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Today, as we continue through “princess week”, Ferrebeekeeper introduces a whole new feature: movie reviews! For our inaugural cinematic post, we are writing about a mediocre fairy-tale movie made thirteen years ago for little girls. “Ella Enchanted” stars Anne Hathaway, Cary Elwes (as the evil prince!), Eric Idol, and a whole bunch of people I have never heard of.
Featuring jarring joke anachronisms, weird pacing, strange scenery, and some pretty hammy acting, “Ella Enchanted” is not “Citizen Kane”. Yet the protagonist Ella is played by a young Anne Hathaway who brings her full emotive talents to the role and gives real poignancy to the nightmarish plight of central character. And, even though this a children’s movie, the central problem is horrifying.
The movie’s magical fairy godmother is a mercurial entity who uses her magic capriciously. When presented with infant Ella, this fay sorceress is revolted by the chaotic nature of babies. She uses her power to endow Ella with a terrible gift: absolute obedience. Ella must promptly do whatever she is told by anyone. Ella’s loving family shields her throughout childhood by home-schooling her, keeping her away from outsiders, and avoiding idioms & imperatives as much as possible, yet adulthood and the world inevitably intervene.
In the wider world, obedience is a terrible curse. Malicious and malevolent forces abuse Ella and make her into a pawn. Any stranger can kill her with a careless word or cause her to do the most terrible things imaginable. At one point, she gets in a cooking pot while ogres light the fire.
Ella falls in love with the handsome prince (who seems quite taken with her beauty, wit, and seemingly impulsive character, however the realm’s other political players swiftly recognize and exploit her curse. Acting under the direction of the wicked regent, she must kill the handsome prince at midnight… Does she murder her true love, or can she find a way to break the compulsion of obedience laid upon her in her infancy?
Now I don’t want to ruin Ella Enchanted for you…so I won’t. You can go watch this thing if you want to find out the ending (if you can’t already guess how it turns out). I am writing about it because I can’t stop thinking about it. The malevolent fascination of ineluctable obedience gives the movie far deeper resonance than it perhaps merits. Watching someone trapped under a terrible compulsion do what others desire is enthralling. There is fear and horror shining in Ella’s eyes as she goes around hurting people and destroying herself at the whim of others. And yet, dare I say it, it all seems…familiar.
Society is built like “Ella Enchanted” and most people are acting under compulsion to do things they don’t care to do. A great many of these things are self-evidently stupid and pernicious. We live in a world where you have to drive or else be run over. If you answer your mail wrong you could go to jail. Social compulsion makes even the most powerful people into puppets. And if you balk very much at all, you go out on the street to freeze and starve.
And there is an even darker other half to “Ella Enchanted’ which we could think of as ‘Everyone Else, Entitled.” In the movie, most people are perfectly happy to take advantage of Ella (just as most of us don’t care how we get out iphones and chicken dinners). People very quickly come to think “Now you work for me. I own you and control you and tell you how you must feel and must act.” Such ideas apparently just come naturally. Exploitation seems to be a built-in price for society—fore REAL society, not just this stupid movie.
Yet, to leave the real world and return to Ella and princesses. The entities who control Ella never control how she feels about things. A princess has autonomy even if, sometimes under duress, she can only use it in the smallest ways.
Ella figures out the secret to breaking her enchantment and winds up a princess (oops, did I spoil the movie?). In fact, she was always the hero (that handsome prince was a bit of a stuffed-shirt, if you ask me). The real question is whether we can learn this lesson? Can we find the right touch to make use of use little moments and fleeing opportunities in a life filled with compulsion? Is there a way to escape, or at least partially master society’s oppressive burden of obedience? Can we ever really be autonomous and star for a moment as the hero in our own life? It is a big question, and the answers are not as certain as a princess’ storybook ending.
April is National Poetry Month so I have been trying to think of how best to celebrate an art which is at least as old as writing and as broad as humankind. Should I return to the epic beginnings and feature a Sumerian ode of ziggurats, abzus, and strange gods? Should we fly through time and space to a mountain village of the Sung dynasty and listen to the thoughts of a bearded sage drinking rice wine? We can visit a Greek battlefield, a Roman brothel, a Spanish galleon to watch history unfold–or alternately we could look at ourselves through the mirror of poetry by visiting a contemporary journal to read the works of poets who are still alive and trying to make sense of the turmoil which is the present. Historians record the basic plot of humankind’s doings over the long strange centuries, but poetry provides the life, the character, and the essence of what it is to live.
