Tag Archives: J.R.R. Tolkien

3 Fairy Tales with Not So Tidy Endings

4 Nov

“For my part, I do not write for children, but for the childlike,
whether of five, or fifty, or seventy-five.”
~ George Macdonald

“And they all lived happily ever after.” It’s the fairy tale equivalent of “riding off into the sunset,” and it bespeaks a neat wrapping up of loose ends at the end of a harrowing yarn. The bad guys, vanquished; the good guys, triumphant. The village is spared, and the populace rejoices in the good fortunes of the hero and heroine who risked all to come to the rescue.

It’s what we’ve come to expect from fairy tales – or, perhaps, it’s what we’ve been conditioned to expect from decades of exposure to Disney-fied versions of fairy tales. Keep in mind that Disney is a business, and businesses seek to sell us stuff. Ambiguity, agony, and angst don’t sell as well as happy endings. From detergent and diapers to fairy tales and family films, it’s much easier to hawk what people are already clamoring for, and it seems that we prefer tidy narratives for our kids.

So much for the modern, free-market approach to fairy tales. In previous ages, it was not so. Here’s a few examples from Victorian times:

The Princess and the Goblin (1872)

George MacDonald wrote lots of books, but he’s especially remembered for his fairy tales. They unfold somewhat haphazardly and erratically – as if they’re printed versions of bedtime stories Macdonald made up on the spot for his children. (If you’re a dad and have attempted to do the same with your own little ones, you know what I mean.)

This particular MacDonald classic is noteworthy because of its influence on one J.R.R. Tolkien, who populated his own fantasy fiction with MacDonald-esque goblins: malevolent and seemingly irredeemable creatures who reside in the underworld of caves and mines. In MacDonald’s story, the goblins are so base that they can’t even “bear singing” because they “can’t sing themselves…and they don’t like other people to sing.” Nonetheless, they set their sights on securing a foothold in the overland world of men so they kidnap the Princess Irene as a bride for Harelip, their goblin prince.

Yet their schemes are thwarted by a young miner named Curdie who is humble and heroic and heedless of danger. Armed with song and his trusty mattock, and assisted by Irene’s magical great-great-grandmother, Curdie frees the Princess, who in turn comes to Curdie’s rescue after he’s captured, and the goblins are thoroughly routed in the end. When the king, Irene’s father, is apprised of all these events, he offers Curdie a royal appointment in his retinue, and the stage seems set for Curdie and Irene to grow closer as they grow older, with nuptial bliss on the horizon in due course.

What happens instead is that Curdie, an only child, opts to stay behind with his parents in their mountaintop home. “But Curdie,” his mother tells him, “why shouldn’t you go with the king? We can get on very well without you.”

“But I can’t get on very well without you,” the boy replies. “The king is very kind, but I could not be half the use to him that I am to you.”

More surprising is the fact that the evil goblins turn out to be redeemable after all. “Their skulls became softer as well as their hearts,” MacDonald narrates at the end, “and by degrees they became friendly with the inhabitants of the mountain and even with the miners.” Perhaps they even learned to enjoy singing in time.

The Princess and Curdie (1883)

This is MacDonald’s sequel to The Princess and the Goblin, and it picks up the story with Curdie on the mountain at home with his folks. Now that his adventures with the goblins have receded, Curdie seems to sink into a moral indolence. Finally, he has a crisis of conscience when he shoots an arrow at a pigeon for no good reason. “He had done the thing that was contrary to gladness; he was a destroyer!” MacDonald writes. “He was not the Curdie he had been meant to be!”

Almost as an atonement for his transgression, he goes on a quest to locate Princess Irene and save her father, the king, from a slow death by poison at the hands of his corrupt court. Irene’s great-great-grandmother provides Curdie with special powers of discernment as well as a mutant minder, Lina, who serves as companion and protector on the road.

As they travel, Curdie and Lina are joined by numerous other mutant creatures, and by the time they reach the king’s city, Gwyntystorm, they are an intimidating band. Through artifice and force, Curdie and Lina gain entrance to the castle, come to the aid of Irene and her father, and oust the traitorous courtiers and servants. The king’s enemies enlist the support of a rival nation to do battle against their own homeland, but with the aid of Curdie’s monstrous crew, the king is victorious and re-establishes his authority over Gwyntystorm and his realm.

