Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Sensitive Tales As A Metaphor For Living With Conditions and Illness

These beautiful illustrations, by artist, Diana Renjina, are not, as it might first appear, for - or from - a fairy tale, but they illustrate beautifully how unusual tales of sensitivity can bring a different perspective to living with illnesses, particularly those that manifest on the skin. As you can see from the text accompanying the images, the blooming flowers and sprouting greenery symbolize psoriasis, a common, non-contagious skin condition in which the skin gets "rosy" and sometimes scaly or flaky, and can be itchy and even painful. 

Tales that come most quickly to mind are those like The Princess and the Pea, in which the princess bruises easily but also those other tales that feature skin marks and other unusual symptoms when the main character is affected by the elements (from the lightest touch of a petal - perhaps allergies, to moonlight - which could substitute easily for conditions brought on by the environment like asthma). With The Most Sensitive Woman (from Italy) and The Three Delicate Wives of King Virtue-Banner (from India) it's not difficult to extrapolate different medical conditions that might be occurring here. Tales like Donkeyskin and Allerleirauh, in which the maiden hides herself under mud and more, show a physical response to being touched/affected by the world and their various environments. In these cases, the Donkeyskin tale types can illustrate how being abused can bring about conditions of illness, though we won't go into that in this post.

Tales of transformation, too, can bring a new perspective on living with visible diseases. From The Frog King, to Hans My Hedgehog to The Wild Swans, it's clear the transformation is not wanted, is painful and considered ugly, and, sadly, often less than human, so that these poor cursed or affected people have to prove themselves worthy or find a way (usually a difficult, extreme and long-term process) to be cured.
More recently, possibly due to technology such as digital animation and art, it's becoming more common to see fairy tale-type illustrations in which patterns, flowers, plants, frost and other beautiful natural manifestations sprout - literally - from the skin. There's no doubt these images call to mind fairy tales, even if they're not specific and familiar ones we've heard, and whether or not it's intentional, it seems instinctive to parallel the tragic beauty of a natural - yet unusual - physical manifestation of a condition with the (usually) melancholic hero or heroine it's happening too, such as could be described in these images in this post.

When we do not "feel good in our own skin" we cannot help but try to do something about it. Some try to deal with it by using salves, medicines, trying to find a cure. Others try to escape it all together and find ways to cover themselves; we put on costumes, (either by dressing differently than we otherwise would, or literally creating a costume which incorporates - or hides - the condition) or, essentially, a different skin. 

In fairy tales this can happen literally. There is an interesting looking book titled: Fairy Tales and the Social Unconscious: The Hidden Language written by Ravit Raufman, that discusses the idea of how we identify with our skin - and how we look. We have only skimmed it, so cannot speak to the whole work but it has very interesting things to say about the physical manifestations in fairy tales such as Donkeyskin indicating an unhealthy state - whether that's psychologically or (sometimes and) physically.

What we have to wonder is, if we could see some of these diseases as not needing to be 'cured' but more of an unusual condition that manifests under certain circumstances (like stress - which is a trigger for almost everything), would we be more understanding and accepting of people's conditions than we, as society, currently are right now?
Here's an illustration by a different artist, Lynore Avery, showing the youngest brother in The Wild Swans tale-types, having to live with his only partially 'healed' condition. Illustrated like this, with feathers overlapping like scales or unusual skin cells, it seems to underscore the physical issues of the problem and shows the remnants of the 'hidden' curse, but it also hints at a Magic, and, possibly, a potential we haven't yet considered. 

Accepting this about oneself if always easier when others close to you do, and this is where sensitive stories like these could be helpful. While using fairy tales to explore these ideas could be condemned as romanticizing a very real condition, we think it might also bring healing and new understanding, especially for those of us who live with and love their swan princes, just the way they are. Then we might be able to finally accept our own skin and live out our story, happy ending-possibilities and all.

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