The Joy of Fairy Tales (or what to read/ watch with your pumpkin spice latte, Manhattan, hard cider or double vodka)

(illustration from “Beauty and the Beast” by Edmund Dulac)

Fall, as we head towards Halloween, is a good time to think about fairy tales. Of course the best time to read them is the end of January/ beginning of February when so often all hope seems lost. But an October day with a fairy tale and good snacks has its own delights.

The best ones, of course, are the ones which depict someone who is lost “Wandering between two worlds” as put so well in “Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse” by Matthew Arnold. (WHAT? You don’t know “Grand Chartreuse”? By all the saints what were you TAUGHT in that school of yours? MUST I DO EVERYTHING? Sigh. Fine. I have included the poem below. Oh, no need to thank me profusely. Aunts were born to suffer for their nieces.)

Wandering between two worlds, one dead,

The other powerless to be born,

With nowhere yet to rest my head,

Like these, on earth I wait forlorn.

Their faith, my tears, the world deride—

I come to shed them at their side.

“Wandering between two worlds” is the key to both fairy tales and the need for fairy tales – heroines are always stuck in some way at the start of the story. As are you, oh so often. That space when you know you want or need to make a change in your life and you don’t know how to start. Or you started and are waiting for the answer. Or you started and it didn’t go well so you need to start again. Or (like “Lady in the Water”) you realize you are a sidekick in someone else’s fairy tale.

And when you are lost and confused, it’s helpful to watch Ivy Walker in the “The Village” navigating a forest while she is blind and in peril. It will remind you of your daily life (although you aren’t hindered by four layers of long skirts) and give you courage.

Shall I write you a list? No, of course not. Pick the country or culture you are interested in and go from there. Old-fashioned, new age, punk, sci-fi, classic, feminist (start with “The Bloody Chamber” by Angela Carter).

And don’t forget movies! “Ella Enchanted” to “Maleficent.” “Princess Bride” of course, but then also try “A Cinderella Story,” “Ever After,” “Enchanted,” “Hook,” “Mirror, Mirror,” “Penelope,” “Splash,” and “Stardust.”

Cry over “Finding Neverland,” go off-piste with “Freeway,” try horror with “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters” or “Sleepy Hallow,” maybe dabble in the surreal with “Pan’s Labyrinth,” add dance with “The Red Shoes,” music with “Into the Woods,” or silly with “The Brothers Grimm,” modern revenge therapy with “Hard Candy.” Or search for your favorite tale.

But the best fairy tale movies are “Ladyhawke” and “Inkheart.” Such lovely perfect movies. One can dress up a film with all sorts of costumes, bit actors, wit and gorgeous scenery but the heart of it is the plot and “Ladyhawke” and “Inkheart” have perfect plots. (No, I am not going to tell you and I am not even going to hint. Don’t read about them if you haven’t seen them – just watch and wonder. You will thank me.)

(And note, the book “Inkheart” is vastly different from the movie. Whichever you look at first, you will probably be irritated with the other. I recommend the book for those who like suffering depicted for pages at a time and people who refuse to learn from their mistakes. The movie is for those who love books.)

Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse, ” Matthew Arnold

Through Alpine meadows soft-suffused

With rain, where thick the crocus blows,

Past the dark forges long disused,

The mule-track from Saint Laurent goes.

The bridge is cross’d, and slow we ride,

Through forest, up the mountain-side.

The autumnal evening darkens round,

The wind is up, and drives the rain;

While, hark! far down, with strangled sound

Doth the Dead Guier’s stream complain,

Where that wet smoke, among the woods,

Over his boiling cauldron broods.

Swift rush the spectral vapours white

Past limestone scars with ragged pines,

Showing—then blotting from our sight!—

Halt—through the cloud-drift something shines!

High in the valley, wet and drear,

The huts of Courrerie appear.

Strike leftward! cries our guide; and higher

Mounts up the stony forest-way.

At last the encircling trees retire;

Look! through the showery twilight grey

What pointed roofs are these advance?—

A palace of the Kings of France?

Approach, for what we seek is here!

Alight, and sparely sup, and wait

For rest in this outbuilding near;

Then cross the sward and reach that gate.

Knock; pass the wicket! Thou art come

To the Carthusians’ world-famed home.

The silent courts, where night and day

Into their stone-carved basins cold

The splashing icy fountains play—

The humid corridors behold!

Where, ghostlike in the deepening night,

Cowl’d forms brush by in gleaming white.

The chapel, where no organ’s peal

Invests the stern and naked prayer—

With penitential cries they kneel

And wrestle; rising then, with bare

And white uplifted faces stand,

Passing the Host from hand to hand;

Each takes, and then his visage wan

Is buried in his cowl once more.

The cells!—the suffering Son of Man

Upon the wall—the knee-worn floor—

And where they sleep, that wooden bed,

Which shall their coffin be, when dead!

The library, where tract and tome

Not to feed priestly pride are there,

To hymn the conquering march of Rome,

Nor yet to amuse, as ours are!

They paint of souls the inner strife,

Their drops of blood, their death in life.

The garden, overgrown—yet mild,

See, fragrant herbs are flowering there!