At this point, the promise of the previous Princess tale is realized, and the now mature Irene is wed to the valiant Curdie. After the king dies, the young royal couple assumes rule over the kingdom, and a season of peace and prosperity ensues. Yet, Curdie and Irene, it turns out, never have children of their own, and when they themselves die, the kingdom falls into ruin. The king appointed by the people becomes consumed by greed, the people themselves revert to their wicked ways, and the royal city itself eventually collapses into obscurity. “All around spreads a wilderness of wild deer,” reads the book’s last lines, “and the very name of Gwyntystorm had ceased from the lips of men.”

Not exactly the “happily ever after” ending you’d have expected following the successful reign of King Curdie and Queen Irene. Still, MacDonald’s ending projects backward a poignancy and realism over the entire two-volume work that gives the reader pause. Were Curdie’s and Irene’s efforts for naught if their kingdom disappeared? Does the value of our present actions depend on their long-term impact and how they build our legacies?

The Little Lame Prince (1875)

I’ve been reading MacDonald’s stories for decades, but I’d never heard of this fable by MacDonald’s contemporary, Dinah Maria Craik, until I came across it recently at home. It was a night of insomnia, and I went hunting among our stacks for something to lull my overactive brain into slumber – something light, something diverting. Maybe something new.

I saw the discordant title on the white Watermill Classic spine, and I paused. “Lame? Prince?” I thought. “Now there’s a kid’s story I don’t know.” I grabbed it, headed back upstairs, and settled in for what I thought would be a chapter or two before I nodded off.

Craik’s tale kept me up for a while, and then again the next couple nights. It’s a wonderful story, and most certainly in the vein of MacDonald’s works, with odd twists and turns that keep you locked in until the very end. It’s the story of poor little Prince Dolor whose mother died shortly after his birth, and who himself suffered a crippling injury on the day of his baptism. After the king dies as well, an unscrupulous and scheming uncle arranges for the disabled young prince to be shipped off to exile in an isolated tower, and it seems unlikely that Dolor will ever come into his royal inheritance.

The prince’s godmother, however, has fairylike powers, and she delivers an enchanted cloak to Dolor that enables him to escape his exile and travel about the countryside. Eventually, after his uncle dies, Dolor is restored to his birthright and assumes the throne, and his kingdom is restored to its former glory.

But what of his lameness? Doesn’t the godmother heal Dolor’s infirmity? It’s not even suggested as a possibility. Instead, throughout the story, the prince’s lameness is a given, and it’s part of his nobility that he’s able to rise above it and rule with equanimity.

First, because, accepting his affliction as inevitable, he took it patiently; second, because, being a brave man, he bore it bravely, trying to forget himself, and live out of himself, and in and for other people. Therefore other people grew to love him so well that I think hundreds of his subjects might have been found who were almost ready to die for their poor lame king.

Dolor never marries in Craik’s story, and so, like Curdie and Irene, the royal blood line is interrupted. However, Dolor takes on a distant cousin. a descendant of his treacherous uncle, as a protégé, and by the end of the tale Dolor peacefully turns over the reins of power to him. The retiring, crippled king then exhorts his people to follow their new leader, produces his enchanted cloak, and slips away.

It’s not exactly riding off into the sunset, but it’s satisfying all the same. And it’s a narrative template of perseverance, virtue, and selflessness that not only enthralls but edifies.

Who wouldn’t want their kids to have that?
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But It’s God

3 May

Sir, there is no idolatry in the Mass.
They believe god to be there, and they adore him.
~ Samuel Johnson

First Holy CoCHILDREN WAIT TO PROCESS IN FOR FIRST COMMUNION AT MARYLAND CHURCHmmunion season is upon us, and it was a topic of conversation in Nicky’s Atrium last week.

Atrium is the preferred term for the specially constructed classroom utilized in the Montessori-based Catechesis of the Good Shepherd program. Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, or “COGS” as we call it, includes a measure of didactic instruction, but hands-on activities are emphasized, and there’s a great deal of latitude with regards to pace and trajectory. There’s order, to be sure, and structure, although the kids are given lots of room to explore on their own and at their own speed. Frequently that freedom, coupled with the natural cognitive pliability of youth, gives rise to profoundly peculiar insights.

Case in point.

Nicky’s catechist in the Atrium is Cathy, our good friend, and she tracked me down last week before departing the Parish Center. “I have to tell you the latest from your son,” she said. Apparently Nick, an experienced communicant, had been describing the Sacrament for his classmates who had yet to receive it themselves. “Nicky told them it was a lot like Halloween,” Cathy told me.

“Halloween?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said, quoting Nick. “At Halloween, you go up to grown-ups and you say ‘Trick or treat,’ and they give you candy. Holy Communion is the same. You put out your hands and say ‘Amen,’ but it’s God.”

