By H. Parker Blount
Or, right-click here to download the audio file: Ancient Fairytales Written for This Generation
I HAVE BEEN reading fairy tales lately. They are generally thought of as stories meant to entertain and teach the young, but that is selling fairy tales short. They have the capacity to speak to adults and provide a framework for examining our mysterious inner world. According to Sheldon Cashdon, “The fairy tale journeys into unexplored worlds paralleled by an inward journey. As the protagonist travels deeper and deeper into forbidden territory, so is the reader transported into unexplored regions of the self.”1
During my exploration of fairy tales, I’ve noticed certain common features among them. For example, physical objects are often imbued with great supernatural power, allowing the possessor of the object to do extraordinary things. There are also a myriad of enchantments and spells, some of which put the victim into a deep sleep or trance; others transform the victim into an animal, reptile, bird, or a very ugly person. These spells are cast by both the naughty and the nice. Similarly, both the naughty and the nice make use of deception—honesty is not a prerequisite to goodness or success. It is perfectly acceptable for the good guys to use deceit to gain something valuable. In fact, we’re supposed to admire the hero’s wisdom and cunning in knowing when to lie and how to do so effectively. And killing is standard fare. Many, many heads get lopped off in fairy tales, and in the cases where the heads aren’t cut off, they are often bludgeoned to a pulp.
There is plenty of darkness in fairy tales. Often the hero enters a deep, dark forest or explores a black cavern. Menacing characters chase the protagonist or block his or her way forward. Fairy tales often employ sets of three. There are, for example, three pigs, three wishes, three guesses, three challenges. It’s a bit remarkable that in the days before reliable methods of family planning, so many fairy tales would involve three siblings. Fairy tales are often about three brothers or three sisters, where the eldest two are depicted as being egotistical, arrogant, misguided, and often physically unattractive. The youngest is pure of heart, kind, comely, and likely to suffer at the hand of the older siblings. Think of Cinderella.
To illustrate some of the characteristics of a fairy tale, I’ll share the gist of the story “Jack and the Golden Apples.”2
Once upon a time there was an old king who had three sons; and the old king fell very sick one time and there was nothing at all could make him well but some golden apples from a far country. So the three brothers went on horseback to look for some of these apples. They set off together, and when they came to crossroads they halted and refreshed themselves a bit, and then they agreed to meet on a certain time, and not one was to go home before the other. So Valentine took the right, and Oliver went straight on, and poor Jack took the left.
In fairy tales, it is life rather than divine intervention that offers the gifts that assist the hero on his or her journey or pilgrimage. Sometimes these gifts are born of life’s vicissitudes; other times they occur by happenstance. For example, in the Rumpelstiltskin tale (or the English version, “Tom Tit Tot”), it is by happenstance that one of the queen’s messengers tells her of seeing a funny little man deep in the forest dancing around a fire chanting his own name. Fairy tales that involve three brothers usually show how each brother responds to the gifts life offers him. Generally the same gifts are offered to each brother, but the older two are so focused on quickly achieving a certain goal that they ignore or reject outright the directional cues being offered them. For example, in “Jack and the Golden Apples” an old hag approaches each brother, but the older two haughtily shoo her away, while the younger respectfully acknowledges her. The old woman tells him he will come to a house where he should ask to spend the night, but during the night, snakes will crawl all about and over him. However, if he lies perfectly still, he will be aided on his quest the next morning.
Jack follows the old woman’s guidance, acquires the golden apples, and returns to the crossroads. But while waiting for his two older brothers, he falls asleep. They come along, see his apples, quietly substitute their inferior apples for his golden ones, and ride home. The king is already healed when Jack finally arrives. When the King sees Jack’s poor apples, he orders him beheaded. Without going into details, I’ll simply say that the truth emerges, Jack prevails and marries the beautiful, wealthy princess, and they live happily ever after.
Let me provide one more illustration of this “three brothers” theme. You are probably familiar with the basic story, but maybe not the particulars of this version.
