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Filtering by Tag: Beowulf

Cue the Fairy Tale Characters, Please

Jill Reid

jill-reid_fairy-tales-nov-16-post My sister once bought a Dollar Store Snow White wig for my daughter. Three-year-old Ellie used to drag it behind her the way Linus clung to his blue blanket. She donned it at breakfast and slept in it at naptime. Day after day, wigged and rapt, she caressed the cheap dark locks with sticky toddler paws as Disney’s Snow White’s soprano pierced the thin walls of our apartment.

Symbols are powerful. Even sticky old wigs have their magic, and in retrospect, the season of the Snow White wig was thick with both fairy tale and curse. Disney’s Rapunzel and Sleeping Beauty and Snow White played on loops on the living room TV, their Technicolor endings a crescendo of orchestra music, ball gowns, and satisfying conclusion. Meanwhile, I re-read passages for literature classes in which the dragon killed Beowulf, and Othello murdered Desdemona. Mr. Hyde overcame Dr. Jekyll, and poor tentative Alfred J. Prufrock measured out his “life in coffee spoons.”  

Those stories, in contrast to the fairy tale, were as fragmented as the world my child and I lived within. During the season of the Snow White wig, my own life experience with single parenthood, toddler potty training, and exhaustion dug in its heels against the “simplicity” of fairy tales. Really, how do you embrace the enchantment in Snow White’s story, when what you have read and lived and survived suggests that in your own story, should you ever bite into one of life’s poison apple, you will have to drive your own poisoned self to the ER?

That was also the season when, in the middle of a week sopping with the weariness of cynicism, my notebook became a revelation. I sat at my desk writing the word “Loss” over and over without even realizing the path my pen was taking. And next to that, I jotted down a statement by C.S. Lewis that, prior to that moment, had existed only as a lovely sentiment I intended to quote to students.

“Loss. Loss. Loss,” my notebook read. "Some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again,” C.S. Lewis told me. And just like that, after months of rolling my eyes at Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, I saw the wisdom in Ellie’s beautiful, tangled Snow White wig. “What,” I could almost hear Snow White whisper, “has ever been easy about overcoming a curse?”

Perhaps when C.S. Lewis talks about growing old enough to read fairytales again, he alludes to the slowly re-gained wisdom in believing in the possibility of the cursed truly overcoming their curses  - even on this side of heaven. Rather than a curse that divvies itself out over a lifetime in wrinkles and mortgage payments, the fairy tale offers one pure cup of concentrated curse, potent as Snow White’s apple, for us to swallow and overcome all at once. There is a special kind of relief in knowing exactly what curse you’re up against , how to defeat it, and that it can be defeated at all.

Of fairy tales, Neil Gaiman, in a paragraph of G.K. Chesterton’s longer explanation, wrote, “Fairy tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” Each day, the dragons gather.  They show up in the latest news cycle.  They loom when I sit down to pay the bills or comfort a sick child.  In class, I spend hours discussing all the gray spaces where the heroes fall to dragons or where, sometimes, there are no heroes at all. But, as I grow older, I believe more and more that in a world full of dragons, there is a special wisdom in embracing the fairy tale, matted and familiar as a Snow White wig, as a place of empowerment, where we can, at least for the breadth of a story, watch the dragons fall.

Working Words Through the Body

Aaron Guest

512px-J._K._Rowling_at_the_White_House_2010-04-05_9I worked a number of positions in television news, and the only aspect of it I really enjoyed was the news writing. The experience taught me a great deal about the kind of writer I wanted to be. And until recently, I’d forgotten I’d wanted to be the kind of writer whose stories are read aloud. There’s a power in telling stories for all to hear.

While I’d been able to read aloud The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, My Side of the Mountain, even Beowulf and the Aeneid to our kids, it hadn’t become a regular practice. This past Christmas we received the new illustrated Harry Potter and I thought, “What the hell, they’re old enough.” So I started reading it to the two oldest kids. I figured they’d be awed from the start. They weren’t.

One of the habits of being a news writer was to read out loud everything you wrote. It helped if you were able to mimic, to some degree, the anchors who would read the story. And while I wasn’t great at completely aping the sound of their voices, I could get the cadences down, I could wager where they’d be likely to pause, speed up, or slow down. It made me a better writer to understand how my anchors would speak.

And so after the first chapter of the first Harry Potter books fell flat, I realized I needed to become a better reader. These characters had incredible voices. So I began to use them. Harry’s was, obviously, a proper Cockney; Vernon Dursley’s weight and anger meant his whole body should shake when he speaks from the back of his throat; Dudley whines. Hermione has a slightly pressured speech; Ron is quite certainly from Boston. It’s been an enormous success, even if I’ve had to adopt upwards of twenty distinct voices as we’ve progressed through six books. (My favorites are Dumbledore’s Scottish drawl and Ginny’s Irish lilt.)

Gina Ochsner has written a marvelous novel called The Hidden Letters of Velta B. I implore you to read it. The main character, Inara, narrates the stories of her life to her son while on her deathbed. Ochsner’s brilliant writing absorbs the euphony of oral story-telling. The voice of Inara is so sublime that you’ll find the words tumbling out of your mouth in an empty room at 1am.

Inara believes inviolably in the telling of stories out loud because in this way we can “bury them deeply and firmly, pushing them down to an unshakeable foundation, a bedrock of truth.” And on this we can begin to build, to connect to each other in new ways. My experience in reading to the kids has had this effect. I’m often called upon to do one of the voices while making dinner, giving baths, saying goodnight. These stories, heard aloud, have come alive. For example, my son mimics well my voice for Luna Lovegood. During a theater class he used the voice to perform a short monologue. Based on the way I’ve read Luna’s character it fit perfectly into the character he assumed.

But I have questioned the effect of my reading efforts. Have I somehow warped the story to my own whimsical adaptations? Or prevented them from fully grasping the weight of it? They did not respond to a main character’s death with any emotion (I even read it during the day so they wouldn’t fall asleep heartbroken!) And what about when I read these books again and I do some of the voices differently?

Inara’s son Maris questions the logic of verbal story-telling. Here’s how Inara responds:

If you stand in a river you will never feel the same water touch you twice. A story is never told exactly the same way… The words work on us differently each time we hear them…As familiar as they are, they will never grow old. We stand in those familiar waters and feel ourselves transformed anew. This is the power of word worked through the body.

This is why we must tell our stories.

I know that reading Harry Potter through out loud this time has worked such an exact magic over me. It’s an altered experience to dart around the room reading about when Harry wins the Quidditch Cup. To shake and growl out Hagrid’s bellowing because his spider has died. Or to work Harry’s anger toward Dumbledore through my jaw. To squeak out Neville’s bravery in book one and know what happens in book seven.

There is a transformative energy that come with sending words up and out through the body, whether they are your own or someone else’s. And even though my youngest daughter often comes into the room to tell me I’m being too loud and she can’t sleep, I can’t ignore the refrain of Inara’s dying exhortation: “Let us baptize our world in words.”