The Old King and the Claws

The Old King and the Claws
By Sterling Ulrich

“Long, long ago there lived an old king who was rather eccentric. People said he was odd because he had many sorrows, poor old king. His queen and children had died, and he himself said his heart had been torn apart. Who had done that and how it happened, he never told; but it was someone with claws, he said, and since then he imagined everyone had claws on his hands.”

You don’t need to be a fairy tale aficionado to note that Anna Wahlenburg has a gift for capturing the human spirit through fantasy. This paragraph, the introduction for “Linda-Gold and the Old King,” is a story in its own right. It came to my mind again recently as I pondered a question posed by one of my good friends from summer camp.

“What is the value of fantasy?”

Kevin, my friend, couldn’t express his dilemma more plainly than that. Fantasy is indeed a body of “untruth,” as we have been told. What purpose could it ever serve in the education or evolution of man?

Swedish Fairy TalesLet me say first that I don’t consider all fantasy to be valuable–or if valuable, not equally so. There are many books on the shelves of today’s libraries that I would not touch, and others I would only pick up out of slight curiosity. The ones I most enjoy, like Swedish Fairy Tales (Skyhorse Publishing, 2010), are those you typically won’t even see in a library.

But fantasy has value, or I wouldn’t read it. I am vain enough to say that without any compunction. All the same, I had a hard time answering Kevin’s question.

There was talk of heritage, of the philosophical nature of truth, and even of theology (for which I would refer you to Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy Stories”). We crafted a wonderful fantasy of our own that summer–a play for the campers featuring Peter Pan and sundry childhood heroes. Yet by the end of summer, and even long after, I felt we had not arrived at a satisfactory answer.

Then, as I have told you, I recalled “Linda-Gold and the Old King.” You may consider it worth knowing that in the story, a child (whose name you will have guessed) is the only person with the innocent audacity necessary to touch the king. The king is in fact so startled by her touch that he doesn’t order her clapped into irons, but allows her to begin to work her way into his heart, and eventually adopts her as his daughter and heir–upon discovering that she has no claws.

There are wonderful implications concerning the gifts that are children, as well as the nature of grief and recovery; but what I want to talk to you about are the simple words of the first paragraph: the delusion of claws.

The king’s delusion is in fact the only thing that makes this story fantasy. There are no monsters, nor magic, nor mythic civilizations. Linda-Gold is remarkable because she is a child and because she loves the old king; she need be remarkable for no other reason. The king is a king like any other–except that he is haunted by claws.

Why can we not consider this a work of general fiction? Kings and magic often go together, but not always; and when they are obviously divorced (ie., when the events of the story might have really happened), we do not call the piece a work of fantasy.

Mightn’t the story of “Linda-Gold and the Old King” be true? It certainly might. It is entirely conceivable that a certain king of long, long ago was rather eccentric. For all we know, he was totally schizophrenic. He imagined people had claws. Then he met a girl whose unabashed love eventually brought him down the road to recovery. His delusions vanished along with the depression and post-traumatic stress that had nourished them. He became sane and normal, and made the girl a princess.

Of course that could be true. It would be a noteworthy case for the psychological journals of today. But the beauty of “Linda-Gold…”–the fantasy of it–is that the king is not mad.

In any other genre, a man who sees something that isn’t there is a lunatic, a fanatic–a Don Quixote charging windmills. He is laughable and pitiable, and may make an excellent character, but we must always acknowledge him to be mad–to be missing some essential truth about his reality.

Anna Wahlenburg makes no such acknowledgement. The king is missing nothing. He has a firmer grasp on his reality than many of us can ever hope for. His wife and children are dead. His heart has been ripped to smithereens by someone with claws. This is not sentiment. This is not symbolism. For the purposes of the story, this is what really happened.

I hope you understand this. There are clearer ways to express it, but I am not a master of them. What am I suggesting? That fantasy can tell things that aren’t true as though they were? If that is all I have said, you might as well not have read this essay; I am certain you already knew that much.

What I am saying is that the advantage of fantasy is that it can tell the truth in its truest form–as though nothing but the truth were actual, and nothing but the truth could define human events.

Many of us are afraid to love because we are afraid of being hurt. This is something in our hearts and minds; it is not actual. The king sees this truth actualized. He is afraid people might hurt him because they really, easily could. They have claws.

And the old king is not alone!

We love Peter Pan because we would have been his lost boys if what is true were actual. We weep and cheer for Frodo because we all know what the ring feels like, but only he has to wear it. We love, we hate; we suffer, we rise; we grow, we decay–but someone, somewhere on a page did all those things too, and did them better. Someone really, actually did them.

I acknowledge that this is not the entire value of fantasy, but I am completely satisfied to have at least part of an answer: evidence that fantasy accomplishes something utterly impossible by any other genre–and something phenomenally important to human understanding. Fantasy is not, as many have supposed, deliberate ignorance of reality.

Fantasy is reality unmasked.