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THE FAIRY-TALE AS TEACHER. P.L. TRAVERS

Posted by lahar9jhadav on August 30, 2007

THE
FAIRY-TALE
AS TEACHER

P.L. Travers

THE WORD “fairy-tale;’ because it has so often been misused, is nowadays a little misleading. Yet it is impossible to dispense with it or to think of a better. For one thing it is an irrevocable part of our tradition and, for another, so inclusive. On fairy-tale’s broad hearth there is room for all her children-myth, folk tale, legend, saga-to say nothing of her mighty old pythoness of a mother, religion. This is a formidable family and it may be that the lapse of the fairy-tale in modern life is due to the fact that nobody wants to face up to such a bunch of Fates. I have heard parents declare that they did not want their children to read fairy-tales for fear they should grow up into wishful thinkers. Perhaps in a more candid moment they might rather have said that they felt inadequate to bring up children who were free to devour what is, in essence, dynamite. Not that the fairy-tale can hurt anyone; but it can set up a chain of questions that will only take truth for an answer. One can hardly imagine a process less encouraging to wishful thinking!

It would be foolish to deny that the fairy-tale is, indeed, a diversion for the young. But diversion is only half of it. The other half is concerned with the nature of the world and man’s relation to it. In these matters no one of us is too old to be involved. Fairy-tale is at once the pattern of man and then chart for his journey. Each of the stories unwinds from its core the navel-string of an eternal idea. Choose at random from the simple, most familiar bed-time tales, say, Hansel and Gretel. How it beguiles the child with its lollipop house and the peppermint doorstep! For us, however, this is only the lure. The trap, the real secret, is the journey through the wood. If you want to find your way home, it says (back to beginnings, becoming as little children), you must scatter something less ephemeral than peas or rose-leaves. Birds will eat one, and the wind blow the other away. Only by marking the path with pebbles-enduring, hardly found, indestructible-can you pick up the trail and escape the witch’s oven which is extinction.

Take One-Eye, Two-Eyes and Three-Eyes. Their mother loved One-Eye and Three-Eyes-they were so unique and rare. Two-Eyes was just like everyone else, so she had to fend for herself. Yet it was for Two-Eyes that the fairy feast was spread; Two-Eyes who alone could pluck the gold-and-silver fruit, and Two-Eyes also, whom the Prince so conventionally fancied. Away with oddity cries the story’s inner voice. Subhuman and superhuman are both monstrosities. Only the completely normal has a chance to escape the daily bondage and eat the spirit’s food.

And what of the Sleeping Beauty? Was it wishful thinking, do you think, that broke the spell at last? The story wraps, as in a silk cocoon, an austere admonition. Man, it reminds us, must set a part of himself aside constantly to watch, to cut through the automatically growing forest of his habitual nature so that again and again it may wake the sleeping part. But more than one seed is loosened when you shake the stem of this flowery story. First, eternal vigilance; next, the insistence that Love alone can cut through the tangled thicket; thirdly, it suggests that, while Beauty is the heroine, the Wicked Godmother is the chief character. If she had not waved her wand and cried “Sleep!”, how could the arduous business of waking have been set in motion? Hidden things, in ancient writings, are often manifest by means of their opposites; and here the story seems to hint that devils, as well as angels, bless us; that enemies may be useful as friends.

This is only one of the many fairy-tale warnings against sleep. Wizards doze, while their old mothers pluck the three golden hairs that are all their store of wisdom. Giants lie down and sleep and their hearts are stolen away. While the hare takes his siesta, the tortoise wins the race.

The two elder brothers snore at the crossroads while the youngest passes them by and arrives first at the king’s palace.

The theme of these Three Brothers bound on a single quest continually recurs. Taken literally, they can be considered as separate entities-Prince Tom, Prince Dick, and Prince Harry. But they can also be regarded as a triple whole, a composite picture of man’s inner self. As the first brother, he lives solely by instinct; in the second stage he feels the need for something more but cannot find his direction; only the third brother grown young in acceptance and submission, unashamed to cry Help! to the humblest creature, can claim the bright Princess. The fairy-tales are like water-flowers; they lie so lightly on the surface, but their roots go down deep into a dark and ancient past. They are, in fact, a remnant of that Orphic art whose function it was to instruct the generations in the inner meanings of things. They were not intended to be literature, as such, though the fact that they have, as a by-product, a high literary value is an indication of their Orphic origin. They are a natural growth, not so much inventions as extensions of general experience; objective statements in words as the Sphinx, for instance, is an objective statement in stone. And it must be remembered that they were intended for the ear rather than the eye of the listeners. Listening is the first lesson to be learned from the fairy-tales, as it is from religion-listening that is attention, and inner watching and remembering. While they were still communicated by word of mouth, they came down the generations without distortion. Nowadays it is the reading public that is responsible for the garbled versions. For the eye is less dependable than the ear; it has not the gift of echoes. Those who have heard the fairy-tales have a very different understanding of what they hear from those who have only read them. As a child listens, the story goes in simply as a story. But there is an ear behind the ear which conserves meaning and gives it out much later. It is then that the listener, if he is lucky, understands the nature of the dragon, the necessity for the hero’s labors and who it is that lives happily ever after.

