Defending the Wood Perilous — Part Two: Descent into Darkness

Part One

Long ago, in 810 AD, St. Photios the Great wrote in his work, Myriobiblion:

“In the story, particularly, as in fabulous fictions of the same kind, there are two considerations most useful to notice. The first is that they show that evildoers, even if they seem to escape a thousand times, always get their punishment; the second, that they show many innocents placed in great danger often saved against all hope.”

Once upon a time, as all proper stories start, I took a class at a local college. One of my classmates was in an community acting company, and they were putting on a musical I had never heard of before called: Into the Woods. He invited me to attend and, eager to support a friend, I accepted. We had guests in town that week, so we all went and sat down in the pretty wooded outdoor area to enjoy the play.

Words fail to express the magic of that first act. The play was about fairytales! Stories I had loved since childhood. We sat spellbound with wonder watching Cinderella on her way to the ball, the childless baker, whose parents had been killed in a baking accident, and a boy named Jack sing about how there are giants in the sky! The fairytales were woven together, each character accidentally tripping through the other’s tale. It was magical. Magnificent.

During intermission, we stood around with our friends—all fantasy fans—and expressed astonishment over how good this play was, how amazing that we had never heard of it, and how perfect it was for our group.

Then, we all sat down again, filled with anticipation for the second act…

In act two, fairytale met realism. The giantess, angry at her husband’s death, steps on the baker’s house. Cinderella’s husband, the Prince, gets tired of her and seduces the wife of the loving baker, who is then killed by being stepped on by giantess, and everyone sings, “Your Fault.”

Afterwards, my friends were filled with enthusiasm. They loved the show. I had been so happy to discover the play and so delighted that we had this shared experience that I bit back that I felt sick to my stomach, as if something horrible had just happened. I didn’t say anything because I didn’t want ruin their delightful experience.

I told myself it was about fairytales, right? It has to be good!

But I hated it.

The problem was: I couldn’t put into words why I hated it. So much so that, for some years, I wouldn’t even really let myself admit how much I hated it…because I didn’t understand why.

Jump ahead a few years, and a friend brings over some comics. One in particular catches my attention. It’s called Fables. It’s about fairytales! I love fairytales! I sit down and read it eagerly. The storylines are good. The characters intriguing. I laugh when the Prince Charming who married Snow White, Cinderella, and Briar Rose all turn out to be the same person. How witty. How clever. The hardboiled detective, Big Bad Wolf, is my favorite character. I root for him to end up with Snow White.

For a time, I wait eagerly for new Fables graphic novels. Then, one day, I notice that there’s one lying around at a friends house, and I feel reluctant to read it. What’s wrong with me? I love fairytales. Why aren’t I filled with joy to see this book? Why do the story lines, all well-written, make me feel so uncomfortable, so tawdry?

Soon after that there was a movie called Skrek. Everyone was lauding it. It was about fantasy and princesses and ogres and fairytales. I went to see it with great hopes. Everyone else, except my husband, praised the movie to the skies. In it, an ogre, instead of a knight, goes to rescue a princess, who merely wants to rescue herself, and, instead of her kissing him and turning him into a prince, she chooses to become an ogre.

Cute. Witty. Funny. Original.

Why was I the only person who saw this story and felt something was terribly wrong?

I could go on. I could talk about Stardust and Neverwhere…the charming delight of meeting the Marquis de Carabas verses the strange feeling like the world had twisted upon itself that I got from the Angel Islington. But, each time, the story would be the same:

I was drawn into a story, comic, musical, move, TV show, etc, because it wore the costume of fairytales and fantastic wonder. But it left me feeling uncomfortable and flat.

It took me embarrassingly long to figure out why. Yes, they all looked like a fairytale. But fairytales are about wonder.

What did all these tales I’ve listed, and the many more that have come since, all have in common?

They lacked wonder.

The good guys like Prince Charming and the baker’s wife, were turned into bad guys. The bad guys, such as the Big Bad Wolf and an ogre, were shown as good guys. Everything good wonderful and fine was sullied. Everything bad and tawdry was exalted.

These stories were using fairytale characters, but they were not fairytales. They were the opposite of fairytales. They looked the same on the outside, but inside—if true fairytales were like glimpsing a real, live pixie through the arch of a rose arbor, these stories were like catching that pixie and yanking its wings off.

And these works I mentioned? These are the good ones, the ones with something to recommend them. There are much, much worse ones out there that merely “deconstruct” fairytales without adding anything back.

I think what threw me for a time was: why?

Fairytales are fanciful, escapist, all about witches and magic. Weren’t they just the sort of story that the Powers of Darkness crave? Why were fairytales, of all things, under attack?

It made no sense.

Until I remembered: fairytales are moral.

In some ways, they are the most moral stories in the universe. And what is more under attack by the Degenerati than morality?

Next time: Part Three: The Wonder That Is Perilous