GUEST BLOG—Three Questions for Real Life, brought to you by … Fairy Tales!

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Beauty and the Beast. Bluebeard. Red Riding Hood. Cinderella. No sooner do we hear the names of well-known fairy tales than our thoughts turn to illustrated storybooks and the Disney movies of our childhood. To our common way of thinking, saying that something is a fairy tale is also to say that it is escapist, the opposite of hard-nosed, fact-centred, and grown-up. A fairy tale is not the real world, but simply the child’s world of make-believe. Accordingly, fairy tales and real life share no common ground, save for the people who live the former and occasionally lose themselves in the latter. Or so it seems.

Fairy tales come down to us from an oral storytelling tradition. Finding the original text, therefore, presents a challenge for those of us primary-source great-books types. But the originals we do have recorded by the Brothers Grimm, Charles Perrault, Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont, and, in recent years, Italo Calvino, provide us with a different picture of the tales than what we are perhaps accustomed to. If we know how to look, we might discover in these old stories some deep and timely wisdom that might actually help us engage more fully in the life we lead right here and right now.

128px-Kant_PortraitThe great philosopher of the Enlightenment Immanuel Kant in his Critique of Pure Reason (1787) posed what he regarded were the three fundamental questions of life:

  • What can I know? 
  • What ought I to do? 
  • What may I hope?

Great questions, and still very important ones at that. But in our age of continual intellectual, social, economic, political and technological upheaval, the status of the subject’s identity—the “I” or ego—has been thrown thoroughly into doubt. We might feel as adults living in rapidly changing world that before we can genuinely ask Kant’s questions, we need to ask—and be able to correctly answer for ourselves—more primary questions. Enter the Fairy Tale.

Three primary questions serve as guiding lights through the Fairy Tale’s terrain:

  • Who are you?
  • Where do you come from?
  • What is your name?

Who are you? There is always a moment—at least one but often many—in a fairy tale when an individual encounters someone or something never encountered before. So it goes in our lives too. While most days may seem like they bleed into one another, there are moments where we are drop-kicked out of our comfort zone, asked to confront something unknown and alien. Our identities are put to the test. The trick with this question, as we see in fairy tales, is that every time we ask it, we must also be prepared to answer it correctly. Who are you? And specifically, who are you today, right now, in this adventure—the question is not who have you been, nor is it who will you be, but simply who are you—what is your living story?

compassWhere do you come from? In fairy tales we can learn a lot about someone if we know where they come from … do they come from a castle or from an enchanted cottage in the forest? Do they come from the deep waters or the high mountains? In life, asking ourselves where we come from opens up many avenues of consideration. But whatever roads we dare to travel, the question itself serves as a compass, orienting us to the here and the now, and reminding us that we are not alone; others have travelled the paths before us and still others will remain to travel them after we have gone.

What is your name? This is an essential question in fairy tales for good reason. In fairy stories, to know someone’s or something’s name is to know its true nature, what it is really when no one is looking. Think of all of the names you have: boss, employee, friend, brother, sister, mom, dad, child, parent, student, teacher … what are the names that are most true, that best reflect who you are and where you come from? What would happen if you called yourself by your rightful name? We might begin like this: once upon a time there was a person named…

For those facing the terra incognita of a changing world, a perennial—and appropriate—response from time to time is to return to the primary questions. Fairy tales offer a useful “guide for the perplexed” through that sometimes dark, but always rewarding, terrain.

Join us to explore this terrain together at Toronto Pursuits 2016. You can click on the link to learn more about our seminar, Betwixt and Between: Metamorphosis in Classic Fairy Tales. We’ll look forward to meeting you then!

– David and Briana



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