On the Beauty and the Beast and the Gospel

I have never been a massive fan of fairy tales or anything regarding princesses.  I know more about the Hardy Boys than Cinderella and Prince Charming, and I've never enjoyed stories about witless girls dressing up and swooning over charming boys with flowing hair and more brawn than brains.  My tomboy heart has always gravitated toward adventure over romance, I guess.  Now that I'm older, though, I've begun to appreciate those old fairy tales for the truth they hold apart from the sensationalized and overly girly depictions I knew when I was younger.  

A couple years ago, I read an article by Kristen O'Neal for Relevant Magazine, in which she talks about the value of fairy tales and their inherent truth.  She references Tolkien's stunning essay on fairy stories:
"It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind, that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the 'turn' comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art... In such stories, when the sudden 'turn' comes we get a piercing glimpse of joy, and heart's desire, that for a moment passes outside the frame, rends indeed the very web of story, and lets a gleam come through." (Tolkien, quoted here)
Tolkien argues that fairy tales set in a world outside ours allow truth to shine in through our own longing.  In the way every young woman in those stories longs for a man who will complete her and make her whole, so we broken humans long to be made whole.  Tim Keller, in a 2008 sermon entitled "Thanks Be To God", also talks about fairy tales and riffs on Tolkien, saying:
"We long to find a love that perfectly heals, and from which we can never part, and we long to triumph over evil, finally and totally.  When you are in the middle of a great fairy tale, the fairy tale lets you live, even briefly, with the dream that love without parting, escape from death, triumph over evil, are real and realizable.  That's why the stories stir us so deeply, and why we will go on reading and writing them no matter what the critics say." (Keller)
That truth and longing is what I want to talk about today.  Seeing the story of the Beauty and the Beast played out beautifully on screen resurrected all my feelings about that story and the greater story of fairy tales.  Beauty and the Beast is my favorite fairy tale, though, granted, I only know a couple, and I'm excited to share what I love about it.  Hang on, folks, it's gonna be a long one.

The conflict of the story of Beauty and the Beast is that there was once a prince whose horrible, selfish actions resulted in his transformation into a hideous beast.  He lost all of his human form, and was essentially exiled to his castle, which was also transformed – it grew dark and scary and in that part of the forest, it was perpetually winter (huh, sound like another familiar bit of fiction?).  This dehumanizing curse also affected some of the people closest to the prince, and they took on the form of objects, though they retained the ability to move and speak.  These characters are wasting away in a castle in the wintery woods, counting down the days until their punishment becomes permanent and they will harden into their forms–the objects will lose their animation, and the prince trapped within the beast will fully become the monster, never to regain his humanity.  That is, unless this horrible, ugly, terrifying creature can somehow be loved by someone.  The beast has given up hope – how could anyone learn to love him?

And yet, there is this girl who comes along, rather by chance, to rescue her father and take his place in the prison, and at once, there is a tiny little sliver of hope.  Perhaps this is the one to love the prince back into life.  Perhaps this one will love him at last.  But things happen and Belle leaves and a horde attacks the castle and a vengeful man shoots the beast, and the last petal falls from the rose and the beast dies in Belle's arms.  And it all seems irrevocably over.  But there's this thing Tolkien talked about in storytelling and in fairy tales in particular – this thing called a eucatastrophe – the idea, or the moment when it seems like everything couldn't get any worse and then it does, and then, when hope has disappeared, the whole thing turns completely around and something amazing happens and the horrible situation that couldn't be worse suddenly couldn't get any better.  That's what happens in this story.  Belle whispers those most consequential words as the beast lies cold and dead: "I love you," and everything changes in an instant.  The beast becomes a perfect man with a heart of gold and all of the objects in the castle who had a moment before turned into just a clock and just a teapot and just a wardrobe become human again and everything is made new and perfectly whole.  And yes, the story does end happily ever after.  It's supposed to.

The unlovable is made whole by love.  The ugly is made beautiful by love.  The lifeless is made alive by love.  The winter turns into spring through love.  The unlovable is loved and at once, everything changes.  

