In a folktale, when the son sets off on an adventure, his mother asks him, “Will you take a half loaf with my blessing, or a whole loaf with no blessing?” We, the reader or listener, know the right answer to this question, and if the son asks for the whole loaf, we know it means he has the wrong priorities, that he’s doomed to fail in his quest and, perhaps, come to some dreadful end. However, we may ask (and children often do ask), Why can’t he have both the blessing and the whole loaf? Or, why not simply bless him, hand him the half loaf, and send him on his way? Why does the mother make her son choose?
Folktales are full of such moments, those incidents that can stop our suspension of disbelief and make us wonder, why? or how? We accept without question the existence of magic rings and glass mountains, but our imaginations bulk at matter-of-fact questions like, Why can’t Snow White just take the dwarves’ advice? or, Why does Ashenputtel’s father allow his new wife to treat her so badly? I think that these moments in a story, the incidents we stop to question, are the story’s way of saying, There is something important here. When the story ends, come back and examine this place. You’ll learn something true here, something about yourself.
In recent days, we have been exposed to one of real life’s unfathomable moments, the suicide of a bright and talented young man; a death ostensibly caused by the sort of mean act we expect from the older brothers and evil stepsisters of fairytales, but that we find inexplicable when it is perpetrated by real life brothers and sisters. In the days following Tyler Clementi’s tragic death, I have heard people speculate on the social phenomena that may have encouraged the actions of his tormentors: social networking and the ease with which modern technology allows the spread of images and information; the religious and cultural roots of homophobia; the aura of unreality that Reality T.V. has lent to life’s most serious and intimate interactions. Some or all of these things, no doubt, were instrumental in forming the thought processes that resulted in the heinous acts of the two seemingly unexceptional teenagers who set off the string of events that ended in Tyler’s suicide, but they don’t really explain how these two children came to hurt a third child so deeply. The explanations also do not give us a hint about how we can protect our children from being the instigators or becoming the victims of thoughtless brutality.
Among all the speculation about blame, the question I do not hear being asked is, how can we protect our children from the evils they are bound to meet as life leads them further and further from our side? Is there any way we can prepare them to resist the temptations presented by their social environment, or help them develop the inner strength to fight despair when they’re hurt by the actions of others? How do we help our children develop the moral compass they will need to navigate life?
As a mother and a teacher, these are questions I have been thinking about for over thirty years. They are not the kinds of questions that have simple answers. We can’t protect our children from the vicissitudes of life. We can only try to prepare them to expect that life will not be easy and that it will demand sacrifices. I believe that stories, especially folktales and myths, are one tool we can use to arm our children against the difficulties they will face in their lives. These ancient stories teach by telling about life in all its patterns and possibilities. They teach that heroes don’t succeed at every task, that sometimes they make the same mistake over and over again, that they are humiliated by their rivals, and passed over when they are most deserving. The stories also teach that, whatever the consequences, if a man wishes to be happy, he must stand by what he knows is right. Like the son in the folktale, a hero will always be asked to make a choice, and the choice will usually involve some sort of sacrifice: the whole loaf or the half.
We know that the magic in stories is not real, but sometimes we forget that it is often true. The truth in folk and fairy tales transcends the facts of life. In the real world, we can’t fly by lacing on magic sandals, escape danger with the help of a magic cloak, or travel to the underworld to bring back a lost love. These are the actions of our dreams, of the intensely private world of our unconscious, the place where we store our magical gear, our wishing rings and cloaks of invisibility, and where we keep our own personal witches, faeries, and demons. It’s the realm that may hold the secrets to our happiness and stability, if we could only decipher the things that happen there. Folktales and myths give us access to the world of the unconscious in a more orderly and systematic way than do our dreams. Our examination of the puzzling moments in story can help us learn to protect ourselves and teach us to fight the forces of evil that would overcome our psyches.
When children hear the old stories, they instinctively know that the hero is a stand-in for themselves, and I believe that when they hear something in the story that speaks directly to them, it stops them long enough to make them wonder, Why? This is the teaching moment, the place in the story that will fortify the soul if the questioner stops to examine it. Sometimes the answers are hard, but if we take the time to help our children look for them, we help them build the moral foundation that will support them as they grow, help them make good decisions, and help fortify them against despair.
It’s not easy for parents to teach these hard lessons to our children, but I think it’s essential to their well being. The nymph, Thetis, tried to give her son, Achilles, both her blessing and the whole loaf. Knowing he was fated to die young, she tried to divert his fate with charms and tricks. In his infancy, she dipped him in the River Styx, making every part of his body except the eponymous tendon by which she held his tiny leg impenetrable by weapons. As he approached manhood, she tried to make him invisible to the kings who would take him to Troy by disguising him as a girl and placing him in the women’s quarters of King Lycomedes’s palace. Finally, realizing that she could no longer keep him from his final battle, she procured for him a wondrous shield made by the armorer of the gods, Hephaestus. An Immortal, herself, Thetis didn’t understand that the mortality from which she was trying to protect her son held the key to any possibility he had of happiness or peace of mind. She couldn’t protect him from death, but perhaps she could have taught him to value life. Perhaps she could have focused less on the vulnerability of his body and thought more about how to help him develop his qualities of soul. And when we read the story of her son’s last days in Homer’s Iliad, we realize how much he could have used that help.
I think there is little we can do to prevent our children's suffering. However, I think we can try to prepare them to expect that life will sometimes be sad and frightening, and to give them strategies for surviving those times. One of the ways to accomplish this is by telling and reading them stories in which heroes make choices, suffer the consequences, and learn to overcome. This is what the folktale mother knows. This is the story teaching us.
posted by Paula Davidoff
Paula Davidoff is a writer and storyteller who has been a teaching artist since 1994. In addition to her work with Storytelling Arts, she is the director of a storytelling-based literacy program in the Morristown, NJ and co-director, with playwright Carolyn Hunt, of Girls Surviving, a troupe of teen girls who tell their own stories through writing and performance.