“You can’t go beyond the wall. No one goes beyond the wall.”
So speaks the shallow Victoria Forrester to idealistic young Tristan Thorne when he declares he will cross from their small village into the mysterious faerie realm across the wall along its border in Neil Gaiman’s delightful story Stardust.
Stardust has long been one of my favourite modern faerie stories and, though it diverges from the tone of the original book quite a bit, I even love the 2007 film based on it. (And I will confess the quote above comes from the film, rather than the novel). What’s there not to love in the story of a young boy who crosses into an unknown world to capture a fallen star, ostensibly to win the favour of his fancied lady? Along the way, Tristan discovered a world wilder and more wonderful than he could ever has believed. He discovers things about himself he never knew before, and he realizes the true love of his life is not the simple Victoria but the sarcastic, occasionally insulting, fallen star Yvaine. Through the narrative of Tristan’s growth, Gaiman weaves lively, often satirical, images of wonder, adventure, and self-discovery. Themes summed up nicely when Tristan and Yvaine cannot assume their rightful rule of Stormhold as they have been “indefinitely detained by the world” (a detail sadly lacking from the film).
As you might have guessed, Leeman and I perhaps rewatched Stardust this weekend. Possibly because I needed some more epic comedy adventure in light of my recent Galavant-obsession. Possibly because we had both just read Gaiman’s new graphic novel The Sleeper and the Spindle, a retelling of the Sleeping Beauty tale. Whatever the reason, it has gotten me percolating over the past few days on why I love books and movies and TV (media and stories in general) that are often quirky and far-fetched. And why, in particular, I have such a soft spot in my heart for the works of Neil Gaiman. My conclusion is this: I do not want to be Victoria Forrester scoffing at the notion of crossing the wall into a world that defies expectation and the status quo. I want to be Tristan–willing to step out into the unknown and see possibilities with joy and expectation, not simply with fear.
Stories which we might rightly label as “speculative fiction” naturally afford such glimpses into our ideas of what the world *might* be, not just what it currently is. What if our world pushed up against the border of the Faerie realm? What might that mean for us? But such narrative speculation need not be limited to the merely fantastical. It can and should have ramifications for how we interact with the actual world around us. For example, Gaiman’s afore-mentioned The Sleeper and the Spindle does not merely retell the story of Sleepy Beauty. It retells Sleeping Beauty with Snow White as the protagonist who saves her neighbouring kingdom, defeats the witch who placed the sleeping curse in the first place, and rejects the expectations of those around her to head off on adventures of her own. Gaiman thus asks a number of probing questions: Must it always be a prince who saves the day? Can a woman be the protagonist of her own story? Does a fairy tale have to end with a “happily ever after”? Just because it’s “always been that way” … does it have to “always be that way.”
That is a handy challenge to embrace from stories and narrative all too commonly written off as frivolous. They teach us to believe that the world can be different than what it is. That has real impact. I would argue that many of the grass roots activist movements we see are a result of passionate individuals declaring “No, we can be better than this” to a host of social challenges. Whether that is the #blacklivesmatter movement in response to the growing instances of young black men (sometimes children!) dying at the hands of white police officers. Or simply the assertion that there is room to see more diverse faces and hear more diverse stories portrayed in Hollywood (#oscarssowhite = also worth checking out on Twitter).
The fact is, social change, from the early 20th century suffragettes to the anti-Jim Crow activism under Martin Luther King, Jr only happened because certain visionaries said no to the short sighted challenges offered by those people who claim “no one goes over the wall!”
What might the world look like (and, indeed, what might the church look like) if we all lived like we were the protagonist in an adventure story. What unforeseen challenges and possibilities might be in store for us if we have the courage to see beyond the walls we collectively put up around us. And what opportunities might we let pass us by if we insist on seeing those walls as impenetrable.
Also, lets be honest, fantasy stories are just more fun than the alternative. Go back to my post from last week to revisit my thoughts on that!