to help children cope with their fears than relentlessly optimistic ones.

At the root of these age-old stories lie fundamental moral lessons about truth and falsehood, courage and cowardice, generosity, envy, and rage; in other words, the business of humanity. Only in recent years did we consign such object lessons solely to children.

Fairy tales confirm the message many parents seem reluctant to share: genuine evildoers are out there and, occasionally, they triumph. Our comfort lies in the rest of the tale, for the triumph of evil is, invariably, short-lived in the world of Luke Skywalker and the Brothers Grimm. Fairy tales offer children and adults ample opportunity to take action, gain control, and favorably manipulate the outcome.

We may not bring an end to terrorism, yet we're clever and resourceful enough to bring home the magic beans, outwit a baby-snatching troll, save grandma from lupine indigestion, recover from the effects of eating a really bad apple, and remember‹just in the nick of time‹to let go and "use the force."

Fairy tales are one of the means by which we introduce the notion that there is more to life than our limited experience is capable of revealing. There are, indeed, incalculable mysteries that haunt our collective psyches and our dreams. The fairy tale, through its archetypal characters and narrative thread, seems calculated to remind us that we're only a step removed from the village bonfire, but it's a step that, post 9/11, leaves us fumbling, with our loved ones, in the dark.

It's time, perhaps, to reawaken that cathartic sense of wonder with tales that are worth telling and a newfound respect for the tremendous healing power of the spoken and sung word.

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