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Archive for the ‘Fairy Tales’ Category

I don’t think I have ever physically kicked myself.

But I am a little tempted to do so, in opposition to the generally accepted sense of the term, when I recall that Disney’s “Frozen” was playing in my local theater shortly after it first came out, and I did not go see it.  Had I known what a sensation it would become, I might have rethought that decision.

Anyway, I did finally get around to seeing the film a couple weeks ago.  Apart from some broader reflections that I offered last week, here are the thoughts that stand out most in my mind:

René_GirardElsa, the “snow queen” (voiced by Idina Menzel), made me think of Stanford University anthropologist René Girard’s great book “The Scapegoat,” in which he demonstrates the universality of the scapegoat mechanism across all cultures and its concealed presence in world mythology.

ElsaElsa qualifies as a scapegoat in the classical sense — not merely as one who gets blamed for everything, but one who is:

1) distinguished by some unusual mark or deformity — in Elsa’s case, her (often uncontrollable) magical powers of being able to produce and manipulate ice and snow (if we are looking for a more concrete physical mark, it would be the white gloves she wears to conceal these powers);

2) somehow perceived as the cause of the pestilence or curse on the community — Elsa does, of course, set off the “eternal winter” (though not on purpose); and

3) perceived at the same time as the one who can cure the community’s misfortune — a big part of the quest to rescue Elsa is to get her to stop the “eternal winter,” after all.

Contrary to what you might think, the latter is especially troubling with regard to traditional scapegoats.  Very often, this was where human sacrifice would come into play.  The one with the special “mark” would be killed (“sacrificed”), and this person’s death was thought to bring about the harmony and safety of the community.  Subsequently and as a result, the scapegoat would be deified or “mythified.” This basic societal impulse would morph into a variety of well-known stories (the blind Oedipus, for example).

Anna_Elsa2I hope I haven’t got people depressed.  If so, know that the analogy doesn’t end here.  “Frozen” is a much more upbeat and hopeful tale than Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen,” on which it is loosely based — and, ironically, the scapegoat mechanism doesn’t seem to make it into the latter at all.

Hans-elsa-stormBut before I move on, just one further illustration of how Elsa resembles the traditional scapegoat.  I’m thinking of the scene in which Prince Hans (voiced by Santino Fontana) and his band of men come to capture her in her secluded “ice palace.”  In the face of these intruders who appear to mean her harm, Elsa unleashes her powers in self-defense.

At this point, Hans pleads with her –apparently with concern and sincerity — not to “become the monster they think you are.”

If Elsa’s situation in general reminds me of the scapegoat mechanism in general, then this scene in particular makes me think of perhaps the most striking living example of this societal impulse mentioned in the Bible: The Gerasene demoniac.

Healing_of_the_demon-possessedMost people know this to be the gentleman out of whom Christ cast a host of demons, whom he then allowed to enter a herd of swine.  But if we read the Gospel account carefully we find that beforehand, the demoniac’s community carefully maintained his status as village outcast by chaining him to the tombs.  What results is a vicious circle.  The demoniac rages about, breaks his chains, gashes himself with stones…in short, “becomes the monster they think he is.”

This chaining is both literal and symbolic.  It is a concrete manifestation of the community’s determination to keep him trapped in his scapegoat status.  Elsa faces a somewhat similar situation in “Frozen.”  But, like the Gerasene demoniac, she is rescued by Christ — although in a more indirect, disguised, and admittedly symbolic form.

We’ll get into that next time.

“Frozen” stills obtained through a Google image search; remaining images from Wikipedia

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Frozen_(2013_film)_poster

Please note: This is not going to be an in-depth commentary on the film.  I intend to offer one of those in the very near future, but this particular post is more of a general observation/reflection.

In a recent AP article, Sandy Cohen observes a trend in Disney films — most notably, the 2013 film “Frozen” — involving stronger female protagonists who, among other things, no longer need a “Prince Charming.”

Cohen draws attention to some interesting topics that are well worth exploring, and to do justice to such exploration would probably require a series of posts.  For the present, I want to focus specifically on “Frozen” and attend to how it deals with the subject of love.

Anna_ElsaWhile I think Cohen is unduly harsh on traditional romantic motifs in Disney fairy tales, I also see much that is positive in, for example, “Frozen’s” shift of focus.  As fans of the film know, the main thrust of the narrative involves Princess Anna’s (voiced by Kristen Bell) tireless quest to find and rescue her estranged sister, Queen Elsa (voiced by Idina Menzel), and, by extension, the Kingdom of Arendelle.

There are hints of romance in the movie, of course — most notably, between Anna and the intrepid iceman Kristoff (voiced by Jonathan Groff).  But this is peripheral.  Sisterly love is the main “point” of the movie.

Bear with me while I step away from “Frozen” for just a moment (which I’m only doing to make my discussion of the film more fruitful).  One of the troubles with the English language is that we really have only one word for love.  And often — especially when it comes to storytelling — we associate it primarily with romance.  (Do we recognize different kinds of love?  Sure.  But let’s face it: When we hear, “This is a love story,” do we think mom-and-baby or knight-and-damsel?)

