Wednesday, December 29, 2004

JH - Snow White and the Seven Wagners

First of all, I hope you had a blessed Christmas and that you'll have a happy, healthy new year.

A couple of weeks ago we were in Chicago visiting our friends the Crawfords. They wanted to show us the City at Christmas, so we spent several days driving around looking at decorations and lights and seeing how suburbs can transform themselves into nostalgic small towns at Christmas time. Naperville was one of the nicest, with a display in every store window and a Nativity scene on the main street. Yes, my friends, a real, honest-to-God religious symbol of the season right in town.

Of course we had to see the windows at Marshall Field's on State Street. This year it was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Oh, pardon me - not dwarfs. Seven little men. Wouldn't want to offend anyone. We bundled up and braved the winds of 50 mph along with scores of other hardy souls to ooh and aah at the magical scenes in each window. Then we reached the window with the first hint of the Prince. It was a sort of painted silhouette since he was hiding in the bushes peering at the lovely vision that was Snow White. The prince was, well, less lovely than the one I had envisioned reading the fairy tale as a child. I suppose we all have our own fantasies, but this one was decidedly modern. "Say, what's with the spiked hair?" exclaimed my friend Gary. But we pushed on to see if, once again, Snow White would eat the poison apple. She hadn't gotten any smarter and ended up in the deadly sleep, waiting to be awakened by..."hey," Gary shouted, "that's Clay Aiken!" Sure enough, the prince, once he was seen in his full 3-D glory, was indeed a dead ringer for the popular singer.

There were other departures from my memory of the Grimm's tale. The dwar..sorry, little men, were in fact little men, little multi-cultural men instead of fanciful characters with big noses, scraggly beards and big floppy hats. And now, instead of working in a dank, dark, dirty iron mine, they labored in a diamond mine. Okay, every ancient story has different interpretations. But it wasn't until we got back to Minneapolis and went to the 8th floor auditorium of Marshall Field's (or Dayton's as many of us still call it) to see the diorama in all its splendor that we experienced the full impact of the updating to the story.

There were the seven little men and the same spiked-hair prince, who now was diorama life-size and wearing what every royal prince naturally would wear - blue jeans. Seems princes these days have either fallen on hard times or are trying to move with a more populist crowd. The wicked step-mother was played by a different mannequin, this time deserving the once-held titile of "fairest of them all." The one in Chicago couldn't even have fooled the mirror by wearing a bag over her head.

And what about the mine? Well, this workplace was a little less labor-intensive than the one the seven used to whistle their way to. The Diamond Mine was an upscale, hip disco club. No picks and shovels for these guys. No sir. Now it's turntables and strobe lights. And Donna Summer.

I suppose the people who put this all together thought that they were being very clever. Clever isn't always a good thing. Neither is this version of Snow White.

It did remind me in places of things that I saw in the Ring. No, not Tolkein. Wagner. Honest. After Snow White had ingested the poisoned apple, the dwarfs made a bier where they laid her to rest forever, as they supposed. It was a breath-taking scene of deep blue with silvery snow all around, Snow White in beautiful repose and the dwarfs lining the stairway, mourning. Snow White awaits her hero who will awake her with a kiss.

In Die Walkure, Brunnhilde, after disobeying her father Wotan's directive to fight against Siegmund, is sentenced by Wotan to be cast out of Valhalla and lie in a magic sleep until some man comes along to wake her. Wotan casts this spell upon her with a kiss. (In the next opera of the Ring cycle Siegfried awakens her with a kiss.) In the DVD version we have Brunnhilde is atop a rock, ringed with fire in a scene much like the Marshall Field's Snow White surrounded by snow. Although Snow White is awakened with the prince's kiss and they live happily ever after, things are rarely as easy in Wagner. They are rarely that easy in real life either, although we do all have the chance for eternal happiness.

And this is where the similarities of the fairy tale of Snow White and fairy tale, or heroic saga, of the Ring of the Nibelungen really touch hands. These characters are archetypes. These stories are the stories we have told and retold from the beginning of time. We tell stories to try to explain the world we live in. We change them, we see them in different ways, we try out different versions to try to learn why we are here and what we're supposed to be doing. Many of these stories are meant to have a moral meaning, to teach us concepts such as duty and loyalty, faith and love.

Snow White made two other mistakes before eating the apple by letting the disguised wicked step-mother near enough to her to cause her harm. Each time the dwarfs were able to save her. The third time they could not. The hag floats the shiny red apple before Snow White and she succumbs. Snow White's punishment was to sleep until the prince comes to save her. Brunnhilde's punishment was to be banished from Valhalla and to sleep until her prince came. Eve's punishment, after being tempted by the serpent and eating the apple, was to be banished from Eden and to pass this curse to her descendants until the Prince came to save us all.

And what about redemption? Two seasonal characters leap to mind: Scrooge and the Grinch. Our stories are still trying to show us that while we live it's never too late to repent and reform.

We all, whether we accept it or not, are made in the Creator's image and we have a natural instinct to reach out toward that Creator, to try to grasp what it is that eludes us so often, so much. Our stories from the most ancient times have been used to try to understand this.

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