Once Upon a Time

From Don Quixote, Op. 35, “Variation VII – DQ & S on wooden horse they think is Pegasus”; Richard Strauss; The Boston Symphony Orchestra, Seija Ozawa Conducting

Once Upon a Time

Image of Don Quixote with Sancho in the background

Don Quichotte und Sancho Pansa; Honoré Daumier; English: c. 1868

The music is from Richard Strauss’ Don Quixote. This story is a fairy tale of sorts of an old man desiring to return to, in his view, a more romantic era and his friend who watches over him. The music reminds me of the scene where the Don jousts with the windmills, though in fact the music is from a different scene involving wooden horses. Most of the adversaries the good knight faces are, like the windmills, of his own imagining and in his imagination a windmill can be a giant and a rocking horse can be Pegasus.

This is what helps to create the fairy tale quality of the story. Don Quixote is engaged in one conflict after another with villains that greatly resemble those found in folk and fairy tales. That they are in fact everyday mundane things adds a level of comedy and satire to the story but they do not alter the nature of the battles, at least not for the knight and it is the knight we care about. In fact it is his ability to live in the realm of his imagination that makes him an empathetic character. He may be consumed with a kind of madness but it is a madness that endears him to the hearts of readers.

Cormac McCarthy in his book The Road creates a different kind of story concerning a kind of knight and squire. The man and the boy at the center of his tale inhabit a world of wicked witches in gingerbread houses feeding on every “Hansel and Gretel” that wonders down the highway. Perhaps the only difference between McCarthy’s fable and the traditional fairy tale is the “lived happily ever after” ending. It is, after all, the wicked witch, the evil stepmother, and ogre under the bridge that capture our interest with the fairy tale in the first place. Imagine “Hansel and Gretel” only with the wicked witch winning at the end and serving the young children up in a Swiftian soufflé (to find out the extent to which the bad guys win in McCarthy’s novel you will have to read the book).

Perhaps the issue is no longer that good must triumph over evil but only that it must endure in the face of evil, which is perhaps a more realistic kind of ending. Vladimir Nabokov viewed the happy ending with distaste and it would appear that his view has carried the day, at least for the moment. The only serious modern writer I know of committed to the happy ending is Alan Furst, the writer of World War II era espionage novels, though, perhaps, a veneer of unhappiness is placed over the tale’s conclusion by the fact that within the frame of the fiction the war is still raging at the story’s end with some of the greatest horrors yet to be revealed. Perhaps the happy ending is a thing of the past, though life as it is lived, for most, is often a fair balance between the two.

From The Curious Adventures of Mr. Wonderbird
Director: Paul and Pierre Grimault
Producer: André Sarrut
Production Company: Clarge Distributors
The film clip is an adaptation of a Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale. In the story a painting of a chimney sweep falls in love with a painting of a shepherdess. There is also a painting of the king who is also in love with the shepherdess. They all escape the bonds of their respective canvases and the story revolves around each of the individuals pursuing their own definition of happiness. In the clip we see that the king is on the verge of winning his happiness at the expense of all the others. But this is a 19th century fairy tale and we can probably take comfort in the knowledge that the tales of that day ended happily and that a reversal of fortune is in store for the shepherdess and the chimney sweep.

There was an article “Fear of Fairy Tales” in this week’s (9-21-08) Boston Globe’s “Ideas” section. The article is about how the darker elements of the fairy tale are disappearing because we do not want to frighten the children. The problem with living happily ever after if no terror or struggle or great unhappiness of some kind precedes is that the nature of happiness becomes diminished. Much of life is understood by contrasts. Can we fully savor and enjoy the “good times” if there re no “bad times” to contrast them with? Would we take as much pleasure from Cinderella marrying the prince if there were not an evil stepmother and a handful of evil stepsisters that would prevent the two from meeting?

The point of the article is that it is not only the darker elements of these stories that hold our interest but that these dark elements are allegories for the various traumas that are a part of growing up. Of course only the adults fully understand that “Little Red Riding Hood” is really a story of rape and sexual awakening, if such is in fact the case. It is ironic that at one time these stories were criticized for always ending happily when real life is much more of a mixed bag. Now all the unhappiness and trauma have been removed. Is a happy ending still a happy ending if no deliverance from evil comes before it?

The most troubling aspect of the article is what motivates the happiness in the story, the desire to sell things to young children. This is perhaps the real danger of the sanitized story telling. Reading has been replaced with other forms of entertainment and it is the entertainment value alone that determines the worth of the story and the entertainment value must arrive early and never leave.

This coupled with some of the new web technologies raises troubling issues for our culture. I remember as a child watching the old, I think 1950’s, version of 1984. The story, as everyone knows, revolves around a society that has been programmed to think and act alike. There are many versions of this story but in most of them literature is banned. Perhaps this was most graphically represented in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. In this book firemen did not put out fires but burned books and 451 degrees Fahrenheit is the temperature at which paper burns.

Another element of these stories is that there are cameras everywhere recording everything we do. These stories may have put us on guard against a government that would overtly spy upon us but they have not served to deter us from spying on ourselves. Perhaps it is vanity that takes pleasure in putting one’s private life on film (as well as the private lives of others) and broadcasting it over the internet. It is perhaps a form of entertainment and entertainment rules.

In the stories books are burned but that is not necessary if we dissuade ourselves from reading in the first place. It is probably true that the only reason reading has survived as a popular activity is because, for most people, it entertains. Those books requiring more thought and concentration have always been enjoyed, I think, by a smaller audience. But if the books that stir things up cannot find a place on the bookshelf because they do not reach a large enough audience has not the totalitarian spirit succeeded after a fashion. It is not necessary to burn books to put an end to dangerous ideas; it is only necessary to remove from individuals in the society the desire to read those books.

C. S. Lewis, who was also a Christian apologist, once remarked the more The Bible is translated the less it is read. I do not know how true that statement is, but it seems that the more books that are published the less books are read, or at least what are thought of as “important” books. Sometimes it feels as though we live in a society that spies on itself and censors itself in the name of entertainment. Perhaps this is an overreaction. I am concerned, though, that our pursuit of happiness has blinded us at times to other liberties our Constitution guarantees, such as the freedom of the press and the right to privacy. Hopefully these liberties will not be remembered only in fairy tales.

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