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Tarpeian Rock

An Annual Literary Magazine

"Hinc ad Tarpeiam sedem et Capitolia ducit
aurea nunc, olim siluestribus horrida dumis."

                    --Virgil's Aeneid, VIII, l. 347-8
Articles from
the 2004 issue...

Over the Target

Elfland's Ethics

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Elfland's Ethics

by Emily C. A. Snyder

Mention the word “Fairy Tale” and suddenly the mind is full of animated heroines, picture books and counterpanes, and the fatal name of nursery. “Oh yes!” the sage parent exclaims, “Fairy Tales.  I remember those.  Dragons and knights and damsels in distress. Frogs what needed kissing. All nonsense of course—but good enough for children. Nothing real in them at all, though.  Fit for Pan.”  But not, apparently, for Hook.

We have become, alas, a world of disillusion, robbed of those uncharted lands that the imagination could label Here be dragons. We are told, like Wendy, that we must “grow up.” But to what? A world of sin? A world that daily denies its Maker? A world so barren and so hard that we kill our own children and murder our parents, then weep for Free Willy? A world of regimented cubicles, or of mind numbing screens? 

Were our minds uncluttered, were we able to see with children’s eyes once more, we would laugh at the fantastic distopia we embrace so fiercely as a guard against the hope of Faerie. But what if all our disillusion, all our ‘reality’ and hard fact, were itself the actual illusion—or rather, only a small part of reality? What if the Fairy Tales are right, and truth is so much grander than the mean facts portray?

There is little wonder that the Fairy Tale has been shunted to the nursery: alone among all of literature, it is the most seditious. Alone of all literature, it speaks directly to every soul like music, regardless of space or time. Who has not been tempted by the candy house and found himself trapped within? Who has not known a beast tamed by his beauty? Fairy Tales speak of eternal truths: the foolishness of vain Emperors, the transformation of cygnets into swans. They offer hope and mercy, true love and justice, courage, prudence, humbleness and courtesy—the very virtues our own world so desperately requires and so adamantly reviles. The heroes of Faerie are noble, honorable, and honest. The heroines are intelligent, resourceful, and modest. History is revered, family and country esteemed, and God extolled.

Even the youngest soul feels drawn to the truth of these tales.  The dragon must be slain; the ring thrown into the fire; the evil stepmother made to dance in red-hot shoes. The child fed on a steady diet of the ethics of Elfland knows the difference between right and wrong, and far from growing up to view the world through an impossible lens, he perceives the world for what it truly is. He does not confuse the tyrant with a giant, but sees rather that the tyrant has confused himself for a giant among men. It is the world that cannot perceive itself as it is; the man who looks through Faerie’s glass looks through the eyes of Truth.

Can we marvel, then, that those to whom truth is distasteful, or at the least uncomfortable or inconvenient, have vociferously banished Fairy Tales from their court? Adults caught gazing wistfully at Faerie’s borders are ridiculed; adults caught writing about Faerie are shelved away from their peers. Yet the hunger for “something more” remains.

So others try their hand at the form, twisting the fabric of Faerie to display the relativistic religion of a secular society. The old tales are rewritten, distorted almost out of all recognition, overlaid and imbued with antithetical morals that follow Wagner’s nihilistic lead, pouring libations to the trinity of Freud, Darwin and Marx. The witch is a misunderstood protofeminist, the western dragon a deposit of sagacity; Shrek changes the beauty into a beast. The best Stephen Sondheim can offer in his Into the Woods is the dubious moral that “good is different than nice . . . you decide what’s good, you decide what’s right”—a comforting license to remain precisely nowhere.

Likewise, the old tales are analyzed without understanding. Cinderella is viewed literally without the benefit of imagination. “No,” the modernist shouts, “Cinderella is clearly an example of the suppression of women within a patronistic society, not a metaphor for the miraculous graces of a God who beautifies his bride and seeks her out even past the midnight hour.”

Perhaps, in charity, we might recognize that after so many centuries of ‘Endarkenment,’ our modern theorists are incapable of distinguishing between good and evil, even when shown the difference clearly as in Fairy Tales. Indeed, how can they know what true goodness is when we neuter Christ, when we present goodness as saccharine imbecility, rather than as a pillar of fire, a tower of strength, a refuge, a colossus, Don Quixote against the world, fighting when his arms are too weary, running where the brave dare not go.  We have whitewashed (or at least grayed) evil, naming it the “dark side,” the “yang,” “fear,” the “passions”—the misunderstood villain or ‘anti-hero.’

Most of us have become gray men—but we needn’t embrace that vitiation.  Fairy Tales would encourage us to sort out the black from the white—and then destroy the black. Because the black is evil and evil already is nothingness.

Perhaps it would be better to think of it in terms of a story.  Goodness is that which fills one up, fills one out, makes one round—not in the sense of obesity, but rather as a rounded character, or a well-rounded person, or as Dante expresses it the King of Oneself—as the full individual. Conversely, evil is a sort of thinning of the self, as Tolkien expressed quite vividly with his Ringwraiths.  Imagine then if you will, that every choice a man makes either fills him up or thins him out. Naturally, any sane man would choose to become whole rather than obtain the density of a shadow. Yet LeGuin, Jung, and numerous others would have us “embrace our shadow,” which is to embrace thinness, which is to approach a starving man and tell him that the answer lies in seeking famine.

Stories are not about famines. They are not about shadow people thinning to the point of invisibility. They are not about gray men going about their gray business. They are about the quest for nourishment; about filling out; about vigorously separating the black from the white. They are about the journey to the end of this finite life and into the infinite life. They are about making our way, full of wrong turns and obstacles overcome, toward the hand of the Princess, the kingdom restored, toward Heaven, toward God.

Fortunately, our children may easily stumble upon the old tales, the true tales, within the finite confines of their nursery.  Perhaps they will even retain something they have learned while they rested within the safety of Faerie. But to those who “are ever so much more than twenty,” I offer this appeal: return yourself to truth, to the memory of goodness, to that dream of knighthood you once cherished, to the love of the purity of the unicorn. Return, even if you have no child yet to lead back into the lands of Faerie, to the abandoned land of Eden. There is no shame in the nakedness of truth, nor any harm to eat from the Tree of Life once more

Emily Snyder is a high school teacher and writer from Marlboro, Massachusetts. Her first book, Niamh and the Hermit, was released by Arx Publishing in 2003.

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