Luck is an important element in the tales, but they have no truck with wishing. Without luck, you could push a rich man through the eye of a needle sooner than measure up to their requirements. The price of an eye which Odin willingly paid to Mimir in return for the gifts of memory and premonition, was a cut price. He got a bargain and he knew it. In that world nothing is given for nothing and wishing takes you nowhere. Look what happened to Dame Isobel when she became involved with the Flounder!1 There is no easy way out in the fairytale. The characters must jump through every hoop. Princes are sent not merely to the end of the world but beyond. But how is that achieved? When you have got to the end of the world what beyond is there? Inwards, answers the hero as he turns in his tracks. Only in this direction can he continue his quest. And that he must do for a traditional fairy-tale term-for ever and a day. Here, as with beyond, it is the day that contains the secret. For ever is time. But the day is Time turning upon itself; it is every moment, the Now that goes in and out with breath, the ultimate ever-Eternity. Not once, and good riddance, must the dragon be slain, but always, second by second. One can think of easier ways of thinking in wishes!
Again, like flowers, the same fairy-tales spring up in different countries, always with the lineaments of first cousins and always alongside the parables of truth that make the religions of man. Like village schoolmasters, they instruct the simple, while the high priests deal with the scholars. But essentially both are concerned with the same teaching. How to live and how to die is the subject of Orphic art, no matter what guises it wears. In effect, this is a single process, for to learn one is to understand the other. And this ancient knowledge, if we but realized it, is continually available. Under all things it lies, the foundation of wisdom. It is as though somewhere in the universe there were a steady lighthouse, a bright wheel turning, whose spokes of light fall now here, now there upon the troubled seas. George Chapman (Homer’s Chapman)2 might well have imagined a similar cosmic phenomenon, such a limitless light-giver, when he wrote:

Terror of darkness! O thou king of flames
That with thy music footed horse dost strike
The clear light out of crystal on dark earth,
And hurl’st instructive fire about the world.

Instructive fire! This, surely, this effluent and ceaseless light, is what man hankers for when he thinks of the Golden Age. Not lost time perfected, not Eden silted over, but this old knowledge that knocks at his inner ear and makes him long for something he does not know he knows. Hurled about the world we can see its action over the centuries and where it fell upon good ground. This fire was Lao Tse’s candle. By its light he formulated his Wordless Doctrine which can never really be told, any more than Buddha’s Flower Sermon. Fairy-tale took him too, by the hand, forestalling him, as he was about to die, by setting him on a buffalo and taking him off to Heaven. There he goes, the Old One, forever riding up the sky on his rugged steed; reposeful, neither surprised nor pleased; and ceremoniously bowing, perhaps to Elijah on his cloud.

Again, in India, a fire-bolt fell and brought to light the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Buddhist legends, the Panchatantra stories, and that great well-spring of fairy-tales, the confluence of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. This latter pair tell the truths with minstrel voices, decking them out in the most sylvan beauty. Animals and men are complete entities; the forests themselves are living beings. In all fairy-tale where will you find such a figure as Hanuman, such an apotheosis of simplicity and self-surrender as that noble monkey in his role of servant to Rama (Vishnu)? Only the instructive fire could have bracketed so significantly the impulsive ape and the eternal preserver.

