Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Great Snakes and Short Boys

Yesterday I told a story to a 5-year-old friend. While telling, I tried not to look too much at her, but I couldn’t help glancing over from time to time and seeing her mouth hanging open and her eyes focused somewhere far away as she sat still and listened. I was telling her a fairy tale and she was spellbound. Later in this post I include a story in its entirety for your reading pleasure and maybe you can go to that faraway place my young friend visited.

"Fairy tale" for me is distinct from other types of stories. It is a true story in imaginative pictures of an individual's soul and spirit development, a symbolic representation of the struggle to become a whole and free human being. The characters in the story are all in each human being; in me and in you. The story is the story of us all. Fairy tales describe how a spirit being descends into matter and lives as a human being, and finds its way to connecting with all of its parts, to self actualization. The path to the marriage of one's own soul and spirit is therein articulated.

Fairy tales give nourishment to the developing human being as seeds of moral strength. In the telling of fairy tales to children, the children receive images of strength and determination to carry through, to overcome the evil, to learn to see. It is not always clever and older siblings who are best suited to the task, or young, strong and handsome men. While archetypes abound, it is possible for a human being to break out of a mold, to become something unexpected. Within is the promise that weak can become strong, poor can become rich, donkeys can become musicians, and what once was lost can be regained.

If you really read the fairy-tales, you will observe that one idea runs from one end of them to the other - the idea that peace and happiness can only exist on some condition. This idea, which is the core of ethics, is the core of the nursery-tales. The whole happiness of fairyland hangs upon a thread, upon one thread. Cinderella may have a dress woven on supernatural looms and blazing with unearthly brilliance; but she must be back when the clock strikes twelve. The king may invite fairies to the christening, but he must invite all the fairies, or frightful results will follow ... A promise is broken to a cat, and the whole world goes wrong. A promise is broken to a yellow dwarf, and the whole world goes wrong. A girl may be the bride of the God of Love himself if she never tries to see him; she sees him and he vanishes away. . .A man and woman are put in a garden on condition that they do not eat one fruit; they eat it, and lose their joy in all the fruits of the earth. This great idea, then, is the backbone of all folklore - the idea that all happiness hangs on one thin veto; all positive joy depends on one negative. Now it is
obvious that there are many philosophical and religious ideas akin to or symbolized by this; but it is not with them that I wish to deal here. It is surely obvious that all ethics ought to be taught to this fairytale tune; that, if one does the thing forbidden, one
imperils all the things provided ... This is the profound morality of fairy-tales; which so far from being lawless, go to the root of all law ... We are in this fairyland on sufferance; it is not for us to quarrel with the conditions under which we enjoy this wild vision of the world. The vetoes are indeed extraordinary, but then so are the concessions ... As in the fairy-tales, all that we say and do hangs on something we may not say and do. But let us not forget that we have a veto.
G. K Chesterton, February 29, 1908, The Ethics of Fairy-Tales

I think about stories, meditate about them, dream about them, and sometimes am inspired by sudden flashes of insight. I collect fairy tales and folk tales and read them and re-read them. I read lots of stories. And I read everything I can about stories by various authors. For the children, the images speak so well on their own. For the adult, reading and rereading the same stories many times, letting them wash over you again and again, learning them well enough to tell and inwardly seeing the images as you are telling; these all will help the story to be able to speak to you on deeper and deeper levels. I invite you to let the fairy tales into your heart and listen to what your heart thinks.

This story I slightly adapted from the collection The Girl Who Married a Lion and Other Tales from Africa by Alexander McCall Smith. Here is the story of The Great Snake:

When the old chief died there was much discussion as to who would be the next chief. The old chief had a son, but the boy’s mother did not want her son to be chief. She said;
"He will never have any peace if he is chief. Every day there will be people asking him to do things. This is a boy who likes to sleep. If he becomes chief, he won't be able to sit on his chair and sleep whenever he wants. He can’t be chief!"

The elders agreed with her and so they decided how the new chief would be chosen. 
"There is a hill near our village. In the rocks around the hill lives a very large snake. Whoever can capture that great snake and bring it back here shall be made the new chief."

The elders agreed this would be the best way to choose the next chief, but doubted if anybody would be brave enough to try. When a short boy came forward and said he wished to try, they all laughed.
"Don’t be silly. Short boys can never catch large snakes."

"I should like to try," insisted the boy.

The elders tried to convince him but he kept asking again and again until finally they told him he would be allowed to try.
"That snake will kill you," they warned him. "As you go down its throat, you will remember these words of ours."

The short boy set off towards the hill where the great snake lived. As he left the village, he heard his friends crying because they thought he would never return. He paid no attention to their sorrow, though, as he knew that he would capture the snake and bring it back to the village.

When he reached the first rocks at the bottom of the hill, he stopped and listened to the sounds carried by the wind. He hears the swishing of the grass and the movement of the leaves in the trees. He heard the trickle of water and the sound of an eagle’s wings hunting high above the ground. And then he heard something else – the sound of a snake hissing.

The boy walked on until he was at the bottom of the hill. The sound he had heard was now quite loud and before too long he saw the head of the great snake appear from a crack in the rocks. The snake was angry that a short boy had come to disturb him, and with a sudden sliding it shot out and darted towards the boy’s feet.

When he saw the snake coming towards him, the boy turned around and began to run away from the hill. He ran as fast as he could, and the snake just laughed at those short legs and drew closer and closer to the fleeing boy.

Looking over his shoulder, the short boy saw that the snake was getting closer and heard its laugh. He took the calabash from his shoulder and began to drop things from it. First he dropped a lizard, and then he dropped some frogs. After that he dropped some small insects.

The snake came to the lizard and stopped. It opened its great mouth and swallowed the lizard. Then it resumed its chase of the boy, only to stop again when it came to the frogs jumping about on the ground. The snake gobbled up all the frogs, although it took some time to catch them all. Then, its belly heavy with food, it slid on after the boy, only to stop again when it came to the insects.

By the time that the snake had eaten all the things the boy had dropped from the calabash, they were just outside the village fence. The boy called out to the elders that he was back and walked slowly through the gap in the fence.

One of the elders saw the short boy and called;
"So you are back. Where is the great snake?"

The boy said nothing at first. Then, with all the eyes of the village upon him, he turned around and pointed at the gate. As he did so, the great snake, fat and slow from all its eating, slid heavily into the village.

The people let out a great sigh when they saw the snake arrive and immediately the villagers pinned it to the ground with sticks. The short boy stood before the elders and asked if could now be made chief. The elders were surprised but kept their promise and made the short boy the chief.

The short boy became a wise chief, and he grew taller.

P.S. Let me know if you liked this story. And what are your favorite 'fairy tales?'

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