As children we are introduced to stories. Usually our first acquaintance is through that venerable and ever elusive Old Mother Goose, or perhaps Aesop. Over time our connection to the world of story grows more complex and we encounter those traditional stores compiled by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, Charles Perrault or those tales created out of whole cloth by Hans Christian Anderson. They draw us outward by plunging us inward into enchanted worlds, which are only mirror reflections of the worlds we inhabit in our imagination. Such worlds are populated with fabulous beasts, mythical monsters and great heroes. These are the deities of our youth and by them we come to examine the world more closely and with a keener eye for detail. In time, if we are lucky we find more complex worlds like those created by Isaac Beshevis Singer, C.S. Lewis, Charles De Lint, Neil Gaiman and others through whom we might further develop our eye and our understanding for the mythical world.
The problem is, and it happens far too often, we grow into adulthood and cast aside the things of our youth as being uncouth, immature or simply and unfortunately silly. This is a tragedy because in so doing we lose our connection to something wonderfully profound and meaningful. We lose something of ourselves, perhaps the most important part, the part that fosters imagination which in turn gives us hope. If hopeless is a creeping shadow in our modern world then we don’t have far to look to find its genesis. We cease to hope because cease to believe.
C.S. Lewis wrote to his goddaughter Lucy Barfield, who was the inspiration for Lucy Pevensie in the Chronicles of Narnia that he realized she had “grown to old” for such a story saying “But some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again. You can take it down (the book he had written for her) from an upper shelf, dust it, and tell me what you think of it”.
Part of growing up is indeed moving beyond childish things but are fairy tales this? How can anything that makes us who we are; that is a foundation stone upon which the houses of selves are built up be a childish thing! The stories of our childhood linger on in the backs of our minds continuing to enact their subtle sort of enchantment. In time perhaps, when we begin to read to children of our own or if by chance we happen to come across an old story at just the right time we might rediscover that enchantment and in so doing learn something of value, something that was there all along waiting to be rediscovered. Something called imagination, something named hope.
Natalie Merchant the singer / songwriter and former lead singer for the band 10,000 Maniacs, though an odd choice to be mentioned alongside Charles Perrault, C.S. Lewis and the Brothers Grimm is none the less a fitting way to bring this brief but all to important topic to a close. Mrs. Merchant recently released a curious album, one that has met with mixed reviews from her loyal fans. The reason for this is that it is a collection of poems and nursery rhymes indented for children, set to music and served to an adult audience most familiar with her alternative rock background. The Album titles Leave your sleep was the culmination of conversation she had with her daughter over the first six years of her life. Conversation. That was the word she used and it is a fitting one. What is a nursery Rhyme or Fairy Tale if not a conversation? And if we as adults understand this we might recapture some of what they represent. On one particular song titled “The Man in the Wilderness” deserves special note. It is only a fragment of a lost nursery rhyme of uncertain origin but to the little girl who was once upon a time Natalie Merchant it stood out and lingered to become in her own words part of her shadow world. This is an astute observation made all the more poignant because it was brought back to the surface only through a mythic conversation between mother and child. Jungian psychologists use the term shadow carrier to mean the same thing. Shadow Carrier, or Shadow Material or Shadow Worlds are bits, and scraps and fragments of something symbolic that we encounter in our youth and that lodges in our psyche. They create shadow pantomimes which influence our creative imagination, emotional responses and intellectual acuity.
It is difficult to speak of childhood stories without using language that seems esoteric. The Oxford University Press has this to say of their publication The Complete Fairy Tales by Charles Perrault. It is equally true of any fairy tale or nursery rhyme:
“They transmute into vivid fantasies the hidden fears and conflicts by which children are affected”
Transmute. Is there a more esoteric term and yet it precisely defines what happens between the reader and the story being read. It is a change, an alteration into something higher. I would add however that more than dealing with fears and conflicts, which are negative, they also deal in positive elements, often at the same time and by using the same language. Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Girl who trod on a loaf” is a tale filled with negativity that begins with the sin of vanity and continue with anger, hatred and bitterness that comes from one of literatures most heart wrenching portrayals of just deserts. But it also deals in hope and the power that love has to change the world. After all, if we can make it past the terrible fate of poor Inger we discover something wonderful in the loving prayers one little girl offers, the same prayer that lingers (there is that word again) on her lips as she grows old and meets her own very different fate. Hope and despair mingle as freely in stories as they do in the real world. But if we are careful and if we learn the lessons and apply what we learn then transmutation has begun.
Such a change can only occur if we allow the shadow world to be a part of our daily lives, just as we might pray or meditate, read a bedtime story or kiss our spouse goodnight. It is the ritual of repetition that provides the space by which the transmutation might occur.