A year ago this past week I took my four daughters to see the Hollywood adaptation of Into the Woods, and coincidentally I found myself watching it again on DVD exactly one year later. I’ve been meaning to write about it for some time because of a couple of key themes that stuck out to me, and now also because of a recent conversation that I had about the film with one of my daughters, who loved the movie.
Incidentally if musicals aren’t your thing, you will most certainly not enjoy this movie because, while some musicals contain at least a few scenes that aren’t sung, Into the Woods is one of those productions in which they sing. almost. every. word. Personally, I could have done with one or two fewer songs myself. But I digress.
When the Path Is No Longer Clear
This story weaves together the familiar tales of bedtime stories like Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Rapunzel, and Jack and the Beanstalk into a single interlocking adventure in which everything you’ve come to expect from these stories happens, but then goes wrong. The first half of the movie features all of the familiar plot developments unfolding the way they usually do (with a little embellishment for a good laugh here and there), but then something unexpected happens and the entire narrative goes awry.
After little Jack takes what he wants from the giant and chops down the beanstalk, another stalk grows up again in the spot where Cinderella carelessly discarded the last bean, making a way for the deceased giant’s widow to come down from the clouds, seeking revenge. The impact of her arrival mars the landscape, crumbling structures and disfiguring the familiar woods into an unrecognizable obstacle course. Unable to find their way through the wood, each of the characters is left to deal with the disorientation of losing all of their familiar landmarks without rhyme or reason (well, I take that back…there’s lots of rhyming).
The sudden and catastrophic alterations to the forest mirror the changes the characters themselves undergo as they step into their new roles as princesses, parents, lovers, and well, thieves. See, each of the characters in this story takes something that doesn’t belong to them. No one in this story is technically “good” in the sense that none of them makes it all the way through without doing at least something unethical. And in the end it seems that each character gets his or her due in one way or another. Each one, that is, except maybe the witch.
Neither Good Nor Bad
Ironically, the most reviled character in the story seems to be the one who is the most brutally honest. We learn from the witch that in fact the curse under which she lives came upon her because of the misdeeds of someone else. The baker’s father stole from her garden, and it was his theft of her magic beans which caused her punishment in the first place. All she wanted in the story was to be restored to her rightful state, but she was powerless to acquire the necessary elements of her redemption. For that, she relied upon the ambitions of the rest of the cast in this tale.
At the beginning of this story you might think that you know who is good and who is bad, but the entire story seems designed to disabuse you of that notion. Thanks to the wolf, Little Red Riding Hood is the first to learn that appearances can be deceiving, and that “Nice is different than good.” But really they all have to wrestle with their own personal discoveries, learning that things and people are not always what they seem. People like Jack want to know who is bad and who is good so that he knows whom he should attack, but the baker finally informs him:
Wrong things, right things…
Who can say what’s true?
Do things, fight things…
You decide, but you are not alone
People make mistakes.
Holding to their own,
Thinking they’re alone.
Witches can be right.
Giants can be good.
You decide what’s right
You decide what’s good.
Of course, once upon a time I would have rejected this kind of relativistic talk. Just like everyone else, when I was younger I was taught to see the world in black and white terms. Every story needs a hero and a villain, and it’s best to figure out which is witch (oops, I mean which) as quickly as possible. Except real life doesn’t work that way, does it? The longer I live, the more impressed I become with the realization that there aren’t always “good guys” and “bad guys.” More often than not, there’s just “us” and “them,” and in the end each of us has our own reasons for doing what we do.
Man, if I could just get some people in my life to understand that! You would think that accumulating a few decades under your belt would be enough to drive this lesson home for most people, but it isn’t. As it turns out, what actually happens to us doesn’t impact us nearly as much as the stories we tell ourselves afterwards. That’s what really determines how we see our world, and that’s where the most work needs to be done.
Careful the spell you cast
Not just on children.
Sometimes the spell may last
Past what you can see.
Careful the tale you tell
That is the spell.
Children will listen.
We should always be questioning our own narratives, attempting to look at them from as many angles as possible in order to make sure we aren’t seeing things incorrectly. Or maybe I don’t mean incorrectly, but incompletely. That’s why it’s so important to learn to listen to the perspectives of people who aren’t standing in the same place as you are. They can see from angles that you cannot see. The world is always more complex than we suppose it is.
Every Kingdom Has a Witch
Perhaps the most instructive element within this story is the way that the antihero—the witch whom no one really likes—is the one who saves the day. In this story the witch fulfills the all important role of the scapegoat. She must sacrifice herself so that everyone else can blame their woes on her after she is gone and no longer around to defend herself. Having dispensed with her, each of them can resume living their lives free from the guilt of having contributed to the mess they all got themselves into.
