Have you ever had an epiphany? Maybe you suddenly realized that it really does hurt when you put your hand on the hotplate, or that leaning too far to one side in a canoe is likely to end in disaster. Or perhaps you've had an epiphany like Ebenezer Scrooge, who had a harrowing nightmare in which he was visited by a number of ghosts and woke up with not only a deep understanding of the meaning of Christmas but with a whole new lease on life. Epiphanies come in all shapes and sizes. What they have in common is this: an epiphany is a moment of clarity when we see things as they really are. Something clicks and we wonder how we didn’t see it before.
The 2010 film Tangled presents us with a character very much in need of an epiphany. Based off the classic fairy tale Rapunzel, this version has the princess Rapunzel kidnapped as a young child and imprisoned in a tower by the old woman Gothel. Rapunzel grows up there, all the while totally unaware that she’s a princess. She believes Gothel is her mother. She trusts her captor wholeheartedly, never suspecting her sinister motives. Meanwhile Rapunzel's real parents, the king and queen, continue to mourn her disappearance. It’s only after a trip out of the tower that Rapunzel finally sees the light.
Which brings us to Flynn Rider. While Rapunzel is unaware of her origins and is largely oblivious to what goes on in the world beyond her tower, Flynn seems to understand the world pretty well and his place in it. Flynn’s escapades as a thief take him anywhere and everywhere, including over palace rooftops. When we first meet him at the beginning of the film it seems Flynn may have found his ticket to a life of ease and comfort. Rapunzel’s crown sits on a pedestal in the palace surrounded by armed guards. The crown is covered in jewels and has remained long untouched these many years. So naturally Flynn takes it for himself, with no concern about how the loss of the last remaining token of Rapunzel's memory might affect the king and queen. Nor does he bat an eye when he betrays his partners in crime, the Stabbington brothers, leaving them to the palace guards while he makes off with the crown. Flynn clearly prefers working alone. And better to betray others first before they have the chance to do it to you.
A young princess finds herself in a kingdom beset by creeping shadows—monsters which lurk far underground. In the darkness below they tunnel endlessly, plotting to one day rise up and take over. Who from the kingdom will challenge this dark foe? Who is worthy to lead the forces of good to beat back the enemy once and for all? This is what fairy tales are made of. We know what's supposed to happen next. A prince will arise, seeking to win the heart of the princess. And what better way to do that than to fashion himself into a fearless, conquering hero who can do anything simply because he believes in himself? It makes perfect sense to our modern ears. As the great philosopher and poet of our age Miley Cyrus once said, “If you believe in yourself anything is possible.” (It’s impossible to find the source of this quote, but I'm sure we will eventually if only we believe in ourselves enough.) But while the prince is off on his own saving the day, one question remains. What's a princess to do in the meantime?
Perhaps Princess Irene can help us out with this question. In the children’s novel The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald, Princess Irene is an eight-year-old girl with a penchant for exploring. Her curiosity takes her to all kinds of exciting places, whether that’s getting lost on the rocky slopes of the nearby mountain as daylight begins to fade, or getting lost wandering the endless hallways and staircases of her father’s castle. Her poor nursemaid Lootie. She looks away for one moment and little Princess Irene is gone again, probably getting captured by goblins for all she knows. When Irene comes back one day with a tale about meeting her great-great-grandmother in the attic, Lootie will have none of it and notes that “princesses are in the habit of telling make-believes.”
How should a princess act? Lootie has some pretty low expectations. If young princesses are indeed so prone to spreading lies then we can’t really expect better of them. No wonder the prince gets the responsibility of saving the day. Princess Irene, however, continues to defy expectations. She has some very different ideas for how a princess should behave. As she tells Lootie at one point, “Nurse, a princess must not break her word.” You see, Irene has standards. But it's also possible to take her statement the wrong way. Maybe she's saying that it’s perfectly all right for you vulgar peasants to engage in petty trickery and deceit, but as for us royals, we will not stoop to that level. Irene's standards show up again when she gets rather annoyed at Lootie for dismissing her strange story about talking to her great-great-grandmother. MacDonald writes, “Not to be believed does not at all agree with princesses: for a real princess cannot tell a lie.” Well, I guess that settles it. A true royal simply comes from better stock than the rest of us and is therefore naturally virtuous and morally superior. No wonder they’re granted the divine right to rule. No one else is qualified.
