Dreams of Christmas Cheer: The Nutcracker as Fairy Drama

It’s Christmas Eve, and my sisters are in bed, trying to fall asleep so that Santa will come sooner and they can open their presents while my mom, stepdad, and myself are too tired to remember what it was like to wake up Christmas morning at 9 and 12.

Both of my little sisters were in the Nutcracker this year. One of them was Clara, the leading role, and she is a truly incredible dancer. When your little sister is Clara, you show up for the Nutcracker, regardless of your feelings about ballet in general or this one in specific. With the prospect of watching the show four times in one weekend, I resolved to enjoy it. I had seen it twice the year before, and had already developed appreciation for the athleticism that goes into the routines. But to get into the spirit of the ballet itself, I even did a little research on the history of the story.

The original novel, The Nutcracker and the Mouse King by ETA Hoffman, was published in 1816. I excitedly told my sisters that they would get to participate in a performance of a story that was two centuries year old. “Clara” admitted that was “cool,” if only to appease me. But having freshly taught Tolkien’s “On Fairy Stories,” I began to develop a deeper appreciation for what Tchaikovsky’s stage adaptation of the novel meant over each subsequent viewing of the staple of Christmas season entertainment.

The story, as presented in the ballet, is simpler than ETA Hoffman’s and Alexander Dumas’s (though there are still too many details to discuss in this blog post). After a Christmas party, Clara, the young lady of the house, sneaks downstairs to appreciate the Nutcracker she had been given by the mysterious guest Drosselmeyer, a one-eyed man who brought gifts such as dancing dolls and soldiers. As she gratefully snuggles on the couch with the Nutcracker, Drosselmeyer seems to stand over the grandfather clock, and as its bell tolls, Clara finds herself transported into an unfamiliar version of her world – the Christmas tree, the clock, and surroundings all seem to grow. She gets caught in the middle of a war between the Mouse King and his mice and the Nutcracker and his soldiers, and in the midst of the fight she hits the Mouse King with her shoe, allowing the Nutcracker to score a fatal blow. As reward, she is sent to the enchanted Land of Sweets, where Clara will meet the Snow King and Queen, the Sugar Plum Fairy, Gumdrop, the Cavalier, and dancers from all over the world. She tours a land of enchantment, and then is returned to her living room, where she is found by a concerned mother, safely napping with the new gift of the Nutcracker cradled in her arms.

Now, from a Tolkienesque perspective, the elements which create a fairy tale are easy enough to identify. First, Tolkien holds that imagination must be used to create fantasy, which requires imagination: “The mental power of image-making is one thing, or aspect; and it should appropriately be called Imagination” (5). Fantasy occurs when such acts of imagination obtain “the inner consistency of reality,” which requires the application of Art (rational principles) to the imagined figure (such as a Mouse King and a Nutcracker brought to life) and sub-creation (making the art appear to exist in a compelling atmosphere – the Land of Sweets). These are the basic elements necessary to create Fantasy, and when they function together to create, for characters and readers alike, the experiences of Recovery, Escape, and Consolation, then we have what Tolkien views to be the Fairy Tale, which—

Oh, I see you have an objection. The Nutcracker as we are discussing it does appear to have a difficulty, if we are to in fact read it as a Fairy Tale. You were objecting with consternation since the beginning of this post, I am sure, “But Tolkien says dreams and drama both exclude the perfect fairy tale experience.” You were going to point out these passages: “They, therefore, stupidly and even maliciously confound Fantasy with Dreaming, in which there is no Art” (6), and even worse of Drama: “But Drama is naturally hostile to Fantasy. Fantasy, even of the simplest kind, hardly ever succeeds in Drama, when that is presented as it should be, visibly and audibly acted” (7). It’s true – and Tolkien has good reason, I think, for these objections. For him, dream weakens the impact of fantasy in a fairy story because it implies that the magic is not real, or necessitates it, and pretending that magic is entirely real is essential to the fairy tale experience. Worse than the dream, which suggests that the magic is not real, with drama any effects of magic we have – in lighting, machinery, and so forth – we know requires mechanisms other than our own imagination to effect. Very recently I saw the Dracula ballet, and when they raised Dracula up on a stake and it looked as if he was really lifted up and impaled, my mother immediately asked, “I wonder how they did that?” A perfectly good question from a mechanical point of view, but exactly the wrong question if we want a purely fairy tale experience. We should never ask “how they did that” of magic, because magic is properly basic to the Fairy Tale. We never ask how the Ring makes Frodo invisible in the novel; we know that the Ring is magical, and that is why. We might ask how the magic itself works, but that is a different question from asking how the illusion was produced so that we can pretend it is magic. Once Frodo is invisible onscreen, we are interested in the trickery that made the magic appear to happen. As good as the movies are, this is a reason why the book can never be replaced.

