Friday, August 8, 2014

LOTR, Fairy Tales, Humanity, and Hope

Tony and I got to go to Ravinia last night to see Lord of the Rings: Return of the King with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra playing the soundtrack live. It's a great experience-we had gone last year to "Two Towers" and knew we wanted to return for the final movie of the trilogy.

In addition to hearing the music live and up close, which really made me notice the musical motifs more than I normally would have, the great thing about seeing this epic movie in such surroundings is to feel the bond with the other people in the audience. Much like if you go to see a midnight showing of a movie, people would break into clapping at significant parts of the plot-and being such an enthusiastic audience, and a movie where so many brave choices were made in the face of danger and so many victories were finally won, there was a lot of spontaneous clapping.

It was just cool to be a part of that crowd. All the other people there last night came from totally different backgrounds-we had different religions and political beliefs, and different worldview philosophies. Yet we were united with complete strangers over some of the most fundamental human things-applauding fictional characters for their courage, and being joyful together when a battle was won and when the characters received the honor they deserved.

I've also been thinking lately about the whole debate around whether or not it's dangerous for so many stories to end happily-does it really give us false hopes or fail to set us up for real life? But here's the thing about fiction vs. reality: Any good story will have dark aspects of it, just like life. We've discussed this with fairy tales time and time again. Lord of the Rings is very dark. No one is claiming that LOTR gives people the impression that life is all sunshine and rainbows and perfect, despite its happy, "storybook" ending. (Yet strangely, people have come to the conclusion that fairy tales-the most famous of which involve abuse, attempted murder, and violence among other things, somehow do promote a sunshine and rainbows worldview).

Yet the main difference is, fictional stories end. The creator makes a conclusion which, whether or not he or she intends it, communicates a certain philosophy to the reader-is life pointlessly depressing? Is there reason to hope? But life itself doesn't end. Even when we eventually die, we have left a legacy. All the people we've interacted with, the causes we fought for-we made a difference in the world, however small (and what I love about LOTR and fairy tales is how often the most insignificant characters-the youngest child in a peasant family, the little hobbits who are warned that they are not fit for battle, end up being key in victory). To borrow from Walt Whitman: "The powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse."

Walter Crane

Where you end a story makes a statement, but does it show the whole picture? What if Snow White ended with her still trapped unconscious sleep? What if Cinderella ended with the false bride, her stepsister riding off with the prince? What if a World War II movie ended when Hitler was still gaining power? On the other hand-what if Andersen's Little Mermaid, the most famous depressing fairy tale ending, didn't end with her becoming a spirit of the air and a warning against children behaving badly, but went on to describe the good deeds she witnessed in the world and her eventual gaining of a soul and living a new life? Often even a depressing end is really just the conclusion of a chapter-the great Story goes on. Even the most tragic events have some form of redeeming value to them-if nothing else, then to serve to educate future generations. Maybe happy endings to stories don't have to give us an unrealistic idea of what life will be like, but can help us to view our struggles as part of a larger picture.

In current thinking, we are increasingly being told not to accept a certain morality just because it's been handed down to us, but to discover our own. This independence can be thrilling, but it often comes with stress, ambiguity, and disagreement. This very phenomenon is why, in part, we are exploring fairy tales in so many different ways-questioning the strict good and evil and looking into the character and motivations of the villains (like Maleficent). This is all wonderful, it's so good to delve into fairy tales and look at them in new ways, and to apply our critical thinking to the stories.

But sometimes, especially in light of all the tough decisions we face when trying to decide what is right for ourselves and our country, we crave that good old-fashioned hero riding in on a white horse. Sometimes fantasy-whether an epic tale like LOTR or a well-known fairy tale-unites people together in a way that very few things do. When controversial issues become so divisive, in traditional fairy tales we find common enemies and common values that reunite us. And sometimes, especially in light of all the war and disease and horrible things going on across the globe today, we need to be reminded that there is hope. Not assurance that it will all turn out exactly as we want, but assurance that it's worth fighting for justice anyway. We can't possibly know what's going to happen or how our chapter will end, but our darkest hour is not the end of the story-the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse...


  1. Wow. So much Truth in this one.

  2. Not having the best time today, but reading this has cheered me up no end! So, thank you :)

    And I completely agree with everything; stories have incredible and unique power, and to see the ways they unite people is wonderful.

    1. Aw, yay! So glad to help cheer you up!