Criticism: The Working Language of Good and Evil, Part I

(Note: This is the first post in a five post series about harmful and healing language. The original paper, written for a folklore class taught by N. Scott Momaday at the University of Arizona, has been edited for space and content. Works cited will appear at the end of the last post. Part II may be found here.)

To begin with a story:

A flock of sparrows came upon a palace on which a deep silence lay. They flew over to see what was wrong. The frightening silence made some birds nervous. One cried, “Something terrible has happened! If we get close it might happen to us!” His words went unheeded. The sparrows descended upon the palace to find everyone asleep.

“A curse! A curse! Let’s get away, or we’ll be cursed, too!” “Hush!” said the others. “What’s that noise?”

They listened. They heard a voice wailing, “Woe is me! Woe is me!” The sparrows flew to the sound and found the king crying in his chamber.

One sparrow flew off seeking the source of another sound. He found the queen pacing up and down, wringing her hands. Seeing the bird the queen said, “Little sparrow! Do you wonder at my despair?” She told the bird her infant daughter, Princess Rose, had died, and everyone but the king and queen had succumbed to a spell.

The sparrow told his companions what he’d learned. They decided to help the king and queen, but to do so they had to seek aid from a wizard. It was said of this wizard that he granted favors but always exacted payment in return.

The sparrows sought out the wizard and told him what they’d found. “And you wish me to return life to the Princess Rose,” he said. “I will do it. But you must agree to sacrifice something for it. Will you give up your wings?” “No!” cried the sparrows. “Without our wings, we can’t fly.” “Will you give up your feathers?” the wizard asked. “No!” said the sparrows. “Without our feathers we’ll freeze in the winter!” “Will you give up your song?” asked the wizard. “Yes!” said the sparrows. “That will be our sacrifice.” “It is done,” said the wizard. “Return to the palace.”

The sparrows returned to find everyone still asleep. Just as they began to think they’d been tricked, a child’s voice cried out. Immediately, everyone awoke.

Suddenly a change came over the sparrows. Their bodies flattened, their feathers changed to skin, their beaks softened into wide mouths. Where there had been chittering sparrows perched on walls there now squatted croaking frogs. Which is why frogs croak and hop. To this day they try to sing but can only croak. They try to fly but can only hop.

This is a condensed version of “The Dead Princess” from Peter Straub’s pop-horror novel, Shadowland. In Staub’s novel, an evil magician tells this tale to his evil-resisting young apprentice. As fairytales go, this story is unusual, because while the princess and kingdom are restored to life, the story lacks the traditional happy ending. Its only intent appears to be to emphasize the helplessness of the sparrows, whose transformation into frogs seems to serve no purpose but to bring the wizard’s power and treachery into sharp relief. Other than being powerless and perhaps meddling creatures the sparrows did nothing to earn such severe punishment. They are not, for instance, gluttonous or proud creatures that are transformed into animals personifying those vices. Their metamorphosis into frogs strips away life as they knew it. Is the point of “The Dead Princess” to emphasize that asking a wizard for help is perilous business? Maybe, but such a moral is arguable, because appealing to someone who can get things done seems to be the natural course open to the sparrows once they decide to help, especially given the castle’s magical circumstances.

Furthermore, the tale itself gives no warning of the wizard’s treachery, and so, no real basis for judging the sparrows’ choice to petition him. It isn’t unusual to have to pay for services; that isn’t a clue. Straub’s tale stated, “One thing everybody knew about the wizard was that while he was fair, he always made you pay for any favor he did you” (Straub 1981:199). Yet the wizard’s behavior toward the birds is definitely not fair.

Part of the story’s unsettling effect lies not in the tale itself but in the context of who’s telling the story to whom. In the novel, the master of Shadowland, a treacherous wizard, appraises the fairytale wizard’s character for the young apprentice to whom he’s telling the story. Herein lies the story’s power: the wizard frames the tale as a way of forcing the apprentice to see only what he wants him to see. Later, when the young apprentice asks the magician to help save the life of a friend, the magician asks, “Your wings or your song?” Given the referrent, this question attains instantly the power of threat. Through the language of “The Dead Princess,” the magician attempts to limit his apprentice’s options, thus controlling his actions. The either-or language of the dilemma “Your wings or your song?” is a linguistic and logical structure used commonly to achieve this effect. As the poor sparrows are trapped by their sympathy for others, many listeners, identifying with the well-meaning, sympathetic, yet spellbound sparrows, will share in their peril.

This fearful, deadly language that brings paralysis upon its target or blinds her to everything except what the attacker wishes her to see, is the essence of witchcraft. Such language manipulates others’ wills in order to magnify the speaker’s own power and generate what he believes is greater control over his own destiny. Such language may trap, bring a range of illnesses upon, or “kill” its intended victim for the wielder’s personal gain, making possible the satisfaction of various excessive ambitions. It twists words, passages of sacred text, pieces of ritual, and other words spoken in good faith, thus removing people from sacred and social contexts. It is the language of psychological and physical violence.

2 thoughts on “Criticism: The Working Language of Good and Evil, Part I”

  1. Wow. Particularly poignant right now. Thanks. Looking very much forward to the rest.

    I was curious if you were going to engage the inverse of this, i.e., persons who only hear what they will, in spite of what is actually said.

    (As I write this, I can’t help but think of Monty Python and wonder if this would be the essence of Newt-ness?) 

    Posted by XON

  2. You’re welcome, XON. I should say that in presenting these ideas as if they were almost systematic, which they will appear to be more and more as I post them, I’m attempting nothing more than to put up a helpful construct, a scaffolding upon which to hang a few (evolving) thoughts.

    About people who hear only what they will: I don’t address this directly, but hearing only what you will even when evidence to the contrary assails you constantly often involves the same kind of linguistic behavior mentioned above: the limiting of options, or possibilities, except in this case rather than limiting others one limits oneself. However, most people (I have been one of them) who hear only what they will (will’s a good word here) will then turn around and strongly assert their POV against all comers, no matter the daily apolocalyses occuring around them.

    I confess complete ignorance of Newtness. The only Monty Python I’ve seen is a clip from The Life of Brian   I thought brilliantly funny. Brian is shouting to the crowd that’s gathered outside his window, “You have to learn to think for yourselves!” We will!” the adoring crowd shouts as one. Then a lone stubborn voice cries out, “I won’t!”  

    Posted by P. G. Karamesines

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