I can’t sleep. I made the mistake of reading a short story by Neil Gaiman called “Feeders and Eaters” just before bed. It was a story based on a nightmare. Now I can’t banish the thought that I’ll have a nightmare if I allow myself to cross in to the land of slumber.
I couldn’t help but think of the nature of fear, the quality of monsters. This, I suppose, is the beauty of Neil Gaiman’s twisted genius. He manages to make the mundane creepy, then the creepy terrifying. But to those who stand outside of the story, unaware, the terrifying would look completely normal.
This brought to mind a story. My first story.
Once upon a time there was a happy, prosperous kingdom.
The people who lived in the kingdom loved their king for he was wise and just. They loved their queen for she was equally wise and fair. But above all they loved the king and queen’s only daughter, for she was as wise as her parents, as just, and as fair and all agreed that she was the most beautiful girl in all the land.
I told myself this story one night. I hit upon a premise and simply told it, alone in my bed, staring at the ceiling. This would set a precedent. I start all my stories now by hitting upon a premise and telling them to myself until they make sense.
But there was something about the princess that no one knew. She secretly longed for adventure and felt restricted by the life of idle luxury she lived in the castle. So whenever she could she snuck off in to the woods and practiced fighting and archery with a sword and bow she had hidden at the edge of a clearing far from prying eyes.
My fascination with the standard myth and fairy tale is based on a simple idea: what if we take the standard and make it non-standard? We start with the “Once upon a time…” and work our way to the “…Happily ever after.” But in between, well, we meet the standard characters only to find that they aren’t.
One day the king received an urgent request from an ally in a distant land. They had been attacked and desperately needed help or would soon be overrun. So the king assembled his army and put his generals at its head and sent them off to war.
The kingdom had been at peace for so long that they had forgotten the carnage and terror of war. So while the army arrayed itself along the royal road the people of the kingdom gathered in a festive mood to see the colorful flags and bright spears glitter brightly in the sun.
A long while after the dust had settled and the kingdom returned to normal, the king and queen realized something was wrong. They had not seen their daughter in quite some time. The searched the castle from cellar to keep and turret to tower, but couldn’t find her anywhere. They sent their servants in to the fields, but she was nowhere to be found. The finally sent messengers far and wide across the kingdom, but day after day the messengers came back with no news to share.
The first person I told this story to was Her. I told it while lying on my bed in the dark, talking in to a telephone. Three, maybe four years later I realize the story was about Her, about how I perceived Her. All it took was Neil Gaiman’s nightmare to realize that.
One day a messenger happened across a young boy sitting by the side of the road at the edge of the forest. Desperate for any lead he asked the boy if he had seen the princess.
The boy said that he had been in that exact spot when the army passed. A knight had pulled away from the march and asked if he had any water. The boy took the knight to a well and noticed that this knight was different, for he didn’t smell like sweat and horses, but like a meadow on a crisp spring morning. When the knight lifted his helmet to drink, the boy saw that it was not a grizzled old warrior, but a beautiful girl who winked and smiled and put her finger to her lips and asked him to make it their secret.
We fill our stories with stock characters. It’s an easy shorthand to explain to the audience exactly what to expect. But it serves another purpose. We are each of those stock characters at some point. Sometimes we’re the young boy looking at the world through innocent eyes, sometimes we’re the messenger desperately seeking news, sometimes we’re the king waiting for good news and fearing the bad. The story affects us in different ways depending on which character we are.
The messenger put the boy on his horse and took him back to the castle as fast as possible. When the king and queen heard the story they immediately sent their messengers out to find the army and bring the princess home.
But they were too late. The army had been ambushed in a high, desolate mountain pass and when the messengers arrived all they found was death.
The king and queen were devastated. They mourned the death of their daughter and the kingdom mourned with them.
Everyone had lost a father, a son, a brother, or a friend. But in the princess they lost more than that. They lost hope.
It seemed important to me, at the time, to acknowledge that even in fairy tale land there are more than three characters, more people than just those main characters. So often we forget the collateral damage. But, still, the princess had to be a greater symbol because the princess was a symbol to me. And I could take any role in the kingdom I created in my head that night.
Not long afterwards the kingdom received even more bad news. Travelers began disappearing from the roads. It seemed something was lurking in the woods.
The king sent his remaining guards in to the forest to find out what was there. None returned. Rumors began to swirl that there was a monster somewhere out there in the deep, dark corners of the woods.
