“When I would re-create myself, I seek the darkest wood, the thickest and most
interminable and to the citizen, most dismal, swamp. I enter as a sacred place,
a Sanctum sanctorum. There is the strength, the marrow, of Nature.”
– Henry David Thoreau, Walking, 1851
So it is with fairy tales and children’s literature…
We can recreate ourselves by entering into the dark wood and dismal swamps of our favorite fairy tales. The story may lack the visceral power of the real place which prompts those intellectual responses that lead to enchantment and spiritual growth but through an act of the imagination, the creative process by which we create inner worlds we might bypass the physical altogether and commute directly with those chaotic forces representing change, growth and enlightenment. These are the hidden truths we encounter in the world of fairy tales. Change… Growth… Enlightenment… Each is required for personal growth but each has a cost, often seemingly far more expensive than we would find comfortable yet we must pay it and pass through the first gate of a greater understanding. To do so is to enter into the hazy realm of intellectual and emotional chaos; a place of grave danger for the hapless and certainly for the hopeless wanderer.
The German philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, as hopeless a wanderer as there ever was, entered into this realm but was stymied by his own fatalism. In this strange cthonic world what dwells within is often only a mirror for what you bring with you. Take care that the thing in the abyss does not see you is sound wisdom for the faint of heart and the arm chair seeker but it woefully inappropriate for the heroic quest. Imagine if Max had not played his magic trick on the wild things. Imagine had he not “stared” them down? What would have befallen Max and what would befall the reader, both child and adult who likewise entered the wild place, the place of chaos where wisdom begins? Nietzsche would have been a poor fairy tale hero and a sad figure of children’s literature. He could never have performed such a magic trick and so instead of the crown and scepter (the ancient symbols of wisdom) given to the young, cantankerous hero Max he received only confusion and madness. It is the role of the hero, be he or she the center of a fairy tale or the main character of a worthy book for children, to stare down this thing that dwells in the depths, and to stare down even the depths themselves. Even at the risk of his own security. In fact that is the cost of which I speak. Once you enter you can never again be secure in your former life or with your former comfortable ideas. Nietzsche entered but his philosophically minded fatalism prevented his passing through and claiming the treasure. He turned from it, but he never returned, nor could he have returned.
But what you may gain in return is something far more valuable. It is the seed of true wisdom. These fairy tales which are a part of our cultural, indeed of our human heritage are more than just so stories. They are the fundamental components of a profound set of questions. Why? What? Who? But be vigilant. These are not the answers. Perhaps the answers dont exist beyond the challenge to ask the question. That is what fairy tales, and their young descendants children’s literature do. They challenge us to ask!