The ancient Greeks, on the other hand, had several different terms denoting different forms of love.  Two examples: Eros was their word for romantic love; but then there was also philia, which was the love of friendship and family.  Interestingly, some of the wisest among the Greeks believed that philia, not eros, was the highest form of love — because eros, even in its noblest form, involves the expectation of pleasure, whereas friendship is more disinterested and more naturally conducive to selflessness.

Anna_Elsa2The fact of sisterhood clearly puts Anna and Elsa within the realm of philia.  But more importantly, we see in Anna’s quest to save Elsa and Arendelle at least something of the highest form of love, the love which contains and perfects all other loves — in Greek, agape; in Latin, caritas, which enters the English language as charity.  This is the love which wills the good of the other as other.

Again, I think the trend in which Cohen situates “Frozen” has some positive aspects.  I think part of the reason our culture has developed an unhealthy fixation with all things sexual, and why many marriages are collapsing, is that deep in our souls we desire a broader experience of love that is not limited merely to eros; but since we have fallen just short of equating love almost exclusively with the erotic (meant in the classical sense of the term, as referring to sexual attraction in general rather than to anything “kinky”), we tend toward the idolization of sexuality and the idealization of romantic relationships (which leads us to demand too much of them).

To be clear, I do not believe it is the responsibility of Disney movies to ensure that people understand and appreciate the full breadth and depth of human love and affection.  But all art has a way of making things like this come alive, and of drawing our hearts and minds toward worthy things.  Further, it makes sense for art forms intended for children to explore the types of relationships to which children can more easily relate.

Movie poster image from Wikipedia; stills obtained through a Google image search

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I thought I might be able to have my post-retreat reflections ready for tonight…alas, it didn’t work out.  I’ll try for tomorrow.  In the meantime, hopefully this will more than make up for its absence tonight:

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Note: For part one of this series, click here.

Gundestrup_C

In part one, I expressed an interest in exploring the “seeds of the Word” in the Irish culture that St. Patrick encountered.  Without neglecting this, I would like to broaden my scope to include Celtic culture in general, not just Ireland.

The Celtic pagans — unlike their Germanic and Scandinavian neighbors, whose cosmologies were more or less mapped out so that different realms could be seen in their spatial relation to “Midgard,” or earth — believed in the interweaving of the natural and supernatural worlds.  Otherworldly realms of gods and spirits — including the realm (or realms) of the dead — were believed to have interacted with and even “touched” the everyday natural world, much as the ghostly mists of Ireland and Britain crept through the trees, cliffs, hills, and fields.

Samhain

Many are familiar with the fact that the spirits of the dead were thought to have reentered the world every year on the night of October 31, during the festival of Samhain (an “ancestor” of the modern day Halloween).

Mabinogion

And then you have stories of heroes such as Pwyll Pendefig Dyfed in Wales, which exemplify the “commerce” believed to be possible between our world and the otherworld (in the Welsh epic “The Mabinogion,” a hunting expedition into the woods brings Pwyll to the otherworldly realm of Annwn and back).

Finally, various supernatural entities (leprechauns, for example) were thought to have made their homes beneath the surfaces of streams, rocks, trees, hills, etc.  How’s that for eyeball-to-eyeball?

All this makes for fantastic storytelling.  But beyond that, for what might it have been paving the way?

Noel-coypel-the-resurrection-of-christ-1700

Like all other “seeds of the Word,” this points to the Word Himself, Jesus Christ.  By dying and then rising from the dead, He reunited God and man, heaven and earth, the spiritual and the material.  And in Him the faithful are united with one another not only across space and culture, but also across time and death itself.

Some of the great mystics of the Christian tradition have experienced this reality in a particularly profound way.  St. Maria Faustina Kowalska, a Polish nun who died just before the outbreak of World War II, wrote in her world-renowned diary (“Divine Mercy in My Soul”) about meeting the souls of deceased friends, the Blesséd Virgin Mary, and Jesus Christ Himself in convent hallways on the way to performing her routine daily tasks…usually because they had requested a prayer or act on her part.

It must be noted that few people are granted experiences like this; they are indeed very, very rare — even, from what I understand, among saints.  But they are merely intensifications of a reality that is true for all the faithful: The Communion of Saints.

As members of the Body of Christ, we are united with our brothers and sisters in the glory of heaven and in the purification of Purgatory.  In Christ, we are united to the Virgin Mary, the Apostles, all the saints, the prophets and patriarchs of the Old Testament, and the great multitude of the redeemed from the beginning of the world up to the present.  We are surrounded not only by them, but also by all the choirs of angels, from the lowest choirs that are nearest to us all the way up to the fiery seraphim who minister to the immediate presence of God.  We are reminded of this reality every time we go into church and are surrounded by sacred images in stained glass windows, statues, etc.

