The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (Doubleday, 2011) has earned my highest praise for a work of fiction, with the label of “adult fairy tale.” I’m not sure how to define the phrase other than to say I believe it is what Gregory Maguire accomplishes with his re-imaginings of children’s literature such as, The Wizard of Oz, Cinderella and Snow White. Rather than the simplistic bedtime stories we heard as children, Maguire imbibes these cherished tales with the nuances of which we could only imagine or for which we hoped when we examined these books of our childhood once we were adults.
The Night Circus does not re-tell a well-known tale, but rather creates one on its own. It resembles a story like that told in the Tim Burton film, Big Fish, or the book I mentioned in my January 5, 2012 booklist, Keith Donohue’s The Stolen Child (Anchor, 2007). These adult fairy tales, as I call them, are one of my favorite genres of fiction.
By the title alone, we determine The Night Circus is set mainly in a circus that is open for visitors only after the setting of the sun. This already sets the tone that we’re amongst the things of which dreams are made. We quickly learn that the circus is a venue, a stage or more of a court upon which a game is played wherein competing views of the miraculous and unexplainable aspects of the world attempt to prove their validity or possibly the superiority of one view over another. In the game, each competitor is allowed to influence a single player, and yet rather than being a solo sport, the circus as the field of competition inevitably includes others as pawns.
The short chapters are teasers that lead us through time, and yet ground the story through tangents and flashbacks. Ultimately, the story seems to be about the power of love—in all its forms, not just romantic love—and its ability to fill the gaps in our world so that it is whole as we live our lives. It is a story about story itself. We see a character, who fooled herself with stories, let go of the falsehood even as she knows it will bring less than positive results for the larger group. Then, it seems as if the story will take a tragic end reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet. However, rather than mere self-sacrifice, or selfish sacrifice as it might be seen, we see two characters come together to be sure that it all endures not for their own benefit, but rather for the good of all. We see that it is not just their love, but also the love of others that is required to repair the damage the game could cause in the lives of everyone the circus has touched.
I believe we are who we are by the stories we’re told, the stories we believe and those we tell about others and especially ourselves. At the end of the book, one of the characters tells another, “you may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone’s soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose. That tale will move them and drive them and who knows what they might do because of it…” Thus, as we go about our days, hearing and telling tales about ourselves as women, we can take the author’s other words to heart: “stories have changed…there are no more battles between good and evil, no monsters to slay, no maidens in need of rescue. Most maidens are perfectly capable of rescuing themselves in my experience, at least the ones worth something, in any case.” The work here at Her Circle and inContext helps us see how we have an influence in our own lives and those of others. We tell stories, describe stories and analyze them to make sense of them for ourselves, collectively. The character in the story is right; we are not only capable of rescuing ourselves, but must also realize that we are responsible for this self-rescue. This is how we change ourselves as a way of manifesting change in the greater world, as Gandhi is known for saying.
If you enjoy fairy tales, especially ones that have grown up, ones worthy of adult women and men, you will enjoy The Night Circus. There are plenty of strong female characters and men worthy of them. We’re also surprised more than once to learn that even those who at first appear timid or weak, harbor their own kind of strength. While the game itself begins as a competition between two men, it is women and men, who, by working together, save the magic for all. As we live our lives, we need to be acutely aware of the stories we allow to become a part of ourselves. We need to be cognizant of the stories we put out into the world, and of those we tell about ourselves. We can see to it that the author’s words continue to manifest so that stories are changed. We must develop a meta-cognitive awareness that makes us responsible for the tales we use to motivate and influence our lives, those of our friends, families, children, community and society.
Kate Robinson, M.A. adult learning and development, is a Master’s in Social Work candidate at Bridgewater State University. She lives south of Boston with her family.
Kate enjoys writing, reading, collage and felting. She also works in medical education and as a counselor at a women’s health clinic.