"I will show my love to the one I called 'Not my loved one.'  I will say to those called 'Not my people,' 'You are my people,' and they will say, 'You are my God.'" (Hosea 2:23)

I am unlovable and yet the one who is love loved me and made me whole.  While I was still ugly and deformed, He loved me into beauty.  He loved me into life.  If I am a beast (and I am), then Jesus is beautiful.  That sudden turn in the story that changed everything was when He decided to love me despite my unloveable-ness.  And no, He didn't have to learn to love me.  My affection didn't change his mind.  But then neither did my sin.  He loves always, no matter what.

There's this line in Tolkien's Return of the King that just gets me every time.  After everything is over and Sam and Frodo by their bravery have saved Middle Earth and almost died as a result, Sam Gamgee wakes up in Rivendell and is astonished to see Gandalf, whom he and Frodo had believed dead, sitting at the foot of the bed.  He exclaims, "Gandalf!  I thought you were dead!  But then I thought I was dead myself.  Is everything sad going to come untrue?" (930)  That line ran through my head watching this movie.  Everything sad was coming untrue.  The spell was undone by love.  And so the man and woman loved each other perfectly and the characters became human and whole and loved and lived happily ever after.

All the longing we feel, everything that thrills our weary human hearts in fairy tales does so because they are our stories, too.  There's a Prince who died to save us, his true love.  There's a King who gave up everything for us.  There's a Beauty who loves our beastly selves.  The story of Beauty and the Beast is ours, if we give ourselves over to the love of this King, this Prince, this Beauty.  
"But He was pierced for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon Him, and by His wounds we are healed.  After the suffering of His soul, He will see the light of life, and be satisfied (Is. 53:5+11).


Books Recently Read

Well.  It's been a while, but I had a sudden hankering to write about books.  Today, then, I want to talk about three books I've lately finished.  Two of these I read for class and the other is an audio book.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I took a literary interpretation class last semester - I just finished and I'm very sad about it - and during the second half of the class, we read two books: a play, The Tempest, by William Shakespeare, and a novel, The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James.  I wrote essays about both of these things, and I am excited to talk about them here.

 Before this class, I'd read a handful of Shakespeare plays and The Tempest was unlike any of them.  It reminded me of Greek mythology, and I really enjoyed it.  The plot of this romantic tragedy centers around an exiled magician, Prospero, and his daughter, Miranda.  Prospero used to be the King of Milan, but his throne was usurped by his brother Alfonso? (not sure...I have the hardest time remembering names in plays), and consequently, he and his daughter were forced to set adrift at sea, and end up on a remote island.  The central event of the play is a tempest that Prospero, by his magic, creates to bring the ship within which are the usurper, Alfonzo, the wise, old Gonzalo, Ferdinand (who will marry Miranda eventually), and a host of other characters to wreck upon Prospero's island.  What seems like a revenge plot takes a sudden turn (or volte) around the 3/4 mark in the book, and Prospero, ashamed that he let his desire for righteous justice fall into base revenge, gives up his plot and his magical powers, and provides for his brother and his companions to return safely to Milan.  There are things I left out, but if this sounds interesting to you, I highly recommend it.  I think it would be an excellent place to start with Shakespeare.  I loved the play, and it had so many interesting themes and elements, any of which I could have written about.  As it were, my essay argued that while Prospero's "fall" seems tragic and hopeless, it was ultimately redemptive in ways that perhaps Prospero himself did not understand.  It is such a fascinating play, and once again demonstrates Shakespeare's utter mastery of his genre.  Note: while the edition pictured is aesthetically pleasing and very cool, I would not recommend it for reading/studying the play.  For those purposes, I recommend the Folger's Shakespeare edition.  Read the play and then get the pretty version.

