“Even as children, our Inner Heroes set out to challenge the world. In the last two thousand years, nothing has helped this exploratory need as much as the fairy tale.
“I know what you may be thinking. “Fairy tales? Is he kidding? Why, those things are positively frightening. Children see enough violence on television — they don’t need kids pushing witches into ovens and evil spells and poisoned apples.
“Stop for a minute and remind yourself how long the fairy tale has been with us — in every nation and in every civilization. Surely there must be something significant here, an insight so important as to transcend time and mountains and cultures to arrive in the twenty-first century still intact.
“What distinguishes the fairy tale is that it speaks to the heart and soul. The fairy tale confirms what we our.selves have been thinking all along — that it is a cold, cruel world out there and it’s waiting to eat us alive. Now, if that were all the fairy tale said, it would have died out long ago. But it goes one step further. It addresses itself to our sense of courage and adventure. The fairy tale advises us: Take your courage in hand and go out to meet the world head on. According to Bruno Bettelheim, the fairy tale offers this promise: If you have courage and if you persist, you can overcome any obstacle, conquer any foe.
By recognizing daily fears, appealing to courage and confidence, and by offering hope, the fairy tale presents us all with a means by which we can understand the world and ourselves. And those who would deodorize the tales impose a fearsome lie upon us. J.R.R. Tolkien cautioned, “It does not pay to leave a dragon out of your calculations if you live near him.” Judging from the daily averages, our land is filled with dragons.”
* An edited quote from Jim Trelease‘s Read-Aloud Handbook
Although I am long past childhood, I too believe in the fairy tale as a learning tool for acting with courage and confidence. This is part of my soul journey.
We all share a common road, which is the never-ending journey into ourselves. My Storyteller is getting old, and she’s hobbling along this path mapping my life in poems and short stories. She creates metaphoric, mythic landscapes to show where I am, where I have been and where I might go.
Fairy tales are one way to remember the Sacred Being we have forgotten, buried as She is under all the stories we use to protect ourselves from dragons. We can search for Her in our memories and find meaning by listening to the emotional tone of past events, using our senses, finding words for previously unexpressed experiences, embracing symbols from the vast store of the unconscious using metaphors, imagination, wordplay, flashes of insight, while appreciating the sheer joy of wordsmithing. For me, the fairy tale is a healing concoction from The Alchemist, a magic elixir that can transform the lead of my fear into the gold of understanding.
My Storyteller’s Tale
The Storyteller squats by the well in the gathering place of the townspeople. No one pays much attention to a dusty old Gypsy woman so she sits quietly and observes the people and their lives. Her embroidered skirt is muddied at the hem and her boots are worn down at the heel. She wears large gold earrings, a strangely marked talisman around her neck, and her thick grey hair is held back with a red silk scarf adorned with coins.
On this particular day, a market day, people bustle around her. Children with dirty ears and ragged clothes chase each other until she bids them come and sit with her. They call out to the beggar by the gate and he comes too, his craggy face lined and his toothless mouth grinning. The stripling lad from the inn and the young barmaid arrive not long after, holding hands and nuzzling each other. Mothers with babes in their arms purchase trinkets at the market stalls and then settle in to nurse their infants in the shade of the elms. They have come to hear the Gypsy woman who tells tales of wonder and magic.
With her begging bowl beside her, the Storyteller weaves tales about the trees in the wood, the smell of the dusty road, the wizards who travel there, and the dragons who live in the caves beyond. The old woman travels far and wide, visiting countries at war and those in peaceful times, during droughts and floods, through seasons of plenty and years of starvation. She sees babies born and old men die. She suffers and yet, she considers herself as happy and innocent as the dirty children beside her.
A young woman asks her to tell a story – a true story of a Princess and her betrothed, a Prince who will one day be king. After a time of thoughtful silence, the Storyteller begins her tale.
“Once upon a time, a silken-haired Princess sat in the palace garden admiring the roses. She felt safe there on her little bench in the sunshine. She pines for her Prince, who has been far away fighting on a distant battlefield.
