I’ve been taking a class (and when I say “taking a class” what I really mean is “listening to a podcast”) by Cory Olsen, also known as the Tolkien Professor. In this class, called Faerie and Fantasy, Cory and his students delve deep into the hearts of medieval and modern Fairy Stories. Assigned as reading for this class are many fairy stories that have been collected and compiled by Andrew Lang in his Colour series. These would be more modern tales such as Cinderella and Jack and the beanstalk.
In reading the assigned stories I’m finding myself quite carried away by the literature! It’s all so beautiful and fascinating and, most importantly, always has a happy ending. But something about these fairy stories is off ever so slightly. Something is missing.
The prince and the princess (or prince and virtuous farm girl or vice-versa) fall deeply in love and marry in the end. The wicked are either reformed or burned at the stake. The enchantment is broken! Yay! So what’s the problem?
It’s not finished, is the problem! I’ve been given a beautiful story of good versus evil, but why? Take the story of Beauty and the Beast (one of my favorites):
After finding shelter and being saved with mysterious hospitality in a seemingly empty castle, an old merchant sets off back home, taking with him a single red rose for his youngest daughter. At that moment a beast comes to him from within the castle and punishes him for taking the rose by having the man agree to send one of his daughters to willingly remain at the castle forever.
Beauty, the youngest, decides to take the burden upon herself and finds that she only ever sees the Beast at suppertime when he converses with her about her day and always, before he leaves, asks the girl to marry him. She always refuses (politely).
After Beauty gets permission to return to her family for a short visit she comes back to find her Beast dying for fear that she had forgotten her promise to come back (he loves her deeply). At this moment she realizes how much she loves him. They sup and she agrees to be his bride. Magically he is turned back into his natural princely form and they live happily ever after.
Cute, right? I thought so. But, now I’m curious. Why was the prince enchanted? Why did Beauty have to accept his proposal to break the spell? Why was the Beast so angry at Beauty’s father for taking the rose? Why did Beauty have to willingly agree to spend all the rest of her days in the castle with the Beast? And where were all the servants?
I feel like whatever I’ve just read, however awesome and beautiful, is only a sub-plot and the real meat of the story has been left out. Or that the whole story is a loaf of bread baked without yeast. Where is the back-story? What makes the story significant? Will we ever know?
Perhaps what I’m looking for has been lost over time as the story was passed orally from generation to generation. Perhaps the writers never meant to include it. Perhaps this tale was derived for the sole purpose of teaching children not to trust in appearances. Or maybe the creators simply liked Love Stories without adding “unnecessary” information (like why the beast was enchanted in the first place). After all, this really is a story about Beauty, not Beast.
However, I can’t help but feel a tad bit sorrowful for not being given any explanation. Perhaps it’s this hunger that drives me to read tale after tale. And perhaps that mystery simply adds to the beauty of the thing. We aren’t able to know or even comprehend everything in life. Some things remain a mystery and that’s why we love them so much! (Plus, making your own back story is really fun!)
Humans love mystery. We love not being able to comprehend things, but still trying with all our might to do so. I suppose that’s one reason these stories have been around for so long. We can’t explain them, but we also can’t deny their beauty and appeal. And that makes it all the more beautiful.
Photo Source: Disney