This week I encountered a beautiful story from Germany. It’s the story of a girl whose father somewhat unthinkingly bargains her away to the devil in return for riches (stay with me…). The devil tries to take her away with him, only she’s too clean. So he covers her in dirt. But she cries and her tears are so pure they make her hands clean again. So her hands are cut off.
Still exasperated, the devil lets her go for a while, convinced that her clean soul won’t stay clean for long and that the world will corrupt her. But it somehow proves untrue. The angels feed her in the wilderness, and then she wins the love of a king, they have a child, the king goes off to war and she is cast off into the wilderness again; but still she stays true and good. Out in the wilderness there is a beautiful miracle: her hands grow back. Then after many years she is reunited with her husband the king. And the devil is well and truly defeated.
It comes from the Brothers Grimm originally, I think, but I saw it on stage this week in a beautiful, hilarious and wonderful production by Kneehigh theatre called The Wild Bride. The director, Emma Rice, had created an adaptation of it in Hungary some years ago, which she remembers as being full of flowers and prettiness and kid leather (!). When she returned to it she realized she had missed the story’s heart, and so this one has the blues, it has dirt, it has brutality. But most of all, in the midst of the blues, it has hope.
There’s hope in people: in the girl whose soul is good and stays good despite all she is made to suffer. And in the man who chooses her, loves her and waits for her. And there’s hope in some dimension that we cannot see or explain – played out in the provision of food in the wilderness, in the miracle of the girl’s hands growing back, and the defeat of the devil. It’s a fable and a fairytale, but like the best stories, articulates something true and intrinsically human. Like the importance of integrity and goodness, the power of love and the rewards of sticking it out. And at the heart of it is the belief that it matters profoundly what kind of person you are.
I saw it with a close friend and we were buzzing afterwards. She’s also part of The Ruby Dolls, our fledgling theatre company, and we weren’t just exhilarated by the content of the thing, but the way it was told: With enormous energy and love of the story, with humour and truthfulness, with song, movement, puppetry, poetry and regional accents. I was only half joking when I wrote on facebook: ‘That’s what I want to do when I grow up.’ That is exactly what we want to do – to tell stories we believe in, in an irresistibly creative, joyous, and meaningful way.
I know there is plenty of meaningful art in the world which is dark and despairing, but for me there is something weirdly paradoxical about that kind of thing. The process of creating something is an intrinsically hopeful act – it’s daring to put something new into the world, to continue the journey, to keep connecting and contributing. My Granny became a painter in later life and she taught me to draw. I treasure the knowledge that even in her final years she had enough hope for the world to keep creating. Despairing art seems to me to contradict itself and it leaves me cold.
As long as I have any hope for anything, I’ll keep creating.