Freedom is a great thing. It’s a fundamental building block of modern society. We take for granted our right to free speech, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, and, for my American friends, freedom to organize a militia and revolt against the imperial overlords at the slightest hint of taxation without representation. The right to elect representatives to decide the right tax for loose leaf chamomile tea shall not be infringed. The world we live in today really is a new world. It’s less hierarchical and more socially mobile than the old world. Despite starting out in poverty, people like J.K. Rowling can make millions of dollars a year writing stories about little wizards going off to boarding school. Meanwhile, the spread of technology has democratized knowledge, giving us access to all the true crime podcasts and cat videos we want. We like our freedoms, and we’d rather nobody put restrictions on them.
If we don’t have freedom, we fight for it. The 1992 animated classic Aladdin includes a number of characters searching for freedom. They want to leave the old world behind and find their way into a new world. The princess Jasmine, for instance, feels trapped by rules and palace walls. It turns out being a royal isn’t all just wealth, privilege, and pet tigers who strike fear in the hearts of your enemies. It brings with it certain restrictions. Jasmine’s marriage prospects are limited to wealthy princes who happen to impress her father, the sultan. Commoners are excluded from the running. Though, it’s not like Jasmine has many opportunities for meeting commoners. She doesn’t even get to leave the house. In an unmistakeably symbolic moment, Jasmine flings open the door to a bird cage and lets loose a flock of doves. She watches them with longing as they soar up into the atmosphere. Here’s to hoping the doves had long, fulfilling lives and didn’t end up being served on a plate with a side of mashed potatoes the moment after they were freed.
Aladdin is at the opposite end of society. As Agrabah’s most successful thief, Aladdin seems like he’s doing pretty well. He easily weaves his way through crowds and over rooftops, outwitting the authorities at every turn. With a smile on his face he sends his trusted monkey Abu to distract the merchants while he gets the goods. Breaking the rules all day long, you’d think Aladdin would feel like a free man. He can get anything for himself at no cost. Plus, he has that cool little fez he wears. What more could he want? Yet Aladdin feels just as trapped as Jasmine. Prince Achmed, one of Jasmine’s many suitors, calls Aladdin “a worthless street rat,” saying, “You were born a street rat, you'll die a street rat, and only your fleas will mourn you.” That’s a little unfair. I’m sure the rodents of Agrabah would show their solidarity as well. But maybe that’s a small consolation when you’re constantly on the run, with guards pointing their swords at you on every corner.
Adventure is an exciting word. We think of journeys across windswept seas to find buried treasure and battles with gnarled monsters from subterranean depths. Adventure is about excitement and new experiences. It’s about entering boldly into the unknown. In my last post I wrote about the need to say yes to the call to adventure. I said that it’s only when we enter into the unfamiliar and uncomfortable that we make room for growth. But sometimes we’re led in the wrong direction. There are times when adventure can bring us to a dark place where the only way out is to find the way back. As C.S. Lewis says, sometimes progress doesn’t mean going forward, but rather turning right around and going in the opposite direction. Adventurers should take note. Openness gets you started on the journey, but discernment tells you which way you’re going.
If an adventurer isn’t careful they might be swept away by their circumstances. That’s what happens in the 2001 animated film Spirited Away, written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki. It begins with a journey. The girl named Chihiro is moving to a new home with her parents. But the story really gets going when something happens on the car ride. One moment they’re cruising through the suburbs and the next they’re on a dirt road surrounded by forest. Chihiro doesn’t like the looks of the swaying trees, but her father welcomes the situation and plows eagerly ahead. He claims he’s not worried because he has four-wheel drive. And this is where our characters start to go wrong. They don’t understand that they’ve been sidetracked from their destination and brought to the doorstep of another world. Chihiro’s father sees himself as capable of conquering everything he sees. He hasn’t learned yet that not every situation can be approached boldly with an impatient stride and an upright posture. Sometimes having your knees knocking together and your head stooped humbly is the appropriate response. And sometimes it’s better to keep your footing and run the other way.
Chihiro and her parents find themselves in another world, a world of spirits where Japanese mythology comes to life. They pass by a shrine on the road but don’t pay too much attention. Chihiro is the only one of the three who gives it a second thought. Most of us don’t expect to encounter a whole magical world around the next corner. And even if we did, these days the word magical has mainly positive connotations. A magical day is a great day. Disneyland is called the Magic Kingdom. Chihiro’s father even says that the town they come across looks like an abandoned theme park. To us a little magic sounds like entertainment. It’s a welcome escape from the modern inconveniences of commuter traffic, hackers, and the threat of nuclear war. But people haven’t always thought that way. In the past magic had real power over people. It was a world with a spirit behind every tree and at the bottom of every well. Our ancestors had greater respect, you might even say fear, of magical powers. While I'm not advocating a return to a world held in bondage by those superstitions, I think we can still remember to have a healthy respect for what we don’t fully understand. And we should watch out the moment we find ourselves being pulled towards whatever promises to be the primrose path.
