I don’t think anyone would ever describe me as a fan of TV shows. In fact, I don’t believe I’ve ever watched a complete series. Except for one: Jim Henson’s The Storyteller. In a flight of fanciful paradox, I would go so far as to describe this short lived, one season series as a “John Senior TV show.”
Deeply rooted in human nature and visceral truths about good and evil, life and love, death and corruption, The Storyteller casts a handful of European folk tales in a playful yet serious tone. Harnessing the earthy realism and supernatural wonder of peasants through the ages, the show breaks free from Hollywood stereotypes of barbie princesses and million-dollar special effects. Instead, actors are dirty and homely, handsome and beautiful with a realism born of innocent acting and unpretentiousness.
The first episode is perhaps the most profound. Having watched it several times recently, I think it has important lessons for us today, as we find ourselves in the midst of an explosion of Ecclesial infidelity and ruin. Moreover, the tale has beautiful ramifications for anyone desirous of loving deeply and faithfully.
The story of Hans My Hedgehog opens with a simple and gripping sorrow: a farmwife unable to conceive yet desperately longing for a child. Annoying her husband with folk remedy after folk remedy for her barrenness, she exclaims one day over the washing, “I want a child…. I don’t care if it were ugly as a hedgehog. I want a baby.” And the storyteller says, “Now to say you wouldn’t care when you want something is a dangerous thing…”. And so the farmer’s wife gets what she wished for, a baby as “ugly as Sin” with a pointed snout and little quills.
Loved by his mother, Hans (as the hedgehog baby is named) is the embarrassment and disgrace of his father. Eventually the farmer drives him out to “eat with the other beasts,” and poor Hans wanders into the woods to think. The remorseful farmer searches for him, and in the morning Hans returns, asking for a steed so that he may go away, “away, to somewhere where I can’t hurt anyone and no one can hurt me. All night I lay outdoors to understand why you don’t love me and I’ve thought until I’ve thought a hole in the grass.”
Despite his grim exterior, the musical theme of Hans is a lyric, fairylike tune, and he becomes the bag-pipe playing lord of the forest. A series of events leads a king to unwittingly promising his daughter in marriage to Hans, now a terrible beast, half man, half boar-hedgehog. When Hans returns “after a year and a day” to claim the princess, the whole palace is devastated by the revelation of the tragic promise the king has made to marry his daughter to a hideous beast.
The contrast of the monstrous exterior, but delicate sensitive, and loving interior of Hans is remarkable. He tells the princess that he wants her to be his “princess of sweetness and Cherry pie. I want to catch you up and sing to you…” Hans asks the princess if she finds him very ugly. “No, sir,” she replies. “Not so ugly as going back on a promise.” And they are married. On their wedding night, the princess falls asleep as Hans plays his pipes. She wakes to catch a glimpse of him in regular human form, unenchanted, having shed his skin of quills before the fireplace before leaving the room. She strokes the quills and finds them so soft, and drowsing, wakes to be confronted by Hans in the form of a young man. “Which would you have for husband?”, he asks. “The man or the creature?” And his new wife replies: “I have a husband sir, and he is what he is, no more and no less.”
Hans resumes his hedgehog form, but gives the princess the key to releasing him from enchantment. She doubts him, however, and tries a different way to break the spell, at which point Hans leaves forever, shoving away the princess as he gallops off.
Sorrowful and repentant, she wears through multiple pairs of iron shoes searching the world for Hans. And the long and short of it is that despite her mistake, she regains her husband—“no more and no less”—because he could never be more ugly than a broken promise.
As scandal piles upon scandal today, birthed “ugly as Sin,” we might well ask ourselves why we remain faithful to so ugly a bride as the Church on earth. Reversing the tale of Hans and his princess, we wonder if we want the Church today, if we find it “very ugly.” And the answer is that it is not so ugly as breaking the promise we made to Christ in our baptisms, or believing that he will break his promise to “be with us” to the end of the world.
Fidelity in today’s Church has a quality of fairly-tale-like impossibility about it. From sexually abusive Cardinals to doctrine destroyers like Víctor Manuel Fernández, one wonders, sometimes, if you would have to wear out a pair of iron shoes to find a faithful Cardinal or Vatican official. We must distinguish between the human and divine elements in the Church, the visible and temporal, the eternal and invisible. Yet they do form a whole, and saying from time to time, “I have a Church, no more and no less” when faced with the pipe-dream of a sinless hierarchy (for example), might serve as a spur to fidelity.
I have no illusions as to when obedience and “fidelity” is no real obedience or fidelity; and yet it is the fidelity that overcomes the spines of heresy and quills of scandal that, in the end, will break the spell of evil and ugliness with which so much of the Church seems to be enchanted right now. As John Cuddeback comments in one of his wonderful Life Craft Videos, giving 100% even when your spouse might not be giving the same is probably the only thing that will elicit a fuller gift of self.
Today the Church needs to be embraced all the more fervently so that our love might break the spell of inhuman magic which currently clings to it. We want the unenchanted Church. We want the little children to be safe when they come to Christ. We want the great ones to enter the eye of the needle.
We want to flee where no one can hurt us and we can’t hurt anyone, but that is not possible today. This is a vale of tears: though the human aspect of Church can hurt us, clinging to its divine aspect will eventually redeem its earthly imperfections. We want to say—and the mystical body so longs to hear—“I have walked the world to find you. I come to claim you.” We want our Church whole, and with Christ’s help will have it—will win it back “through looking without hope of finding, and holding on for dear life.”
A musician, visual artist, and writer, Julian Kwasniewski is Marketing and Communications Coordinator at Wyoming Catholic College. His writings have appeared in numerous venues, including The National Catholic Register, Catholic World Report, The Catholic Thing, Crisis Magazine, Salvo Magazine, Latin Mass Magazine, and The European Conservative. You can find some of his artistic work on Etsy and YouTube.