This is sage and eminently accessible wisdom. Virtually every child has a grasp of what Halloween is about, and Nicky instinctively drew on that common experience in order to capture a heady reality: The gift of Holy Communion is utterly unprecedented – like the grand American tradition each October of children approaching perfect strangers who cheerfully fork over seemingly limitless sweets! And in both cases, there’s no catch: Just put out your hands, acknowledge the giver, and receive the prize. What could be more innocent or childlike?

That was what Pope St. Pius X had in mind when he signed and promulgated the curial decree Quam Singulari in 1910. Responding to various voices in the Church who argued that Eucharistic Communion was properly reserved to those with 20130909_062239_tricktreat_500an adult faith, St. Pius insisted that the bar be set much lower. “The age of discretion for receiving Holy Communion is that at which the child knows the difference between the Eucharistic Bread and ordinary, material bread,” he wrote. “Perfect knowledge of the things of faith, therefore, is not required.” As the Pope observed, this is in keeping with the Lord’s own directive. “Let the little children come to me,” Jesus said, “and do not hinder them, for of such is the kingdom of God.”

We might forget just how radical this all is because we’re so used to it. Every spring, we rightly enjoy the sweet spectacle of row upon row of second-graders, dressed in all their finery, approaching the altar and the priest, and receiving the Blessed Sacrament for the first time – wonderful. Yet, consider how wild that is! A touching ceremony, yes, “but it’s God.” Mere youths, seven or eight years old, being handed the Divine Essence in the guise of a cracker – scandalous! Those youngsters can’t possibly know what it’s all about, can they? Moreover, all their friends are likewise receiving, as are all the gathered family and friends. It’s a free-for-all, it seems, like a neighborhood bash, and everyone is invited to partake – “but it’s God!”

That clamorous image is reinforced by St. John’s version of the Feeding of the Five Thousand – a “mess,” in the words of J.R.R. Tolkien, and yet so clearly connected to the Eucharistic fejrr_tolkienast of which it was a prelude. All those hungry people, no doubt tempers flaring – like they do around those relief trucks that hand out bags of rice after disasters. It’s a scene that seems to have appealed to Tolkien in the eucharistic context:

Make your Communion in circumstances that affront your taste. Choose a snuffling or gabbling priest or a proud and vulgar friar; and a church full of the usual bourgeois crowd, ill-behaved children. It will be just the same (or better than that) as a Mass said beautifully by a visibly holy man, and shared by a few devout and decorous people.

Never mind the crowds, in other words. There’s never a shortage when Jesus is the distributor as well as the distributed – there’s lots! – and he’s not all that particular: Just “put out your hands and say ‘Amen,’ but it’s God.” What’s more, everybody who approaches is guaranteed some God; nobody need fear getting a Charlie-Brownesque rock or its equivalent.

And the messiness is all part of the package. Unlike First Holy Communion day – when most everyone is attentive and orderly and spruced up; when communicants and their parents are enraptured and enthusiastic and maybe even pious – we all of us frequently approach the Eucharist distracted and broken and still pretty darn sinful. Here’s the crazy thing though: Jesus bids us come anyway! Our distraction? Mitigated. Our brokenness? Ameliorated. And our venial sins? Forgiven! Only intentional, serious sin can really keep us away, and even then, only until we receive absolution – something else that the Church divvies out indiscriminately and freely.

Nicky displayed complete confidence in the reality of God in the Eucharist, but also a glorious juvenile disregard for propriety in making his analogy. Halloween, a bacchanal of gluttony and toopope-saint-pius-xth decay, is a terrific exercise in wanton self-interest: People are giving away free treats? Then, heck yeah, I’m going to get me some! That being the case, oughtn’t we wince at the suggestion that receiving the Eucharist is in any way comparable?

Maybe, but before we do, let’s mull over these words from the Pope Pius’s decree and how they throw in relief a most startling divine assertion:

It is clearly seen how highly He held their innocence and the open simplicity of their souls on that occasion when He called a little child to Him and said to the disciples: “Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like little children, you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven.”

There’s no question that we should strive to be properly disposed and “prepare ourselves for so great and so holy a moment” (CCC 1385). However, on those occasions when we might not be as disposed and prepared as we could be, we do well to put aside overwrought grown-up scruples. Instead, call to mind the grubby candy-grabbers we’ll see in October, and err on the side of guileless spontaneity: He beckons, and all we need do is put out our hands, say “Amen,” and get our God.
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A version of this essay appeared on Catholic Exchange.

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