I have a great love for fairy tales, whether they’re modified Disney movies or old Hans Christian Anderson classics. Recently, I was watching the Leslie Ann Warren version of “Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella,” mainly because I love the music, and I was struck by one of the themes to which I’ve never paid proper attention.
Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother had warned Cinderella that she had to leave the ball before midnight, and Cinderella firmly promised that she would remember. Yet, as she gazed into her prince’s eyes, she became distracted and forgot the promise that she had so insistently made. Only when the clock started to chime did she remember, and she almost didn’t make it out of the castle before her dress turned back into rags.
I let my mind drift a little, and immediately thought of the original story of “Beauty and the Beast,” in which the Beast, when allowing Beauty to return home, told her that if she did not return within a certain span of time, he would most certainly die. Beauty assuredly promised him that she would return within that span of time, and yet she allowed herself to be distracted by her family. She forgot the promise she had made until it was almost too late. The Beast was almost dead when she reached his side and proclaimed her love for him, breaking the spell.
The dwarves warned Snow White not to open the door of the cottage to strangers. She promised she would not open the door to strangers. Yet upon three separate occasions (according to the original fairy tale), she allowed herself to be tricked by her disguised evil stepmother, and opened the door to a stranger. She forgot her promise and almost died—three times! I'm not sure if that's foolishness, arrogance, or both!
In "Rumpelstiltskin," the young girl promised her first born child to the dwarf, but in her happiness over her newborn child, she forgot her promise until Rumpelstiltskin came to collect.
In "The Frog Prince," the princess conveniently (purposefully) “forgot” her promise to the frog who had rescued her golden ball. She didn’t want to allow him to eat off her plate or sleep in her bed. Only when the king heard of her promise did he enforce it, reminding her of the importance of remembering one’s promises.
There are other examples, but most fairy tales are too obscure for those who don’t make a point of reading them. I find it interesting both that many fairy tales deal with this theme of forgetfulness, and that I haven’t really ever consciously noticed it before.
I think the reason that I’m more aware of it now has to do with the fact that I’ve been reading through the first few books of the Bible. I’ve just completed my readings of Numbers and Deuteronomy, and I’ve begun reading the book of Joshua. Throughout these books are little reminders—both of God’s promises to Israel, and of Israel’s commitments to Him. It’s interesting how many times the Lord reminded His people of the covenant He had made with them. It’s interesting how readily Israel accepted the covenant, promising to follow all of God’s commandments. It’s interesting how quickly Israel forgot their promise.
I see examples of many different kinds of forgetfulness in Scripture. The people of Israel forgot their promise to follow God because they were distracted, because they were arrogant, because they were foolish, because they were fearful, but mainly because they were just plain sinful.
None of this surprised God. He knows humans are forgetful. That, I believe, is why He gave so many reminders. That’s why He recommended His people take special care to remember. He knew how easy it was for sinful man to forget.
"These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates." --Deuteronomy 6: 6-9
“Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit and home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Write them on the door frames of your houses and on your gates, so that your days and the days of your children may be many in the land that the Lord swore to give your forefathers, as many as the days that the heavens are above the earth.” --Deuteronomy 11: 18-21
In The Silver Chair, by C. S. Lewis, which I consider to be a modern fairy tale, Aslan gives Jill Pole four signs to remember (in order to aid her in finding the lost Prince Rilian). He tells her, “…Remember, remember, remember the signs. Say them to yourself when you wake in the morning and when you lie down at night, and when you wake in the middle of the night. And whatever strange things may happen to you, let nothing turn your mind from following the signs.”
Aslan knew Jill would forget the signs.
The story still had a happy ending. Prince Rilian is found, regardless of Jill’s forgetfulness.
Just as “Cinderella” marries her prince, regardless of her distracted forgetfulness.
Just as Beauty returns to her Beast just in time to love him back into a prince, regardless of her world-weary forgetfulness.
Just as “Snow White” awakens from her death-sleep to find her Prince Charming, regardless of her foolish/arrogant/etc. forgetfulness.
Just as the young woman in “Rumpelstiltskin” names the dwarf and keeps her baby, regardless of her blissfully ignorant forgetfulness.
Just as the princess in “The Frog Prince” transforms the ugly frog into a handsome prince, regardless of her intentional forgetfulness.
The true hero in The Silver Chair, and indeed in all of the Narnia stories, is not Jill Pole or any other human character. The hero is always Aslan. Aslan knew that if Jill had remembered the signs, things would have gone much more easily for her and all involved. But He also knew that she would forget the signs, yet He still worked all things together for good. Even though Jill forgot, He was still the one in control of the story.
And that’s true for Israel’s story, which, because I've been grafted into Israel, is also my story. I, like the Israelites, am forgetful. I make promises quickly, and forget them even more quickly. I know, and God knows, that if I were diligent to remember, if I fixed His truth on my mind and heart, if I reminded myself of His truth when I went to bed and when I woke up, if I reminded myself of His truth when I went about my daily life, then things would be much easier for me...and often much more pleasant for the people I encounter. But I am not the hero of my own life story. And God knows that there are going to be times, many times, when I forget.
Fairy tales are meant to teach morals, and many fairy tales have more than one moral. Certainly the value of keeping promises can be found in “The Frog Prince” and in “Beauty and the Beast,” as well as the reminder to not judge by appearances. “Cinderella” and “Snow White” are examples of how being kind to others, especially in times of suffering and humility, leads to happiness. I'm not sure, but I think that the moral of “Rumpelstiltskin” is “don’t tell the king that your daughter can spin straw into gold unless she really can,” or perhaps, “don’t promise your first born child to a dwarf unless you’re on a first-name basis,” or perhaps, "don't provide offspring for a greedy king who only loves you because he thinks you can spin straw into gold." That one's a little ambiguous, I guess.
In all of these stories, however, I don’t really see the main characters as the heroes. There is always another force at work, be it a royal servant who hears Rumpelstiltskin singing his own name (for whatever reason—having a name like Rumpelstiltskin probably made him a little loony) in the forest, a Fairy Godmother, or just plain magic. The characters don’t guide their own destinies, which is a very good thing.
If "Cinderella" were in control, she would never have gone to the ball.
If Beauty were in control, she would have returned to the castle to find nothing more than a dead Beast.
If "Snow White" were in control, her stepmother would have probably succeeded in killing her on the first try.
If the young woman in “Rumpelstiltskin” were in control, that dwarf would have won the custody battle.
If the princess in “Frog Prince” were in control, she would have remained a spoiled, selfish, promise-breaking child who never grew up. Which, by the way, would pretty much be my destiny, too.
But I’m not in control of my own story.
Though I’m forgetful and faithless, my God is faithful. Even though I make my life so much harder than it has to be with my forgetfulness, God is still working things out for good. I'm grateful that He's in control of my story...of HIS story.
And I’m grateful for these great truths found in the simplest of tales. Fairy tales were told and passed down and written partly to be reminders.
I, for one, can use all the reminders I can get.