Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Fantastical Heroes Explained through Into the Woods

As children, we delight in fantastical literature. The Little Red Hen asks her barnyard friends for help, but they refuse until she’s baked the bread. A Poky Little Puppy must listen to his mother’s corrections, and Santa calls out to his flying reindeer as he delivers gifts round the world.

As we age, many of us are no longer willing to suspend disbelief. With our feet firmly on the ground, we expect authors to deliver realistic portrayals of the human experience. Others still delight in fantasy. Each of the top three comics sold 75.9 million copies in 2014. Marvel’s comic characters deliver blockbuster earnings when those characters come to life on film. Clearly, many grown-ups still enjoy a dose of fantasy.

One of the primary reasons is not talking animals--although Babe and Wilbur charm the older breast as much as the young one. A key reason is the hero.

Heroes in fantastical literature are often unassuming, even unprepared for the role they must play. The Baker in Sondheim’s Into the Woods is a prime example. He sallies forth to retrieve four unusual objects for a witch who’s promised to reverse a spell she placed upon the Baker’s house.

Photo by Connye Griffin

The Baker is blameless. He didn't earn or deserve a curse. He did not climb into the witch’s garden to steal rampion for a pregnant wife. He did not desert his son after life hammered the man's tender heart.

The Baker cherishes his wife, would like to be a father, and bears the burden of his father’s curse with stoicism. If he must venture into the woods to remove the curse of barrenness upon his house, then venture he will.

The Baker is not tough though. He challenges his wife for spinning a tale about magic beans when she barters with Jack for a cow the color of milk, the first of four unusual objects required. He grabs Little Red Riding Hood’s cloak the color of blood, but returns it when she pouts and cries. When a giant appears, his first instinct is to run.

After the witch’s demands have been met, the Baker finds new resolve and courage. He holds a newborn son in his arms, and he intends to uphold his paternal duties, to be there for his child until he learns that his wife has not survived the temptations of the woods. Then, as it did his father, grief threatens to resurrect self-absorption, a trait that most adults set aside as they care for others. The Baker nearly abandons his own child as his father abandoned him, but the needs of others win the day and supersede his own sorrow. Cinderella needs a safe harbor. Jack needs help to survive a giant’s desire for vengeance, and Little Red Riding Hood needs a home.

The once barren Baker now has a family. He has become the patriarch and provider for two children, Little Red and Jack. He will also have Cinderella’s help caring for his infant son, and we’re told, she no longer desires the dreamy, if insincere, Prince. She wants something in between the nightmarish life she led under her stepmother’s rule and the façade presented by a glib Prince. We hope the Baker is that in between.

The Baker moved from hard worker to hero by choosing wisely. He had no superpower; he only needed to be brave when danger approached, clever when the path was uncertain, and kind when hostility was easier. He is the hero that resides in every human heart. He is the hero we long to be when we are forced into a pathless wood.

Reading Challenge:

Writing Challenge:

The Baker has no superpower; Buffy does. Is one more fantastical than the other? Is one more satisfying than the other? Explain your answers.

Connye Griffin writes My Writing and Editing Coach