Once upon a time, and a very good time it was, though it was neither in my time nor in your time, nor in any one else’s time,” there was an old man and his wife and their three sons. The old man was warned in a dream to take his family and hide in the wilderness because terrible things would happen in the city where they lived. So they packed up and traveled deep into the forest where the light barely shone and goblins abided. There, the old man was told in a second dream to send his sons back to the city to obtain a book of mysteries kept by a powerful ogre.
The sons returned to the city and conferred about how to obtain the book. The oldest brother said, “Let’s just ask the ogre for the book.” They did, and ended up running for their lives. The second brother said, “Let’s purchase it with gold.” The ogre took the gold, kept the book, and again the brothers scrambled for their lives. The two older brothers, their plans having failed, wished to quit the whole thing, but the younger brother insisted that they must achieve what their father had asked them to do. The older brothers began to abuse the younger brother verbally and physically until a fairy godfather appeared and cast a spell upon the two older brothers with words of such power that they could not help but cease abusing their younger brother. Then the fairy godfather, with an upraised hand, caused the younger brother to resemble the ogre.
Meanwhile, the real ogre had been afflicted with a spell that left him comatose. The younger brother, being of incredible strength, cut off the ogre’s head, and then, because he resembled the ogre, moved freely about the ogre’s castle, found the book of mysteries, and carried it away.
The younger brother was changed back to his normal handsome physical state, but not before frightening his older brothers. They returned and presented the book of mysteries to their father, and they all rejoiced and lived happily ever after—for a little while.
You recognize, of course, that I pulled that story from the Book of Mormon, with a few word changes to sharpen the resemblance between it and a fairy tale. Indeed, I have been struck at the many resemblances I find between Book of Mormon stories and fairy tales. For example, in fairy tales it is common for the hero to acquire some magical object or talisman that benefits, often in miraculous ways, whoever possesses it and learns its secrets. And of course, there are several such objects in the Book of Mormon. There is the fine brass ball of curious workmanship Lehi finds outside his tent one morning; it not only points the wandering pilgrims in the direction they should travel (and remember, they had no idea where they were going), but also, under certain circumstances, writes out messages “plain to be read.” Mosiah possesses a device that allows him to read the words of any language. And not quite as dramatic but perhaps more practical, the Jaradites have magical stones that emit light, enabling the voyagers to see in their otherwise dark barges.
A rather wonderful Book of Mormon story that easily fits fairy tale parameters is that of Ammon. As you recall, Ammon goes off to the land of the Lamanites, equivalent to the deep forest of fairy tales, and, like so many fairy tale heroes, is captured by hostiles. Just to hit some of the high spots, Ammon is offered the king’s daughter in marriage (common in fairy tales), but he declines the offer (which also sometimes happens in fairy tales). Ammon possesses superhuman strength (again common in fairy tales) and protects the king and the kingdom. Ammon can take his place right alongside of Jack the Giant Killer, who, as you might expect, slays the giants who have long terrorized the countryside.
Ammon, like Jack, protects his fellow servants and the king’s livestock by killing and quite literally disarming a band of marauding thieves. The king’s servants who witness his display of Ammon’s strength gather up, like pieces of cord wood, the severed arms of Ammon’s victims to show the king. Seeing the evidence of this great feat, the king is overwhelmed, and Ammon, in true fairy tale fashion, seizes the opportunity and casts an enchanting spell on the king, queen, and their servants, causing them to fall to the floor in a swoon, as though dead. After a while, Ammon raises them as though restoring them to life, and they are overcome with joy and live in happiness and peace for the remainder of their days. Well, maybe not all their days.
However, as I have thought about it further, I have realized that there are some very important ways in which Book of Mormon stories are completely unlike fairy tales. In fairy tales, those who discover fidelity to self live happily ever after, and those without fidelity to self usually end up with their heads cut off. But in the Book of Mormon, no one lives happily ever after. It is a book of suffering. The narrative tells us that there are periods of peace, but those instances seem to occur because the people are obeying commandments, not because they have found a way to unify their souls. Were they, in fact, happy? Were they whole? It does not seem so, because they always fall back into their old ways. It seems that if the Nephites weren’t engaged in a physical war with a known enemy, they were in deep battle with their ego, and the ego almost always won.
