Beyond the Surface

Describe your pain to me. It is a demand that will be made of you if you go to a doctor complaining of discomfort. They might even ask you to rate your pain on a scale of 1-10, and even if that scale is laid out with 1 being described as very light and barely noticeable and 10 as pain so intense you will soon be unconscious the rating is subjective. What is a level 1 pain for me might be a level 4 or 5 for someone else and what is a level 4 or 5 to me might be a 1 to someone else. We’ve all heard stories of people that have had seemingly severe injuries and driven themselves to the hospital or continued to go about their daily tasks as if nothing is wrong, and we have also all known people that are bed ridden for days with a minor cold or slight stomachache. Even with a scale provided to us pain is a subjective thing.

So are all experiences. If I were to give ten people a book, ask hem to read it, and tell me what it was about it is likely that I would get ten different answers. Some people will read a story and see only the surface story. My wife and I have very different tastes in movies and she refers to the movies I like as weird and nonsensical. She cannot watch a movie that is theme driven or a character study. For her a movie most have a cohesive plot that runs from beginning to end. Likewise to this day my father cannot understand how Johnny Travolta’s character came back to life in Pulp Fiction even though I and others have explained to him a hundred times that his death scene happened chronologically after the final chapter of the movie even though it occurred in a previous chapter. That the movie tells intertwined stories in a non-sequential layout is beyond his grasp.

Concepts that seem so simple to us. Ones we have been dealing with for most of our lives are going to be foreign to many we interact with and without first understanding what it is they do not understand we will never be able to explain our prospective to them.

Now we come back to my wife and I’s different understanding of things. We have been reading the Grimm fairy tales to our boys and I have commented upon a few afterwards on how surprisingly deep the stories are. There are subtexts in the tales that I was not expecting. Especially in the lesser known was, and so I was surprised last night when after reading one to the boys she asked me what it meant. I had a mild headache at the time and didn’t feel like thinking back through the story so I told her it was about the power of family. Which it was, but I am sure there is more.

The story in question was The Seven Ravens. It is a short tale of a family living in the woods outside a small village on the edge of the dark forest as all families lived in the time of fairy tales. There was a father, a mother, and seven male children. The father wanted desperately to have a girl child an so he and the mother tried to have one and were successful, but she was small and sickly and might not live to see her first birthday. The father sent the boys out to get water from the well and in their eagerness to be the one to get the water for their sister they snapped the rope and the bucket fell into the well. When the boys didn’t return in a timely manner the father uttered aloud that he wished he hadn’t been cursed with such lazy offspring and that they were ravens instead. Suddenly they turned into ravens and flew away.

Think about the time period of this story. A poor family with seven children living on the edge of the dark forest. They have an eighth child that is small and sickly. Then tragedy strikes and the well is broken. Now there is no more water to drink, to bathe, and to make food. If it took too long to repair the well this would mean death for the family. Ravens are often thought a symbol of ill omen and death but they are also protectors and guides to safety. In some ways the boys are protected by becoming ravens, but the more important message here is the power of words and how those words, once spoken, cannot be taken back. The father utters that he wishes his boys were ravens instead with no intention of them actually becoming ravens, but once the words are out of his mouth the harm is done.

Years later the girl child is older and walking through the village. Everyone is nice to her but always mentions the tragedy that let her live. With seven brothers it would have been unlikely that a small and sickly infant would have lived. Food would have been divided among nine people and it is unlikely her mother would have been able to produce the same amount of milk with the food being split only among two. The villagers mutter this under their breathes when they see the girl and then one days she asks what they mean and she learns of her seven brothers.

it is the that she sets out to find them. She finds both the sun and the moon unhelpful as they want to eat children so she visits the stars. The morning star gives her a chicken bone and sends her on her way saying it will be useful later. Finally she comes upon a glass tower with no apparent way in. She has somehow lost the chicken bone on her quest and then cuts off her finger to get the bone and that opens the glass tower to her. She goes in eats a bit of each of her brothers’ food and leaves her ring in the bottom of the last one’s cup of wine. When her brothers return they notice some of their food has been eaten and the last one notices the ring in the bottom of his cup and recognizes the family crest. they realize their sister has come to see them and they all turn back into humans.

The sister’s eating of the food and drinking of the wine could be a metaphor for the customs of hospitality. She was a guest in her brothers’ glass tower and once she ate and drank she couldn’t leave them behind. That is merely a guess and I feel I am missing too much of the cultural subconscious of the time to fully understand all the symbolism present. What I do understand is there is an evil magical dwarf that is mentioned and evil magical dwarfs were a bit of trickster figures in fairy tales. It is then likely that it was the dwarf that overheard the father and cursed the brothers to become ravens. The real important metaphor here is that the sister cute off her own finger and made a sacrifice to be reunited with her brothers. She cared deeply for her family even though she had never met them as they had become ravens before she was even one year of age.

That fact that the story ends with everyone reunited in the glass tower and in human form might not be such a happy ending. The girls was small and sickly as an infant and may not have gotten much better. It isn’t likely that a living being could visit the sun, moon, and stars as they all reside in the heavens. The mistake we often make with fairy tales is to confuse them with fables and go looking for a moral. Sometimes a story is just a story and an ending is just an ending. Let’s not imagine the siblings united in death then but instead imagine them, reunited in human form, at the start of the journey home.

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