On Curses In Stories

On Curses in Stories

I’ve been tearing through stories with an almost feverish purpose. Mostly fantasy stories, fairy tales, classic Disney animated films (the good ones, not the dreck that they’ve been putting out lately, the stuff that is so neatly covered by Thomas Bevan’s definition of soul-crushing content). Fantasy has long been a favorite genre of mine, such as the Lord of the Rings series, but only recently did it occur to me that this was the case, and that perhaps there is something deeper at work.

Stories you are unconsciously drawn towards as a child are metaphors for journeys later in life.

Pat Stedman

I don’t know if the above statement is universally applicable, but it certainly seems to be true for me. Even now, I revisit favorite stories and find that they bear great relevance in my life. And I often find that new stories I am drawn to have something like this as well.

There is a thread that runs through all of these stories I’ve been mulling over, the concept of curses. The Lord of the Rings, for instance, is a story about destroying a cursed Ring of Power. The story of Sleeping Beauty is about a princess who is cursed by an evil witch to die, and when she turns 16 or so she falls into an endless sleep that can only be broken by true love’s kiss. Lovecraft’s story The Shadow over Innsmouth is about a seaside town in New England that is cursed with fish-frog monsters from the deep. A curse which afflicts Lovecraft’s protagonist after he visits the town.

We too are afflicted with a curse, one of a kind that can be described in its various manifestations by all of these stories. It is a condition of our modern, zombie-like monoculture in the West.

How a Curse is Born

The first thing to understand about this curse is that it is a generational one. It has been passed down through the generations from father to daughter, mother to son, and so we who are afflicted with it cannot easily see where and how it began, or even that we are cursed at all. We are cursed through no fault of our own, but rather through a fault passed down to us. Sins of the fathers visited upon their sons. Sins that are, ostensibly, not especially egregious.

In Sleeping Beauty, for instance, the Princess is cursed when she is but a baby, because of the sin of her father, the King, who did not invite a certain witch to the celebration of the Princess’ birth. Depending on the telling, this exclusion is either accidental or on purpose, but the result is the same. The vengeful witch curses the child to die when she grows up, and it is only through the intervention of another witch that this curse is transmuted into one of sleep.

In The Hobbit, the precursor to The Lord of the Rings, the One Ring is acquired entirely by chance by one Bilbo Baggins. In that tale it is not even clear that the ring is cursed, aside from the fact that Bilbo, typically as honest a hobbit as you could ask for, was compelled to lie about how he obtained it to his companions, to give himself a stronger claim to the thing. Bilbo’s sin, if you can call it that, is simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Complicating matters is the fact that the ring proves immeasurably useful to Bilbo in the rest of his journey. For him, picking up that ring was no sin, but a stroke of incredible fortune! And yet by doing so he dooms his nephew Frodo to carry it all the way to Mount Doom so that it may be destroyed.

But, if Bilbo’s sin is a small one, it is not the only sin associated with acquiring the One Ring. Before Bilbo there was Smeagol, who murdered his friend who had happened upon the ring, and that sin may have meant that Smeagol suffered far worse from the curse than Bilbo ever did, deteriorating into the creature known as Gollum, though he also possessed the ring for far longer. And before Gollum there was the hero Isildur, who could have destroyed the ring forever after he cut it from the hand of Sauron, but instead in his hubris chose to claim it for himself. This sin is the worst of the lot, for Isildur cursed the world with the continued existence of Sauron, the Great Enemy of the story and titular Lord of the Rings. Worse yet, he broke the power of the Righteous King, the Divine Masculine, the Solar Hero. The line of Kings fails, Isildur’s realms decline and are eventually sundered, destroyed or left a shadow of their former glory, and Sauron creeps back into the world.

The Solar Hero is the hero who triumphs over darkness and death and chaos, conquering both external foes and His own internal weaknesses. He is Perseus slaying the Gorgon Medusa, Hercules killing the Hydra, and Beowulf defeating the monster Grendel. He is Jesus Christ, rising again on the third day. He is the force that renews the world in the face of its destruction. He lives in all of us, man and woman and child alike, and when our faith in Him is broken, we struggle to invoke Him in our own lives. When we encounter chaos and death and monsters in the world, we are left naked, unable to call Him up within ourselves so that we may overcome these forces.

Arm the Hero, Kill the Dragon, Break the Curse

It is difficult to say precisely what the curse that afflicts us is, but it’s clear that it is of the sort that saps us of our ability to connect to the Solar Hero. Death and chaos surround us, but we are struggling to transform ourselves in the face of it and overcome it. How then are we to break such a curse? One step is hinted at in our stories. In both The Lord of the Rings and Sleeping Beauty, faith must be reinvested into the Divine Masculine so that it can assail the darkness once more. In the former, the sword that is the heirloom of Aragorn’s house, the birthright of Isildur’s Heir, must be reforged to go to war once more. In the latter, the Prince must be armed and guided so that he may cut through the thorn hedges around the castle in which the Princess sleeps, and confront the dragon that guards the place.

But, as long as the nature of the curse remains unclear, we do not know what act will break it. For the One Ring, it had to be destroyed in the Fires of its Creation. For the Princess, she could only be awoken by true love’s kiss. For our curse, we do not know what this act is. Should it be entrusted to a curse-bearer like Frodo? We cannot yet say.

This is something we must still discover.

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