Fairy Tales and Learning

Royal blood

There is a fairy tale I love. A modern fairy story, it begins evocatively: “a thorn pierced the queen’s crooked finger.” I want to begin my Christology class that way. Before we discuss who Jesus is, I want to talk about this queen.

The rose turns to glass, and so does the queen’s blood. She sighs, perhaps resigned. Frustrated. I am never sure. Glass is everywhere, transformed by her touch. “Her eyes had grown accustomed to the glare,” and yet, “It was nice to see color from time to time.”

What a world to be in! A world built of fragile glass, sharp and cool. A crystalline void: beautiful but empty. I want to begin with this queen and her world, because it is – in double-turns – very much a world I think we know. We learners of things, we human beings. My students and me.

I experience my students as anxious and self-alienated, walking tip-toed or barreling full-speed into a sharp world. A world that will not, in any case, hold them gently. I experience this world, too. With its measured outcomes and bright computer screens, a world not only of digital glass, but also of razor-edged structural vacuity. In-built hollowness that asks we buy something in the window to soothe the ache.

The ache for a little color from time to time.

“At least it won’t die,” says a servant. Which comforts no one.

My students believe that they cannot die. I, haunted by many such shadows, see even myself as glass.

The promise of nihilism is precisely in its emptiness. By embracing nothing, I can overcome even death: since it too is nothing, it has no meaning. But pain, pain will not fade. Suffering bears in itself all the agony of erasure, of nothingness. It devastates, by which I mean it burns everything. (Vastus, in Latin, means “empty.”)

Rilke, great poet, sees this. In the very last of his Duino Elegies, he tries to imagine what is beyond death. A young man “climbs on alone into the mountains of primeval grief.” To find what? Rilke never says, but he dreams that

the endlessly dead were to wake us in some emblem…

And we, who always think of happiness
rising, would feel the emotion
that almost baffles us
when a happy thing falls.

What, exactly, Rilke might mean by this is rather lost on me. There is something that happens in us when we see happiness fall, but schadenfreude conceals pain. Here is a pain marked forever by eternal passing-away. Eternal death. “Who has turned us around like this,” Rilke writes earlier,

so that
always, no matter what we do, we’re in the stance
of someone just departing? as he,
on the last hill that shows him all his valley
one last time, turns, stops, lingers–,
we live our lives, forever taking leave.

It is true, again, that we always take leave. Every greeting begets a goodbye. But to always be falling away is no escape at all: it is the prolongation of empty pain. At least Rilke could comfort us with the thought that there will be an end of it. Death is the thin comfort of nihilism.

But this queen with her glass has something else to say. This fairy tale.

“The things I most believed then,” G.K. Chesterton writes in Orthodoxy, “the things I believe most now, are the things called fairy tales.” He believes in them for their radical simplicity, their honesty. He continues, “stories of magic alone can express my sense that life is not only a pleasure but a kind of eccentric privilege.” That is, fairy tales – not just the pretty ones, but perhaps especially the gruesome ones – have grasped the fundamental truth that being alive is a strange and fragile gift. This is why in a fairy tale the whole world can collapse over something so small as an apple. All the smallest things matter, especially that small and unnoticed thing that we at present have: life. In Chesterton’s words, “Men spoke much in my boyhood of restricted or ruined men of genius: and it was common to say that many a man was a Great Might-Have-Been. To me it is a more solid and startling fact that any man in the street is a Great Might-Not-Have-Been.”

I’ll not give everything away, but for our queen, it turns out that the world – the whole thing – is made of glass. And this is freeing for her. Only then can she finally touch the world again.

Unlike Rilke – quite against him, really – this insight into the world does not empty it of meaning, but invests it with incredible meaning. With that fragile and “eccentric privilege” that the world, and everything in it, exists at all. It might not have been. This invests the queen with frantic joy and love, shattering her cool indifference. No one who sees the world as a precious gift, a fragile gift, can look upon it with indifference.

This world is beautiful. Because it exists.

The world, suddenly more fragile, is suddenly lovable and loving. Because it exists.

Like the queen, my students and I need to experience the world in this way. To shatter the illusion for the sake of a fairy tale. One in which, as we step away from fantasy, we are allowed to imagine that the world comes forth from the will of a God who did not need it, but who loves it. Because it exists. (And existence is good.) The will of a God who became fragile like us, because He loves us. Because we exist.

And existence is precious, and it is good.

The story, which is also precious and good, is called “Glass Queen” by Rachel Japs.


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