Written by Anna Maria Mendell
(Angelico Press, 2016)
Reviewed by Rebekah Lamb
The Fairy Tale Revisited
“Love bindeth all things,” the woman whispered.
Published and released this summer by Angelico Press and already receiving well-deserved endorsement and praise from significant players in the current Catholic intellectual and cultural scene (think, Michael Ward, Léonie Caldecott, and Marc Sebanc, among others), Anna Maria Mendell’s debut novel re-tells the original Sleeping Beauty fairy-tale, adding a clever modern twist while preserving the sense of timeless enchantment and moral, imaginative power that the tale, in its various adaptations, has held for generations. Inspired by the writings of the Inklings, and particularly by their common intellectual ‘ancestor,’ George MacDonald, Mendell understands her writing as being, among other things, a way of re-awakening wonder in our everyday lives, in the midst of the growing sense of disenchantment and radical doubt that often characterizes our current post-modern (or post, post-modern?) situation.
While The Golden Princess and the Moon offers us the kinds of perennial themes fairy tales have, until recently, always traditionally imparted (the drama of the soul’s choices; the call to belief in the face of trials and doubt; good’s subduing of evil), it is especially original in its exploration of the psychological and spiritual wrestlings that accompany the working out of such themes in the lives of the characters we encounter throughout the story. As Léonie Caldecott has noted, Mendell “sets a fresh narrative standard” in her re-telling, “drawing equally from modern depth psychology and traditional symbolism.” Mendell particularly achieves this exploration of the psychological struggles bound up with seeking after grace, love, and hope by writing in a strikingly Augustinian vein; it is obviously present towards the end of the story but is discernable from the tale’s opening pages (more on this shortly).
The story opens from the perspective of Prince Erik who lives in an age of skepticism and doubt (an age the reader is supposed to understand is reminiscent of the post-Enlightenment era) who is prone to mystical dreams, gifted to him by the world of Faerie as a means of revealing to him his call to heroism. It is in the dream- world that Erik comes to first see, and then learn about, the life of Princess Rosa who lived (before she was cursed to sleep for centuries), in a Golden Era bearing elements of the Greco-Roman world and, even more specifically, of the Middle Ages: the age of faith and learning which, ideally, is rooted in the power of charity, above all other things. In learning to put his faith in his visions and in the growing love he has for Rosa, Erik is drawn out of an existential position of modern, radical doubt, becoming a man who (not unlike the Josephs from the Old and New Testament), learns that faith offers us a power that includes, but ultimately transcends, reason’s farthest reaches.
Likewise, in trusting that she will be saved from her curse and blessed with new life after a death-like sleep, Rosa also learns about the power of faith. However, she especially embodies hope, the theological virtue which many, from T.S. Eliot to Elie Wiesel, from Charles Péguy to Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, have discussed as being one of the hardest virtues to cultivate in our “difficult century.” Although Rosa and Erik become embodiments of the theological virtues, Mendell takes no prisoners in humorously and honestly exploring how they are in need of profound transformations of the heart. The quest of Prince Erik for Princess Rosa, for example, is as much about learning how to embrace faith and love as modes of knowledge as it is about rescuing her from her enchanted sleep. Indeed the latter can only happen in so far as Erik masters the former. At the heart of the work, then, is a consideration of the relationship between love and trust, one that occurs through what I think can only be described as an Augustinian lens.
The entire tale hinges on an Augustinian lesson learned by Prince Erik during his quest: love is the source of all human meaning. During an experience of “the dark night of doubt,” occurring towards the end of the tale, Prince Erik encounters a wise woman (dwelling in the world of Faerie) who reveals to him, in a vein echoing The Confessions, that “[a]nother person’s heart [is] a mystery, and only [he] who loves can behold another as they truly are and as they are meant to be, and it [is] on this love that trust rests.”
The Golden Princess and the Moon is certainly readable for a wide range of audiences, for adults and more mature children (of around twelve years old, onwards, given the sophisticated blend of intricacy and simplicity in the language used and analogies made). At times, the narrative is a bit over-wrought with analogies: the allusions to Keats, MacDonald, Augustine, Sacred Scripture, Greek mythology and the theo-philosophical tradition (that Liberal Arts geeks will delight in identifying), can make the prose appear, at times, somewhat Baroque (a style I love, confessedly). That being said, however, a derivative effect of this is that readers become more alive to the rich textures of language itself.
A particular selling point of the story, to my mind, is that this is a fairy tale that both girls and boys will find engaging as the lives of Princess Rosa and Prince Erik are explored in equal depth. Refreshingly, Prince Erik is not diminished to the status of mere walking, talking plot-device as is so often the case in contemporary renditions of fairy tales. Both the specific heroic qualities unique to the feminine and masculine are explored, in depth, making the tale an examination of human nature at a psychological depth often left unexplored by fantasy writers. While there are so many rich and intriguing dimensions to this narrative (which Michael Ward has aptly described as being a playfully serious blend of the Brothers Grimm, George MacDonald and The Princess Bride), it is the Augustinian thread of conversion and learning to love that is, I believe, one of the most powerful aspects of Mendell’s work, making it at once a meditation on the gift of the human heart and, also, on the need for learning how to cultivate this gift by living out the central Christian paradox: “Except a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it abides alone: but if it dies, it brings forth much fruit” (John 12:24).
The central mystery that Mendell explores in The Golden Princess and the Moon is that “Love bindeth all things” and as such this tale especially resonates with the spirit of Tolkien’s essay, “On Fairy Stories,” where he says that the fairy tale is “evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy” and thereby offering us “a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears…” I would be lying if I said I finished Mendell’s work dry eyed: one of my dear friends (who first read drafts of her opening chapters to me as we lazed by the river in Port Meadow, just outside of Oxford’s city limits, in the summer of 2008) has written a “thing of beauty.”