Saturday, 14 February 2015

J.R.R. Tolkien on Being Better Together

This morning I was reading from The Silmarillion, where Tolkien describes the history of the universe he created that lies behind the stories in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The creation story here is magnificent (and I’m sure I’ll write something else about that), but today I’d like to highlight one particularly beautiful passage where Tolkien describes what it means to be in a meaningful relationship.

Manwë and Varda, borrowed from here and here

Following the story of creation, we read a description of the divine beings the “god” of this universe, Ilúvatar, brought forth and which inhabit the world. One of these divine beings, Manwë, is “dearest to Ilúvatar and understands most clearly his purposes. He was appointed to be, in the fullness of time, the first of all Kings: lord of [the world] and ruler of all that dwell therein.” The next being described is Varda, “who knows all the regions of [creation]. Too great is her beauty to be declared in the words of Men or of Elves; for the light of Ilúvatar lives still in her face. In light is her power and her joy.” 

Separately, they are awe-inspiring. But something even greater happens when they are together: 
Manwë and Varda are seldom parted, and they remain in [the home of divine beings]. Their halls are above the everlasting snow, upon…[the] tallest of all the mountains upon Earth. When Manwë there ascends his throne and looks forth, if Varda is beside him, he sees further than all other eyes, through mist, and through darkness, and over the leagues of the sea. And if Manwë is with her, Varda hears more clearly than all other ears the sound of voices that cry from east to west, from the hills and the valleys, and from the dark places that [evil] has made upon Earth. 
There is something magical that happens when these two are in each other’s presence. They do not lose their identity by living together; rather, their closeness enhances their individuality as they can see further and hear more than was possible without the other. 

On Valentine’s Day, this seems especially relevant. I’ve always felt this way about my beloved sweetheart. It’s difficult to explain, but I’m a better me when I’m around her, which is why I want to be around her so much. My senses are heightened around her—I can see more clearly what is truly beautiful, and I can hear more perceptively what is truly meaningful in the world. And in doing so, I sense how to become something brighter than I was beforesomething more uniquely “me.” But it’s only when I’m with her that I can become the “me” that I should be.

"The Kiss" by Gustav Klimt (1908)

Tolkien manages to depict this paradox of beautiful individuality amplified by unity in these brief sentences, and reading this helped me to better recognize and appreciate the miraculous transformation that can occur when we love and are loved by another.

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Into the Woods and Why Fairy Tales Still Matter

Let me first say that I think Into the Woods is an important story that illustrates an incredibly important principle. However, if audience members take this principle the wrong way, their lives will be impoverished. The ideas expressed therein are that potent.

Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s play provides a necessary critique of how we react to and appropriate fairy tales--it does this by giving us exactly what we expect from fairy tales in the first act, only to deconstruct those ideas in the second act. Here are just two of the various storylines: 
  • A barren couple is given a child; the wife then commits adultery 
  • A pure-hearted girl wishes for a Prince; the Prince turns out to be insubstantial and unfaithful 
When I first saw this play over a decade ago, I really didn't like it - I thought the underlying message was nihilistic and that it denied the existence of those positive ideals portrayed in fairy tales. In other words, fairytales are for the naive and simple-minded. After seeing the recent movie adaptation, however, I've changed my mind.

Apparition in the Woods by Moritz von Schwind (1858)

Over the past several months, I've become fascinated (bordering on obsessed) with fairy tales and their ability to explore truths in ways that other mediums cannot. In other words, I now believe in fairy tales. Given my previous perception of Into the Woods and my newfound love for fairy tales, you might expect that my reaction this time around would be even more violent. But it wasn't. I don't see Into the Woods as a piece of anti-fairy tale propaganda, like I did before. Now, I see it as a much-needed corrective to our expectations of how the truths of fairy tales translate into our own lives.

It's easy to see the pure ideals set forth in fairy tales as describing how our lives ought to be (or the best we have to hope for)--barren couples ought to be blessed with children, and pure-hearted girls ought to marry a handsome Prince who is heir to a kingdom. Believing these sorts of things about fairy tales is harmful, and it is this particular principle that Into the Woods confronts through its story.

Into the Woods introduces a necessary variable into the arithmetic of life as it is: messiness. Fairy tales provide a picture (a snapshot, really) of an ideal, leaving the prologue and the epilogue to that story untold. This is a very real limitation of fairy tales, and Into the Woods highlights this point by showing how classic fairy tales would play out after the story’s traditional ending. It shows us that "happily ever afters" are quite provisional. 

Because of the limitations of fairytales, the final song exhorts the audience to be careful of the stories it tells to children (lest they expect these stories to be exact maps of how their lives should proceed). Indeed, this is wise counsel, as long as it is equally applied to its own story. If all we see in Into the Woods is a deconstruction of fairy tales and their irrelevance for "modern," "real" life, I think we miss a much larger point. Barren couples are given children that make their lives more complete, pure-hearted girls do find Princes (though not quite heirs of a kingdom), and some of the most fantastic wishes really do come true (just see what this child’s wish to become Batman for a day did to the entire city of San Francisco).

I think that the larger, more important point is that every story is an incomplete picture of the reality's richness, which is why we need both Into the Woods and classic fairy tales. Fairy tales should be a vital part of the network of stories we entertain that help us make sense of reality and that help us find meaning in life. Fairy tales can help us to gain a sense of wonder for the world around us and can make us more aware of the truly good things and people that surround us. But, as Into the Woods reminds us, we shouldn't expect everything around us to be wonderful or everyone around us to always be good and do good to us.

Real life is an alloy of the ideal and the real, good and bad, hopes and disappointments. This is why we need to feed our imaginations with a healthy diet of stories across this entire spectrum. Into the Woods reminds us of this vital truth. 

Good Art: What it is and How to Share it

I’ve written before about the power of stories and how they’ve held me. I’ve also written about the stories we call “myths”and their beauties. Now I’d like to start exploring specific stories and the ways those stories have changed me. But I also have in mind something larger, and for that, I’ll really like some help.

This direction is, in part, inspired by an interview I saw with Neil Gaiman (one of my favorite storytellers). In response to Gaiman’s 2012 commencement speech and its development into the book Make Good Art, the interviewer asked him a really good question: 

What is great art?

Here is Neil Gaiman’s response:
Great art for me is anything that provokes a deep emotional reaction at the time that you hear it and then you can’t get [it] out of your head… whether it’s a painting or a piece of music or a book…With a book it’s that moment where you put it down and you go…,“I’m not quite the same person that I was before I read that book; I’m not the same person that I was before I saw this painting.” University of the Arts 2013 interview
I would like to use this as the guiding principle for the stories and other art that I share here, as well as the stories and art that I would like you to share with me and everyone else in the world. This will be a safe place for people to share stories (in any medium) that have deeply moved them and have positively changed the way that they see and experience the world. And in the future, I would also like this to become a place where storytellers and other artists will feel comfortable sharing those of their creations that have changed them.

The Last Unicorn by Su Blackwell (2012)

With this storehouse of tales and the lessons we’ve distilled from them, my hope is that “each reader will undoubtedly find his or her favorites: be they tales that edify or perplex, astonish or delight, be they myths that stick in the craw, force one to reconsider, or make the heart melt. For there [will be] as many gates in [the following posts] as there are stories (and some would say, as there are readers)” (from the preface to Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism)

To get us started, here’s a piece I just wrote about Into the Woods and why fairy tales still matter.

Now, if you have experienced good art that has changed you and would be willing to share a bit of that art with others, please e-mail me at

Happy story-sharing…