Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Fairy Tales & the Battle of Good vs. Evil

Continuing to wax philosophical…

I love fairy tales, myths, and legends: Charles Perrault, the Brothers Grimm, and Hans Christian Anderson; Aasgard and Olympus; Zorro, Paul Bunyan, and Pecos Bill. I loved fairy-tale type stories, too: Wonderland, Neverland, and Oz, Narnia and Middle Earth, Camelot and Sherwood Forest.

There is a pattern to these tales. Good always triumphs over evil, but not easily. The hero (or heroine) has to journey away from home and pass several tests, usually three, seven, nine, or twelve—the magic numbers. The evil force is powerful; the outcome never certain. At the end of the battle the hero is triumphant, but changed significantly, physically, spiritually, emotionally, or all three.

Originally I read the children’s versions of the stories. The wolf was chased off or ran out of the open door; the Prince and Princess lived happily ever after. As I grew older, I found translations of the original versions. I read Beowulf and Le Morte d’Arthur. In these versions, good fights evil physically. People—good people—die. The gods are not always kind, not always just, not always good, and the innocent often suffer.

In other words, just like real life.

Originally these myths and stories were told to children and adults to serve both as explanation of the world around us and as warnings. But my generation and the ones that have followed have been told the cleaned up version. We know the story of The Sword in the Stone, but not of Arthur’s final battle with Mordred. We know of The Little Mermaid, but not that she throws herself into the sea when her Prince marries his Princess. We see Hercules as a gawky adolescent who doesn’t know his own strength, but not that he was driven mad and killed his wife and children.

I have a theory of why our fairy tales are sanitized. I think it started with my parents’ generation, who had lived through the Great Depression, fought two evil dictators, and saw the effects of war on great and ancient civilizations. They wanted to forget. They wanted a world that was clean and bright and safe for their children.

And now, we, their children, believe that we can deter evil without resorting to violence. If we give the dragon his space, if we respect his culture, we can live in harmony. There is no need for hard choices—we can find consensus, we can have a “win-win” situation for everybody, everywhere.

But we can’t. And, I think in our heart of hearts, in our souls, we know we can’t.

In Skywalker, George Lucas talks about writing the original Star Wars. Alec Guinness agreed to play Obi-wan Kenobi and was the Big Name Star. The script wasn’t entirely finished when Lucas & company began filming. About halfway through, Lucas realized that he had to kill off Obi-wan in order to advance the story. But how was he going to tell his Star that his character was going to die? Apparently, Guinness knew and suggested that Obi-wan let Darth Vader kill him once the trio was safely inside the ship.

The rest is movie history.

In Lord of the Rings, in the Harry Potter series, in The Chronicles of Narnia, the fight against evil is a real, physical one. Favorite characters are seriously wounded. Some die. In the end, evil is vanquished, not metaphorically, but physically. We read those books voraciously. Our children snap them up. They speak to us, they appeal to us—the necessity of putting our physical bodies as well as our souls on the line to defend good over evil. And, yet, we are surprised that we must do the same in real life. The Wicked Witch must die, but we don’t want to kill her. We want to understand her. We want to change her. She’s not evil; she’s misunderstood.

Perhaps. But Evil exists and not naming it doesn’t make it go away. That’s one of the points in the Harry Potter series: no one wants to say the name “Voldemort.” If they don’t say it, he won’t reappear. He will leave them alone.

Evil comes whether we name it or not. And it’s much, much better to name it, to discuss it, to bring Evil to light so it can be known and destroyed. Evil operates in the darkness of the night (like Dracula) or in the darkness of ignorance.

Humankind needs to remember that lesson. We need to teach our children and our grandchildren that lesson. We need to tell the stories.