Thursday, 7 May 2015

Relationships, Fairy Tales, and Magical Transformations

One of the many kinds of magic that fairy tales possess is the ability to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary, through the simple waving of a story. George MacDonald knew this magic well, and his writings have helped me to see my world with enchanted eyes. Case in point—after reading The Day Boy and the Night Girl recently, I somehow gained an even greater appreciation for my wife and the consistent, yet subtle effect she’s had on me (this seems to be a trend in the fiction I read—see my post on how Tolkien’s writing did something similar).

Borrowed from

Here’s the premise of the story: In a heartless quest for knowledge, a witch decides to perform an experiment to see what would happen if one person only knew the light of day, and if another person only knew the darkness of night. She captures two newborn children (a girl and a boy), and raises them in these extreme settings. Eventually, the boy raised only during the day and the girl raised only during the night both escape their carefully-controlled environments and are exposed to the foreign worlds of night and day. Naturally, both are terribly frightened by these unknown and unimagined circumstances.

One night, the girl (Nycteris) comes across the boy (Photogen), who is experiencing darkness for the first time. Nycteris manages to comfort Photogen by helping him to see the beauty of the night, which calms his heart. Photogen responds in the following: 
“Thank you,” he said. “You are like live armor to my heart; you keep the fear off me.”
It was this short statement that helped me to realize yet one more of the many types of magic that my wife has been working on me. When I’m worried (scared, really) about how we’re going to get by or being able to create a meaningful future for our family, her words and her presence calm my heart. She is the live armor that I didn’t even realize I had been wearing.

"Endymion" by G.F. Watts (1872)

During another of their encounters at night, Photogen is scared to travel through a forest. In the daylight, Photogen is a skilled hunter who thrills at encountering fearsome beasts. However, robbed of his ability to see such monsters and meet them with weapons, he’s hesitant to travel through such seemingly dangerous territory. Nycteris, however, sees a different solution:
“I see [the beasts] long before they can see me, so that I am able to take care of you.” “But how?" persisted Photogen. “You can't shoot with bow and arrow, or stab with a hunting knife.” “No, but I can keep out of the way of them all. Why, just when I found you, I was having a game with two or three of them at once.”
Nycteris presents a solution that is completely outside Photogen’s way of understanding the world. Whereas he only knows the violence of combat, she not only knows how to completely avoid the creatures, but is friends with the beasts and actually plays with them. Ultimately, it is her unique approach that gets them both through the forest in safety.

"La Belle Dame Sans Merci" by John William Waterhouse (1893)

Throughout the story, the two regularly use their unique strengths to save each other. This sort of situation is illustrated beautifully in the following passage, as the two struggle to distance themselves from the witch’s castle:
“Lean on me,” Nycteris would return, putting her arm around him, or patting his cheek. “Take a few steps more. Every step away from the castle is clear gain. Lean harder on me. I am quite strong and well now...”
When the morning began to come, he began to grow better, but was dreadfully tired with walking instead of sleeping, especially after being so long ill…At length, both equally exhausted, neither was able to help the other. As if by consent they stopped. Embracing each the other, they stood in the midst of the wide grassy land, neither of them able to move a step, each supported only by the leaning weakness of the other, each ready to fall if the other should move.
It is at this low point—halfway between sunset and sunrise, when the two are equally exhausted—that the partnering of their mutual weakness is actually the only thing keeping them from falling. However, as the sun finally rises, we read:
When the tide of the night began to ebb, the tide of the day began to flow…And ever as [the sun] came, Photogen revived. At last the sun shot up into the air, like a bird from the hand of the Father of Lights. Nycteris gave a cry of pain and hid her face in her hands. “Oh me!” she sighed; “I am so frightened! The terrible light stings so!” But the same instant, through her blindness, she heard Photogen give a low exultant laugh, and the next felt herself caught up; she who all night long had tended and protected him like a child was now in his arms, borne along like a baby, with her head lying on his shoulder.

"Love and Life" by G.F. Watts (1884-85)

The image of a natural ebb and flow in relationships is striking, and rings true to my own experience. By the time that these two characters are finally freed from the witch, we see that they fully realize their need for each other. Photogen says:
“If ever two people couldn’t do the one without the other, those two are Nycteris and I. She has got to teach me to be a brave man in the dark, and I have got to look after her until she can bear the heat of the sun, and [it] helps her to see, instead of blinding her.”
The relationship between Nycteris and Photogen isn’t one of merely helping the other to endure. Rather, their unique relationship allows them to be transformed by the other, becoming more mature and developed than they possibly could have separately. After the two are married,
[it was not long] before Nycteris had come to love the day best, because it was the clothing and crown of Photogen, and she saw that the day was greater than the night, and the sun more lordly than the moon; and Photogen had come to love the night best, because it was the mother and home of Nycteris.
"Sun and Moon" woodcut from the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493)

This is what a relationship with my wife has done for me—it has helped me not only to endure personal difficulties, but has helped me to see the world through her eyes. I love the dazzling world that I now see more than the one I thought I knew before, and this new world has only become more and more vivid as time has gone by.

There’s quite a bit more to this story that I haven’t touched on (truly appreciating nature, the power of imagination, the danger of self-love, etc.), so do yourself a favor and get a copy of the book (physical, electronic, or audiobook). It’s a short read / listen, and well worth your time—but only if you’re willing to be transformed by the magic of this particular story.

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