STARDUST: Putting The Fairy Back In Fairytale

Michelle Pfeiffer
Originally uploaded by aeu1961

So after the third person asked me why I was so wound up last week about Stardust, I decided I would explain it. Spoilers, of course, follow.

1: Your Gender Workbook

Fairytales, like all myth, are deceptively simple. Any story that means anything can be resolved down to a simple question: How on earth do I become human?

Fairytales takes it one step further: How do I become a woman? How do I become a man? How do I stay strong, and keep growing? It’s why we tell them to children, but only love them as adults.

Stardust, like any good modern or urban fantasy, takes it that extra step: How do I become human, a man, a woman, strong, right this second? How is any of that fairytale shit relevant?

It also, like any good piece of modern fiction, asks you to answer these questions for yourself.

2: Where The Action Happens

Fairytales take place in the realm of the Moon: Faerie, the unconscious, the mythic. Things happen in them that don’t happen in real life, if you define real life by the weird shit outside your head. Fairytales are about the weird shit that happens inside your head; what makes fairytales — or any story worth telling, or any conversation or therapy that means anything — awesome is that the exact same weird shit happens in everybody else’s head too.

Realizing that makes you a storyteller; not realizing that makes you an asshole; not realizing the difference makes you a schizophrenic. The stories don’t really care which route you take.

In the story, there’s a wall — analogous to Huxley’s “reducing valve” — that defines the limits of the conscious and unconscious mind, or the real world and the imaginary one, or the unexamined and the examined life. I’ve said before, and I believe strongly, that the Quest isn’t a metaphor for therapy, that therapy is the metaphor for the Quest. I’ll keep saying it.

You cross the wall and you’re presented with things: Gods and wizards and imaginary wonders and impossibilities. Those things tell you who you are, what you’re hiding, what you still have to learn. All the things we love about the people and things that we love are located on the far side of the wall: if you’re a man, when you fall in love with a woman, it’s not the simple fact of her, but everything she means on the other side of the wall.

But even if you’re a man, you come from the other side of the wall too — we all do. Nobody but Athena was ever born of man, and she stayed a virgin for a reason. This is the reason that Tristan is born on the other side of the wall and must find his way back in: because it’s his story. Your story: Getting back to the garden, becoming golden.

3: The Powers At Play

In Stormhold there are two powers with which we are concerned: the kings of Stormhold, and the queens of the witches. In Stormhold, though, there are two kinds of gender: the gender we perform, and the gender with which we’re seeking to connect. “How do I become a man?” is a two-step process, internal and external. The heroes of the story must learn to do both: to become Man and Woman, and to perform these roles for their audience, which is everybody else. In this manner, each gender has a good side and a bad side. Or, to say it less imprecisely: the side you’re pushing against, that traps you, and the side you’re reaching for, that causes you to stretch. They’re both necessary, so bad/good is not smart to say, but one of them feels like shit and the other one doesn’t.

The Kings of Stormhold perform the worst kind of masculinity: violent, hateful, destructively ambitious, selfish and greedy. They seek power, not stewardship. But the key is in recognizing that Stardust isn’t just a Quest: it’s a rescue mission. The lineage itself, passed down through a single princess, is preserved in Tristan, and through his growth and change is redeemed.

The Queens, in their guise as the Three Witches, are the worst femininity has to offer: devouring, superficial, deceptive; spell-casters who hide the truth of things; worthless when their beauty fades. Through Yvaine’s fall to earth and her training, she redeems the queens, reunites them with their brothers, and leads Stormhold with a strong femininity.

Is she endangered? Yes — anybody in a world so out of balance is endangered. Does she need rescuing? Yes — we all need that sometimes. But she is a Goddess, shining with the blinding light of a sun. She’s not weak and she’s not a victim. Girls don’t have to pick up a sword to become women; even in the ’70s they knew that just made them men with breasts. It’s not a deus ex machina surprise when Yvaine’s love wins the last battle: it’s a foregone conclusion.

(And boys don’t have to pick up swords to become men, either: of the three master swordsmen in the story, one is Tristan and the other two are gay. Tristan’s sword, in the final battle, is not an offensive weapon; he never even fights the King’s lineage. Battle isn’t the only way we become men.)

But these powers are holy too: they bring the stars down from heaven, they move things along. If it weren’t for the pushing and competition of the Kings, if it weren’t for the Fates weaving Tristan and Yvaine into Shakespeare’s path, we wouldn’t have a story at all. She’s stay a lump of coal, and he’d be a boy who stayed a shop boy, never reaching higher.

So in the car chase that most of the movie contains, you’ve got two worlds: the world of men, in which people are constantly being murdered, tricked, kidnapped, raped and otherwise interrogated; and you’ve got the world of women, in which people are constantly being deluded, devoured, enchanted, or otherwise enveloped, in water and green fire and animal forms. And then in the middle of all this — or rather, at the apex of a triangle with them — you’ve got the third world. That’s the world we’re looking for: the Platonic Garden in which all things, through changing form, realize their natures.

4: The Sacred Hairdresser

There’s a whole interesting mythical tradition that we don’t hear much about: the Fairy Godfather. Any story about pageantry — from the works of Fannie Flagg, to Miss Congeniality, Little Miss Sunshine and Batman Begins, even unto Sex & The City and Project Runway — gives him his due. Any time your friends wax ecstatic about their hilarious gay hairdresser, any time the Queers come Eyeing, any time you ask me which shoes look better with your outfit, you’re seeing an honest-to-God archetype raise its head.

