What I’ve Learned from Disney Princes: Prince Charming
by Kevin Rigdon (@pralix1138)
Watching classic Disney films always brings up a longing within me, a longing for innocence. It seems to me there are two ways innocence is lost: it is either stolen by the evil choices of others, or it is rejected because of the stigma we place on it. When we grow up we are expected to slough off our innocence like a snake sheds its skin. We see this as a natural result of “adulthood,” but even though many of us reject our own childlike innocence, we are rightly aghast at the forced theft of it. Walt Disney always excelled at telling stories of innocence, of its purity, of the evil that tries to control and destroy that innocence, and the ultimate triumph of innocence as innocence. Cinderella is one of my favorite examples, its subjugation by nefarious ne’er-do-wells, and ultimate restoration and victory, and here are a few things that we can learn from heeding Walt’s storytelling.
Mice help you get the girl (i.e. we never get there alone)
One thing Disney stories emphasize, and always have, is that we always need a little help. Generally, this help takes the form of various vermin and cutesy animals, and Cinderella has some of the cutesy-est (yes, I’m secure enough in my manliness to use that word). Tolkien once talked about the idea of animals talking in these fairy tales, and how it comes from a primordial need in mankind to be in communion with all living things. In terms of Prince Charming, and his securing the hand of Cinderella as his bride, the mice, the birds, and Bruno the dog all pitch in to help.
He sends the Grand Duke out to try the slipper on every maiden in the land, but Cinderella is hidden away and held prisoner in her own house, and her lovable critter friends abscond with the key and free her just in time for her to reveal herself as the missing love. In life we all need a little help, and in Disney films, that help usually comes in the form of critters.
The story shows us that we are at our best when we are involved with others. The notion that we are islands, isolated from the rest of the world and the people around us, has to be overcome and disregarded. There’s an old Russian saying that puts it this way: “The only thing you do by yourself is go to hell.” We are communal beings. It is in our very essence. And when there are people in our lives who feel isolated, who are rejected by society, they are swallowed up into a very real hell. So, we accept the help, encouragement, and love of others, and in return it is incumbent upon us as persons to offer help, encouragement, and love to others.
Approach life with an open hand
The Prince’s father conspires to get him married off to somebody, anybody. It doesn’t even matter to the king who the bride-to-be is. The Prince reacts with boredom and defiance, and is determined to thwart the king’s plans through his cunning disinterest. He acts in a way most of us do on a daily basis. Many times in our lives we are determined to close ourselves off because of the circumstances in which we find ourselves–especially when those circumstances are imposed upon us, and are outside of our control. Like Prince Charming, who is being manipulated by his father and steels himself against these paternal machinations, we often clench our hearts like fists in the midst of unpleasantness, which has the unfortunate result of our missing the thing that we need most.
Prince Charming shows us that we should approach life with an open hand. What I mean by this phrase is that in approaching life with an open hand, we are always open to the possibility of goodness. The Prince, if his heart were completely closed off, clinched as-it-were, would not have been open to the possibility of Cinderella. He would not have noticed her, fallen in love, found the one person needful to complete himself. Instead, he allowed for the possibility that something good can be revealed even in the most tedious of times.
Here is an important lesson for us to learn, and I don’t mean to dwell on tragic things, but approaching our jobs, our families, our friends, enemies, jobs, and so on with an open hand (i.e. open heart) helps us to see the good even in the midst of overwhelming darkness. It allows us to see pinpricks of light. It allows us to be moved to compassion and pity, to sympathize and empathize, to see the beauty of life, to say that we can move on, that we can appreciate even those that hate us, that we can be thankful, and that we can be immovable in peace and joy. A clinched and hardened heart only produces violence. There is no love, no hope, no faith. In contrast, an open heart can give and receive. Fr. Matthew the Poor, a Coptic monk, once said that the human heart is built to encompass the entire universe. But it can only do so if we if we bear no one ill, if we do not resent, if we are open.
Happily ever after is more real than real
Tolkien describes us as mythical beings. It is as if the need for myth, the sacred story, is hardwired into our DNA. This doesn’t mean we aren’t reasonable. It doesn’t mean we are superstitious simpletons. It means that we create myth so that we can understand our world, our minds, our hearts, and so we can point to a transcendent reality that is not readily perceptible through the empirical senses. Part and parcel of this hardwired mythmaking is the notion of a “Happily Ever After.”
Just as we are expected to voluntarily give up our childlike faith and innocence, this “Happily Ever After” is often attacked by many of us in our modern culture as “unrealistic,” and therefore useless in understanding our lives and the world around us. Even storytellers reject Tolkien’s vision of storytelling and the human person. We reject the tales of our ancestors, and their lessons and knowledge. Walt Disney’s adaptation of fairy tales embraces this largely disregarded facet of the human person precisely in the proclamation of “Happily Ever After.”
Prince Charming and Cinderella, as in all Disney fairy tales, will live happily ever after. I would suggest that the phrase, “Happily Ever After,” is usually shallowly misunderstood as meaning there are no hardships, no problems, and always bouncy and laughing, and as such, we reject it. We are right to reject the shallow interpretation, but we are wrong when we throw the baby out with the bathwater. As Prince Charming has approached life with a sense of openness to finding his true love, and as he searches for the one who fits the shoe, the only clue to the identity of his true love, he dedicates himself to finding her. When he finds her, and when they marry, there is a peace, a joy, a sense of rest and contentment. This is the definition of “Happily Ever After” that we need to consider. It doesn’t mean there are no hardships. It doesn’t mean there are no fights, or problems. It means that they each find the person who completes them, and in this completion, they each must sacrifice and work to be fulfilled in the other. But this work in love is joy itself, it is happiness itself, and this work of the two becoming one is most definitely a “Happily Ever After.”
This continual evolution also points us, once again, to a transcendent reality–to an ultimate fulfillment and rest. Perhaps we are so hopelessly earthbound that we cannot look at the possibilities, and dare to hope. Perhaps we are terrified of being hurt and left behind. Perhaps we want desperately to hold on to our own ego. The myth shows us innumerable possibilities, and gives us hope that what we see around us isn’t all that there is. It creates within us a longing for a completion, and shows that there will be rest and fulfillment.
So, in the end, we are mythical, communal, persons needing to be involved in the lives of others; needing their help to grow and become who we are supposed to be. If we can approach life with an open heart, we make ourselves able to perceive the light in the darkest of nights. And finally, there really is a “Happily Ever After.”