In case you haven’t heard, I have a new podcast with Ancient Faith Radio. I’m including part of the most recent episode for your reading pleasure here below. Enjoy!
The Frog Princess: Talking Animals and Primordial Desires
In my new podcast, I’ve talked much about Tolkien’s view of fairy tales. And so, you might not be so shocked to hear that I’m going to quote him again, even if in a slightly different context
But I would be remiss if I didn’t first quote his dear friend and fellow fairy tale-teller, C. S. Lewis:
In an essay titled–wonderfully– “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to Be Said,” he finishes with a wonderful quote. I read it here:
The Fantastic or Mythical is a Mode available at all ages for some readers; for others, at none. At all ages, if it is well used by the author and meets the right reader, it has the same power: to generalize while remaining concrete, to present in palpable form not concepts or even experiences but whole classes of experience, and to throw off irrelevancies. But at its best it can do more; it can give us experiences we have never had and thus, instead of commenting on life, can add to it.”
One of these experiences we have never had is a conversation with a talking animal. What a strange idea! Why would anyone ever expect an animal to talk? And yet, the talking beast is as standard a fairy tale trope as there is. Talking beasts in stories have existed as long as there have been stories, which means, forever! In particular, the frog princess, or prince, or king, or queen is a story present in nearly every European storytelling tradition.
Why the fascination with talking beasts?
Well, to answer that, we have to return to our dear Tolkien. If Lewis’s quote focuses on the possibility of stories giving us experiences we never had, and thus adding to life, Tolkien, in his essay on fairy stories, focuses more on a desire for something lost. He puts it quite clearly:
There are profounder wishes: such as the desire to converse with other living things. On this desire, as ancient as the Fall, is largely founded the talking of beasts and creatures in fairy-tales.”
This is yet another function of the fairy tale, as indeed it is the function of all good literature: to awaken in the reader a yearning for lost Eden. In that lost paradise, Man didn’t simply coexist with all animals. He named them. He must have also conversed with them. This coexistence, this possibility of mutual understanding, is so often recorded in the lives of the saints as to almost become absurd in repetition.
For every St. Sergius talking to a bear, there is a St. Martinian riding the back of a dolphin.
Balderdash! says the rational mind. These elements in the lives of the saints are just extensions of fake fairy tale reality.
And yet, there is something more in these encounters with animals, whether they speak or not. Tolkien touches on something profound here:
A vivid sense of [the separation between man and beast] is very ancient; but also a sense that it was a severance: a strange fate and a guilt lies on us. Other creatures are like other realms with which Man has broken off relations, and sees now only from the outside at a distance, being at war with them, or on the terms of an uneasy armistice.”
This sense of shame or insufficiency is very important, and also very strange. According to a naturalistic or materialistic view of the world, there is no evolutionary advantage to this strange shame at the severing of relations with the animal world. It should be an advantage. We should be proud of it. It should be a manifestation of our power over other fellow-animals.
And yet, we grieve at losing that power to speak to animals. And all of us, children or not, find the stories of saints’ converse with animals the most compelling for that reason. We are acutely aware that we are sons and daughters of Adam, and that it is part of our nature to speak to the creatures who are supposed to be our subjects and fellow inhabitants of paradise.
And there is a dark side to that inner longing as well, one that has been twisted along with all other desires in this fallen world. Tolkien makes an astute point that it is very fashionable among the scientifically-minded to object to stories of talking animals. C. S. Lewis agrees, and makes Eustace Scrubb, the quintessential product of a materialistic and naturalistic upbringing, someone who especially loathes stories of talking animals
(The more fool him, of course…)
Part of this modern disdain for animal fables is the insistence, not that man is an animal (Tolkien makes the point that we all know about this from ancient times) but that man is “only an animal.” And a strange side-effect has occurred:
“There has been a consequent distortion of sentiment. The natural love of men not wholly corrupt for beasts, and the human desire to ‘get inside the skin of’ of living things, has run riot. We now get men who love animals more than men; who pity sheep so much that they curse shepherds as wolves; who weep over a slain warhorse and vilify dead soldiers. It is now, not in the days when fairy-stories were begotten, that we get an absence of the sense of separation.”
What Tolkien would say about “furries” and women who marry their dogs, I shudder to think.
In such cases, the longing for Eden has become so twisted, so perverted, that it hardly resembles itself anymore, becoming a mockery of its exalted ideal.
But what about frog princesses?
Tolkien quotes Max Muller as being annoyed with that popular story: “How came such a story ever to be invented? Human beings were, we may hope, at all times sufficiently enlightened to know that marriage between a frog and the daughter of a queen (or king) was absurd.”
Well, obviously! But that entirely misses the moral point of the fairy tale. The marriage is supposed to be abominable, because the story is making a point about practicing the virtue of constancy and the necessity of keeping your word.
That becomes abundantly clear when Ivan the Prince, at once charmed by the beauty of Vasilissa and disgusted by her daylight frog-form, tries to cheat by burning her frog skin. And he almost loses everything, because, unbeknownst to him, this was a test of his character as much as it was a test of Vasilissa’s humility.
So in the Frog Princess, two things are happening. On the one hand, the trope of the talking animal tells the listener that there is something profound going on, that this story will explore, in some way, human desires that are primordial. But the trope of the woman testing the virtue of the man is here too, reminding us that primordial desires and everyday moral realities are intricately connected.
In fact, you can’t have one without the other. You can’t become a moral, virtuous human being, unless your imagination (which is animated by our common, universal longing for Eden) is properly formed by the moral categories of the fairy tale. You can’t fully become human if someone merely teaches you (at home or in the classroom) what is good and what is bad.
You will only ever become a fully moral human being if your imagination is baptized, as it were. That’s why these stories are still around, still providing comfort and joy, still showing us how to live, and love, properly.
In fact, if you’d like to dive even more deeply into how these stories can help us become more resilient and courageous people when faced with unexpected difficulties, such as the year of the lord 2020, I invite you to join me in a new seven-week series I’m starting next week, intended for readers, writers, and culture creators.
To learn everything you need to know about how to survive our post-COVID reality with your courage, joy, and life still intact, sign up at http://nicholaskotar.com/resilience.
Thanks very much for that. I’ve just finished writing a children’s story that features talking animals, and am working on a couple of sequels, so I’ve bookmarked this for future reference.