Strong children of the Alpine wild

Whose culture is the brethren’s care;

Of human tasks their only one,

And cheerful works beneath the sun.

Those halls, too, destined to contain

Each its own pilgrim-host of old,

From England, Germany, or Spain—

All are before me! I behold

The House, the Brotherhood austere!

—And what am I, that I am here?

For rigorous teachers seized my youth,

And purged its faith, and trimm’d its fire,

Show’d me the high, white star of Truth,

There bade me gaze, and there aspire.

Even now their whispers pierce the gloom:

What dost thou in this living tomb?

Forgive me, masters of the mind!

At whose behest I long ago

So much unlearnt, so much resign’d—

I come not here to be your foe!

I seek these anchorites, not in ruth,

To curse and to deny your truth;

Not as their friend, or child, I speak!

But as, on some far northern strand,

Thinking of his own Gods, a Greek

In pity and mournful awe might stand

Before some fallen Runic stone—

For both were faiths, and both are gone.

Wandering between two worlds, one dead,

The other powerless to be born,

With nowhere yet to rest my head,

Like these, on earth I wait forlorn.

Their faith, my tears, the world deride—

I come to shed them at their side.

Oh, hide me in your gloom profound,

Ye solemn seats of holy pain!

Take me, cowl’d forms, and fence me round,

Till I possess my soul again;

Till free my thoughts before me roll,

Not chafed by hourly false control!

For the world cries your faith is now

But a dead time’s exploded dream;

My melancholy, sciolists say,

Is a pass’d mode, an outworn theme—

As if the world had ever had

A faith, or sciolists been sad!

Ah, if it be pass’d, take away,

At least, the restlessness, the pain;

Be man henceforth no more a prey

To these out-dated stings again!

The nobleness of grief is gone

Ah, leave us not the fret alone!

But—if you cannot give us ease—

Last of the race of them who grieve

Here leave us to die out with these

Last of the people who believe!

Silent, while years engrave the brow;

Silent—the best are silent now.

Achilles ponders in his tent,

The kings of modern thought are dumb,

Silent they are though not content,

And wait to see the future come.

They have the grief men had of yore,

But they contend and cry no more.

Our fathers water’d with their tears

This sea of time whereon we sail,

Their voices were in all men’s ears

We pass’d within their puissant hail.

Still the same ocean round us raves,

But we stand mute, and watch the waves.

For what avail’d it, all the noise

And outcry of the former men?—

Say, have their sons achieved more joys,

Say, is life lighter now than then?

The sufferers died, they left their pain—

The pangs which tortured them remain.

What helps it now, that Byron bore,

With haughty scorn which mock’d the smart,

Through Europe to the Ætolian shore

The pageant of his bleeding heart?

That thousands counted every groan,

And Europe made his woe her own?

What boots it, Shelley! that the breeze

Carried thy lovely wail away,

Musical through Italian trees

Which fringe thy soft blue Spezzian bay?

Inheritors of thy distress

Have restless hearts one throb the less?

Or are we easier, to have read,

O Obermann! the sad, stern page,

Which tells us how thou hidd’st thy head

From the fierce tempest of thine age

In the lone brakes of Fontainebleau,

Or chalets near the Alpine snow?

Ye slumber in your silent grave!—

The world, which for an idle day

Grace to your mood of sadness gave,

Long since hath flung her weeds away.

The eternal trifler breaks your spell;

But we—we learned your lore too well!

Years hence, perhaps, may dawn an age,

More fortunate, alas! than we,

Which without hardness will be sage,

And gay without frivolity.

Sons of the world, oh, speed those years;

But, while we wait, allow our tears!

Allow them! We admire with awe

The exulting thunder of your race;

You give the universe your law,

You triumph over time and space!

Your pride of life, your tireless powers,

We laud them, but they are not ours.

We are like children rear’d in shade

Beneath some old-world abbey wall,

Forgotten in a forest-glade,

And secret from the eyes of all.

Deep, deep the greenwood round them waves,

Their abbey, and its close of graves!

But, where the road runs near the stream,

Oft through the trees they catch a glance

Of passing troops in the sun’s beam—

Pennon, and plume, and flashing lance!

Forth to the world those soldiers fare,

To life, to cities, and to war!

And through the wood, another way,

Faint bugle-notes from far are borne,

Where hunters gather, staghounds bay,

Round some fair forest-lodge at morn.

Gay dames are there, in sylvan green;

Laughter and cries—those notes between!

The banners flashing through the trees

Make their blood dance and chain their eyes;

That bugle-music on the breeze

Arrests them with a charm’d surprise.

Banner by turns and bugle woo:

Ye shy recluses, follow too!

O children, what do ye reply?—

“Action and pleasure, will ye roam

Through these secluded dells to cry

And call us?—but too late ye come!

Too late for us your call ye blow,

Whose bent was taken long ago.

“Long since we pace this shadow’d nave;

We watch those yellow tapers shine,

Emblems of hope over the grave,

In the high altar’s depth divine;

The organ carries to our ear

Its accents of another sphere.

“Fenced early in this cloistral round

Of reverie, of shade, of prayer,

How should we grow in other ground?

How can we flower in foreign air?

—Pass, banners, pass, and bugles, cease;

And leave our desert to its peace!”