Once Upon a Time… We Lived Happily Ever After

Words by Brian Hendricks

Everything is a story. Our lives, our history, our plays and novels, our wins and losses, our news and adventures. Everything becomes a movie as we assemble the images that recollect our memories and dreams and project our wishes and aspirations. The fairy tale is one of the oldest and most intimate forms of storytelling, dating back to the origins of civilization and language. Stories of leaving the light and descending into dark passageways where monsters need to be slain, wishes granted, tasks performed and princesses saved. A deep subconscious realm wherein Carl Jung’s ‘archetypes’ and Adolph Bastian’s ‘elemental ideas’ play out in the guise of wizards and dragons and castles and deep dark forests. The fairy tale is the evolving movie of our own DNA as our psychology is developed and revealed. Stories from Babylon infiltrate legends from India, which transform during the Crusades into fables from the Brothers Grimm, before becoming movies from Disney and games at the local video arcade. Cinderella has more than a thousand versions, King Arthur sets up the adventures of Harry Potter, and the story of Beauty and the Beast is happening right now as two unlikely suitors meet for the first time. Bruno Bettelheim wrote in his seminal text, The Uses Of Enchantment: The Meaning And Importance Of Fairy Tales, that “each fairy tale is a magic mirror which reflects some aspects of our inner world. And of the steps required by our evolution from immaturity to maturity. For those who immerse themselves in what the fairy tale has to communicate, it becomes a deep quiet pool which at first seems to reflect only our own image; but behind it we soon discover the inner turmoils of our souls, its depth, and ways to gain peace within ourselves and with the world, which is the reward of our struggles.” By paying attention to fairy tales, both the traditional and the modern, we delve into the deep waters of our own psyche and that of the collective unconscious, in order to find the clues that will unlock the mysteries of our own existence. The elixirs that will restore order and prosperity, happiness and fulfillment, strength and hope, to both the individual hero and the tribe from which we all belong. We all seek the potion that will enable us to live happily ever after. To get past the rigors of the ego-driven world and reconnect with the language of the soul and the music of the universe. To defeat the evil eye. To access the light. To remember that life is a neverending story. A fairy tale. A mirror that reflects our countenance, and a deep pool that contains the magic waiting to be discovered and released.

I had a dream which both frightened and encouraged me. It was night in some unknown place, and I was making slow and painful headway against a mighty wind. Dense fog was flying along everywhere. I had my hands cupped around a tiny light which threatened to go out at any moment. Everything depended on my keeping this little light alive. Suddenly I had the feeling that something was coming up behind me. I looked back, and saw a gigantic black figure following me. But at the same moment I was conscious in spite of my terror, that I must keep my little light going through night and wind, regardless of all dangers. When I awoke I realized at once that the figure was my own shadow on the swirling mists, brought into being by the little light I was carrying. I knew too that this little light was my consciousness, the only light I have. Though infinitely small and fragile in comparison with the powers of darkness, it is still a light, my only light. – Carl Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections

The fairy tale has never been more alive, more technically sophisticated, than it is now. The movies are driven by the ancient tradition of the heroic quest as modern heroes set out on perilous journeys into the labyrinths of the psyche in order to confront the shadows and achieve rebirth and redemption. Technology has both enabled the imagination to be recreated in brilliant cinematic representations, and has also become the shadow force itself as everything from Star Wars to Lord Of the Rings toWatership Down have created a nostalgia for a more primitive and natural world unsullied by the speed and distraction that technology has unleashed on modern life. Our current preoccupation with violence and horror depicts a world wherein the person and the body is both disposable and archaic in the throes of technological perfection, and these graphic images also allow us to experience fear and death without getting hurt. As Guillermo Del Toro, the current maestro of the modern fairy tale and the director of Pan’s Labyrinth stated, “To me, fantasy is a spiritual occurrence and for spirituality to be needed by people, you have to have a base, vile, physical existence. In order for fantasy to flourish, brutality must exist.” Which is too bad really. That light can only be defined by darkness and our very humanity must be devalued before we can appreciate our worth. Fantasy is one of the four categories that J.R.R. Tolkien defined as necessary for the fairy tale. Fantasy, recovery, escape and consolation are the criteria that underlie our narrative patterns and can be discerned in most of the fairy tales playing at our local cinema. Fantasy, freedom from reality and an actual belief in some form of magic. Wondrous unrealities that are endowed with ‘the inner consistency of reality.’ Recovery, ‘seeing things as we are meant to see them.’ Both illuminating and destructive as we gain newer perspectives but also lose what we once determined to be ‘real.’ Escape, the possibility and awareness that many roads and solutions exist and we are never really trapped within any so-called reality. The golden thread can be manifested in many forms and many directions. Consolation, the ultimate escape from the shadows and entry into the light of a new day, a new self, the ‘happy ending’. Transformation has always been the goal of the journey and the imagination has always been the most expedient form of transport. From Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, to The Matrix and 300, the harsh realities of violent death and technological mayhem are transcended by creativity and magic. Love is the only cure for hate, and fantasy is the only antidote for reality. We live in the world as we create it, and our fairy tales continue to document our progress as our imaginations seek higher ground.

We have no reason to harbour any mistrust against our world, for it is not against us. If it has terrors, they are our terrors; if it has abysses, these abysses belong to us; if there are dangers we must try to love them. And if we arrange our life in accordance with the principle which tells us that we must always trust in the difficult, then what now appears to us as the most alien will become our most intimate and trusted experience. – Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters To A Young Poet.

