15 November 2008

The mythology of fairy tales

If you are at all interested in fairy tale mythology, Bruno Bettelheim's The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales is a must-read.

We went to see Sondheim's "Into the Woods" last night, and it was fun to find the mythological archetypes and themes. Connecting to the previous posts on connessione and the fear of being left alone and abandoned in the world (vs. 'And they lived happily ever after'), there was a song entitled, "No one is alone." Without spoiling it for people who haven't seen the play, there were also scenes of 'we have to stick together to make it,' and when people lost loved ones, the surviving few vowed to stay together. Though frequently seen, this theme is still comforting to children and adults alike-- who wants to grow old alone?

Joseph Campbell talks about the cave, the woods and going underwater as entering one's subconscious/unconscious. Fittingly, it is dark and scary at first; people are tempted to do things they wouldn't do ordinarily; and navigating through the dark successfully is a necessary journey of the hero. Odysseus comes to mind, as does "Star Wars." The dark cave is the realm of the id, so the wolf in the woods is a perfect symbol of our animal instincts; there were references to sexuality and temptation in the woods; and the idea that you shouldn't go wandering into the woods by yourself was repeated throughout the play. (In the classic hero's journey, the hero may be aided by unexpected sources, but eventually, s/he must go it alone to be a real hero.)

Another aspect of fairy tale and folklore that I love is the idea of the simpleton hero. In this case, it was Jack, who innocently sells his cow for a handful of beans. Just as "Forrest Gump" starts with a traditional German fairy tale symbol, the floating feather, and then portrays a modern-day simpleton hero who ends up knowing far more than people expect, Jack is a nice example of blissful ignorance and trust in the world. And what harm can befall someone so open and vulnerable? We root for them as the underdogs in a world where cunning and strength seem to be the only sources of power.

The most beautiful scene in the play for me was an exchange between a mother and daughter, where the mother asks the young woman entering adulthood to be a child and stay with her forever. It is the older person becoming the child once again, and it can be heartbreaking. The mother sings 'who can love you more than I do?' and 'what is out there that I cannot supply?' This abundance of parental love morphing into the engulfing desire to protect her child from the world is also seen in "Finding Nemo," where Dory can be seen as the simpleton hero:

MARLIN: We're in a whale! Don't you get it!? … 'Cause you had to ask for help! And now we're stuck here!
DORY: Wow. A whale. You know, I speak whale.
MARLIN: No, you're insane! You can't speak whale! I have to get out! I have to find my son! I have to tell him how old sea turtles are! [sobs]
DORY: There, there. It's all right. It'll be okay.
MARLIN: No. No, it won't.
DORY: Sure it will, you'll see.
MARLIN: No. I promised him I'd never let anything happen to him.
DORY: Huh. That's a funny thing to promise.
DORY: Well, you can't never let anything happen to him. Then nothing would ever happen to him. Not much fun for little Harpo.

I love Pixar.

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