Wednesday, February 4, 2009

My fairy tale life

It is not uncommon to hear people speaking of another as possessing "a fairy tale life", a phrase which is generally taken to mean a life of ease and privilege. Had these people ever actually read fairy tales, at least the ones with which I'm familiar, they wouldn't speak so foolishly. Many, if not most, of the characters in the stories known to me experience every manner of trial and tribulation; ease and privilege, if they are part of the story, are only reached after much suffering. There always seems to be some great difficulty which must be overcome, a test which must be passed, in order for the character to find peace and happiness. It might be poverty, as in the case of the Little Match Girl; or an evil sorcerer, as in the case of the Frog Prince and Beauty and the Beast; or wicked stepmothers, as in the case of Cinderella and Snow White; or an evil fairy, as in the case of Sleeping Beauty; or a sea witch, as in the case of The Little Mermaid. And the list goes on, making it clear that a fairy tale life is not an easy one by far.

One of my favorite stories, The Wild Swans by Hans Christian Andersen, has many of these fairy tale trials. The heroine Eliza is banished from her home by her wicked stepmother, who is also a witch and who turns Eliza's six brothers into wild swans. In order to break the spell and free her brothers Eliza must knit six coats, one for each brother, out of stinging nettles which she must pick with her own hands; the nettles are like needles which tear and cut her flesh. And all the while she is knitting she may not speak a word or the spell will never be broken. Eliza begins her painful task in the solitude of a cave where, before long, she is found by a group of huntsmen, the most handsome and noblest of whom is the king of the country. To every one of his questions her answer is silence; she must remain mute. Still, her beauty and evident goodness so move the king to love her that he marries her not long after he brings her to his castle. Eliza continues to knit the stinging nettles, leaving her husband's side in the middle of the night to pick more nettles in the dark and foreboding cemetery near the castle. Her husband follows her and, on the advice of his trusted counselor, agrees to have Eliza put to death for witchcraft. As the fire is being readied for Eliza--she is to be burned at the stake as a witch--she continues knitting. Suddenly six wild swans appear in the sky over her head--her six brothers--and Eliza throws the nettle coats over each one in turn. Instantly each one returns to his human form; but the youngest brother's right arm remains a swan's wing because his sister had not had enough time to finish his coat. Eliza and her brothers declare her innocence, and her husband embraces her and takes her home to their castle.

Banishment; physical suffering; emotional suffering; loneliness; rejection; injustice; silence in the face of mistreatment and misunderstanding; the threat of death--these were Eliza's lot. A fairy tale life? Yes, indeed. And yet in the end, it all came out well. Perhaps this is the message in all of this story telling: that no matter what sufferings, privations, persecutions, and trials must be undergone in this life, there is always the certain hope of a happy ending.

And so, just as it is in my beloved fairy tales, when I think of all that has happened to me through the years, I could list many difficulties, trials, and tests: none of which I would like to experience again, all of which have helped to form the person I am now. I am so much the better for all of it. Yes, I can truthfully say that mine has been, and continues to be, a fairy tale full of wonder. And I believe that my fairy tale life will have a happy ending. Surely God will not deny it to one who wants, more than anything, to live happily ever after...