Next up, The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James.  I don't know if I ever mentioned it on this blog, but when I first read this book during the formative years of my youth (early in high school), I kind of hated it.  I enjoyed the reading process, but the ending made me want to chuck it across the room.  Naturally, this experience made me wary when I saw it in the class syllabus, but I had a distant inkling there was something I was missing, and I was excited to see if my feelings would change.  The Portrait is a coming-of-age novel centering around the protagonist, Isabel Archer, an independent, free-willed, intelligent American girl who travels to England with her aunt shortly after the death of her father.  In her early twenties at this point, she becomes close friends with her cousin, Ralph Touchett, an invalid, who is one of a few characters who seems to have Isabel's genuine well-being at heart.  Before she has been in England for too long, Isabel's has attracted suitors and refused two proposals.  She's apparently a great girl who has the power to woo men instantly.  Sarcasm?  Pshhh no...  Early on in the novel, Isabel comes under the influence of a middle-aged woman named Madame Merle, who takes Isabel under her wing in a way, and persuades her to go to Italy to make the acquaintance of this super great guy she knows, named Gilbert Osmond.  Spoiler: he's not super great.  Things progress from here, and I will refrain from spoiling them, though I do truly enjoy ranting about this book.  Now, you may assume I dislike this book from the way I talk about it, but, while I still have vitriolic reactions toward some (most) of the characters, I have come to deeply appreciate it despite all those feelings.  I think this is partly due to my being a more mature reader now, but I think it's a reaction that must be cultivated - intensely disliking parts of a book while still valuing and appreciating it deeply for other, more important reasons.  I'm happy to say, then, that those are exactly the ways I feel about The Portrait.  James is truly a master of his craft, and rereading this made me understand that.  His writing is mind-blowingly amazing, the themes of this book are important and far-reaching, and I could talk about it for a long time.  If you are willing to power through 600+ pages for an ending that mildly disappoints but to ultimately experience a book that is hard-hitting and thought-provoking, read The Portrait.  If nothing else, there are sentences in it that will make you actually gasp.  Find my edition here.

Finally, a book unlike either of the other two – Secondhand Time by Svetlana Alexievich.  I listened to the Audible version of this one, and I'll briefly mention that experience at the end.  About the book itself, though.  Secondhand Time is a completely different sort of historical nonfiction book.  As it says on the cover, it's an oral history, which means that it's full of interviews and stories from people Alexievich has actually sat down and talked to and recorded.  This was my first time reading anything like this, and it was really interesting.  More about that later.  This book is principally about people in post-Soviet Russia living in a country they don't recognize.  Most of the stories seem to be from people old enough to remember Russia before the Cold War and Gorbachov and Yeltsin and before capitalism affects their way of life.  The people Alexievich talk to don't feel they fit in in Russia anymore, and they don't understand the nation it's become or the people who now live there.  Most of these stories are incredibly sad and devastating and horrifying and they opened my eyes to episodes of history I was clueless about.  Now, my thoughts of the book.  I read this book not because I thought it would be enjoyable or interesting, but because 1) I am deeply fascinated by Russian history and 2) I believe that as humans (and more importantly Christians) in the world, we have a responsibility to learn about the pain of the world, to try to understanding the depth of human suffering, and at least attempt to feel something of the sorrow and grief of mankind.  For whatever reason, I believe that this small act in some way honors the loss and pain of humanity.  But mostly, I think it's our duty, my duty, to feel something of the pain God must feel for a world devastated by sin.  We have to look at the suffering of the world and allow it to motivate us to work for the redemption of this earth.  That's why I read this book, and that's why I think it is important to read books like this and engage with stories that are hard and heavy.  And yes, this particular book checked all those boxes.  It is incredibly intense.  There are some really graphic stories in here about particularly horrific suffering.  I had to skip one or two parts because it was too much.  Ultimately, though, I am grateful to have read it.  I have an empathy for those people who believed in socialism and worshiped Stalin as god that I never had before.  Capitalism isn't the right answer for Russia, and there won't ever be an easy solution to the problems that beset a nation with such diverse and complex issues.  This book reminded me that it is impossible to simplify the actions and beliefs of a whole nation of people into a few inadequate words.  I could say so much more about this book and everything it made me consider, but I want to quickly mention a few things about the listening experience.  First of all, the audio book has different narrators so as to recognize when a new person is talking, which was helpful.  The distinctions between the author's voice and the interviewee's voice could have been made a little clearer, but for the most part, there wasn't too much confusion.   However, it was impossible, either because of the audio book or simply because it wasn't mentioned, to tell when each person was telling their story.  I had a vague idea of the era being talked about, but the timeline was fuzzy, which was disorienting.  All in all, the process of listening to the audio book was mostly positive, but I do want to procure the physical book so as to refer to specific stories and dates more easily.  One final note: not unexpectedly, there is a ton of language and really graphic stories/experiences in this book, so like, huge warning.  This book is not for the faint of heart.

This was much longer than expected, but really, would you expect any less from me?  I hope you enjoyed reading about the books I've finished recently.  I am now on a short break before my summer class begins, and I have big plans for reading in the coming week or so.  Anyway, thanks for sticking around!