Well, my mistake. The Nutcracker isn’t a fairy tale. Forget you read any of this.

…. Unless we consider a few things. For one, as far as the dream goes, it isn’t quite clear that Clara only dreams the whole thing – dream is the means by which she has the experience, it seems, but that doesn’t mean the whole thing is merely a dream (from the standpoint of the story). Drosselmeyer does seem to have strange knowledge prior to the dream sequence (with his dancing dolls and toy soldiers), and appears to be casting a spell upon Clara; but Tolkien acknowledges that dreams can be given by fairies, that dreams can have fairy power – in a word, that dreams can produce as well as steal away enchantment. As long as the dream does not, then, dismiss the magic, it can help to create it. And in fact, because The Nutcracker is a ballet, a type of dream, it actually serves, I think, to help produce the story’s fairy tale effect:

“If you are present at a Faërian drama you yourself are, or think that you are, bodily inside its Secondary World. The experience may be very similar to Dreaming and has (it would seem) sometimes (by men) been confounded with it. But in Faërian drama you are in a dream that some other mind is weaving, and the knowledge of that alarming fact may slip from your grasp” (8).

While we watch The Nutcracker, we are taken with Clara inside of her dream, but a dream where the bodies before us are not illusions, but real ballerinas and dancers who have, in their actual presence, become beings whose existence are explained by dream. It is within Clara’s dream, woven as it is by Drosselmeyer, that these beings move, and live, and have their being. The dream mechanism has the reverse effect of the one it might have in a novel: it suggests that the machinery of the ballet (the sled that comes and whisks Clara away, for example) are not quite what they seem. And the mechanisms of drama, of props and dancers, serve to make the dream real, incarnate it, as it were, before our very eyes. And if it is a Faerian drama, then to what end? Tolkien tells us that Fairy Tales satisfy deep human longings for recovery, escape, and consolation. Setting aside the longing for escape some audience members might have (as I did when I first saw the ballet as a young boy with no younger sisters to inspire my sympathy in the performance), as well as consolation (for truly deep grief is not the spirit of the ballet’s concerns, I think), I believe the appropriate focus of the ballet’s power is upon producing recovery.

Naturally, and simply, The Nutcracker recovers the Gift. I remember as a child the worlds I built with the toys I was given, the action figures and the vehicles, and the invitation the planes and signs of craftsmanship I saw on each toy gave me to shape a world for these beings to live in while they became so much more to me than molded plastic and bits of metal. But gifts have become just another mode of acquiring possessions:

“Of all faces those of our familiares are the ones both most difficult to play fantastic tricks with, and most difficult really to see with fresh attention, perceiving their likeness and unlikeness: that they are faces, and yet unique faces. This triteness is really the penalty of “appropriation”: the things that are trite, or (in a bad sense) familiar, are the things that we have appropriated, legally or mentally. We say we know them. They have become like the things which once attracted us by their glitter, or their colour, or their shape, and we laid hands on them, and then locked them in our hoard, acquired them, and acquiring ceased to look at them.” (9-10)

If we can recover our sense of wonder at the gifts that now seem so inconsequential, perhaps we can then clear away enough cynicism to see the value of gifts with far greater import:

“Recovery (which includes return and renewal of health) is a re-gaining—regaining of a clear view. I do not say “seeing things as they are” and involve myself with the philosophers, though I might venture to say “seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them”—as things apart from ourselves. We need, in any case, to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity—from possessiveness.” (10)

I felt, as I saw my sisters participate in this 200 year old story, that a window was open into a world where I could see again that fleeting glimpse of Joy, and in that joy knew I had beheld a vision of Faerian drama, and of divine gifts far older than these.