In Krishna and the Pandav brothers–silver-helmed Aljuna and tigerwaisted Bhima (Tiger-waisted! Homer had nothing better!) the fairy-tale concentrates the essence of the Mahabharata. But the lesser jewels are almost as beautiful-Nala and Damayanti, for instance, and Savitri and Satyavana. Here, in these Indian legends, we find the source that eventually fed the springs of all the Marchen3 of Europe, Scandinavia and Russia. But we are not to be blamed for knowing so little of our fairytale origins; for it is not for much more than a hundred years that the West has had general direct access to the wisdom of the East and the Near East. Did Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm realize, I wonder, that every one of their legendary princes has as his hidden name Rama or Aljuna? Or that Ahmed and Mustapha from The Arabian Nights mingle their dark locks with the flaxen curls of Western heroes? For the Thousand and One also derived their heritage from India, though only in part. The other branch of the family came from Persia. There, the instructive fire fell upon the San poets. In the Mathnawi of Jalau’uddin Rumi, a brimming cup of paIalle and story, you may find many a brotherly likeness to the tales of Scheherezade and those we tell our own children at bed-time.

Inevitably, if we go looking for roots, the tracks lead eastwards. The sun of wisdom, like the san of light, has its rising there. But luckily for us the movement of both is in a westerly direction. As they journey westwards, they adapt the riches they bring with them to each place and age. In the largest sense, therefore, we too have our fairy-tales and allegories and parables that are peculiarly our own. The American Indians have a mine of legend so profuse and varied that it will take generations to collect and digest it. Bunyan’s Pilgrims Progress comes into my category-not for the story only but also for the grand simplicity of the writing. The architecture and resonance of the telling are an intrinsic part of the allegory. And think of Blake and his Arabesque inventions-angels, demons, children on clouds, and all the world of spirits. The whole body of his work is fairy-tale, a strong, pliant net set by a cunning fowler to catch the truth.

And still, though we heed it less and less, the wheel turns and the light falls. Never was the instructive fire more needed than it is today. And, as though need, by some universal law, brought forth its own fulfillment, we have a portion of the instructive fire at hand. All and Everything 4 by G.I. Gurdjieff seems to me to come under that heading, since its object is to tell man, by means of fairy-tale, parable–call it what you will-the truth about himself. Perhaps I should say re-tell, for it gathers up from de past stray strands of knowledge and plaits them into a powerful web of contemporary exposition. This is a strange, exciting, disturbing book, unique of its kind; occasionally shot through with poetry, continually provocative; alive as a live wire is alive and capable of giving shocks of a very high voltage. Properly to experience it, one must go to it naked, shorn of all preconceived notions of what a book should be. It is a new sort of book. Its difference from other books is in kind, not degree, in the same sense as a camel is different from an ostrich.

Intimately relating opposites to one another (as the fairy-tale never fails to do), this story purports to be told by Beelzebub to his grandson Hassein, a child of twelve years, as they sail through the universe from planet to planet. And the subject of his discourse is the race of “three-brained beings” who inhabit the planet earth. Seated in their spaceship, the storyteller, the child, and their old servant-the intellectual, emotional, and instinctive centers-brood like three Fates upon the race of men. The contrast between the moving ship–a new version of the magic carpet?–and the stillness of those three figures is effectively achieved and very moving. Motionless, wrapped in their tails, their horned heads bowed upon their palms, they seem to gaze with impersonal pity upon the creatures of earth. Here is a fairy-tale for our own time, a piece of objective writing that we cannot read without in some sense experiencing it. The symbolism is accessible to anyone who really wants to understand it and if there are no palpable dragons, there are invisible terrors enough to set the doughtiest hero trembling.

Properly to appreciate this story, one must first hear it read aloud.

Only so, I found, can one clarify for oneself the involved rhythms of the writing, and catch, behind the deliberately invented nouns and verbs, their inner meaning ringing. It is necessary, too, for the understanding of the book-the Zen stories make the same demand-to jettison the usual interpretations of certain words and phrases. Anyone used to thinking and feeling in cliches will get nowhere unless he throws over his accumulated ballast. Such words as Consciousness, Self-Consciousness, Reason, Hope, Work, Love–all have to be re-learned in order to understand Beelzebub. Come to that, Beelzebub himself has to be plucked out of his accustomed context. We must here, in effect, give the Devil his due. As for the new words, so full of portent and content, the only way to deal with them is to take them in as children take in grown-up words they do not understand. These act as grains of sand round which the pearl of feeling grows. Without analysis or interpretation, children let a story become part of them and themselves part of it.

