The enduring power of fairytales is not due to their surface escapism, but to their deeper exploration of our very real experience of life.
The story of Shrek and Fiona (now spanning four full-length films, and a made-for-TV special set between the third and fourth movie) is a modern-day fairytale. Both Fiona and Shrek have a destiny to fulfil; neither one can do so without the other. Fiona needs Shrek to unlock her inner beauty (as opposed to the commoditised beauty of society expectations); and Shrek needs Fiona to give purpose to his strength.
John and Stasi Eldredge would identify this as the age-old heart of the male and female condition since our first parents were expelled from Eden: the question of Adam’s heart being, “Will I be found strong enough to provide for Eve in a hostile world?” and the question of Eve’s heart being, “Will I be found desired by Adam, whom I desire and desire to be desired by; who desired me once?”
As a piece of storytelling, the latest instalment does not come close to the wonderful Shrek 2. But it continues the work of the fairytale to speak to us about our everyday experience of life.
Life has come between our couple. They find themselves stuck in a moment: in which neither partner is present for the other: in which Fiona is no longer giving her beauty to empower Shrek’s strength, and Shrek is no longer giving his strength to cherish Fiona’s beauty. And as a result, the moment they are stuck in is one in which Shrek’s strength is never enough, never takes mastery of the situation; in which Fiona’s beauty is never enough, never transcends the situation.
The story that unfolds is a story of giving away what you have too lightly;
of not realising what you have until it is gone;
of two who were one now attempting to pursue and fulfil their destiny alone, discovering that the attempt is only possible by hardening their hearts, a hardening that in fact makes the longed-for fulfilment beyond reach...
and a rediscovering of each other;
indeed, a deeper discovering than the discovery that had been lost – that Shrek needs Fiona as much as Fiona needs Shrek;
an engaging together again with the battle between two kingdoms that is continuously being fought out, between fear and love, desolation and companionship, scorched earth and fertile lands, captivity and freedom;
a redemption story.
And, as every fairytale tells us, true love always overcomes. This is true. Fairytales are the truest of all stories. That is why they have enduring appeal: our need for truth-stories is so great that, even if we do not recognise that they are truth-stories, we have an inbuilt need to tell them. True love always overcomes. Our folly is to believe that this is only true in fairytales. Or rather, to believe that we do not live in a fairytale, and so it is not true for us...