Another difference between Book of Mormon stories and fairy tales is that everyone acknowledges that fairy tales are fictional and symbolic. But the Book of Mormon, with the Church’s insistence that it is a historical and literal account, resists being treated symbolically. When was the last time you heard a general conference speaker give a Jungian reading of Ammon, casting his journey as symbolic of wading deep into one’s shadow self? When I read a fairy tale about a rolling ball that can lead one to his or her destination, the symbolic value of this mythical compass is contained within the story. That is not the case when I read of a brass ball found one morning outside Lehi’s tent. For that story to have symbolic value, a complex set of beliefs about events and objects outside the story is required. Consequently, the brass ball, a literal object, resists symbolic value, and I will leave it to you to decide if it ever uttered, “Recalculating.”
Additionally, Book of Mormon heroes seem to never make a mistake. They are all diligent, obedient, and led by a never-failing spiritual guide with a clear and audible voice. And (to my mind quite significant) they never seem to notice or woo pretty women. Even when they fall into the clutches of evil enemies, they take comfort in the certainty that they are justified and right. Only the wicked make mistakes, and if they somehow manage to recognize their mistakes, they pay for them with a sore repentance that wracks their very being. Alma the Younger paid for his sins with sore repentance, but after he had been wracked, he is recorded as having never made a mistake again.
But fairy tale heroes, like normal human beings and unlike almost everyone in the Book of Mormon, make mistakes and have lapses of judgment. They fail to heed instructions, lingering too long here, or ignoring a detailed requirement there. They get impatient and commit a rash act just as we do in real life. But it isn’t the end of the world. The situation just requires a readjustment and persistence and openness to where life is taking them, and ultimately treasures are uncovered, lovers are united, and people live happily ever after
ONE DAY, I was on Temple Square in Salt Lake City looking at the Seagull Monument. As I appraised the monument, I thought of the travails of the Children of Israel in the wilderness. At one point, they encountered poisonous snakes, and as a remedy, Moses constructed a pole with a bronze snake affixed to the top. Those who looked upon the hand-crafted snake were healed of their snake bites. Looking up at those bronze seagulls atop a granite column, I wondered what might happen to people (like me) who really looked at that monument. Would we be healed of our gullibility?
And what is our gullibility? I remember one of mine. When I returned home to Georgia following the completion of my mission in February 1962, I enrolled in the nearby junior college for spring quarter and took a course in classical mythology. I loved the course, and was fascinated by the myths we studied. But I was amazed that these Roman and Greek myths were grounded in their tellers’ religious practice. Having just returned from a mission, I knew the facts about God and true worship. Not only did I have true accounts of events, as opposed to mythical stories, I possessed a God-given certitude that my modern-day prophets would always set the record straight. I had the benefit, not of tall tales concerning human-like gods and goddesses, but of the factual account of a boy who had been visited by God the Father and his son Jesus Christ. It happened in reality, not in the imaginings of primitive and superstitious people.
As I sat in class hearing of Athena popping fully grown from the head Zeus, and Alodae trying to stack three mountains one atop the other to reach heaven, I wondered if anyone every really believed such stories. On Sunday, I would sit in Gospel Doctrine class and discuss how Eve emerged fully grown from Adam’s rib, or hear once again that the languages of the world originated when people attempted to construct a tower to heaven.
I was also amazed that people could believe in gods who were not only jealous of one another, but often of mortals as well. Yet the openly jealous and vindictive God of the Old Testament was one I swallowed without any mayonnaise. And then there were the sexual escapades. How was it possible that people could have gods who were so immoral? On the other hand, since it made perfect sense to Brigham Young that Elohim had sexual intercourse with Mary, it made perfect sense to me. (And never once did I wonder if they had simultaneous orgasms.)
