Reading The Goose Girl was satisfying in any number of ways, but one of the more unusual was that its heroine, Isi, is the oldest child in her family.
Perhaps “satisfying” isn’t the right word. “Smirk-worthy” will do. It’s difficult being an older sibling whose younger siblings enjoy pointing out that they are the ones all the fairy tales justify. Cinderella, they insist, was a younger sister abused by her older sisters. Personally, I think it’s at least arguable that Cinderella may have been near the ages of her step-sisters. But most fairy tales that I have read do seem to either use a younger sibling or an only child as the hero. My real problem may be that I haven’t read enough fairy tales. But there is still a real pleasure to see an older sister come into her own. Especially since she was mistreated largely because of her quiet personality.
There is something intrinsically satisfying about that, at least–watching someone who never fit in, who was never allowed to be her true self, find her place. But a conversation the other day made me think a little more about why that is so satisfying.
I forget the exact words–something to the extent that people up through the Middle Ages wrote literature focused on life-and-death struggles, and that the people after the 20th century wrote literature that was about finding meaning in life. It’s an interesting categorization. I’m not a literary critic, of course, and can’t make those sorts of blanket statements. But–thinking back to what pre-modern literature I’ve read–I don’t recall any pre-modern hero going on a quest to find himself. Odysseus’s journey was mainly about survival. The heroes in The Iliad are generally trying to kill one another. And, while the quests of Arthur’s knights are not always done out of physical necessity, they are generally focused on saving someone or undoing some evil. If they are related to the knights at all, the knights are usually trying to prove or disprove some aspect of their character–and character, after all, has eternal repercussions. What you don’t find in the pre-modern era are stories about conflicted heroes trying to figure out who they really are. They already know. They were born knowing.
We, on the other hand, have choices that, if not unlimited, are certainly greater than those most pre-modern people had. Peasants almost never became knights. And knights almost never became peasants, green thumb or no. Choices are nice. But having a great number of them leaves a person in the middle of another dilemma. If a choice has to be made, which choice is the right one? And how can we decide? Should we ask our parents? Take a personality test? Get a bunch of old ladies to pray about it? Get an opinion from a guidance counselor? Write an advice columnist? Look deep into our hearts? How about a combination of them all?
Choices aren’t a bad thing in and of themselves. Isi gets offered very few free choices in The Goose Girl; much of her growth is a matter of necessity. I don’t envy her. But choices, though not a bad thing, aren’t themselves very satisfying. The many choices we are offered have left our society feeling hollow. And so we go on a search for meaning–for the place where necessity and choice collide. Are we primarily trying to find ourselves? Maybe–in one sense. We lost ourselves in the Fall, after all. We had a choice. We made the wrong one.
John called Jesus “the Word”–our ultimate communication from God. Communication implies meaning. There is only one real place to find ourselves. Unlike Isi, we can’t understand the wind or speak our thoughts to a horse. We aren’t in a book. But we do have a Book. And it’s only in that Book, and through the Word it talks about, that we can reach the meaning that mankind has been looking for.