Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Mirror, mirror, on the wall

[Religious content ahead]

In its endless search for bright ideas to exploit, tarnish and eventually exhaust, Hollywood has turned back to an old standard of storytelling: classic fairy tales. In recent years all sorts of "once upon a time"-inspired projects have popped up like toadstools on a wet lawn. Unfortunately most of the recent batch are pretty awful (anyone for a second helping of Red Riding Hood? No? How 'bout the upcoming cheesefest Hansel and Gretel Witch Hunters?). This is a shame, because the old fairy tales -- especially the stories collected by the Grimms, the ones with no individual author, filtered through the narrative choices of hundreds of storytellers -- are rich in peculiar detail and half-forgotten symbolism and would lend themselves well to more serious adaptations.

These stories were originally told to adults around the fire, and in their most unexpurgated forms the adult themes and concepts are particularly noticeable. For instance, in the Grimms' original collection, the story of Snow White featured only one Queen, a beautiful but vain woman who wished for a child with beauty to match her own and then went insane with jealousy when that wished-for child grew to be more lovely than she. In the time-honored tradition of the evil parent archetype, this Queen took Snow White into the woods to gather wildflowers and abandoned her there to be torn apart by wild beasts. There's a reason why the Grimm brothers toned down the story a bit in later editions.

A few days ago we watched the movie Mirror, Mirror. It's a prime example of a big-budget Hollywood project which failed to jell, although it's difficult to pinpoint the problem -- it has beautiful costumes, great sets, wonderful casting, some hilarious campy moments, and yet the whole somehow disappoints. One thing I do like about the film, however, is its conceptualization of the Queen's magic mirror. Other versions of the Snow White tale give us a mirror inhabited by some sort of demoniac spirit magically forced into service, but the being that speaks from this mirror is an idealized reflection of the Queen herself. This mirror is more closely connected to the original symbolism of the story -- representative specifically of vanity, yes, but also of the other dangers inherent in being too focused on oneself. It's easy to forget that the title of "fairest in the land" is wholly subjective; in the original tale, the mirror told the Queen that Snow White had become fairer than she only because it reflected the fears of the questioner's own jealous heart.

It occurs to me that much of what falls under the rubric of divination -- astrology, palmistry, tarot readings, casting of runes, messing around with chicken guts, and so forth -- is similar to the magic mirror in the way it "works." The questioner uses the various paraphernalia of divination to see aspects of her own internal state. She consults the preconceived meanings of the cards, stars, runes, etc., but only focuses on those meanings that seem most applicable to her circumstances, allowing other possible interpretations to fade away. In this sense, divination is not so much a means of seeing what shall be as it is a way of perceiving our own thoughts, dreams, hopes and fears about the future. It is a mental mirror that reflects an individual's will.

How does this kind of activity differ from, say, prayer? As someone who believes in God's existence, I'd say the difference between divination and prayer is like the difference between looking into a mirror and talking to a friend on the telephone. The difference between introspection and conversation is deeply significant. When you look at yourself, you see largely what you expect to see; when you talk to a friend, you are introduced to thoughts, ideas, ways of looking at the world that you might never have considered on your own. Prayer -- at least the kind where you feel a powerful connection to the Being on the other end -- shakes you. It does not allow you to remain complacent. It forces you to confront uncomfortable truths that you would rather not address, and it asks you to make changes you would rather not make. But it also brings connections, ideas, sudden revelations of truth that cannot be found in decades of introspection. And at certain times you will experience a gentle, nurturing, all-encompassing love that no amount of self-esteem, no matter how powerful, can hope to match.

Introspection isn't a bad thing in small doses. It's useful to look inside once in a while, to gauge one's inner state. But looking outward to greater heights, having the courage to address a Personage many orders of magnitude greater than oneself, is both more frightening and more exhilarating than anything found within -- and I believe it will make you much more than what you now are, or can even imagine being. And that's something no mere reflection can offer.

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