Tuesday, January 27, 2009

A Fairy Tale for Adults

Shoeless Joe Jackson and Ray Kinsella in the film Field of Dreams helped me realize that for many, stepping onto a ball diamond or walking through a stadium turnstile is like entering (escaping into) another world. That was certainly true for Shoeless Joe the night he stepped onto the ball field Ray Kinsella carved out of his cornfield.

What is there about a baseball field that would prompt Shoeless Joe to ask, “Is this heaven?” And why would American viewers respond so profoundly to that question?

There are several plausible answers. First, the field is beautiful. Heaven is purported to be a beautiful place, so might this beautifully sculpted park be heaven? Also, perhaps Joe feels that his misdeeds have been wiped clean, that his sins have been forgiven. He can again play baseball without charges of wrongdoing weighing heavily upon him.

But I think the best explanation for Joe’s query is that the question makes sense in the story, for Field of Dreams is a fairy tale, and fairy tales offer glimpses of heaven.

Ray Kinsella and other characters find themselves in the Perilous Realm of Faƫrie at various times throughout the story. They feel the air that blows from that country.

Ray feels breezes from that other place when a voice whispers, “If you build it, he will come.” Ray and his wife, Annie, experience the Perilous Realm when they dream that Ray and Terrance Mann, a reclusive Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the 1960s, are together at Fenway Park. Fairyland hovers over Kinsella and Mann in Fenway Park as they hear the words “Go the Distance” and read a message on the Red Sox scoreboard prompting them to drive to Chisholm, Minnesota. There they hope to find an obscure ballplayer, by the name of Archibald “Moonlight” Graham, who never got the chance to bat in the major leagues.

The Realm is evident when Ray goes for a walk in the northern Minnesota town and finds himself in 1972 seeking to persuade the now retired Doc Graham to go with him to a place where dreams come true. Ray and Terrance are still in the Realm the next day when they pick up a hitchhiker and discover that they have extended hospitality to the young would-be ballplayer, Archie Graham.

But what glimpses of heaven does this fairy tale give us? J. R. R. Tolkien tells us that fairy tales work on us in at least four ways. They provide enchantment, recovery, escape, and consolation.

Enchantment in fairy stories is the wonder of another world coming into our experience. As Ray yields to the enchantment of the voice—as he believes and builds the field—he sees a new Realm come to life that Shoeless Joe enters to experience redemption. Along with the characters in the story, we are enchanted.

Recovery helps us see things as we were meant to see them. We are healed of the wounds of this world as we abide in the wonder of the Perilous Realm. So Ray and Annie acquire a measure of wholeness. They are able to interact with Shoeless Joe and the other ballplayers. We also feel a sense of recovery as we engage in the story. We live in hopeful expectation, willing the characters to see that real world. Ray and Annie’s daughter, Karin, probably never lost her ability to believe in and function as part of that world. In contrast, Annie’s brother Mark (the antagonist in the story) lives in the “unless I see, I won’t believe” realm of empirical evidence through most of the story.

To escape is to acknowledge that our present world is not our true home. There is a world that is far more real and that naturally feels like home. So, late in the story, Ray’s young daughter, Karin, and author Terrance Mann invite Ray to escape and give way to the power of the Perilous Realm. Like biblical prophets, both give inspired predictions to assure Ray that he need not sell his farm, for “people will come.”

Consolation is the joy of the happy ending. Happy endings are essential to fairy tales, and a happy ending usually occurs because of a surprising, even seemingly tragic, turn of events. Karin’s fall from the bleachers supplies that turn of events. As Karin’s mother instinctively runs toward the house to call for help, Ray turns toward young Archie Graham, believing he can save Karin’s life. At that moment, ballplayer and future physician Archie Graham has to decide whether to cross the line that separates the two worlds and give up all hope of playing major league baseball or to selfishly hold on to his own dream for the future. He quickly decides to do what he can and runs toward the crushed stone. He stops short, drops his ball glove, crosses the line from one world to another, and “morphs” into old Doc Graham. That sacrifice not only saves Karin’s life; it opens Mark’s eyes to see the magic of the field. Dazed by what has just taken place, Mark asks, “When did these ballplayers get here?” He becomes a believer in the magical quality of the field, turning 180 degrees from skepticism to certainty. He emphatically enjoins, “Do not sell this land, Ray. You got to keep this farm.”

This discussion of fairy tales helps us see poignant longing in this story. Prior to Karin’s fall, Mark, like a demon perched on Ray’s shoulder, pressures him to sign papers that signal surrender of the farmland. Mark wants Ray to give up ownership of the farm and abandon this magical field. Karin, like an angel whispering in her father’s ear, tells him that he doesn’t need to sell the farm. “People will come,” she prophesies in an extended litany.

Then Terrance Mann utters his own prediction. “People will come, Ray…. They’ll turn up your driveway not knowing for sure why they’re doing it. They’ll arrive at your door, as innocent as children, longing for the past. ‘Of course, we won’t mind if you look around,’ you’ll say. ‘It’s only $20 per person.’ They’ll pass over the money without even thinking about it. For it is money they have and peace they like.... And they’ll watch the game, and it’ll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters. Their memories will be so thick they’ll have to brush them away from their faces. People will come, Ray…. People will most definitely come.”

Terrance Mann agrees with Shoeless Joe: this field provides a glimpse of heaven.

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