Thursday, March 3, 2011

Why Fairy Tales?

"It was when I was happiest that I longed most...The sweetest thing in all my life has been the find the place where all the beauty came from."
-C.S. Lewis, Till We All Have Faces

What is it about fairy tales that entrances us and makes us pine for "happy ever after"? We see Cinderella step gracefully into her carriage, feel our hearts race as Gaston and the Beast battle it out on the castle roofs, and sympathize with Aurora's sense of romance and isolation. We're immediately wrapped up in the music, mystery, and magic of a splendid storybook adventure.

Despite the outright satire in the movie Enchanted, I still get a silly little thrill when I hear them sing about "true love's kiss". It's a film that almost makes fun of Disney fairy tales, and yet it's a beautiful fairy tale in itself. As Mom and I watched the credits roll last Sunday night I could hear her sighing next to me, "Isn't it a pity that life isn't like a fairy tale?"

That nearly broke my heart, because it is so true. It is a pity. I want to be like Giselle--I want to sing a little ditty and have woodland creatures appear to do my bidding; I want to meet a devastatingly handsome man (or two) who is madly in love with me; I want everything to blossom at my touch and be eternally beautiful and contented.

I think that everyone (or every girl and woman, rather) wants to be a princess: a daring, independent damsel with a brain of her own who just so happens to fall into distress and is saved by a hunky prince. It's the longing for adventure, romance, and--more than that. 

Is Disney to blame for our longings, or are their "princess stories" just a symptom of something deeper?

After all, romance and adventure are all around us every day! But somehow a teen girl meeting her boyfriend at the McDonald's drive-up window or an FBI agent hunting down copyright infringers--noble and exciting as these things may be--doesn't strike us the same way as a fairy tale. 

The painful part of storybook escapades is that that the likelihood of being swept off in one of them is about one in 10,000,000,000,000,000 (a very accurate statistic, you can be sure). The sweet, blurry, happy feeling we get at the end of a great movie is made bittersweet by the certain knowledge that none of that will ever be ours.

But did you know that stories were meant to give us that ache, that sense of longing for something we can't grasp? C.S. Lewis wrote this inspired paragraph in his amazing book Mere Christianity:
Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water.... If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing.

So we desire a magical happy ending--what if that is actually available? 

My theory is that fairy tales are just a little piece of Heaven, "a foretaste divine", as it were. We all have this inborn yearning for a place where everything works out beautifully in the end, the curtain falls on a triumphant, ecstatic couple, and we know that the rest of their lives will be silver-lined and blissful. And that place actually exists. Of course, we won't experience such perfection in this life, but there's hope for the world to come! And even in this life most of us have little happinesses that simply aren't run-of-the-mill. There's something more to a magical gift.

So, to leave on a lighthearted note, who is your favorite Disney princess? Mine is, without a doubt, Belle from Beauty and the Beast


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