Fairy Tale Lessons
With Kelly Savage and Karen Heather, piano duet, playing
Ma mère l’Oye (Mother Goose Suite) by Maurice Ravel
Between “once upon a time” and “happily ever after” lies a vast and rich world of amazing stories, where anything is possible and dreams do come true. Countless fairy tales with infinite variations, usually accompanied by moral, social and political lessons, have existed throughout history and around the world. Going back to Aesop’s fables, we have an ever-evolving genre of story-telling that deeply permeates our various cultures so much so that they are firmly implanted in our minds. We know these stories.
The ancient sources of fairy tales are as varied as mythology and the Bible. Common themes can be found in most cultures. Often, they were stories passed down from the older to the younger to teach moral lessons of life. Many take place during the hero’s or heroine’s passage from childhood to adulthood, often ending in marriage. Along this fantastic path are challenges to be overcome but also warnings: the perils of being alone in the woods, the potential pitfalls of physical beauty; the dangers of being naïve.
The stories are filled with lots of symbolism which allowed them to address taboo subjects. Thus, many of the fairy tales we know and love today emerged out of darker stories involving themes of adultery, incest, cannibalism, rape, murder and mutilation. Originally these stories clearly were not meant for children.
However, over the centuries these often-bawdy tales began to be written down. And for our purposes today the key person was Charles Perrault, who collected stories and composed his own for a collection, published in 1697, entitled Contes de Ma Mere l’Oye (literally Tales of My Mother the Goose). Gone was the violence but he added subtle sexual innuendos such as “Little Red Riding Hood” in which young girls need to be wary of “wolves.” A contemporary of Perrault was Marie Catherine d’Aulnoy who also composed stories and published an anthology titled Contes de Fées (Fairy Tales), and the term lived on.
Fairy tales, thus, became standard fare for families and children. But, it should be noted, not like Disney versions which removed much of the unpleasantness of earlier tales. They still retained many of the darker elements of the originals with the intent of teaching strong moral lessons. ‘Beware of the dangerous world’ was a running theme. They were not your Mother Goose nursery rhymes.
Although he had none of his own, Maurice Ravel loved children. He enjoyed seeing the world through a child’s eyes, and loved to create elaborate toys and reading fairy tales aloud. Some suggest that since he was quite short he could relate to children at their level. His good friends, the Godebski’s, had two children Mimie and Jean. He often visited them in their Paris apartment, where he brought gifts. But probably the best gift he gave to Mimie and Jean was a suite of pieces inspired by the Mother Goose tales, Ma mère l’Oye, written for piano duet and actually intended to be played by children. Ravel dedicated the score to Mimie and Jean, in the hope that they would give the first performance, but, although, they were quite accomplished pianists for children, they declined. They thought it would be too much work. So, he found two other children, 6 and 7 years old, to play the premiere on April 1910. Ravel composed Mother Goose as a suite of five pieces for piano duet.
The first movement, Pavane de la Belle au bois dormant (Pavane of the Sleeping Beauty) is quite short but packs a great deal of grace and beauty into that small space, suggesting the quietness of the beauty’s long slumber (Remember, she was asleep for 100 years!). Ravel wrote that “the idea of evoking in these pieces the poetry of childhood naturally led me to simplify my style and to refine my means of expression.” It is the simplification of style and expression which makes this movement so magical.
1st Movement: Pavane of the Sleeping Beauty in the Forest
The second movement, Le Petit Poucet (Little Thumb), is based on a story attributed to Charles Perrault and is also called Hop-o-my-thumb, which referred to the character being no bigger than a thumb. There are various stories about tiny, thumb-sized persons. One is Tom Thumb about a mischievous boy who keeps getting swallowed by various people and animals but who also ended up in King Arthur’s court, flirting with the women at court. Perrault’s story is not that story. Rather this is about the seventh child, who seemed to be a very tiny, born to a very poor couple. The parents are so desperate that they decide to take the children out into the forest and leave them there to die. However, Poucet leaves a trail of bread crumbs so they can find their way back but Ravel prefaces this movement with the following text:
“He thought that he could easily find his way home by the bread crumbs that he had dropped along the path, but he was very surprised when he found that he could not find a single crumb–birds had eaten them all.”
But they do not die because Poucet leads his siblings on to other adventures in the forest.
