On Being Buried Alive

April 18, 2017

Fairy tales. I love them. Cinderella? Yes! But not that drippy Disney version. The real one. You know, the one when the doves land on the stepsisters' shoulders and peck their eyes out. Sleeping Beauty? Why not? Frankly, right about now I'd love the chance to sleep for a hundred years. Hansel and Gretel?  You bet.  Though I've always found it hard to take when the children go back to the father that abandoned them. I mean come on, kids. Get some spine.

 

The poet Anne Sexton, whose "Cinderella" contains these lines: At the wedding ceremony/the two sisters came to curry favor/and the white dove pecked their eyes out./ Two hollow spots were left/ like soup spoons.  Moral? Don't mess with poets.

 

I love many of the lesser known tales, too. Old Rinkrank, for example. Or The Three Snake Leaves, which contains this wonderful passage: The king had a daughter who was very beautiful but also very strange, for she had made a vow that she would accept as her lord and master only a man who would let himself be buried alive with her if she should die first.

 

I'd say "very strange" is putting it mildly.

 

But my favorites are the dummling stories.  Those are the ones that begin with with a dying king. In order to choose which of his three sons should inherit the throne, he gives them a difficult task. Bring back a golden apple. Find the most beautiful woman in the world. That kind of thing.

 

A golden apple. Wish I had one. 

 

Each of the first two brothers is super-cool. They have it all together. A fish who can sing Chinese opera? No prob. After all, weren't they quarterbacks in another life?  They set out separately, each confident he'll be the one. Along the way, they encounter a crone who asks for a bit of bread and water. Basically they  give her the finger, and go on their way. They have an important job to do. They can't be messing around with the likes of some old bag on the side of the road. Think of their reputations!

 

Along comes the third brother. The opposite of cool. Innocent. What a dope! He, too, encounters the crone, but instead of blowing her off,  he stops and shares his provisions with her.  As a reward, she opens her purse, her magic purse, that is.  What a surprise!  She's a witch. A good one, luckily. She gives him everything he needs.  Guess who's wearing the crown at the end of the tale.

 Uh . . .speaking of magic purses here's one. Hermes. Posorus crocodile. It ". . . opens to a chevre goatskin interior and is an excellent handbag tote . . ." Yes. Excellent. And it's only $34,950.00.

 

As someone who has never had a single moment of cool-ness in his life, can I just say take a moment to shout "Hooray!"

 

It's easy to see all this as a moralizing lesson on generosity. In other words, if we're kind, we'll get the goods. Awwww.  Sweet. But we would be missing the point. The tale isn't about the virtues of sharing. It's about  setting our egos aside and responding to what is on the road in front of us, something the first two brothers were unwilling to do. It's about letting the world in.

 

                            Note the enthusiasm. Then there's that comb in my shirt pocket.  The opposite of cool.

 

These tales have so much to teach us about life, and also about  writing. I think it was Robert Frost who said something like "no surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader."  Good writing, like good living, is in part, being open to surprise. But you can't surprise yourself if you're so hellbent on perfecting your vision for the work that you ignore those inconvenient elements that pop up along the way.  Unfortunately,  just like the crone in the fairy tale, it is so often those inconvenient elements that are the very key to creating a meaningful work of art. Also, to living a meaningful life.  Ignore them  and you really might be buried alive. By the way,  at the end of those dummling tales, the first two brothers are often turned to stone. I'd say that is as good a metaphor for writers block as I've heard. Feeling stuck?

 

So let's hear it for the dopes of this world! The egoless. The innocents. Three cheers for the dummlings who allow themselves to be surprised, who let the world in, who inherit the kingdom.

 

 Is that a crone I see? No, wait. It's a milkbone.

 

Fight the good fight, friends. And, as always, feel free to leave a comment below. I love hearing from you.

 

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