A Fairy Tale (part 1)
Is it possible to have lived in a time so far back, so ancient, that fairy tales would be science fiction and Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella too futuristic to be believed ? Imagine the situation: a storyteller goes among the nomadic peoples for whom we almost never use a name more specific than 'early man'. They form a suspicious circle around him as he begins his story but it isn't their wariness towards newcomers which causes the problems but his story itself, and this, from its very first words.
"A long time ago, in a place far, far away . . . ."
Their imaginations go blank and they look off into the distance to get an idea of what a faraway place might look like: grass, trees, mountains . . . nothing so exotic. And a long time ago, which is for us as much as for them a multiplication of yesterdays; the difference being that what now requires a computer to solve was once a childishly simple problem. In other words, the storyteller's evocative opening line falls flat. But he doesn't despair, for in its very nature every fairy tale contains an entire arsenal of seductive tricks, and no matter how hard they try to resist him these primitive listeners would eventually succumb to the hypnotic spell he was casting over them.
" . . . . a young prince was walking in the shadow of his father's castle . . ."
One of the nomads rudely interrupts him here. The storyteller almost gets angry for a moment but then remembers that they haven't yet developed the custom of raising their hand to announce that they have something to say, for this often underrated innovation is still a good five or six thousand years away.
"What is a prince ?" the rough looking man asks innocently.
The storyteller rolls back his eyes in contempt, not at all worried that they will take offense, for they haven't developed this gesture yet either, nor even the emotion which inspires it in civilized man.
"A prince . . ." he begins to explain, "is a man who is a leader . . . ."
Blank expressions show their total lack of understanding.
" . . . . or if not a leader, at least his son . . . ."
No, he would have to start over. Their social system wasn't well developed enough to have even a remote equivalent to the sort of royalty whose presence graces every fairy tale worthy of the name. How to tell a fairy tale to these backwards, animal-like savages ?
But even as he made the effort to surmount his first major difficulty, another was quickly added.
"And a castle, what's that ?"
So they weren't only limiting his characterizations but stripping away his scenery as well. Was he supposed to bewitch them with an average guy and girl against an empty backdrop, in which no one could be unjustly imprisoned except within the confines of his boring story ?
The storyteller asks for a brief respite in which he can walk alone and gather his thoughts. He needs to think everything over from the beginning, adjust his work to these new, in fact actually old, conditions. When he arrives back at the nomad's campsite they're gone, clearly a case of two entirely different notions of time failing to work together, and with a difference far greater than that between the male and female gender or between an American and a European.
'Well, they've probably gone hunting or are submerged in a cave somewhere and covering its walls with painted figures, if they still do that these days. It's their loss!'
So the storyteller has to abandon this distant locale, this outpost of potential listeners, and return to more familiar terrain in order to make himself understood. But then he gets a sudden flash of inspiration, a possibility of redeeming his misguided journey. He leaps into the Middle Ages themselves and immediately sees the reassuring sight of a dark, gloomy castle set into the bare mountain above him. There would be no trouble with basic terminology here, it would even be enhanced by the immediacy of the images his listeners would be able to call to mind. A castle wouldn't just be the generic castle of fairy tales or a castle seen in books or photographed during summer vacations, but the real and imposing castle under which they live their lives. For them it's still an overwhelming symbol of power, and not just a symbol, but real power with sword wielding knights to diminish any sense of abstraction or purely aesthetic enjoyment its architecture might otherwise tend to produce in them.
The experiment the storyteller wanted to undertake was to see what the effect would be of telling fairy tales to the very characters they depicted. They would be contemporary stories of course, but how would they be received ? Would the witch's evil spells evoke only the cynical grumblings of someone watching the violence filled evening news ? Would a prince pick up on the biographical elements in the stories of his gallantry and bravery, two qualities which he had never known he possessed ?
The storyteller spots a prince, pale with doubt and sorrow, walking thoughtfully away from the castle. Was it not the very prince he had failed to immortalize just a few, momentary centuries ago? Here is his chance to test his ideas and hold a mirror up to nature, to stand, like God, in a world of his own making.
"A long time ago in a place far, far away. . . . "
But after these first words he finds himself unable to continue, for his opening line is nothing but a blatant, empty lie. It was neither a long time ago nor at all far away but right here and practically now. How can he possibly begin a fairy tale by saying that? "Here and now" -- no, it would be ridiculous. He has to strain his creative powers and come up with an acceptable compromise.
"Just a short time ago in a place very close to here, a young prince was walking in the shadow of his father's castle."
This novel opening presumably catches the prince's ear, for he stops and turns in the storyteller's general direction. A light chain mail is draped over his torn, soiled shirt and he is equipped with a sword and a dagger tucked in his belt. Looking at him more closely the storyteller can't help noticing a pencil thin red scar that runs down from the corner of his eye like the trail of a tear, and how this scar is the only color in an otherwise pale and dessicated face. This isn't the paleness of melancholy at all, but a severe want of pigment.
