Once upon a time in midwinter, when the snowflakes were falling like feathers from heaven, a queen sat sewing at her window, which had a frame of black ebony wood. As she sewed she looked up at the snow and pricked her finger with her needle. Three drops of blood fell into the snow. The red on the white looked so beautiful that she thought to herself, “If only I had a child as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as the wood in this frame.”
There are so many versions of Snow White, available in so many mediums with numerous revisions and editions – even from the brother’s Jacob and Wilhelm themselves there were seven editions of their fairytales published before the version we know and love today was translated into English.
I’ve been thinking over the concept of fairytales these past few weeks, and what it is that attracts us all to such a story. So innocent and naive, full of fairies, nights in shining armour, and stereotypical princesses that seem to prolong the misguided fantasy of a helpless damsel in distress.
It was Tolkien who hit the nail on its head when he penned the words “History became legend. Legend became myth.” Perhaps after that, if he were not so concerned about a certain ring of power that passed out of knowledge for two thousand years, he would have added, “Myth became fable.” There is something dark in the heart of every single fairytale that harkens back to truth and the human condition. Strip away the beautiful words and the magical element, and we are left with raw and brutal stories that often relate back to our own struggles, needs and desires.
Fairytales have a unique way of wrenching at our heart strings. We want the magic and the beauty of ‘Fairy’, and we identify brutally with the morality hidden in the ‘tale’.
But there is another element that attracts us to the fairytale, far more simple and basic, and more closely related to the art of the storyteller.
Pick up any book and open it to the first page. Read the first word. The first sentence. The first paragraph. If it’s good, you’ll be hooked, and you will probably be turning the page before you know it. In fact I challenge you to pick up five good books and read the first sentence without finding yourself drawn into the second. Even the bible got it right, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” It’s mysterious, dark, and emotive.
Back to the fairytale, and I’ll throw out a bold statement and suggested that there are no other four words in all of written history that capture our imagination and yearning better than “Once upon a time”.
No one else had an audience better hooked in the first four words than our Brothers Grimm. Pair it with the vital ingredients of the full sentence, followed by a great paragraph, then introduce the innocent heroine, the handsome, brave, and at his best slightly tortured hero. Throw them at the mercy of a suitably despicable antagonist and pepper the story with dirty little secrets and undeniable truths before sealing it with a kiss of moral lesson learning, and there you have it – Snow White resurrected by true love and married to her Prince Charming happily ever after. The end.
On that note, there is a very good chance I’ll have a new fairytale up and ready for you beautiful people sometime this week, but right now it’s still in the womb.
In the meantime, if you haven’t already, allow me to introduce you to one of my older explorations into the land of faery, The Princess of the Howling Waste.
This story begins just like all good fairy tales have since the dawn of time itself, before the young sun had made his first dance across the heavens and before the moon had seen her stars.
This is how the great bards and story tellers of a bygone age began their nights by the bonfire. This is how your story was passed on through the generations, from the lips of the old to the ears of the young. This is the point where you leave today and enter the world of yesterday, of tomorrow, and the forgotten realm of your imagination.
Once Upon a Time, a very long time ago when dragons still roamed the earth, and fairies still danced over the beds of young babes while they lay sleeping there lived a king in castle, the king of a great kingdom. Outside the walls of the kingdom there was a desert land, a barren and howling waste where a princess lived in rags, beautiful and forsaken, with a heart of fire and gold and a life of unfulfilled dreams and torn promises…