When fairy tales go bad

Photo credit: © 2014 Mooshuu, from Flickr | used via CC-BY-SA licensing

One of the things I love about fiction (especially fantasy fiction) is its ability to show me more about myself and about life in ways that get under my usual defenses and perceptions. Often a story will plant a seed that doesn’t show fruit until some event in my real life produces a sudden flowering of insight as I make the connection between the story what I am experiencing.

This happened for me in a very powerful way recently through Mercedes Lackey’s Tales of the Five Hundred Kingdoms series, which is a hybrid of the fantasy and romance genres. In this series, the kingdoms in question are regulated by a magical force, known as The Tradition, which tries to recreate well-known fairy tales. When The Tradition finds situations that resemble fairy tales, it attempts to force the people involved into acting out the story line of the fairy tale.

This is not always in the best interest of those who have captured the attention of The Tradition!

For example, in one book of the series that I read over the summer, the story starts with a young woman named Bella whose mother has died, and her father has remarried a woman with two daughters of her own. Naturally, Bella is the one who manages all of the work of the household while the step-mother lazes away in her room with various health complaints and the step-sisters spend all their attention on fashion and parties and frivolities.

While the step-mother and step-sisters are essentially good-hearted people, Bella is finding herself continually frustrated and resentful of the gap between her hard work and their lives of ease. Can you hear the echoes of the Cinderella story playing out in this scenario?

Before The Tradition could get too terribly involved in recreating that story in Bella’s life, she finds herself abruptly whisked away from home and in the middle of The Tradition trying to recreate the Beauty and the Beast story.

In the course of this adventure, she learns more about how the The Tradition manipulates people into acting according to the pre-determined story lines from the fairy tale, and this allows her to resist this force through awareness of its machinations. In this way, she retains much greater control over her choices and her life.

What caught my notice, however, was what happened back at home after her sudden departure. Without her there to keep everything running, the step-mother stepped up and took over the running of the household. She had a bit of a learning curve, but she learned quickly and thrived as she had something useful to do. The step-sisters also became more involved in the running of the household and began expanding their worlds beyond the frivolities that once captured all of their attention.

As Bella learned of this change, she realized that The Tradition had manipulated her into helping to create the very problem that she had been so resentful of. It was her refusal (under the influence of The Tradition) to give up the running of the household to her new step-mother that had fostered her step-mother’s laziness and step-sisters’ frivolous focus because they had nothing else productive to do.

In real life, of course, there is no Tradition trying to force us into certain storylines on such a grand scale. And yet, as I’ve moved through some of my own challenges this fall, I’ve realized that we all have our own personal Tradition acting to manipulate us into perpetuating our personal patterns and the old storylines that we have picked up from past experience.

We encounter new situations all the time, but we tend to react to them using these old patterns and give them meaning through the storylines that we know so well. In so doing, we keep re-creating the same situations for ourselves because that’s what our personal Tradition knows.

As I encountered a situation in my own life in recent months that was powerfully recreating my past experience, the seed from this story I read months ago (and had forgotten about) suddenly flowered into insight. The situation I was dealing with was indeed very similar to ones I had encountered before, but my choices were causing it to head down unhelpful pathways that more closely resembled what I had previously experienced than was necessary.

My old storyline was not the only option!

There were plenty of other ways I could have interpreted what was happening and other ways I could have reacted to it, but my personal Tradition caused me to re-create patterns and stories that I knew from my past. Even when I knew these patterns and stories weren’t helpful, I felt powerless to do (or see) anything different. My personal Tradition was manipulating me into thinking there was only one possible outcome.

Like Bella, it was only as I became aware of how my Tradition was calling the shots that I was able to discover other choices that were available to me for how the story could play out. I began making different choices and creating new storylines that offered alternate outcomes and possibilities, and this has broken my Tradition’s power dictate what will happen.

My Tradition of old patterns and way of seeing things is still strong, and I’ve learned to be watching for those to creep back in at any time, but just recognizing its role in controlling me has been a powerful liberation. I have new choices available to me that are creating a new ending to the story this time around.

Who would have guessed that a light summer escapist read could have had such a profound impact?

What role does your own Tradition plan in your life? Where is your Tradition causing you to re-create old, familiar storylines and patterns of reacting that may not be the most helpful options? As you identify your Tradition and become aware of its manipulation, what other options become available to you to change the story moving forward?

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2 thoughts on “When fairy tales go bad

  • December 3, 2014 at 10:11 am

    I really like the idea of “Tradition” as past experience, which only presents what we have known. Currently, I am dealing with this in terms of my physical health, which always includes an emotional component–the story chronic disease becomes. I was discussing this with my acupuncture physician who told me to try gratitude Tradition makes itself known. It is being grateful for my past experience (Tradition), which was the best I could do at the time in whatever the situation was. It is not engaging Tradition so that it plays out but simply being grateful for that experience. With only acknowledgement and not interaction, Tradition essentially returns to where it was. Works rather well, I have found. Great post, Kenetha!


    • December 3, 2014 at 9:13 pm

      I love this idea of approaching our Tradition not only with awareness, but also with gratitude. Acknowledging our past and being grateful for the experiences which formed the Tradition is a beautiful way to honor it without engaging it or allowing it to control our present. I admire the work you are doing with this approach as in terms of your physical health, and I am encouraged to hear that you are finding to to be so helpful. I think I will add this element of gratitude to my own approach, and I look forward to seeing what effect it will have. Thank you so much, Karen, for sharing this with me!

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