Review of Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine
As a kid, I always thought Cinderella was kind of a lame fairy tale. The leading lady lets everyone run roughshod over her, the leading man is dull as toast, and, well, none of it really rang true to my enlightened, empowered child-of-the-80’s sensibilities. ‘Spineless, docile maiden weds boring Ken-doll’ didn’t exactly make for thrilling reading (or viewing), you know?
That is, until author Gail Carson Levine decided to change all that. In her Newbery Award-winning novel, Ella Enchanted, she presents a Cinderella for our modern age. The story is still set ‘once upon a time in a land far away’—it’s not the setting that’s changed, but (Cinder)Ella herself. Fans of Sleeping Beauty will be familiar with the tradition fairy blessing/curse at a child’s christening—a fairy tale staple. Ella’s christening features a sort of bait-and-switch: the fairy in question thinks she’s giving Ella a blessing—the blessing of obedience—but in reality, it’s one heckuva curse. Ella has to do whatever she is told. If you tell her to eat, she will gorge herself until told to stop. If you tell her be quiet, she’s mute. If you tell her to keep a secret, she has no choice. And if a nasty ogre tells her to walk right into his gaping maw, well … you get the idea.
Fortunately, Ella is raised by her loving mother (assisted by the sassy cook, Mindy), and is thus protected from many of the worst effects of the curse. But when her mother dies, Ella finds herself in a series of challenging situations—at finishing school (lots of orders), in the forest (lots of ogres), and finally, trapped in the house with her stepmother and stepsisters, who take great delight in forcing her to do the most menial and degrading tasks. (See? That’s why she puts up with them. She’s not spineless; she just has no choice.)
The only true friends Ella has are Mindy and Prince Charmont (‘Char’ for short), who she befriended when they were neighbors back in her halcyon days. Char is intelligent and kind, and he genuinely cares about Ella—and actually gets to know her before deciding he wants to marry her. None of this ‘you’re hot; let’s get married!’ business. Ella is, of course, quite attractive (this is still a fairy tale), but the thing Char seems to like most about her is her sense of humor and the fact that she makes him laugh. When was the last time a fairy tale heroine was admired for being funny?
Ella is also stubborn, smart, and compassionate. She loves learning about other cultures and has a gift for languages. Despite being raised in the lap of luxury, she doesn’t place a high value on money or social standing, but treats people from all walks of life with respect. And she’s determined to find a way to break the curse so she can finally be free to make her own choices. In short, she is a princess that today’s young readers can identify with.
The nature of Ella’s curse has fascinating spiritual implications for readers of all ages. The curse of obedience is represented as a violation—Ella is being forced to do things, and this interferes with the autonomy that is so highly valued in modern day America (well, in America pretty much on down the line). And indeed, this independence dovetails nicely with the religious idea of ‘free will.’ How do you explain the existence of evil in the world? ‘God didn’t want a bunch of automatons; He had to leave people free to choose sin, and some of them do. What can you do?’ How about salvation? ‘God gives us a choice whether to follow Him; if He interfered with or influenced our choice, then we would be mindless slaves.’ The idea of a bunch of puppet-people walking around following orders whether they want to or not is revolting to us; free will is the only acceptable alternative.
At one point in the book, Ella is ordered to enjoy her curse—to be happy about being forced into obedience. This is treated as an utterly abhorrent situation. Not only has her physical freedom been taken from her, but she’s been deprived of her ability to think freely about the curse. She cannot even control her own opinions and desires. Quelle horreur!
This idea of autonomy and freedom of thought stands in striking contrast to the Biblical teaching on free will. In The Freedom of the Will (which Coyle Neal blogged about recently), theologian Jonathan Edwards argues, quite persuasively, that our ‘will’ is at the mercy of our ‘desires’—that we can only will what we want. This makes a lot of sense—I may be physically free to choose between, say, a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich and a slug-and-cat-hair sandwich, but if there’s nothing in me that wants the slug-and-cat-hair sandwich, then my ‘freedom’ to choose it is of little use to me. Functionally, I am only free to choose the things that are, in some sense, desirable to me.
But the real world is a little different. In the real world, human beings are, to a man, sinful (Rom. 3:9-18, 23). That’s our curse. Original sin has tainted us from tip to toe—we do evil because we have evil desires (Gal. 5:17). Scripture teaches that the human heart is deceitful and ‘desperately sick’ (Jer. 17:9). We’re not ‘good’ people who just have trouble with follow through; we want to do wrong (Gen. 6:5). And even when we manage to do the right thing, our heart is in the wrong place. We are like Ella, forced into a physical obedience that is only skin deep. To go back to my analogy: we really, really want that slug-and-cat-hair sandwich, and nothing and no one can convince us that the PBJ is better (and better for us).
Given this state of affairs, it’s disingenuous to say that we are ‘free’ to believe the gospel, to follow God, to take up our cross, deny ourselves, and live a life of obedience. There’s nothing in us that wants to, not even a little bit. Everything about that kind of self-denial is distasteful to our fallen nature, and we want nothing to do with it.
Imagine, for a minute, a different fairy tale. About a little girl who wanted to do terrible, awful things. She only cared about money and status, she disrespected everyone around her. She lied, cheated, stole, and betrayed the ones who loved her most. She enjoyed hurting others and hurting herself. Her hobbies include kicking puppies and burning down orphanages. Would we say that this little girl should be free to do whatever she desires? Even assuming that we could physically prevent her from causing harm to others (or to herself), would we genuinely argue that she should be free to continue in her desires? Would we not want to change those desires?
We certainly try. We ‘rehabilitate’ criminals—not just to teach them not to give in to their desire to commit arson/theft/murder, but in the hope that they will one day stop having those desires. Parents do this every day—encouraging their children not just to obey, but to desire rightly. To want to share, to enjoy being kind to others, to like the taste of broccoli. We recognize that some desires are wrong or unhelpful or harmful, and to try and influence or change those desires, well, it’s a good thing. An act of love.
And that’s just what God in Christ does for us. He changes our desires. He makes us want to love Him, to seek Him, to do right, to love our neighbor (Ez. 11:19-20). He makes the Gospel sweet to us, makes Christ sweet to us. Virtue becomes appealing in a way it never was before. Once our desires change, we are free to act in accordance with those new, good desires—free in a way we never were before, despite our physical ability to ‘do right.’ And this obedience will not just be skin deep, but will be the outflow of a transformed heart that genuinely desires to be obedient.
And that’s no curse.
Alexis Neal regularly reviews young adult literature at www.childrensbooksandreviews.com and everything else at quantum-meruit.blogspot.com.