In this movement, Ravel creates a sense of bewilderment and unease with an accompaniment of constantly shifting meter and a plaintive melody which is searching for a way home. The ‘birds’ are clearly audible at the top of the piano as they chirp and twitter as they eat the crumbs.
2nd Movement: Petit Poucet (Little Thumb)
The third movement, Laideronnette, Impératrice des Pagodes (Laideronnette, Empress of the Pagodas), is based on a story written by Marie Catherine d’Aulnoy. It also begins with a quotation:
“She undressed herself and went into the bath. The pagodes and pagodines began to sing and play on instruments. Some had oboes made of walnut shells and others had violas made of almond shells–for they had to have instruments that were of their own small proportions.”
A pagoda is a Chinese figurine with a grotesque face and a movable head (a popular decorating accessory in 18th-century France). In the story, Laideronnette is a Chinese princess who has been cursed with horrible ugliness and wanders for years with her only companion, an equally ugly green serpent. They are shipwrecked on the island of the pagodas and the little porcelain people take her as their queen. Eventually, she marries the serpent and they are both transformed into a beautiful princess and handsome prince. In this piece, Ravel uses the black keys (pentatonic scale) and a Gamelan-like motif to convey a quasi-Chinese feel.
3rd Movement: Laideronnette, Empress of the Pagodas
The fourth movement is titled Les Entretiens de la Belle et de la Bête (Conversation of Beauty and the Beast) and Ravel’s score includes a dialogue from the story:
“When I think of how good-hearted you are, you do not seem to me to be so ugly.”
“Yes, indeed—I have a good heart, but I am still a monster.”
“There are many men more monstrous than you.”
“If I were smart enough, I would invent a fine compliment to thank you, but I am only a beast.” — “Beauty, will you be my wife?”
“Then I die content, having the pleasure of seeing you again”
“No, dear Beast, you shall not die—you shall live to be my husband!”
The first two sections of music depict the Beauty with a graceful lilting waltz. The Beast is easily recognized by the deep notes played in the lower keys of the piano. When Beauty declares her love, their melodies are combined. A dramatic glissando signals that the beast has been transformed to his former state, a handsome prince.
4th Movement: Conversation of the Beauty and the Beast
The final movement, Le jardin féerique (The Fairy Garden), is a tale of Ravel’s own imagination. It brings the work full circle and depicts the awakening of the Sleeping Beauty by a kiss from Prince Charming. They process through the Fairy Godmother’s garden and the movement climaxes with fanfares and wedding bells as they all live happily ever after.
5th Movement: The Fairy Garden
Are there any spiritual lessons to be learned from fairy tales? Or are the Gospel and fairy tales just too different to be brought together in some meaningful way. I mean we do have this from 1 Timothy in the bible: “Have nothing to do with profane myths and old wives’ tales” (1 Timothy 4:7b). So, maybe trying to draw some spiritual lesson is, indeed, profane. But I don’t think that’s true.
I’m a big fan of fantasy literature. Yes, I read all the Game of Thrones books as well as saw all of the HBO series. And I’ve read Lord of the Rings several times. The author, J.R.R. Tolkien, said this once:
“The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels—peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: ‘mythical’ in their perfect, self-contained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe.”
“What,” you might be saying, “is eucatastrophe?” It is a word Tolkien coined by joining to Greek words: eu, meaning ‘good’, to catastrophe, meaning, well, ‘bad’, or ‘bad ending’ It describes the sudden, out of the blue, turn of events in a story where the hero is saved from some terrible, impending and certain doom. When the Great Eagles come to rescue Frodo and Sam at Mount Doom, that was a eucatastrophe. In the nick of time….
In that spirit, we have this passage from Paul’s letter to the Galatians:
But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God. (Galatians 4:4-7)
In the “fullness of time” God intervened. “In the nick of time,” Tolkien might say.
In that regard, fairy tales resemble the stories in the Bible. They deal with a lot of the same stuff. Fairy tales and Scripture point to our human weaknesses and our need for help outside of ourselves. I’m not talking about the modern cartoon versions of fairy tales, with their white-washed, sanitized, and unrealistic notions of beauty, riches, and fame. But those old, old tales of matriarchal societies passed down from storyteller to storyteller for the benefit of the adults and children. These are the stories of real-world issues: of oppression, hunger, and dysfunctional families, of pain, hardship, and loss. And these are the stories of faith. Fairy tales and bible tales – both are worthy of telling our children…and us. Amen.