And, yes, a stereotype. But to back away from Stardust a little bit: who on earth can tell you what’s in the gender box better than somebody who’s been placed outside it? To be gay, transsexual, intersexed, is to know — and sure, this might be the only thing those groups necessarily share — what it is to be placed outside the game of gender; to watch from the sidelines.

Shakespeare is a master of the physical change: not seeming, but being. Not performing, but becoming. He doesn’t cast a spell to change your shape — he puts you in context, and you become more. Where the Queen of Witches can make a goat into a man-shaped goat, or a man into a woman-shaped man, Shakespeare can burn away your fear with his love and compassion, and make you into what you were all along.

So we have our Fairy Godfather, De Niro’s Shakespeare. He lives in the sky and he harnesses lightning: every bit as magically and symbolically powerful as the Kings and Queens of this world, down on which he looks, with a birthmark like a heart, drawn on in pencil.

To prove his power further: In the singular instance of someone raising a hand to him, Septimus — who previously has stabbed an oracle to assume his power — escapes Shakespeare’s protectors by diving into the water. This scene is eerily repeated in his death scene, in which he drowns on dry land, his face lit with reflections. This is what the Fates reserve for those who raise their hand to the holy hermaphrodite.

Shakespeare (who comments on the duplications and gender reflections of his own name) teaches Tristan and Yvaine both kinds of gender. He teaches Yvaine the courtly arts and to appear feminine, to keep her sharp Goddess’s tongue, and divine nature, secret; he teaches Tristan to pretend boldness, sexual voracity, machismo and violence. He knows these are necessary evils, that the performance of gender in the real world is what keeps you from getting kicked to death, if you don’t have some lightning handy.

But he also teaches them their true selves, whispering to them of their love for one another, which is the way their gender will be defined in the Quest. He teaches them to honor their secret sacredness, and holds court to their alchemical marriage, their heiros gamos. Both genders and none, he’s a Teiresias figure that commands both, creating illusion and stripping it away again.

5: Romeo + Juliet & Tristan + Ysolde

The sexual maturation of Romeo Montague follows a three-step path: first the false love Rosalind, for whom he makes it as far as the Capulet gate. Then Mercutio, his fairy godfather, who ushers him in. And finally his true love, Juliet, whose attraction proves the real (non-performed) existence of true love. Played by Claire Danes sometimes.

The sexual maturation of Juliet Capulet comes in the moment of her horror — wearing her black and blue velvet with Father Laurence, just as Yvaine does at the wall — she believes her love has been taken from her forever, and becomes human in that moment. The horror of love removed is what teaches us our capacity for love, but also our capacity for independence: think of an infant screaming in its crib the first time her mother doesn’t immediately come running. That’s the Fall from Eden, the original pain. But it’s a necessary deception, in order for her to define herself as anything but the princess of the story, and it can end badly. Here it doesn’t, thanks to providence, the Three Witches as Fates, and the gifts of Captain Shakespeare.

It occurs to me that, had Septimus succeeded in murdering Shakespeare for improperly performing his gender — as Tybalt did Mercutio — we wouldn’t have a story: Stardust is, mythically speaking, Romeo & Juliet with a happy ending, and that only comes about when Shakespeare’s crew admits their knowing complicity in the ongoing economy of gender performance, and saves him, assuring him that they still love him as their captain. This act of grace and compassion — from a group of sky pirates! — sets the whole world straight, and sets the stage for Romeo/Tristan and Juliet/Yvaine’s healthy maturity and eventual bodily ascension into heaven.

6: The Trials of Tristan

But just as Yvaine must learn to be human — to give something up, like Arwen with that hideous necklace — so too must Tristan learn to shed the Real World Out There bias, must come to live in Stormhold, his true legacy and the land of his birth. And in both cases, of course, they’re not really giving up anything at all: it’s only a myth, that England is any more real than Stormhold. That therapy is a replacement for the Quest.

So you have a boy, learning to become a man, and more importantly learning to control his male image: to perform masculinity when required without being fooled by his own tricks. And you have a girl, learning to disengage from the inner life of heavenly introspection, from the music of the spheres, in order to experience love and physical commitment in (and more importantly to) the real world. Both of them strong and independent; both of them able to love. I don’t know if that’s a necessary part of defining gender, but it’s a damn good definition for adulthood.

In the real world, of course, we have to negotiate them both, the realms of the sun and the moon, the inner and the outer: it’s the work we have to do, in order to become human, in order to become men and women — and women, and men. All maturity comes down to the ability to do both, to live in and honor both places as best we can. But as our emissary, our only human character, it’s just as important in the story that Tristan accept the reality of Stormhold for good. It’s a story about what happens in his heart, under the Moon: what we know, as adults who love fairytales, is that he never left the real world. He just made it better, and found his place in it.

7: So Just Go See It

And watch it with your kids, and explain to them that this is the real world: both wonderfully and painfully made, and all theirs for the taking. And remember it for yourself, too.


6 thoughts on “STARDUST: Putting The Fairy Back In Fairytale

  1. This was a wonderful analysis of the movie. I hadn’t really drawn the connection between the function of Captain Shakespeare and the function of Mercutio. In fact, I didn’t even consider Yvaine in that kind of archetypal role. This is the best blog entry I’ve read in a long time.


  2. Wow – thank you so much for posting this! I started watching Dr. Who just to read your recaps (and now am addicted, thanks?) and now I get the best of both worlds, your recaps and Gaiman……Thank you!


  3. A very keen analysis. Have you read Gaiman’s book as well? I like both versions, although the ache at the end of his novel seems more in keeping with the Tolkien-version of the fairy tale which says that the hero dies a little to him/herself when the quest wraps.


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