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. 

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