If you’re not familiar with the idea, the late René Girard popularized the importance of scapegoats for societies in his mimetic theory of violence. The gist of the theory is that groups of humans find it difficult to maintain order since, in case you’ve forgotten, we are basically hairless apes who only recently figured out how to cook and farm and write on walls. From time to time we require reminding that the only thing separating our species from our most base, animalistic instincts is a thin veneer of social and cultural programming. All it takes to remove this veneer is a famine, a threat to a loved one, a territorial dispute, or sometimes even just a little bit of alcohol. It is then that we rediscover we are simply animals wearing clothes and walking upright.
That is why groups require a scapegoat. If you can find someone on whom to place all the blame for whatever isn’t right in your world, you can target that person for punishment, collectively enforced by the whole community. The scapegoat must be sufficiently different from the rest so that he or she will have no defenders who will take up his or her cause. All you have to do is take their flaws and magnify them, blowing them out of proportion. Spin a few tales of the mayhem wrought by this criminal, appealing to the basest fears and tribal instincts of the community.
Differences will be dropped as people come together for the first time in a long time against a common enemy whom they ostracize and eventually banish from the land for the greater good. Since all the blame was cast on her, people can now go back to getting along and working together. It was all her fault, not theirs. Their sickness has been cured and the facade of civility has been restored to its original appearance. And so it goes from crisis to crisis, periodically requiring a sacrifice so that peace can be restored and everyone can be happy again. The witch understood this pattern very well:
You’re so nice
You’re not good,
You’re not bad,
You’re just nice.
I’m not good
I’m not nice
I’m just right!
I’m the witch
You’re the world.
That is the function of the witch, both in this musical and in civilization as a whole. It’s no coincidence that early American life, brutal and dangerous as it was in its infancy, so often produced tales of witches. Whether or not there were women in any of those communities who actually practiced witchcraft is immaterial. In their absence, those communities would simply imagine them there anyway, looking for credible suspects upon whom they could project their greatest fears and enact their swiftest punishment.
Real-life witchcraft need not be involved in any way. In fact, just this past week I was contacted by a friend who was terrified because her grandfather, with whom she lives, discovered a Freethought magazine in her trunk. To him, everything outside of Christianity is “witchcraft,” so now in order to keep from losing her home she will have to explain to him that in fact skepticism is nothing of the sort. But to a community built around faith, “skepticism” is as much a threat—and perhaps uniquely so much more—than sorcery, which isn’t a real thing at all. They are both scary things which must be expelled, and if that requires ejecting the people who bring them into your world, then so be it. That’s how purity cultures work.
One could easily argue that atheism is the new witchcraft in our generation. The only thing scarier to most Americans is Islam, except that at least in the case of Islam, there are moderate forms which don’t fundamentally undermine the beliefs of the Church. At least they still make room for prayers, holy books, and eternal rewards. Moderate skepticism disputes them all, and I would argue that makes them the worst enemy of all. But really any marginalized group will know exactly what I’m talking about, whether their sin is being from the wrong religion, the wrong social class, or the wrong race. Everything is always their fault.
Careful the Tale You Tell
If this story illustrates anything, it’s the way communities project all of their own faults onto marginalized individuals so that they can blame them for their collective shortcomings. If only that person could be made to leave, everything will be just fine. So they collect their stories, they marshall their condemning evidence, they malign the offender, and then they cast them aside, away from the rest, for the greater good. I’ve seen this happen more times recently than I care to elucidate.
In fact, I think I know a little bit about what it feels like to be the scapegoat for a community. Consequently, I’ve come to recognize what it looks like when it’s happening to someone else. At this point I’ve been around the block, as it were, so I no longer automatically buy into the stories they tell when another sacrifice has been committed. There’s always a standard narrative, yes, but then there’s almost always an alternative way of looking at it. It’s not that the stuff they report isn’t true. It’s just rarely ever the whole story. A community will look the other way when its approved people do the same things, but the marginalized don’t get that same luxury, and so they become the villains in the tales we tell.
I no longer buy those tales. I know better. The real story is almost always more complex. Anybody who’s been around for very long should know this by now…unless they are the kind who are always among the crowd, grabbing the pitchforks and lighting the torches to chase the witches out of town. I’ve never understood those people. The longer I live, the more I’m beginning to identify with the witch. It seems to me, irrespective of her personal character, she knows better than most what’s going on around her.
At some point, it falls to the rest of us to stick up for her, or him, or them, remembering that it’s not all their fault. We all share the blame for the messes we make. Any version that leaves that part out is just a fairy tale.
[Image Source: Disney]
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