In the Poetics, Aristotle famously argues that “Poetry is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular.” In modern-day terms, Aristotle would say that fiction is superior to nonfiction. Nonfiction gets weighted down in documenting and explaining what did happen to particular people in particular times. Fiction, on the other hand, wants to explore what could happen—to anyone, anywhere. As the Reverend Larry Maze said, speaking particularly of the creation story in Genesis, “Nothing takes the power away from myth more quickly than to take it from the hands of the artist and the poet and put it in the hands of one who has been trained to report the facts.”
Perhaps our greatest gullibility is that we believe our myths are literal, as I did, and therefore become fact-seekers rather than poets.
Joseph Campbell once remarked that too many people rely on others “to learn what they ought to do, how they ought to behave, and what the values are that they should be living for.” He says, “The world is full of people who have stopped listening to themselves.” Or, to put it another way, the world is full of people who have stopped recognizing or making choices about the stories they live by—or live in. I do not want to be one of those people, and so I have sought out guides to aid me in listening to myself, and in thinking about the stories I wish to live by.
Here is a fairy tale that has been resonating in me recently, “The Three Sillies.”
Once upon a time, there was a farmer and his wife who had one daughter, and she was courted by a gentleman. Every evening, he used to come and see her, and stop to supper at the farmhouse, and the daughter used to be sent down into the cellar to draw the beer for supper. So one evening, she had gone down to draw the beer, and she happened to look up at the ceiling while she was drawing, and she saw a mallet stuck in one of the beams. It must have been there a long, long time, but somehow or other she had never noticed it before, and she began a-thinking. And she thought it was very dangerous to have that mallet there, for, she said to herself, “Suppose him and me was to be married, and we was to have a son, and he was to grow up to be a man, and come down into the cellar to draw the beer, like as I’m doing now, and the mallet was to fall on his head and kill him, what a dreadful thing it would be!” And she put down the candle and the jug, and sat herself down and began a-crying.
When the daughter doesn’t return, the mother goes to the cellar. She doesn’t return either, so the father descends.
Now the gentleman got tired of stopping up in the kitchen by himself, and at last he went down into the cellar, too, to see what they were after; and there they three sat a-crying side by side, and the beer running all over the floor. And he ran straight and turned the tap. Then he said: “Whatever are you three doing, sitting there crying, and letting the beer run all over the floor?” “Oh!” says the father, “look at that horrid mallet! Suppose you and our daughter was to be married, and was to have a son, and he was to grow up, and was to come down into the cellar to draw the beer, and the mallet was to fall on his head and kill him!” And then they all started a-crying worse than before. But the gentleman burst out a-laughing, and reached up and pulled out the mallet, and then he said: “I’ve travelled many miles, and I never met three such big sillies as you three before; and now I shall start out on my travels again, and when I can find three bigger sillies than you three, then I’ll come back and marry your daughter.” So he wished them good-bye, and started off on his travels, and left them all crying because the girl had lost her sweetheart.
On his travels, the gentleman encounters a woman trying to get her milk cow to climb a ladder up to the roof of her house to eat the grass growing there. The gentleman asks if it wouldn’t be easier to cut the grass on the roof and throw it down to the cow. The woman doesn’t like that idea and finally gets the cow onto her roof. She ties a rope to the cow’s neck, runs it down the chimney, and then ties it to her wrist so she will know what the cow is up to. The cow falls off the roof, jerking her up the chimney where she becomes stuck, and both she and the cow die.
One night, the gentleman stops at an inn and shares a room with another man. In the morning, the stranger gets up, hangs his trouser on a knob of a chest of drawers, and runs and tries to leap into them.
At last he stopped and wiped his face with his handkerchief. “Oh dear,” he said, “I do think trousers are the most awkwardest kind of clothes that ever were. I can’t think who could have invented such things. It takes me the best part of an hour to get into mine every morning, and I get so hot! How do you manage yours?” So the gentleman burst out a-laughing, and showed him how to put them on; and he was very much obliged to him, and said he never should have thought of doing it that way.