Life is a series of choices. Some are big choices, like who to get married to. Others seem small, like what to have for breakfast. Porridge? Or perhaps an egg-free tofu omelette. All these choices, big and small, have led you to this moment. They’ve had on impact on your education, career, health, and relationships. One choice leads to opportunities for more choices and pretty soon you can look back on your life as a long string of decisions. This is your story, almost as if you were a character in a book. And it all starts somewhere. But before each stage of your story can really begin, you must make an important choice. It's the choice of how to respond to what Joseph Campbell entitles "the call to adventure."
In Campbell’s description of the hero’s journey, the call to adventure is where everything takes off. Our main character receives a revelation. Perhaps they discover that a whole other world exists, an unknown world "of both treasure and danger." It’s an exciting place, but also unpredictable. And so like Neo in The Matrix, they come to a crossroads. The blue pill or the red pill. It is the choice of whether to continue being comfortable with what they know, or to take a chance and step out into the unknown.
Why would anyone ever leave what they know in order to be uncomfortable? That doesn’t sound very relaxing. Or safe. And more importantly, what would the neighbours think? Bilbo Baggins deals with those exact concerns in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. The Bagginses are seen as "very respectable" in large part "because they never had any adventures or did anything unexpected." But when Gandalf and his throng of dwarves show up on the doorstep for an evening of telling tales about the battles and treasures of faraway lands, something awakens inside Bilbo’s heart. He realizes there’s more to life than tea, buttered scones, and seed-cakes at Bag End. There’s a whole other world out there, and it starts at the little road just outside his front door.
Fantasy worlds are where dreams come true, especially when it comes to Disney-style fairy tales. Sleeping Beauty, for example, is a princess expecting a handsome prince to rescue her, and that’s exactly what happens. In the end everybody gets what they wanted all along. That was 1950s Disney. But then in 2001 DreamWorks Animation came along with their little film Shrek and shattered what we think of as the traditional fairy tale.
Inspired by the picture book by William Steig, the film Shrek starts with the reading of a story about a princess locked in a tower being guarded by a ferocious dragon, awaiting true love’s first kiss. At that moment Shrek laughs and says, “Like that’s ever going to happen!” He rips off a page from the storybook and presumably uses it as toilet paper. You’d be hard-pressed to come up with a more irreverent opening if you tried. And with that, Walt Disney’s work gets flushed down the drain.
Over and over the film reminds us of our fairy tale expectations, only to dash them to pieces in front of our eyes. We watch as Geppetto sells Pinocchio for “twenty pieces of silver” and Peter Pan betrays Tinkerbell. Lord Farquaad wants to marry a princess, not out of love but to make himself king. When the Magic Mirror runs through three eligible candidates, describing Cinderella as “a mentally abused shut-in,” Farquaad can’t decide on which lucky lady to make his bride and seems to choose Fiona only by random selection. Being too cowardly to free her himself, Farquaad sends off Shrek the ogre to do his dirty work.
Fiction has given us some memorable bad guys over the years. Where would Harry Potter be without Voldemort, or Sherlock Holmes without Professor Moriarty? Villains fascinate and challenge us. And they’re usually ten steps ahead of our heroes. The sci-fi villain has a high-tech surveillance system and the fantasy villain has a crystal ball. Somehow or other they find out what’s going on and plan accordingly.
Sometimes a villain can come across as a mastermind. The Dark Lord Sauron, from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, is a real schemer. As the fires burn in the depths of Mount Doom and the billowing shadow stretches across the sky from the land of Mordor, Sauron broods over his plans. He has but one goal. His whole will is bent on seeking his lost treasure: the One Ring to rule them all. With it he can subdue the world. If the Ring is destroyed, so is he. Conveniently, Sauron is in possession of Mount Doom, the only place where the Ring could be destroyed. And yet this so-called mastermind fails to take a few simple measures to protect himself, such as sealing the giant door on the side of the mountain or placing a few monstrous creatures to stand guard. How does Sauron make such a fantastic blunder? And how is he distracted by a puny army knocking at his front gate? Let’s find out.
Tolkien’s book The Silmarillion covers the history of Middle-earth before The Lord of Rings, including Sauron’s origins. It turns out there was another dark lord before Sauron named Melkor, a heavenly being who sought to corrupt and wage war against creation, especially elves and humans. When his malice was revealed, Melkor came to be called Morgoth, a name you’ll remember if you, like me, have watched The Fellowship of the Ring movie more times than you care to admit. After Gandalf falls to a fiery Balrog in the Mines of Moria, Legolas calls the creature "a Balrog of Morgoth." A servant corrupted by the first dark lord. The new dark lord, Sauron, was also a servant of Morgoth at one time.