The fact that All and Everything is told to a child seems to me a hint from the author along the lines of all fairy-tale clues-that the door into the story can only be unlocked by the same key as opens the Kingdom of Heaven. Through Hassein, the grave child, the unfaltering listener, half-grown creature full of the passionate compassion of youth and containing in himself the fructive seed of wisdom, the reader is enabled to look upon himself as in a mirror. In spite of all the poetry, the invention and the flashes of comedy, it is not a pretty picture. Cosmically, man is made to appear at once smaller and larger than he has hitherto conceived himself to be: smaller, because he no longer stands at the center of creation, as the flung stone from which the universe widens ring on ring; larger, because, (though there is a catch in it) he still has, in spite of all he has wasted, the possibility of change. The past may be redeemed and a nobler future prepared. But this possibility-here is the catch-must be used now, worked for at this moment: not after luncheon or tomorrow, but Now. Do you catch the fairy-tale echo?

The cosmology of the book is tremendous. We are shown, as from a height, the worlds harmoniously rising from, or descending into, each other like notes in a universal octave. The cosmic law of Three and Seven are unfolded, recalling us again to the Three Brothers and Seven Brothers of the fairy-tales. Great images abound; the reciprocal feeding of all created things, for instance-which seems miraculous until one realizes it must be true and therefore inevitable. Everything at every moment partakes of something else. What we eat and what we are eaten by is the subject of a large part of the story. The ancients instructed man in his inter-relation with the planets. Paracelsus gave the same reminder when he said we are stars with our bread. And this book repeats the message–with one proviso. That proviso is the core and crux (coeur et Croix would be truer) of Beelzebub’s discourse, as it is the underlying implication of all fairy-tales. It is that man must work. His bread he may get by physical sweat; but to eat of the substance of Arcturus and Orion-or nearer home, Jupiter and Venus-he must perform other and harder labors. The provisions for these are explicitly set down in the story. Man must be at every second. He must live his life as though it were his death; not turning from the world but, on the contrary, living in the world alive. Not just breathing in and out and the years passing.

All and everything the book offers. The fairy-tale word for it was Happy-Ever-After. No fairy-tale, however, ever failed to send in a bill and neither does Beelzebub. In return for all and everything, nothing short of all and everything is demanded. Existence, we are warned, is something that has to be paid for (the plea “1 never asked to be born!” would get short shrift here) and time is running out. Dream on, cries the tale, at your peril!

Are we all, then, sleeping beauties, hidden in forests of habit? If shame shakes us and we are honest, the answer must be Yes. Would the earth be where it is if we were not asleep? But there are other atom bombs to be discovered than those that ruin and kill. Every fairy-tale from the beginning of time has been a small explosion, full of healing if man would be healed. The great truths are still to be heard, if man wills to listen, for it is not in his power to silence them. They are objective and outside him.

Many such thunderbolts, many bombs of warning and healing are to be found in this allegory of All and Everything. Each chapter throws a new light upon man’s condition. The one on America, almost the longest, is also one of the most significant. For it was in America, even though he arraigns it, that Beelzebub found more of that “brotherliness” necessary for man’s happier life than in any other country visited. The whole book is, in fact, a brotherly pronouncement. It is as though an elder brother-or, according to the fairy-tale that youngest brother out of his own deep experience were noting down for us the wisdom he had learned. Reading it is like being wrought upon by a great winnowing fan. One is caught up, small, shamed and shaken, dizzily turning in the air, not knowing whether one will drop among the chaff or the grain. But a large calm falls on the story in the end as the grandson, ever compassionate, asks of his grandfather some comfort for the beings of earth. The answer comes swiftly; cold and bitter, but it lifts up on the wings of poetry because it is true and because it springs from love. And it seems, as we close the book that there is a stir in the enchanted castle and a falling back of those embracing thorns. Stepping through them, the grave child Hassein comes and, lightly touching each upon the shoulder, summons us with the oldest of fairy-tale admonitions: Awake, sleeper, awake!

NOTES

1. An enchanted prince who has the form of a flounder, on being spared by the fisherman, promises him anything he wishes. The foolish fisherman shares this offer with his greedy wife. Again and again she sends him back to the flounder with her demands, first for a nice cottage instead of a hovel, then for a castle instead of a cottage, then she asks to be king, then emperor, and so on until she asks for the power that belongs to God alone. There is then a terrible tempest, and the fisherman and his wife find themselves back where they started, in their pitiful hovel. (Grimm)

2. George Chapman (1559-1634), Elizabethan poet and the translator of Homer referred to in John Keats’ sonnet “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer.”

3. German word meaning “folk-tales”

4. Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson: An Objectively Impartial Criticism of the Life of Man (All and Everything: First Series) New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1950.

First published in World Review, July 1950 Reprinted by permission of the Estate of P. L. Travers

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