Sunday, September 20, 2009

Fairy Tales: Prince Hyancinth and the Dear Little Princess

Once upon a time, a princess's beauty bewitched a king. He broke a spell to win her as a bride, but fell upon a curse all his own. The king and his betrothed would have a son. But the son would not find happiness until the son learned a painful truth: his nose was too long.

In due course, a son was born. And, as the curse would have it, his nose was far, far too long. But he was a king's son, and the courtiers surrounding the boy never let on that they knew the truth about his nose. The boy grew up among flatterers.

The boy became a full-blooded prince and finally fell in love himself. As the prince was about to kiss the hand of his beloved, she vanished, and was whisked away by an enchanter. The prince was crushed and wandered the Earth looking for his beloved.

The prince met an old woman, a fairy. He sought her aid. She could not stop talking, first about the size of his nose, then about anything that passed through her mind. She served the famished prince a meal and chattered to her servants. The servants pretended great interest in all the fairy, who was once a princess, had to say. The servants were flatterers, you see, and the old woman loved to talk. They hung on her every word as though it were wisdom and not mere wind.

"How stupid people are not to see their own faults!" the prince mused to himself. "That comes of being a princess: she has been spoiled by flatterers, who have made her believe she is a moderate talker." The prince thought how sensible he was never to have fallen under the sway of the flattering sort. But he was still blind to his enormous nose.

The fairy made the prince's long lost love reappear. His beloved was in a crystal palace. The prince rushed to kiss her hand, but his nose was too long and kept his lips from finding their mark. He realized the length of his nose, and he was force to admit, for the first time, that his nose was too long. At once, the crtysal surrounding the princess shattered and the two were united in love.

"You see how self-love keeps us from knowing our own defects or mind and body. Our reason tries in vain to show them to us. We refuse to see them till we find them in the way of our interests."

Lucky the prince was to have love of something other than self provide him a motive to see a truth shared by others. All are not so lucky.


This is a complex tale, although Andrew Lang, in the Blue Fairy Book, relays it in just eight pages. But the moral is pointed. Self-love and flattery blind us, and they can keep from us the things we want most. We see painful truths only when we must, and then the truth hurts. We will avoid this revealing pain as long as we can. Social psychologists call this cognitive dissonance.

Vanity serves both the flatterer and the flatterer's object of admiration. The object sees an image of his own glory reflected in the bended words of the flatterer. And the flatterer gets validation in return: does not a great one heed what he, the little one, has to say? A strange and symbiotic relationship emerges, a relationship of mutual deceit. Both master and slave, as Hegel noted, are imprisoned in the stilted image possessed by the other.

Imagine, if you will, a man who declared himself the finest tradesman in all the land. He invites other in the same trade to his home, and he lavishes them with praise. "I love you," he tells them, and to each he shines a loving smile. The others lavish gifts of time and money on the finest. They can bask in the glow of his love so long as they give without real question and generously. They are a peer to the mighty, and suddenly, they too enjoy a reflected sense of self worth.

But the finest gets more and more lonely. He needs more and more praise to fill the emptiness within. His soul is a dark pit. As praise rises in the depths of this pit, the hollow echo of an empty heart merely changes tone. He is never filled.

A little voice turns louder in his mind, and at night, when there are no smiles to reassure him, his bedclothes become leaden walls. The mirror tells a truth that adoration cannot change. His time is coming to an end. More, he bellows, more!

So he gives the form of love to all who will accept it, and more gifts he receives. The walls of the crystal palace surrounding him grow thicker and thicker. His admirers sense the great one's inchoate need and lavish greater and greater gifts upon him. A monument rises to his name. All smile in the day's bright light: Love they have discovered, and the finest, he, finally, has found an uncritical admiration. He is the finest and they are his beloved. All is well behind the crystalline walls of a secret place, a place at which only new admirers are welcome. The spiral grows ever more frenzied.

But it is appointed unto all men, even the finest, to die. And in that revealing moment the bonds of flattery dissolve. The finest is no more, and what passed for the love he offered is vanished. The flatterers remain, alone, each with their thoughts and one another. But a flatterer without an icon is so much like a brooding hen without an egg. The flatterer clucks, scratches at the Earth, and frets. Such hens are masterless slaves.

How much better it would be for flatterer and flattered to be told a simple truth. There is no finest, and they are not elect because they have learned to feed another's need. Both lover and beloved live an illusion, an illusion in which love of self prevents them truly from seeing the other. Master and slave are bound, two halves forming less than a whole, wound forever in mutual wounds that no dressing can make into a thing of beauty.

Self-love is a poison. It hurts to purge a toxin. This is a pain all avoid until their interests force them to endure it. And only in fairy tales are there truly happy endings. Or in those lives fortunate to find a gentle love that gives without demanding tribute in return. A true beloved does not need her lover to call her the finest: her lover knows she is the finest without being told.