Some people are just amazing. Einstein and Shakespeare, for instance, stand out as exceptional. Joan of Arc led the armies of France as a teenager. In the film Amadeus, Mozart seems to compose concertos and symphonies with little to no effort, while his rival composer Salieri painstakingly works to produce material which can never measure up. It appears some people are chosen for great things, gifted with special abilities, while others are not. And that’s reflected in the stories we tell.
Let’s take a look at A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. In this story, boy-genius Charles Wallace Murry speaks with a vocabulary well-beyond his years, probably on account of his reading the dictionary for fun, and at five years old he quickly grasps the concept of travel through time and space. But he’s more than just your average child prodigy. As his mother says, "Charles Wallace is what he is. Different. New." You might say, unique. The boy knows things about people without being told. He can feel around in other people’s minds, and he can usually tell whether a stranger is friendly or sinister. His gifts go far beyond what you would expect.
With everything going for him, you’d think Charles Wallace would be the story’s main character. Wouldn’t you as a reader like to spend some time in the head of a genius and see things from his perspective? But instead L’Engle chooses to present the book to us through the eyes of Meg, Charles Wallace’s older sister. Meg is best known for not being able to control her temper. She gets in plenty of trouble at school and is stubbornly protective of her brother. She certainly doesn’t feel gifted. Rather, she believes she’s "doing everything wrong." Meg can’t seem to keep from lashing out, and the fact that people are gossiping about her missing father doesn’t help matters.
Many fantasy stories focus on a journey, whether it’s the quest of King Arthur’s knights to find the Holy Grail or the long homeward journey of Odysseus after the Trojan War. Those chosen to come along on such quests are often selected for their loyalty. They believe in the cause. They will try to persevere until the end. These companions are faithful to the quest, but they may have no idea how to reach their destination. Like the crew of a ship, they may not know the exact path to take or which stops to make along the way. They need a captain, a leader, to guide them.
But leaders can have different tactics to get the job done. Michael Scott, played by the always hilarious Steve Carell on the show The Office, has a unique perspective. While contemplating how he wants his employees to view him, Michael says, “Would I rather be feared or loved? Easy, both. I want people to be afraid of how much they love me.” The line is a reference to the 16th century political thinker Machiavelli, who came to the conclusion that “it is much safer to be feared than loved.” Rule by fear is self-explanatory. It keeps people in line. It’s practical and efficient. Rule by love, on the other hand, sounds like a contradiction. How does one even do that?
The characters of How to Train Your Dragon have a possible solution. (Spoilers ahead.) The film, loosely based on the book series by Cressida Cowell, follows a boy named Hiccup, a member of a Viking village which gets raided by dragons on a frequent basis. Needless to say, they're not too fond of dragons burning down their homes and stealing their livestock. At first Hiccup is all on board for killing the dragons, until he encounters one face to face. He shoots down a Night Fury, the rarest of all dragons, and finds it trapped and injured. He approaches it with a knife as it lies helpless before him. Killing the beast would make him a hero in his village. But he just can’t bring himself to do it. And so, in a moment of mercy, Hiccup uses his knife to cut away at the dragon’s bonds and give the creature its freedom.
When you hear the word hero, who do you picture? If you’re a Marvel fan you might think of Iron Man, Black Widow or Captain America. We look up to heroes like these because they can do what we can’t. They use their godlike powers to fight against evil, saving the world from one earthshaking supervillain after another. Whether our heroes have the shining idealism of Superman or the dark, gritty realism of Batman, they all use their power for good.
Power seems to be a precondition. If you don’t have power, how can you do anything? And the fantasy genre is famous for giving us powerful, larger-than-life characters. Fearless warriors clash against monsters from the depths of hell. Cunning wizards bring down the skies in magical duels to the death. Mighty knights battle against fierce, fire-breathing dragons. The people of medieval times were no strangers to such tales. One of their great heroes, Saint George, was famous for reportedly slaying a dragon.
But does a hero need to be powerful? While fantasy does give us some of the most powerful characters you’ll find anywhere, it also has the curious tendency of presenting us with heroes who seem weak and totally inexperienced. Think of young Charlie stepping into Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory or Bilbo Baggins being swept from his little hobbit hole on an adventure into a world of goblins and even a dragon. In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy is followed by a band of blundering misfits, including a brainless Scarecrow and a lion who’s afraid of his own shadow. These are not the heroes of ancient epic. At first glance they don’t look like heroes at all.
David Raphael Hilder
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