The woods, of course, represent the scary, unexplored places. Only the bravest souls and the most terrifying monsters occupy the woods.
The king sent word far and wide and called for a hero to come and slay the beast. He promised great reward to any brave and skillful knight.
There were many at first, arriving alone or in bands. Some were renowned warriors and adventurers, others were down on their luck soldiers and some were nothing but scoundrels looking for a quick reward.
They entered the woods alone or in bands.
We venture out in to the woods ill-equipped most of the time. We just want to take a quick route through our pain, through our fears, and come out the better for it. But if we approach our darkness and our monsters with too cavalier a mood we come out worse in the end.
The people who lived at the edge of the woods began leaving the kingdom, afraid for their lives. As months spread out to years the good, happy, prosperous people left in larger numbers, leaving empty homes and fallow fields that were eventually occupied by bandits and squatters. The king had no energy to stop it.
Eventually the queen died and all agreed it was a broken heart. Everyone wondered when the king would follow.
If we don’t go out in to the woods and face the monsters, though, despair can overtake us.
Then one day something happened that had not occurred in well over a decade.
A knight appeared at the borders of the kingdom. He rode atop a great, white charger and his armor was so bright it seemed the sun was reflected it and not the other way around.
The knight went to the castle and asked to see the king. When he was ushered in to the throne room he said that he had come to slay the great forest beast.
Hope is a wonderful thing. It comes riding up, shining brightly in the darkest of moments.
The king told the knight that he had no more left to give as a reward, save one thing. If the knight could slay the beast and save the kingdom, it would be his to rule. Then the king sent the knight off, fully expecting to never see the brave, foolish knight again.
Hope is a foolish thing to those who have given up. Hope is also a strange thing, especially when we realize that hope and despair are different characters played by the same actor.
The knight rode to the edge of the forest and arrived as dusk began to gather the evening gloom at the edges of the horizon. It was overgrown and dense, so he tied his great white charger to an old well and walked in alone.
As the night got darker and the woods got denser his shield became a hindrance, forever catching on tree trunks. He left it behind. Then he was forced to take off his helmet because he could no longer see and his armor because it kept getting caught in the branches and the brambles.
I added this part intentionally, but did not understand why. Since I knew what was coming next I knew that the hero had to be vulnerable. But in the larger context the hero has to approach the great monsters in the darkness naked. We cannot be honest with ourselves when clad in our self-righteousness and while trying to protect ourselves from the truth that can only be found in honesty. Honesty cannot penetrate the iron we wrap around our heads and hearts.
The moon was high in the night sky when the knight, armed only with his sword and protected only by his tunic, stepped out of the dense undergrowth and in to a wide clearing. All around him, glowing softly in the bright moonlight, were broken swords, bent shields, and naked, shattered skulls. He drew his sword, knowing he had found the monster’s lair.
At that exact moment the monster appeared. It stepped out of the shadows opposite the knight and stared malevolently at him through narrowed eyes.
The beast stood a full head taller than the knight. It was covered in coarse fur that could not hide a tight, solidly muscled physique. Its arms hung nearly to its knees and ended in long, sharp claws. But most terrifying of all was the beast’s face. It had a long, wolflike snout that was filled with pointy, bloodstained teeth.
Man and beast stared at each other across the clearing for a long moment. Then both took a step forward, as if by unspoken agreement. A second step, then a third and a fourth and a fifth and they were in the middle of the clearing.
It’s hard to properly describe a monster. Monsters exist best when they lack description and the imagination is allowed to run wild. To describe a monster is to remove its power because its power exists primarily in the unseen spaces. It’s harder still to describe the moment it arrives and the hero realizes that there are only two options: advance or die.
The knight raised his sword to strike. The beast flexed its claws.
A slight breeze crossed the clearing, sweeping across the beast and the knight. On the breeze the knight caught a faint, familiar scent. A meadow on a crisp spring morning.
Every little boy grows up dreaming of one day being a hero. In the world of fairy tales that can happen. The other great truth of the fairy tale is this, though: the hero needs to be a little boy, too. When we are young we want to be strong and wise. Should we get that far we need to remember how to be innocent.
For it is innocence that tells us that not all monsters are what they appear to be.
The knight’s sword hand dropped to his side. The beast paused, confused.
Then the knight leaned towards the beast, eyes shut tight for fear of what would happen if he was wrong, and kissed the snarling lips of his foe.