But to return to the conundrum of which poem to feature for Poetry month, I have decided to look back to my tempestuous teenage years by featuring my first girlfriend’s favorite poem, Goblin Market, written by Christina Rossetti and published in 1862. The work is outwardly a gothic fairy tale about two sisters who are continuously tempted by the sumptuous otherworldly fruit peddled by bestial & obscene goblin-men. What the poem is really about has been a hot topic of debate since it was written. Paradoxically the work is nakedly and explicitly erotic while also completely chaste. It is beautiful while also shockingly ugly. It is sad and troubling with an ending of golden transcendent joy. Before we get into any more spoilers, here are the first two stanzas (which will immediately reveal why any lover of gardens or gothic imagery likes this poem). I am including these lines because it would be a cruel jape to write a post about poetry which featured no actual poetry, but I cannot exhort you strongly enough to read the entire poem here.
MORNING and evening
Maids heard the goblins cry:
“Come buy our orchard fruits,
Come buy, come buy:
Apples and quinces,
Lemons and oranges,
Plump unpecked cherries-
Melons and raspberries,
Wild free-born cranberries,
All ripe together
In summer weather–
Morns that pass by,
Fair eves that fly;
Come buy, come buy;
Our grapes fresh from the vine,
Pomegranates full and fine,
Dates and sharp bullaces,
Rare pears and greengages,
Damsons and bilberries,
Taste them and try:
Currants and gooseberries,
Figs to fill your mouth,
Citrons from the South,
Sweet to tongue and sound to eye,
Come buy, come buy.”
Evening by evening
Among the brookside rushes,
Laura bowed her head to hear,
Lizzie veiled her blushes:
Crouching close together
In the cooling weather,
With clasping arms and cautioning lips,
With tingling cheeks and finger-tips.
“Lie close,” Laura said,
Pricking up her golden head:
We must not look at goblin men,
We must not buy their fruits:
Who knows upon what soil they fed
Their hungry thirsty roots?”
“Come buy,” call the goblins
Hobbling down the glen.
“O! cried Lizzie, Laura, Laura,
You should not peep at goblin men.”
Lizzie covered up her eyes
Covered close lest they should look;
Laura reared her glossy head,
And whispered like the restless brook:
“Look, Lizzie, look, Lizzie,
Down the glen tramp little men.
One hauls a basket,
One bears a plate,
One lugs a golden dish
Of many pounds’ weight.
How fair the vine must grow
Whose grapes are so luscious;
How warm the wind must blow
Through those fruit bushes.”
“No,” said Lizzie, “no, no, no;
Their offers should not charm us,
Their evil gifts would harm us.”
She thrust a dimpled finger
In each ear, shut eyes and ran:
Curious Laura chose to linger
Wondering at each merchant man.
One had a cat’s face,
One whisked a tail,
One tramped at a rat’s pace,
One crawled like a snail,
One like a wombat prowled obtuse and furry,
One like a ratel tumbled hurry-scurry.
Lizzie heard a voice like voice of doves
Cooing all together:
They sounded kind and full of loves
In the pleasant weather.
Hopefully you read the entire poem (or re-read it if you are familiar with it). Critics continue to debate what it is about. Most contemporary scholars tend to view the work as some sort of feminist allegory concerning the unfair treatment women were subjected to in Victorian (and subsequent) society. Other modern critics read it as a (barely) disguised defense of homosexuality. Still other groups of readers have interpreted the poem as a critique of consumer culture and the ubiquity of advertisement, or a story about drug addiction, or an allegory of religious indoctrination. Perhaps it was a work by Rossetti about art itself which, evermore, seems to consist of pursuing sensuous ghosts into a pauper’s grave. All of those ideas are valid and correct, yet there is even more to the poem. As I mentioned, it was the favorite work of my (anguished) first lover back when I was a jejune teenager. When reading the poem it is hard for me not to think of her and her beautiful sister and wonder which was Laura and which was Lizzie. Yet beyond aching personal feelings (which a good poem should stir up) there is an overarching tale about humankind in this poem which is bigger than the individual strands of desire and gender and subversion.
The Goblin Market after all mirrors the story of the fall from Eden. There is tempting fruit and the (near fatal) consumption of the same. It is a shocking tale of being cursed by one’s own desires and appetites and then redeemed by love.
The world is a marketplace. There are always a troop of goblins trying to sell us something which is bad for us–whether it is toxic gender stereotypes, or poisonous religious doctrine, or addictive narcotics, or endless shoddy consumer goods. Celebrate National Poetry month by discarding some of the poisonous habits of thought you have picked up from the disfigured little merchants. Don’t accept fallacious ideas about yourself or what you want! If by some dread mischance you are languishing under someone else’s ideas or impositions you may need a dear friend to break the curse. That person might be a family member or a lover or a close friend, or it might be a strange unmarried Victorian poet who has been dead for more than a century but whose words live on as a glowing antidote to life’s poisoned fruit.
[A Side Note: Rossetti’s religious poetry won her high esteem from the Church of England. She is enshrined in the Episcopalian liturgical calendar with a feast day—today in fact, April 27th.]