The Fairy Tale Element of Signed, Sealed, Delivered
― J.R.R. Tolkien, from On Fairy-Stories, a lecture given on March 8, 1939. See the full text here.
When we watch a good series, filled with imagination and encompassing richness of place, time, and character, we sense that the gift is temporary. In that alternate world we “count [ourselves] fortunate to have wandered,” though we know that it is possible “the gates should be shut.” But like all worlds, if the stories are good, the lessons remain.
Sometimes Signed, Sealed, Delivered uses the same language as the fantastical tales—I call this the Fairy-Tale element in SSD. Rather than choosing to write fantastically, perhaps the writers of SSD felt that their message could sometimes best be conveyed through the medium of Fairy Story. Here are a few examples of posts that have already explored this connection:
To Whom It May Concern & The Wizard of Oz--the character of Theresa Capadiamonte & SSD’s connection to Oz
The Tale of Norman Dorman—and Bilbo Baggins—how J.R.R. Tolkien’s story of one hobbit mirrors the adventure of Norman
The Language of Fairy Tales
We often think of the classic Fairy Tale beginning with “Once upon a time,” and ending with “and they lived happily ever after.” In truth, the tales generally end happily, but not always as one might imagine. Sometimes the better ending is the one where the beautiful country girl discovers she would much rather live peacefully and poor among friends, than alone and friendless as queen. Beauty is good but also dangerous—the “ever-present peril,” it is often the means of evil enchantment. A good Fairy Tale is a crafting of wisdom as well as imagination, and by its message reveals its understanding of the heart. Rather than being defined by cue words or phrases, the language of Fairy Tales comes from the messages of situation—the happenings of the story. As we will see, this includes the presence of grace, and the subsequent reflection of glory within the story.
One particular aspect of the Fairy-Tale genre is especially significant when considering the story-world of SSD. It has to do with the concept of “happily-ever-after.” There is a function within a story that makes even a predictable happy ending powerful, and it is powerfully satisfying because the creative function of the story takes its cues from the Creator’s intention for the world. J.R.R. Tolkien calls this story function “eucatastrophe,” the idea that the existence of sorrow and sadness in the world will be revealed as part of a greater purpose by some unveiling of goodness at the end of the story. In other words, though in the moment there is confusion, looking back on our stories we can understand a redemption of the time. In Tolkien’s words, while “Tragedy is the true form of Drama, its highest function…the opposite is true of Fairy-story…I will call it Eucatastrophe…the true form of fairy-tale, and its highest function.” He goes on to say that:
The joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially “escapist,” nor “fugitive.” In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief…It is not an easy thing to do; it depends on the whole story which is the setting of the turn, and yet it reflects a glory backwards. (see On Fairy Stories)
I love especially what Tolkien says about a Fairy Story giving “a sudden and miraculous grace.” Isn’t that what Signed, Sealed, Delivered does so well? And too: “it reflects a glory backwards.” This is that redeeming of the time that we have seen before. Even the Pilot gave us this twofold sense of grace and glory, when Oliver’s gentle words to Shane enabled her to open her card, opening again those memories with her father, to receive a measure of recognition and forgiveness.
Grace and Glory in Signed, Sealed, Delivered
A Moment of Grace for Norman
In Signed, Sealed, Delivered: Truth Be Told, Norman meets Phoebe, a young girl who is bullied by some of the kids at her school. Norman is appropriately incensed by their treatment of her, and we discover that his empathy stems from similar past experiences at school. Norman shares a common story with Phoebe, and speaks in her defense, because he knows the pain and the hurt she must be feeling. The moment of grace comes after this. Phoebe has just learned that it is very probable that her mother is dead, and she is saying goodbye to the POstables. She turns to Norman and says, “Stay cool.” Norman smiles at that, and the story moves forward, momentarily focusing on Phoebe’s sadness. But later we realize how meaningful Phoebe’s words were for Norman, because he noted them enough to speak them back to her. That tells us that those words to Norman were a moment of grace: he realized that the pain he went through allowed him to empathize with Phoebe, and to connect with her on a level that was able to bring her comfort. His past experiences—however hard they were—were not explained away, but rather given meaning. And that was the glory of it.
Another example of the grace of insight comes from Signed, Sealed, Delivered For Christmas, when Oliver discovers the letter he has been tasked with delivering actually belongs to Shane. When he realizes that, and hears the hurt of her heart, he says to her:
"I’m not perfect, but through it all, I have learned how to hold firm in a storm, not by holding on to whatever I can find for as long as I can, but by trusting that the one thing that matters in this world will never let go of me. And, Shane... That's what perfect love is. Perfect love casts out all that pain, all that fear, and replaces it with hope. And hope is what you were asking for in that letter. And every Christmas since, hope is what you have been given. Don't you see it? It's right here for you."
This was a moment of insight for Shane, because she tells Oliver that she does not need to see any response to her letter—Oliver’s words caused her to hear of hope, and that was enough.
You could argue that the presence of Oliver in Shane’s life is the “always grace” picture of what Oliver himself describes: “every Christmas since, hope is what you have been given…It’s right here for you.”
For Signed, Sealed, Delivered, this is why Fairy Tales are part of the story.