Fairy tale wisdom

Jacob Grimm once summarized the world represented by the fairy tale as a closed circle of archetypal human beings, a defined and inevitable social circle. This circle included, of course, kings, princesses, ogres, and the like, but

above all, fishermen, millers, charcoal burners and shepherds, who have remained close to nature …

This closeness to nature is a key characteristic of solitary occupations, especially that of the historical hermit, but more importantly, closeness to nature is the source of the solitaries’ insight and wisdom. The ancient Chinese saw in such archetypal solitaries of nature what it called the “Rustic Sage.” These solitaries dwelt in a natural habitat and held fast to a clear disdain of ambition and desire. What could there be of such vices in forest, mountain, desert, or distant and solitary place?

A traveler encountering these figures, as often portrayed in fairy tales, would discover unexpected generosity and service, so much different from the world of society, the world of red dust. On the other hand, if the traveler’s motive was unclean, the solitary would ignore or avoid him, as we see so often in the stories of the Christian desert hermits.

The setting of the solitary must remain unique, having nothing to do with the commerce of society. Without the power of wisdom, the habitats of desert, mountain, and forest seem bleak and hostile. As the German poet Novalis wrote of the fairy tale:

In the genuine fairy tale, everything must be strange, mysterious, and incoherent. … The whole of nature must be mixed up with the spirit world in a wonderful way; it is the age of universal anarachy, the freedom and natural state of nature before the foundation of the world. This age before the creation of the world, just as the state of primitive nature, is a strange image of the eternal kingdom.

Novalis was thinking of the fairy tale world and its state of “universal anarchy” as an image of nature and humanity before the opppression of society and power came into being to destroy the solitude of wise souls and to force those who lived in spontaneous harmony with nature to conform to contrived laws of the powerful and profligate. The powerful are universally profligate in the fairy tales because the fairy tales know and present human nature as it really is in its social expression. (The occasional benign king is presented as either naive, ignorant, gullible, or very wise, and that is why he does not abuse his power.) In these tales it is always up to children and solitaries (or the mystical third-born sibling) to rescue others from worldly powers, then to return to the pursuit of the natural order again, clinging to it as long as possible.

The “strange image of the eternal kingdom” mentioned by Novalis is a life and environ that reflects the simple wisdom that the fairy tale solitary has discovered, nurtures, and clings to. Would that this kingdom within us, this eternal kingdom, could grow and give us confidence. Only the simple habits of the solitary can let it emerge within our own lives.