He goes on with the story: "No one could tell by looking at him but that very day the prince had resolved to leave the kingdom he had always called home and to make his way out in the world. He had been raised on stories of princes fighting dragons, combating wizardry and plagues, and conquering kingdoms and princesses' hearts. A taste for heroism had been instilled in him without any thought of where and when he might actually put it to use. His life consisted of meals, entertainment, hunting, drinking and a few ceremonial tasks and was he supposed to be satisfied with a fox or a deer as an adversary or with the conquest of innumerable dinners?"
The storyteller feels a withering glance directed at him and completely loses his train of thought.
"The deer . . . . no, I mean the prince . . . . "
"Ah yes, and while we're on the subject of the prince," the real prince says in an authorative voice, "would you be so kind as to identify him? Just so as to avoid any misunderstanding."
The two malicious eyes staring at him out of a colorless face are bad enough, but this request renders the storyteller speechless. First, to have his story interrupted, and from within, as it were, by its own main character. And then the question itself.
"Identify?" the storyteller parrots back, "Well, it doesn't much matter. Let's say he's Prince Frederick of Orlock Castle."
"Let's rather not say that," the prince retorts, "since there is neither an Orlock Castle nor a Prince Frederick within a hundred leagues of this place."
"Fine, so he can be given a different name."
"Oh, well . . . I don't know," the storyteller spits out in artistic frustration, "We'll just call him the Prince, that's clear enough."
The dissatisfied prince places his hand on the hilt of his sword and gives it a slight pull. A mocking smile appears on his face.
"It would be clear enough if you were talking about God, the sun, or the Emperor, since there are only one of each of them. But you aren't . . . and if you are so reluctant to name your prince then I must beseech you to describe him to me."
"Describe his appearance?"
"Well . . yes, that is generally how a person is described."
"His appearance? . . . . Let me think . . . . thin, pale, yet handsome . . . . somewhat delicate but with bright, smiling eyes."
"Thank you very, very much, that's all very enlightening, but can you give me something more concrete, like for example, the color of those bright, smiling eyes?"
Standing on an open hillside the storyteller feels pushed into a corner.
"But I don't know what color they are."
"Then what about his hair?"
"No . . . I really . . . "
The Prince pulls himself up to his full height like a cobra about to strike at its prey.
"Have you ever actually seen this prince of yours?" he blurts out accusingly.
The storyteller thinks back over the countless tales of princes, princesses, frogs and evil stepmothers he has told over the ages and tries to call these scenes before his eyes. They are brightly colored, amusing shadows, but shadows all the same. His princes had been neither distinct individuals, each with a story of his own, nor a single, staple prince who had starred throughout. And now the storyteller is trapped between these two distant poles. He had seen his prince but not clearly, like a witness to a crime who hadn't paid attention to the killer's face and so wouldn't be able to identify him to the police.
"Yes, of course I've seen him," he cries out, "but . . . . it's just that he's too vague to be described."
"Are you trying to tell me," the prince snarls, "Do you seriously maintain that you find a prince of the blood . . vague?"
The prince loses his temper and grabs the storyteller by the throat, placing his mouth right up to his ear, as if to bite it off.
"Your prince," he whispers icily, "wouldn't by chance be standing right here?"
He tightens his grip. His furious eyes become as bright a red as his scar and are filled with tears of rage, as if he is the one being strangled.
"And what exactly are you trying to gain by this utterly ineffective bit of innuendo? Naturally, my father sent you and I know why. Oh, how well I know! Well, you just tell him no, no and a thousand times no!"
But the storyteller can't tell anyone anything. He is choking and unable to breath. Daytime stars begin dancing before his eyes and the air around him grows thick and watery. Then, suddenly, night comes, and he collapses to the ground in a faint. The enraged prince gives his lifeless form a kick then turns abruptly away from the castle. But after only a few steps he has second thoughts.
"No, I should show my dear father how well his ingenious plans have turned out."
He turns back and bends down to pick up the body but there is nothing there. He looks over the open fields but they are empty. He pats the ground where the storyteller had been then tears out a clump of grass in lieu of the missing heart. An icy sweat pours down his forehead and he tries to reason for the first time in his life. Suddenly he breaks into a run towards the castle and doesn't slow down until he reaches his father's chambers. He approaches the king panting and even whiter than his usual self, like a ghost. And there and then he agrees to everything, even things his father had never asked of him, he agrees to it all, and this moment's resolution stays with him for the rest of his life and he lives happily ever after.
- - -
Tune in next week for the second half of Michael Stein's "Fairy Tale".
About the author:
It took Michael Stein longer to write this biographical note than it did to write any of his stories. He was born in Philadelphia and has spent the last nine years living in Prague. Not used to writing about himself in the 3rd person he can't think of anything else to say.