I’ve been a bit out of balance recently. A bit prickly with the people I love; not quite so full o’ the milk of human kindness as I’d like to have been.
But what does it mean to be in balance?
Mum and I went to the theatre in Eastbourne yesterday, to see Little Voice. It was good. The set was captivating and gave the sense that you were watching it as a film (because all the action was contained within the frame of the house, we thought). The acting was heartfelt and aided the suspension of disbelief that began with the set. But there was something not quite brilliant about it.
Walking along the sea front afterwards, we decided it was because all the characters were a bit too one-sided. Most of them didn’t seem to say much (to highlight the vociferous crushing of the mother) and none of them seemed capable of more than one convincing emotion – except a few moments when Ray Say showed his powers of persuasion with Little Voice. This left them undeveloped and not completely believable.
Immediately, I started to think of the fairy tales. Aren’t they one-sided and undeveloped? Isn’t that the point of a fairy tale character? How come they can be so much more convincing?
Well, firstly, I think there’s a lot going on in a fairy tale. The characters are archetypal for a reason: because every single one of them is in us. We can recognise ourselves not only in the heroes, but in the villains and the helpers too. At times we can be any and all of these characters. Fairy tales teach us not to make judgements between them. When told plainly, simply and matter-of-factly, we can listen to the stories of our own darkness without criticism. Many of the tales show us we have to embrace the wolf within before we can slay it – should we choose to.
But naturally, we all want to be the hero of our own story, right? Perfect, honourable, sublime… Maybe we’ve forgotten what it means to be the hero. Looking back at Propp’s thirty-one functions of narrative structure, we see that as early as step three the hero has violated the interdiction. Right from the start, they’ve done exactly what they were explicitly told not to. Bad.
Or, not so bad.
Cinderella’s told NOT to go to the Ball; Red Riding Hood’s told NOT to wander off the path into the woods; the girl’s told NOT to follow her mother’s instructions – and so ends up having to journey to the castle East of the Sun and West of the Moon to be reunited with her prince.
I wonder what would’ve happened if they’d done the “right thing”? We learn from Parcival, who follows his mother’s instructions NOT to ask questions, that we miss the Grail under our nose.
Stepping off the prescribed path begins the adventure, challenges the hero to discover who he/she is, what she’s made of and what she can really do. It’s the first step towards following our own heart. Living life on our own terms, knowing who we truly are.
And if we’re hunting an “original” for this motif, we could find ourselves sitting among tangled roots in the Garden of Eden, with sweet apple juice dripping down our fingers…
So, does a hero have to be perfect, or just perfectly balanced?