Another evening, the gentleman comes upon a village where all the people are pulling rakes, pitchforks, and brooms through the waters of the mill pond. When he asks what they are doing, they tell him that the moon has fallen into the pond, and they are trying to get it out. He urges them to look up and see that the moon is in the sky—that what they are seeing is the moon’s reflection in the water. Not only do they refuse to look up, but they abuse him terribly, motivating the gentleman to escape as quickly as he can.
“The Three Sillies” illustrates our capacity to create stories virtually out of thin air (or a mill pond) and convince others to embrace the story so deeply that they willingly spill both their tears and their beer over it. People can become so committed and loyal to a story that even when given a helpful alternative, they refuse to consider it.
So in “The Three Sillies,” the gentleman suitor returns home and marries the farmer’s daughter, “and if they didn’t live happy for ever after, that’s nothing to do with you or me.” But it does have to do with you and me, because most fairy tales end with “And they lived happily ever after.” But we know that people don’t live happily forever. Happy Street isn’t a gated community that refuses to admit tragedy or misfortune. Disappointments and heartbreaks can show up as regularly as snow on conference weekend. Why then do fairy tales so often have the protagonist living happily ever after? Because, embedded in most fairy tales is the recognition that mastery and wholeness come from honoring what your deepest voice tells you.
All the ogres, giants, witches, and beasts of various descriptions represent not only our shadow side, but our controlling ego. That is not to say that the tales do not represent outer conflict, but if you confine them to that reading, then you miss the power of the inner conflict that manifests itself, one way or another, in all of us. “The ultimate dragon is within you,” says Campbell. “It is your ego clamping you down.” Dear Emily Dickinson says it this way: “Lad of Athens, faithful be / To Thyself, / And Mystery— /All the rest is Perjury—.” How do we perjure ourselves? By pretending we have no doubts, by denying our questions, by clutching a story to our breast as though without it we would cease to exist.
May Sarton spoke of the same thing in her poem “Now I Become Myself.”
Now I become myself. It’s taken
Time, many years and places;
I have been dissolved and shaken,
Worn other people’s faces,
Run madly, as if Time were there,
Terribly old, crying a warning,
“Hurry, you will be dead before—”
(What? . . .)
She ends the poem with these lines:
Now there is time and Time is young.
O, in this single hour I live
All of myself and do not move.
I, the pursued, who madly ran,
Stand still, stand still, and stop the sun!3
So I ask myself, what story or myth do I wish to live by? How do I avoid perjury and stay true to mystery and myself? I encounter mystery at every turn, and I need all the help I can get in understanding it. Fidelity to self requires me to admit that there are some things I know, some things I don’t know, and some things I simply believe (and one of the things I believe is that often my beliefs simply don’t matter).4 Frankly, I think that what is known is like a small island surrounded by a vast sea of mystery. Our stories, including myths and fairy tales, are like stepping stones out into the water. As long as we remember that they are only stepping stones, they work to our advantage and help us travel into the ocean so that we can peer down into its depths. But when we convince ourselves that those small rocks—those stories we tell—are large and secure and firm enough that we can build homes and even whole villages upon them, and live there, on a teeny tiny rock in the middle of the ocean, we are likely to find that it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain that carefully constructed story.
I have been telling you a story about the stories we choose to live by. My prejudices are pretty clearly revealed, but I think I should end with the words of the fiction writer Hillary Mantel. She said of one of her novels about a historical period: “I am not claiming authority for my version; I am making the reader a proposal, an offer.”5
1. Sheldon Cashdon, The Witch Must Die: The Hidden Meaning of Fairy Tales, (New York: Basic Books, 1999).
2. There are multiple sources that present various versions of fairytales. I have relied upon the website http://www.sacred-texts.com/ as a source for the tales I refer to or quote.
4. Having a belief about things which you cannot know may in and of itself be provocative, and at times deeply comforting, but when it is accepted as certain knowledge then it becomes less of a rudder and more of a misapplied anchor.
5. Hilary Mantel, Bringing Up the Bodies, (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2012), 409.