How to succeed in fairytales

As the end of Lockdown approaches our perspective may change (if we’re at all wise) from fighting a fictitious plague in our immediate vicinity to resisting a very real transnational – and transhumanist – adversary. One whose plan is to take over the world and subject all us common folk to perpetual surveillance, harvesting our biodata to better the algorithms that run the robots. You think this sounds like bad Science Fiction, don’t you? Yet it’s already happening in China. And, are they resisting? In China? Puleeze!

Don’t be so smug – after all, you’re not resisting either, are you? You don’t even want to admit what’s really going on. If you did, you’d then have to wonder what you could do about it. The problem with that is, at the moment, no-one seems to have much old-fashioned gumption. (That’s a mostly Scottish word for initiative, enterprise, lively intelligence, know-how and opportunism.) Thinking about what to do about this global techno-fascist takeover would involve thinking about what to do about other things that need sorted out – and that means the dishes and the laundry basket and the back garden and the TV aerial and that squeaky board on the landing upstairs. As well as your family, friends, romantic relationship and bank balance.

So, instead, we tend to just make more coffee, break out the biscuits and watch another episode of some TV series with the same plot as all the others (mildly marginalised ambitious young pretty White woman beats the boys and the Blonde Complete Bitch with the help of her friends: fat/ disabled, geeky/ gay and African-American with European features). Because it’s easier to imagine an upbeat ideal life of conquering adversity than to deal with the depressing downbeat reality of our own.

Well that’s not how they succeed in fairytales. (And it’s not how to get ahead on Netflix either, but that’s for another blogpost.) To succeed in fairytales, there are rules you must follow – and the first one is to ACCEPT THE REALITY OF YOUR SITUATION. Sounds trite and unhelpful, and yes Cinders did sing Someday My Prince Will Come but she also swept the floor, and it was because she was hardworking and could follow instructions that the Fairy Godmother bothered to turn up at all.

Which leads us to the next one: USE WHATEVER ADVANTAGES YOU’VE GOT. Fairytale heroines tend to be beautiful, it’s true, and the heroes tend to be at least agile and often strong (Jack was a farm labourer, and the Woodcutter cut wood, which means they both had muscles, Aladdin was a street urchin nifty on the rooftops to evade capture, which means he was skilled in parkour). However there are more natural advantages than being muscular, lithe and beautiful. ABILITY TO TAKE ADVICE is essential – especially when the advice is unconventional, even counter-intuitive (which means it sounds daft). USING YOUR SKILLS is key. And false modesty here is only cute the first time, then you have to get on with it. “Oh but I’m only a cow herd” is fine but if that’s what the plot calls upon you to do, get herding!

You do get extra points for having a skill that everyone else thinks is useless. Because, in a time of crisis, sure as Fate it’ll turn out to be just the thing! A Prayer for Owen Meany is a lovely modern American fairytale illustrating that very point.

Furthermore (as my students will write) it’s good to have ambition, as that may be rewarded – as long as it doesn’t shade into hubris, which leads straight to disaster – but the important personality trait is OPPORTUNISM. Now, you have to be careful with this because some do succeed by jumping off the back of a bigger animal at the last minute and so winning the race (I’m looking at you, Lunar Year Rat!) but that’s risky because another winning quality is KINDNESS. Especially to the old, the young, the marginalised and, of course, animals. People have entertained angels unwittingly. Be kind. You just never know who you’re dealing with. Yes, it’s its own reward – but if anyone has the secret recipe, or that old rusty key, or the map to the buried treasure, it’ll be that minor character you helped back in Act 1. Be kind. It’s worth repeating.

WORK HARD. What? You thought this was going to be easy? You try climbing a skyscraper beanstalk or walking right through Wilderland, including the Barrowdowns, Mirkwood and the Misty Mountains, from west to east. PERSEVERE. You’ve switched on the kettle and the TV, haven’t you? Next rule: DON’T KEEP MOANING! The audience will go right off you, Tinkerbell will flutter by and the woodland creatures will turn up their pretty noses and just scamper off. Complaint is so unattractive. There are worse off than you. Just stop it!

BELIEVE. I know I’m going to get into trouble for saying this but it doesn’t really matter in what, as long as it’s better than this. However, be canny, don’t be misled, DISCERN WELL. How do you know who to trust? BE OBSERVANT and FOLLOW YOUR HEART.

RISK. Yes. Maybe not everything and certainly not all at once. But take a chance on life. The tales of Sinbad the Sailor are all about the ups and downs of Fortune. Now you can get religious about this and start talking about the Will of God and all that. And maybe that’s the point of the 1,001 Nights of Scheherazade, the epic and inventive storyteller who wove tales to save her own life. And succeeded. But whether or not there’s a Divine Will controlling all events, what’s plain as the nose on your face is that (despite all those tedious New Age teachings to the contrary) it’s not you and it’s not anyone else.

That means that your road is open for you to follow and no-one stands in your way. The Universe may not be conspiring for you but it’s not conspiring against either. So get out there and get on with it! FOLLOW YOUR DREAM.

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings)

Gloomy forest around a mysterious lake

Thanks to Larisa Koshkina for releasing her image Gloomy Forest Background into the public domain.