Publisher’s View: Fairytales

in by

Numerous tales told over many centuries tell of enchanting creatures that used to roam the earth.  Ogres, faeries, and dwarfs continue to animate modern-day narratives, in such books and films as Shrek and Lord of the Rings.  These fairytales are considered children’s stories, featuring magical and imaginary beings and lands.  But mounting scientific evidence suggests that Earth used to be home to multiple human-like species.  They, and the lands they inhabited, existed.  They’re gone now because we killed them off, and destroyed their habitats.

A very real type of ogre was almost certainly embodied in Neanderthals.  Larger than the Homo sapiens of the time, with bigger brains, Neanderthals fought, and sometimes bred – perhaps as spoils of war – with what became modern day humans some 50,000 years ago.  Although no one knows why they disappeared, it seems likely that our descendants invaded their homelands, resulting in violent conflict, displacement, and, ultimately, a winner-take-all extinction.

Evidence that hobbits, dwarfs, and perhaps even faeries once populated the planet is regularly uncovered.  More than a decade ago a six inch skeleton that looks human, but with ten ribs instead of our dozen, a squished head, and pointed skull was found in Chile’s Atacama Desert.  The bones of Homo floresiensis – nicknamed “the hobbit” for its small brain and tiny teeth – were previously discovered in Indonesia.  Remains of three feet tall humanoids have been uncovered on the Island of Palau, with scientists attributing their small stature to “insular dwarfism.”

All of these creatures lived more or less contemporaneously, possessing different skills and rituals honed through their relationship with nature and one another.  For whatever reason, Homo sapiens ultimately won the genetics war, through overt conquest, spread of disease, or the destruction of forests and other eco-systems upon which the “less than humans” depended. 

The annihilation continues to this day, with the dominant Homo technologia relentlessly displacing what we consider to be more “primitive” cultures, such as Pygmies, Native Americans and, arguably, working class Americans.  The disappearance of animal and plant species appears to be accelerating, including the recent extinction of the Baiji River Dolphin, Tecopa Pupfish, and Javan Tiger.  Even the Artic is melting, as if the Earth itself is weeping for its losses.

After our fellow species are gone we miss them.  Our yearning for a different time prompts us to tell stories about who they were.  We’re lonely without them, and share a collective sense of guilt that we caused their demise.   As the living memory of their characteristics dies out, ensuing generations embellish what may have been special abilities into magical powers. 

Even as we wallow in epoch-spanning nostalgia, western civilization, as embodied in a kind of mercantile colonialism, continues unabated.  We give lip service to diversity while maintaining a mechanized, institutionalized, momentum to extinguish it.  Almost everything celebrated as progress – industrialization, monoculture agriculture, public education, technology-driven health care, the iPhone – depends on the dominance of uniformity, assimilation, and submission to sameness.

Periodically, a David stands up to the conformity Goliath.  Rachel Carson, warning in Silent Spring that birds were disappearing, stopped the sale of poisonous DDT in the United State, though its application continued elsewhere, and overall pesticide use for just 21 crops grown in the U.S. jumped from 196 million pounds in 1960 to more than twice that much today.  Driven to “reservations” located in the least desirable parts of their homelands, or outside them entirely, Native Americans fight to save their dying cultures and languages.  African-Americans struggle to find a footing after soul-rendering slave displacement and ongoing racism.  Those with autism try to tell the rest of us that they experience the world in another way, in such books as Being Human. Even Apple’s Macintosh computer mythically emerged as a way to fight the IBM machine, yet in the end it wasn’t all that different. 

Champions of our preferred kind of progress cite evolution, survival of the fitness, the better defeating the weaker, to support the notion that the vanquishing of others is right and good.  This line of thinking defines us as animals, incapable of enlightened thought or action.  But we’re not beasts, as exhibited by our efforts to erect the rule of law over ruler’s law, and our constant, if imperfect, striving to protect the weak and the disadvantaged.

Once upon a time the world was populated by varied communities of plants, animals, and humanoids, who worshipped multiple deities that matched their surrounding diversity, practiced spiritual rites that seemed magical, in intimate relationship with their eco-systems, and nurtured a wisdom that has since been lost.  Most of these communities faced short life spans, periodic famines, far worse inequality than our own present income disparities, and an extreme lack of physical comforts.  They lived in an environment that was untamed, wild, and fierce.  Their activities did not influence the global weather.

Eventually, a new kind of civilization emerged, one that created fantastic material wealth, and largely replaced the power of the fist with a form of equal justice under the law and participatory democracy.  This new monetary monotheism did not envy the poverty that it vanquished.  But deep in its heart it was sad, an unhappiness that it tried to muffle by circling around the glow of screens in homes and theaters, watching images of actors dressed as wizards and hobbits cavorting though verdant lands of enchanted forests.  Meanwhile, outside, more was being lost. 

It is within our power to be thoughtful, to protect the different without succumbing to the destructive.  We can afford to be merciful.