Let me quickly mention two more components of the Christian life on which this “otherworldly” reality comes to bear:

1. Prayer

PrayerWhen we offer to God sincere prayer — that is, when we take the time to commune with the Thrice-Holy God, leaving our worldly baggage behind as much as we can in order to approach the holy mountain — we are in a certain sense bringing heaven down to earth.

2. The Mass

Mass_at_Lourdes

Last but not least, there is the Mass, which is quite literally where heaven and earth meet.  When we participate in Mass, we join the heavenly liturgy in which all the saints and angels praise God (for more on this, I’d recommend Scott Hahn’s book “The Lamb’s Supper”).

Five more days until St. Patrick’s Day.  Until then, I do have a few more items I want to talk about.  Thanks for reading, and stay tuned.

Image of “The Mabinogion” from www.amazon.com; remaining images from Wikipedia

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Alien_(1979)_-_The_AlienMyths and fairy tales are two separate, though deeply related, genres; but the concerns of both tie in with the concerns of science fiction. For our purposes, these concerns pertain to suffering.

In his book “Making Sense Out of Suffering” (if you haven’t read it, do so — it’s a real gem), Peter Kreeft designates myths as dealing with suffering in terms of “paradise lost” and fairy tales as dealing with the need for shadows against the light to make for an engaging story.

Sci-fi has both of these elements.  In some ways, they feed off of each other.

And by the way, by “shadow” we mean monsters, witches, dragons…and yes, Ridley Scott’s “Alien” creature.  And in dystopic stories like the upcoming film “Elysium,” it comes in the form of totalitarian oppression.

The why of shadows is obvious: Without danger and conflict, the story gets boring.  But we can’t forget that science fiction is the lore of a technological age, the summum bonum of which is the pursuit of convenience, pleasure, ease, and the cure of all ills.

While this might sound good in everyday life, no narrative can sustain itself along such lines.  And so we have “shadows” that are specific to premises based on dreams of technological and scientific progress.

But I don’t think storytelling is the only issue here.  Storytelling, after all, comes from a deep, basic, and primordial understanding of reality.  As much as we might wish for a perfect society in which science and technology solve all of life’s problems and end all its evils, I think somewhere in our souls we get the sense that it can never be quite that simple — not, at any rate, on this plane of existence.

BraveNewWorld_FirstEdition

Even utopian societies such as the one portrayed in Alduous Huxley’s “Brave New World” show us the dark side of our technological dreams.  In the future Huxley envisions, everyone is perfectly content, because they are genetically engineered to like and fit into whatever roles the governing body wants them to fill.

The problem, however, is that mankind has lost one of its chiefest and most valuable treasures: Freedom.  All people are pawns in a great machine that conditions them as it wishes, so that they cannot think, reason, wonder, want, pursue, or hope for themselves.

So there are dark shadows even in utopia.  And in all of its varieties, science fiction is at its most compelling when it pits darkness and light against one another.  And it most speaks to the soul when it acknowledges the ultimate victory of the latter.

That’s the shadows side.  We’ll get to the “paradise lost” side next time.

Images from Wikipedia

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Elysium_PosterThe slew of recent, current, and upcoming science fiction films and TV shows intrigue me; and of course, they inspired this post.

But I don’t think I’m so much dealing with a current trend as with a deep fascination that won’t go away.  Science fiction, many have said, is the mythology of the modern world.

The word “mythology” has at best an academic connotation, and at worst the air of the naivete of pre-modern man.

But as famed Middle-Earth creator J.R.R. Tolkien said, a myth is in fact “the very opposite of a lie.”*  Myths tell us, in a sense, who we are — not as societies, or as cultures, or as people of this or that time or place, but as human beings.

Our most primal longings, desires, and fears are expressed not in words or on paper, but in the images and motifs of the myth.

TechnologyBut the meaning of “myth” in a technological society is a little ambiguous.

To be sure, our technology and scientific progress have been remarkable assets to us.  They even express the creative aspect of our being made in the Divine image.

But slowly, surely, and to some extent unconsciously, we have hereby come to see the world and even ourselves as objects for use rather than for reverence and awe, as problems (in the mathematical sense) to be solved rather than as mysteries to be known (in the existential, rather than experimental, sense).

We have made objective reality a matter of cold, impersonal measurements, having nothing to do with values, meaning, or purpose — all of which are now considered “subjective.”

If sci-fi tells us anything, I think it’s that the technological boom cannot and will not dispose of our deeper humanity…our sense of wonder, the searching of our hearts.  The “dream” of science fiction is that even a technological society is not immune to the wonders and dangers of a universe like ours.

* Quoted from a dramatization, which can be viewed here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NzBT39gx-TE&feature=player_embedded

Photos from Wikipedia

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I am hard at work on an article for the newspaper, so for tonight I’ll give you another video.

This one is from “Theater of the Word,” and it dramatizes an early debate between J.R.R. Tolkien (creator of Middle-Earth) and C.S. Lewis (creator of Narnia), back when Lewis was still an atheist.  I figured it would be apropos, given our recent reflections on fairy tales in contemporary culture.  Enjoy!

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