Current Events and Fairy Tales

I have been decidedly quiet about current events lately. One reason is that I don’t actually read/listen to the news, and I try not to make opinions based on headlines. And the other reason is that I don’t often make it a habit to discuss current events in print. That said, there has been a lot over the last couple months that are worth considering, especially considering the idea that there is a “something” (apocalypse, paradigm shift) on the horizon. This is a season of change, and we have known it was happening, but now we seem to be staring this change in the face.

See, what we are witnessing in current events isn’t a new myth or anything like that. Rather, what we are witnessing is the continuation (perhaps culmination) to a mythos that has been in play in the modern world for some time now. We’ve seen uprisings, debates, concern over government control, unrest in the Middle East… None of this is new. Sure, there are some new factors, such as media barrage and social networking tools. Major change cannot happen overnight. Notice how many times “change” has happened overnight and how quickly we revert back to the “old ways.”

The conflict we are seeing is the emergence of a new mythology and the unwillingness to let the old one go. This is indicative of a period of change, which, if history is any indication, can last a couple hundred years (or longer depending on transmission of information and military action).

What is this old mythology, you might ask? It’s the mythology of the hero and the idea of an adventure to destroy a specific evil. I do not need to provide examples of this motif, since it is everywhere. I would venture to suggest that this motif is the result of the utopian dreams that emerged in the Renaissance. Prior to the Renaissance and the conquest of the New World, hero stories involved some sort of epic battle, a dramatic rescue, or the finding of a lost item. Following the discovery of the New World, the hero’s journey gradually morphed into the destruction of an evil (known or unknown) to parallel the utopian goals of Manifest Destiny and American claims to the lands of the West. Once the West was “conquered,” the stories were less literal (cowboys versus Indians) and turned into metaphors of good and evil. English fantasy is an excellent example of this shift. The evils of Tolkien and Lewis deal with archetypal evils, making them applicable to any cultural situation (and thus timeless!). But, I would like to underscore the point that although the American psyche is unique in the world, it is still connected to the Western psyche at its roots, such that the evils of the Old World are the same as the evils of the New World, because that is the tradition we have inherited.

What might the new mythology look like? A friend of mine believes that the new mythology will look something like The Last Airbender. This is a story not about destroying evil, but about restoring balance. The point isn’t to destroy the fire people, but to end the domination of one element over the others. This is very different than destroying a specific evil, such as Frodo’s journey in The Lord of the Rings, because it acknowledges that evil is not something that can be completely eradicated. Evil is a part of human nature. It’s an outdated (Victorian/Enlightenment) concept to consider that we can completely shut down evil forces. This is what Jung was advocating with his emphasis on the shadow. Knowing the shadow is to know that evil exists – within yourself no less. Knowing the shadow also means coming to terms with your own nature, and the nature of all humanity.

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In a similar vein, I started watching, at the persistent recommendation of a couple students, Grimm and Once Upon a Time on Hulu this week. I’m not too far into either show yet, but I see the promise of both of them. I’m fascinated by the use of the Disney fairy tales in Once Upon a Time and the crime-solving aspect of Grimm. However, what I am most fascinated by is the recent wave of fairy tale reimaginings that has hit the cinema as of late. The potency of fairy tales is that they can be retold in different times and places, but this wave seems somehow different. While many of the stories are given a modern component, there is something dark and gothic about the approach. As though the hero figure of the story isn’t just having a fairy tale journey toward a happily ever after but, rather, that the story itself reflects the times and our hope that we are nearing the end of the darkness of our cultural suffering. Of course, we’re not, but these stories remind us of the power of hope and belief whenever times are tough, and also the power of story to speak to our deepest fear and give voice to our concerns. Stories speak in a metaphorical language, especially fairy tales, which is why the psychologists (Jung and otherwise) have devoted a lot of time to exploring their psychological power.

If my read on what is happening is even somewhat correct – and I am very open to the likelihood that I’m missing the mark by a gazillion miles – then the new myth will invite revisionings of fairy tales that will make stories very different than what we currently believe the formula to be. This discussion is already happening with regards to the female hero adventure and whether or not her story can fit the mold, which most conclusions deciding that it cannot. Couple this with Campbell’s claim that what happens next is a return to a matriarchal world, the dawning of the age of Aquarius, and the vehement apocalyptic themes in movies, television and video games, we can see that the shift is already happening. And that’s what makes this particular time so fascinating, if not more than a little scary.