We live in stories. Every night we die as we go to sleep and are reborn as we awake. Every memory, experience, wish, hope, disappointment, is transformed into images that allow us to chronicle our passage as we move towards the ultimate mystery: death. Is it the beginning or the end? Our films and books and television and music are the stories and songs of our tribes and collectives as the fairies and monsters change according to the image worlds we have created. Everything is a metaphor. Was Titanic such a success because it resonated the fears we held towards Y2K? The sudden awareness that our technology was not infallible and our disregard for the destructive powers of nature will not go unpunished? What underlies our current preoccupation with violence? What stories are we telling ourselves? How have the fairy tales kept pace with our own inner worlds as we seek recognition and comfort in the external world? Just as talking animals remind us of our own animal natures, so do the robots and machines indicate our inevitable progression as the magic of science overwhelms the mysteries of the self. Our films are telling us that we are at yet another crossroads wherein we must be mindful of our increasing capacity for destruction amidst the miraculous opportunities for recovery and transcendence. As always, our fairy tales are exposing our darkest fears and our brightest lights. Magic doors and fantastic kingdoms await all of us who are willing to embark. As Goethe said, “He who cannot draw on three thousand years is living from hand to mouth.” The more we know about what stories have already been told, the better equipped we are to shape the narratives and images that will lead us towards the light, a mysterious and magical place that lies beyond the ego and the darkness and holds out the promise of meaning and completion and joy. Stories and fairy tales literally protect us from our worst instincts and help us endure. They remind us of how fantastic it all is. Frogs can become princes, dragons can become allies, and wardrobes can become portals to exotic places. Just as Ofelia, the twelve year old heroine of Pan’s Labyrinth, allows herself to believe in the power of the imagination, so to must we continue to believe in the infinite maze of our own fantastic dreams and imaginings in order to move forward. To remember that once upon a time there were civil wars and genocides and global warming and poverty and sickness, but like Ofelia, we descended into the phantasmagoria and found the light. We believed. We fought. We recovered.

Faerie itself may perhaps most nearly be translated by Magic – but it is magic of a peculiar mood and power, at the furthest pole from the vulgar devices of the laborious, scientific, magician. There is one proviso: if there is any satire present in the tale, one thing must not be made fun of, the magic itself. That must in that story be taken seriously, neither laughed at nor explained away. – J.R.R Tolkien, On Fairy Stories

The magic itself. That is what decides the value of the tale. What new visions is the storyteller bringing to the table? What will the new witches, dragons, ogres, princesses, dungeons and labyrinths look like? How far can the actual depiction of the symbolic brutality go before the symbol loses its value and only the bloodshed is left? Our modern movies, fairy tales, have never been so magical. We have the technology to recreate our wildest imaginings and mythical geographies. We are virtually surrounded by the image worlds that detail who we are, where we have been, and where we are going. Are we repeating ourselves? Are we becoming more articulate about all the things we have to fear but less profound about how to deal with them? Is their enough real magic being dispensed for us to believe in it? To not laugh at it or explain it away? Is the magic to be found in the story itself or in the technology that helps creates it? The fairy tale known as the 21st century is going to be the story of seeking the gold from the labyrinth of history and building a new world that transcends the fears that have brought us this far. We must have stories that move beyond conventional video games wherein you move to higher levels but do not learn anything new. We cannot find meaning in distraction. We cannot access the spirit through technology alone. All the evidence we need to transform is right in front of our eyes. Our movies and image worlds either indicate new dimensions and deeper understandings, or they amuse or distract or confuse. They take the true magic away and replace it with banality. They repeat and imitate and pander and stall. They negate the future and reduce our potential. They make us laugh when we need to cry. They make us sad when we could be happy. The world has never been so inundated with stories and so short of storytellers willing to risk the known for the mysterious.

The call to adventure signifies that destiny has summoned the hero and transferred his spiritual center of gravity from within the pale of this society to a zone unknown. This fateful region of both treasure and danger may be variously represented: as a distant land, a forest, a kingdom underground, beneath the waves or above the sky, a secret island, lofty mountaintop, or profound dream state; but it is always a place of strangely fluid and polymorphous beings, unimaginable torments, superhuman deeds, and impossible delights. – Joseph Campbell, The Hero With A Thousand Faces

Pan’s Labyrinth is the latest and greatest fairy tale that depicts the world of the imagination and its power to survive anything, including death. Ofelia descends into the underworld to escape the reality of the Franco driven fascism of Spain in 1944. She is a young girl with a book who will not compromise her beliefs, her imagination, regardless of the costs. Her journey takes us into a labyrinth of fables within tales within stories that reflect Greek antiquity, symbolist paintings, Spanish history, magic realism, Picasso’s Guernica, Goya’s nightmares, and of course a deep love of fairy tales. A lost princess, wicked stepfather, fairy insect, talking faun, garden maze, spiral staircase, the underground, various monsters, three tasks, full moons, deep waters, parallel worlds, magic, loss, and death. A blend of ancient myths and folklore combined with recent history and conveyed with modern CGI and state of the art production design, Pan’s Labyrinth is where the past meets the future in the present. A story that reminds us that life is valued by accepting death and the only true monsters are ourselves. It is the retelling of a timeless fable that has no origins and no ending. A celebration of the impossible tasks that life consists of and all the amazing possibilities that come from confronting them. Ofelia does not lose her innocence, she embraces it. By transcending her fear of death she becomes immortal. By answering the call to adventure, she is welcomed into a higher realm where beliefs and ideals and wonder have more substance than the ruined devastation of the physical world she has left behind. A return to the womb wherein the mysteries of life are parallel to the magic of death. Our future lies with our children and Ofelia is leading the way. We are living in a fairy tale. Believing in the power and magic of our own imagination is completing the amazing journey that eternally begins with “once upon a time” and inevitably ends with “happily ever after.” Life is everything we imagine in between.