Suddenly, a horde of marauding soldiers seeking revenge for the murder of their King, break through the gate and carry her off. Naturally, she quakes with fear. She has never been outside the palace walls. As they tie her behind the wagon and ride away, pulling her along, she thinks, “I will never survive all alone in the wild country.”
The Storyteller pauses dramatically, looking at each face in the audience.
“On arrival at the soldier’s camp, the beautiful Princess considers her predicament. No one will protect her or guard her honour. She concludes that her Prince is not coming to rescue her, even though she had always thought that was what Princes were to do. She says to herself, “If I am to move forward, I must rise above my fears, persevere and be strong.”
Her situation is dire. She is hungry, thirsty and tired. Even though she appears beaten, she feigns weakness to fool the soldiers. One takes pity on her. He unties her hands so she can drink from his cup, and she slips free and takes his sabre. She twists this way and that, leaps nimbly away, and runs to the paddock where the horses are tied. She untethers a white stallion, throws her leg over its back and gathers the reins.
The soldiers rally.
“One shouts, “You can’t escape now. You must stop and surrender.”
“A second guard yells, “Wench, give up your feeble efforts! We will take you anyway!
The Storyteller pauses. In an aside to her listeners, says, “Will she escape or will she stand firm? Will she run for her life or will she take up a sword and fight?”
Her listeners lean forward. The Storyteller speaks faster and louder, gesturing as she acts the Princess’ part.
“Our Princess is ready to ride away but she reins in the horse, jumps down and stands fast, facing her enemies. She meets them in a Hero’s stance, her head held high. She slashes and slices. Suffers cuts and wounds. She fights with confidence; she fights a good fight! And when they are all lying in the grass moaning or dead, she remounts the stallion and rides away toward the castle.
The listeners echo her words, “…the good fight.”
The Storyteller steps forward, holding the young ones spellbound,
“Everyone in the kingdom knows this Princess as a sweet and gentlewoman, and not one to fight and make war. How has this happened, that a peace loving girl has been transformed and now wins a victory by the sword?”
“She is a Heroine!” the audience gasps.
“Perhaps…” the Storyteller pauses again.
“She has a special power, my friends. Yes! Our Princess chooses to act on her own behalf, to take back her power through her actions.”
“What??” A young listener in the audience says, “She chooses?”
“Do we not all choose which battles to fight?” asks the Storyteller. “The Princess chooses to own her power and courage. She works with life rather than resisting. Her hand is loose on the sword not clenched. She understands that she alone is responsible for her freedom.”
No sooner is this statement out of the Storyteller’s mouth than the one who requested the Princess story, jeers, “That is not the story I want! The Princess must be saved by her Prince.” There are others who shake their fists and throw spoiled tomatoes and rotten cabbage at her. Splat! Splat! The audience howls but the Storyteller does not retreat.
The crowd yells, “You are mad! Everyone must abide by the law and submit, including the Princess. What story are you weaving? No one has this freedom. Begone!”
But behind them, at the back of the crowd, the young barmaid cheers and her fellow too. A mother under the elms is smiling though she says nothing. The children play at sword fighting at the village wall.
The Storyteller understands that of which she speaks. She, herself, is free to move about, to decide which stories she will tell, and to tell them in her own way. She begins her tale again, her voice rising above the din.
“I weave this tale so you may see that you are like the Wise Princess who may someday be Queen. Hers is the story of us all. You too can choose courage to own your life and its path.”
It is evening now and the sun is going down. The villagers have heard and seen enough. They drift away to tend to their homes and families, the barmaid returns to the tavern, the babies are asleep in their mothers arms, and the children are tired of their games.
The Storyteller sees that her bowl is empty but her heart is full. She has a bit of bread and cheese in her bag and that is enough for her.
The next morning the Storyteller, having shared her wisdom, gathers her meager belongings and sets out on the road to the next village.
The moral of the story? We all have the freedom, right and responsibility to choose our way.