Recently I packed up and sold the house where I'd lived for many years: a 16th century, thatch–roof cottage in a small English village on Dartmoor. The cottage was hugely significant to me, for I'd lived there much of my adult life, but in the house's own story, spanning four centuries, my two decades were a drop in the bucket. The cottage felt strange on my last evening there, emptied of furniture and books; only the goblin murals on the kitchen walls remained of the life I'd known there. I lit a last fire in the ancient stone hearth…and when the flames had burned down low, I put hot coals into an old tin can, following a Dartmoor folk custom. The coals would be used to light a fire at my new abode, just down the street — which would bring me luck, according to some legends, and allow any fairies that lived in the hearth to move along with me, according to others. I left the cottage, locked the door, and pushed the house keys through the door's mail slot. They hit the floor, and with that sound, a large part of my life was now over.
I'd been anticipating this move for over a year, and was making the change for positive reasons, so the depth of the loss I felt in that moment was entirely unexpected. It wasn't just the cottage I was leaving behind, but the person I'd been there for so many years. . .and the future I'd always imagined I'd have growing old under its roof. Living in a magical, ancient house had become part of my self–identity. Who was I now, without that familiar backdrop of grinning goblins and old oak beams, of Morris fabrics and medieval tapestries? What remained of me, with the world that I'd woven around me stripped away? For the better part of two decades, my concept of "home" had been solid, unchangeable, built literally of granite. Now life had taken an unexpected turn and I was moving to temporary digs, my belongings packed up in storage, my work/living needs pared down to essentials. Without the weight of that old stone house, my life felt curiously unmoored. . .but also full of narrative possibility as I waited for its next chapter to begin.
In this time of upheaval, I began to think about the hold that our homes can have on us, even in a transient culture where multiple moves are not unusual. The places we live and the places we grew up in have an impact, whether acknowledged or not, on our lives, our relationships, our dreams; and the houses we yearn for, whether real or imagined, reveal much about our inner nature. As a folklorist, I'm interested in how the idea of home is expressed in traditional stories; and as a fantasist, in how this translates into modern magical fiction.
Fairy tales, for example often begin with a hero propelled from his or her home by poverty or calamity; and the search for the safe haven of a new home, or the task of restoring prosperity to an old one, is central to such stories. Fairy tales tend to be rites–of–passage narratives, chronicling a transformational journey from one archetypal life stage to another. Most often, such tales follow a young hero's transition from childhood to adulthood, the completion of the journey symbolized by a wedding at the story's end. In the modern, simplified versions of the tales popularized by Disney films and children's books, the emphasis is so often placed on the romantic (and wealth accumulating) aspects of the stories that finding "true love" (with a well heeled spouse) can seem to be what fairy tales are all about. Older, adult versions of the tales, by contrast, are focused on the steps of the hero's passage through a period of upheaval and peril — a period required to test the hero's mettle and provoke growth and self–transformation. Such tales speak to the challenges we face at any time in life (not just in our youth) when circumstances force us to leave home, either literally or metaphorically, setting us on the road to an unknown future and a new identity. Snow White, Donkeyskin, The Girl With No Hands, Hans My Hedgehog: these are all rites–of–passage narratives. Each tale begins in a childhood home that has become constricting, even dangerous, and each hero must leave this home behind in order to forge a new life in the adult world. The completion of the hero's task is marked by the traditional rewards of the fairy tale genre: a marriage, a crown, a storehold full of treasure; but the true reward at journey's end is a new–found ability to survive life's trials, transcend its terrors, and determine one's own fate.
The heroes begin in one home and end in another (or else in the old home restored and renewed), but in between these two poles is a crucial period of homelessness. Homelessness is a liminal state rich in opportunities for character change and growth, which has made it a popular plot device among storytellers both old and new. Homelessness detaches the hero from the role he or she has played in the past, strips them of identity, blurs the markers of class or rank, removes usual sources of aid and comfort, and throws them on their own resources. . .a perfect recipe for suspense, adventure, and heroic metamorphosis.
The archetypal Hero's Journey is often a different one for the young men and women in traditional stories, as Midori Snyder discussed in her article on the Armless Maiden folk tale: "In hero narratives," she wrote, "a young man leaves the familiar home of his birth and ventures into the unknown world where the fantastic waits to challenge him. Along the journey, his worth as a man and as a hero is tested. But when the trials are done, he returns home again in triumph, bringing to his society new–found knowledge, maturity and often a magical bride." A young woman, by contrast, ventures out or is propelled into the world "knowing that she will never return home. Instead, at the end of a perilous and solitary journey, she arrives at a new village or kingdom. There, disguised as a dirty–faced servant, a scullery maid, or a goose girl, she completes her initiation into adulthood and brings the gifts of knowledge, maturity, and fertility to a new home and community."
Such stories rose from societies in which this gender difference was a fact of life; where girls were expected to leave home upon marriage and join the household, village, or tribe of their new husband's family. (We see the echo of this tradition today when women give up their own names upon marriage.) The anxiety felt by women in such cultures, particularly in places where they were allowed no say in the choice of husband, was expressed by tales such as Bluebeard / Fitcher's Bird, or Beauty and the Beast, in which a young woman finds herself far from home, co–habiting with a monster.
Another staple of folk and fairy tales is the mysterious house that appears to offer shelter but is actually a source of danger or enchantment. The gingerbread house in Hansel and Gretel is a welcome sight to the two hungry children made homeless by their feckless parents, but it's really just a trap designed to lure boys and girls into a cooking pot. There are numerous tales in which weary travelers stumble upon a house in the woods with its front door standing invitingly open, a fire lit, a hot meal spread temptingly on the table, and the owner of the house nowhere in sight. Lisel Mueller wrote about just such a house in her magical poem "Voices from the Forest." No matter how exhausted you are, Mueller says, do not enter the house in the forest:
It is only when you finish eating
and, drowsy and grateful, pull off your shoes,
that the ax falls or the giant returns
or the monster springs or the witch
locks the door from the outside and throws away the key.
But if you must enter, Neil Gaiman has advice in his charming poem "Instructions":
A red metal imp hangs from the green–painted front door,
as a knocker,
do not touch it; it will bite your fingers.
Walk through the house. Take nothing. Eat nothing.
Those last words are important. Folk tales from all over the world warn that eating the food of a witch, a demon, a djinn, a troll, an ogre, or the fairies can be a dangerous proposition. You might owe your youngest child in return, or be bound to your host for the rest of your life. Likewise, don't kiss the beautiful woman who offers you a meal and a bed in her sumptuous chateau hidden deep in the woods. By morning light she'll be a monster, and her house but a pile of rocks and bones. Some enchanted houses appear for a single night each year and then vanish again. Be sure to be out by dawn or you too will disappear along with it. And sometimes the houses themselves are monstrous, such as the famous hut of the witch Baba Yaga in Russian fairy tales, which balances on chicken legs and can spin and move from place to place.
There are also houses in the woods, however, where the safe haven offered is not mere illusion, often put on the hero's path by a kindly fairy or a guardian angel. The hero of The Girl With No Hands finds just such a sanctuary deep in the forest, and the princess in The White Deer lives in one at night, when she's in human form. Jungian psychologist Marie–Louise von Franz considered these woodland dwellings to represent the place deep within ourselves where we retreat, in solitude, to ponder life's deeper meanings, heal our wounds, and renew our spirits. In tales like The Girl With No Hands, she said, the hero enters the woods (the psyche) in a maimed or enchanted state, and does not leave again until she is healed, whole, transformed.