In Memory of
Fairy Tales

Gabriele Dessin

  She knew how to capture the secret symbols with a confident gaze; she unsnarls their arcane symmetries and reconstructs their crystalline beauty – light handily.


     What often happens is that Truth is only manifested through symbols; language itself is both a sign and sound that always points to something other than itself. It is not surprising, that in thissuperficial age there is no longer any place for fairy tales. Many imaginative stories are made, but no true fairy tales are created anymore, and those preserved from the oblivion of time are conscientiously and ethically destroyed.

     But what is a fairy tale, really? It is a symbolic image of the world, it is an enigma to be solved, it is a map leading to hidden treasures, it is a ladder leading upwards and beyond the banality of what may be seen. A fairy tale has its own places, its own peculiar passage of time, its own natural laws and miracles. Its language is the symbol and whoever does not have the patience to decipher it will remain forever on the threshold: they will look without seeing, read without understanding, tell without knowing.

     The path of the fairy tale is never straight forward but always circular. You venture into the woods, you travel around the world, but you do not know your precise destination, nor the best way to get there. This is mainly because your journey is a search, but what you find is always different from what you thought you were looking for. And what better way of getting to what you are not aware of looking for it? In order to gain his father’s kingdom, the young prince in The White Cat sets off three times to find first a small dog, then a cloth, and finally a beautiful maiden. In the end he will earn three kingdoms and the love of a queen. In a fairy tale, the main path is through inner qualities: benignity, piety, kindness, righteousness; these always correspond to gifts that exceed desires, because they are a surplus. A most accomplished example can be found in Madame le Prince de Beaumont’s Beauty and the Beast. To avoid displeasing her father and sisters, Belle asks her father to bring her a rose, which represents superfluity, and even though it is something trifle, it is also the origin of her fortune. Because that superfluity is asked out of goodness and kindness, and froma compassionate and honest soul: it is not the superfluity that appeals to petty minds. In order to pluck that rose, Belle’s father will enrage the Beast, and to pay the penalty for the theft, Belle will become his prisoner. However, Belle will see the benignity in the Beast’s heart and will fall in love with him to the point of wanting to marry him. Only then will the Beast transform into a prince, he will regain his beauty and his spirit, since they are no longer necessary to arouse love. And since Belle does not want them, they are given to her freely, as a surplus. For this reason,”For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance[1] was once written.

     Fairy tales also have their own sequence of events that are sufferance, expectation and joy. Yet, joy is only reached at the end, and dealt with in only a few words. In fact, fairy tales usually lead us through the path of happiness, but this happiness is always beyond the fairy tale itself. On the pathway good and evil meet face to face, and often the latter outweighs the former; but when fulfilment comes, the gain of so much suffering is cleansed and purified –it is finally earned forever. These are gifts that one does not acquire by one’s own efforts alone: a fairy godmother, an elf, godlike help is indispensable; these are the symbols of Providence and Grace that descend from above to enlighten those who are good and just. Providence, however, has its own timing, and only those who are patient can remain worthy in suffering: the Beast must reach the threshold of death for the spell that imprisons him to be broken; Cinderella too must wait until evening and midnight is the limit imposed on her happiness when it is still incomplete; the young prince, mentioned above, must wait three years to reach true happiness.

     In fairy tales, evil is concealed and then manifested, through a game of mirrors, in which malignity and ugliness are masked only to convey the message better. This evil is the sin that infects the soul and cannot but take on a frightening appearance. Snow White‘s Evil Queen is beautiful until the envy that consumes her manifests itself in the form of the hideous hag carrying the poisoned apple. Belle’s sisters have hearts of stone and will therefore later become statues of stone, and at the palace gate they will have to witness the happiness of their sister they have envieduntil they are aware of it and repent. Something similar and different at the same time, must be said of the Wolf in Little Red Riding Hood. The woodsare the natural world, outside the civil order that governs village life. By entering them, one enters another dimension of reality, where the basest instincts – that hunger which falls into the sin of gluttony – are stronger motives than honesty and justice. Here,the entire world is transformed: it is the realm of lies and deception, of the illusion that must be unmasked, or else one may be lost forever. Hence, the Wolf devours the grandmother and takes her appearance, and the situation becomes more sinister, and appears something familiar but still unknown. The eyes used to look at with love become the gaze that longs for ruin, the hands to caress become the claws that seize, and the teeth to smile become the jaws that devour. 

     Of all this, with much more grace and depth than I can or know how to express, wrote Cristina Campo, who in life was a nun and a fairy – who had the soul and the grace of both. In fairy tales, she knew how to capture the secret symbols with a confident gaze; she unsnarls their arcane symmetries and reconstructs their crystalline beauty – light handily. Her thought is different from human thought, too human.A thought which today, biased byalleged “great ideals”, abuses these works. In these lines, she almost seems to be portraying herself: 

In a fairy tale, the victor is the fool who reasons backwards, who turns their masks upside down, who discern the secret thread in the plot, the unfathomable game of echoes in the melody; who move with ecstatic precision through the labyrinth of formulas, numbers, antiphons and rituals common to the gospels, fairy tales and poetry. Like a saint, they believe they can walkon water, can cross through walls as a burning spirit. They believe, like the poet, in the word: theycreate with it, they draw visible wonders from it. Et in Deo meo transgrediar murum. [2]

     One wonders not only whether the ability to discern the symbol and hear the melody has remained, but whether there are still places, moments and voices in which and with which fairy tales can be told. They appear in schools, cinemas, bookshops and leisure centres for youngsters and children, but are always rarefied, distorted, almost killed, and totally silent. This is no longer the time for fairy tales and parables: 

[…] The old people of the past were happy to express themselves through parables, and the storyteller of fairy tales – these gospels that are so lightly called moralities– was always the grandmother: the doyenne of the house, the woman of good advice, whether she was a lady or a peasant. [3]

And I still remember this. Of a grandmother who recites a poem while doing housework, and in this poem another poem appears; and the poet, who sees the cemetery from the train, has only one request for her: 

Oh grandma, oh grandma, how beautiful she was

When I was a child! Tell me it again,

Tell this wise man the novelle

Of she who seeks her lost love!

“Seven pairs of shoes I’ve worn out

All of iron to find thee again:

Seven canes of iron have I worn out

To support me in this destined meandering:

seven flasks with tears I have filled,

seven long years of bitter tears:

you sleep to my desperate cries,

and the cockerel crows, and thou wilt not wake.” [4]

And in my memory, both are now one, and I feel a deep sadness for those who will live in this world when there will no longer be voices capable of telling those who are able to understand.

[1]  Matthew, 13, 12; from the Bible, King James’ version.

[2]  Translated from Cristina Campo, Della Fiaba [On Fairytales], in Gli imperdonabili [The unforgivable], Adelphi, Milano 1987, p. 41.

[3] Translated from Cristina Campo, In medio coeli, in Gli imperdonabili [The unforgivable], cit., p. 15.

[4] Translated from Giosuè Carducci, Davanti a San Guido [In front of San Guido], in Rime nuove [New rhymes], book V, LXXII.

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