The Ethics of Elfland

What role do fairy tales play in the lives of grown ups?

Last week I had the surprising privilege of seeing Disney’s adaptation of Into the Woods and reading G.K. Chesterton’s chapter The Ethics of Elfland on the same day.

I know, I know that the stage musical is better. Certainly the film of Into the Woods lost out by downplaying the infidelity and not killing off the narrator and not drawing as much attention to our fear of death. But they only had so much time and the story is still so good and it was beautifully filmed. I really enjoyed it.

Mostly I think I enjoyed it because I have been reading G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy and I finished reading his chapter The Ethics of Elfland right before I walked into the cinema. I was not expecting to read an extensive exploration of how fairy tales connect with grown up thought that day. It definitely put me in an unusual frame of mind to see Stephen Sondheim’s take on all these fairy tales and how they speak to grown ups today.

There are many interesting themes in Into the Woods but one of the biggest overarching themes is that nothing is black and white. The message takes on so many forms in the story. There is confusion about how to seek justice in the middle of chaos; characters learn to be content with a not-as-happy ending; there is the powerful line in ‘You are not alone’: ‘you decide what’s right, you decide what’s good’. G.K. Chesterton, on the other hand, seems pretty sure that objective morality exists. He has been convinced – by fairy tales no less! – that there is some kind limit or rule imposed on us that we do well to keep, even if we don’t understand why.

This princess lives in a glass castle, that princess on a glass hill; this one sees all things in a mirror; they may all live in glass houses if they will not throw stones. For this thin glitter of glass everywhere is the expression of the fact that the happiness is bright but brittle, like the substance most easily smashed by a housemaid or a cat.

And this fairy-tale sentiment also sank into me and became my sentiment towards the whole world. I felt and feel that life itself is as bright as the diamond, but as brittle as the window-pane ; and when the heavens were compared to the terrible crystal I can remember a shudder. I was afraid that God would drop the cosmos with a smash.

Remember, however, that to be breakable is not the same as to be perishable. Strike a glass, and it will not endure an instant; simply do not strike it and it will endure a thousand years. Such, it seemed, was the joy of man, either in elfland or on earth ; the happiness depended on not doing something which you could at any moment do and which, very often, it was not obvious why you should not do.

Now, the point here is that to me this did not seem unjust. If the miller’s third son said to the fairy, “Explain to me why I must not stand on my head in the fairy palace,” the other might fairly reply, “Well, if it comes to that, explain the fairy palace.” If Cinderella says, “How is it that I must leave the ball at twelve?” her godmother might answer, “How is it that you are going there till twelve?” If I leave a man in my will ten talking elephants and a hundred winged horses, he cannot complain if the conditions partake of the slight eccentricity of the gift. He must not look a winged horse in the mouth.

And it seemed to me that existence was itself so very eccentric a legacy that I could not complain of not understanding the limitations of the vision when I did not understand the vision they limited. The frame was no stranger than the picture. The veto might be as wild as the vision ; it might be as startling as the sun, as elusive as the waters, as fantastic and terrible as the towering trees.

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