There’s a scene playing in my mind. It’s been coming and going for a while now. The setting is a wood in springtime, a classic fairytale style wood. Wild and leafy, the green air is alive with birdsong and flecks of pale sunlight, and deep through its heart runs a beaten track.
Enter an old woman. Her great age is not in doubt. Her once dark hair is peppered with silver, and, in her frailty, she shuffles along haltingly, aided by a stick.
The path leads her to a clearing, and to a pool that resembles an emerald. The surface is smooth, the mystery of its depth guarded by an inky blackness at the centre.
To my surprise, the old woman lets her walking stick fall to the ground and takes a step into the water. Suddenly she dives in, clothes and all, vanishing from sight.
The waters whirl, air bubbles rush to the surface. Then everything is still again, and I’m holding my breath. It seems to be taking longer than it should, until finally, up pops a head, greedily gulping the air.
But what’s this? It’s not the old lady. Instead a young girl emerges, dress dripping. She takes a moment to brush it down and wring out her dark plaits. By my estimate she might be just five years old. Her eyes are bright and brimming with smiles as she looks about her. Then with an endearing whoop of excitement, she steps daintily over the walking stick and skips off into the wood.
Unfortunately, that’s where my ‘mind movie’ ends. I’m certain that by some magical means the old lady and the young girl are one and same. But what will happen next? And what could it all mean?
Honestly, I don’t know yet; it’s the cliff hanger I’m living with right now. It’s all part of the fun of writing stories!
Jesus told stories. Not fairytales perhaps, but his parables used image and metaphor all the same. They were not designed to button things down, or convince the intellect. They aimed for the heart. They hinted and evoked, sometimes bursting with surprise. They were eye-openers, bringing the hidden things to life. How else could people begin to grasp the invisible, the impossible, the indescribable – but also the real?
Jesus said that we should become like little children. The old lady in my scene emerged an actual child after she dived into the lake. Of course, that is not what Jesus was talking about. He was referring to a child’s outlook – their high creativity as yet unlearned, their capacity to believe and trust, their humility and openness. The list could doubtless be expanded, though better by far, I’ve decided, to tell stories about children, and let the tales do the job.
So far everything I’ve written has been through the eyes of young protagonists. Children are the heroes. By whatever crafty means I may, I help them escape the constraints of grown up supervision and I send them off to rescue the princess, catch the spy, even save the world. My characters teach me about courage and adventurous living. I teach them about their significance and unique worth. Yet they continue to teach me more, stirring up desire and possibility. And together we begin to sense, just perhaps, that there truly is more to this world than meets the eye.
At least that is my aim. I’m only new at this once upon a time craft, but I want to get better. I’m a lot blinder than I would like to be. Writing fairy stories and magical tales moves me closer to seeing. Somehow it helps me, having a conversation with a wild rabbit or an iguana or a dragon. The act of storytelling leads me into unexpected revelation. It wakes me up. And if this is a means to understanding life itself, then I’m in.
Madeleine L’Engle, author of A Wrinkle in Time, said that when she found herself grappling with ideas she considered radical enough to upset grownups, she would write instead for children. I feel like there is a challenge in there! I may have been around for half a century, but I still want to trust and believe like children do. I want to catch glimpses of the eternal and be touched by wonder.
I need fairytales.
Most of all, I need them for the seasons when the villains seem too strong, and the darkness feels too dark. Fairytales remind me that there is a happily ever after. If not right now, definitely at the very end.