A Foot on His Neck

Michael Metzger

Slithering and sinister
The stories of Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, and Jesus’ birth originally featured slithering princes. Snow White’s prince slipped in and locked himself away with her dead body. The prince in Sleeping Beauty slithered in while she slept and got her pregnant. The prince in the Christmas story, however, was a darker, more sinister character. Yet Christmas would be richer if we kept him in the story… keeping a foot on his neck.

Ancient tales tended to be a great deal more raucous. In the original Sleeping Beauty, for example, the princess was wakened not by a chaste kiss, but by the twins she gave birth to after the prince had crept in, fornicated with her sleeping body, and then left again. In other words, it was R-rated. The same goes for the older versions of Snow White. A passing prince originally claimed the girl’s dead body and locked himself away with it. Yeccch. His mother, complaining of the dead girl’s smell, was greatly relieved when the maiden returned to life. If that’s not R-rated, it’s at least PG-13.

The original Christmas story also featured a peculiar prince. If you read the Revelation 12 rendition, it begins with a dragon fomenting a ferocious struggle in the heavens. This dragon is the slithering serpent known as the devil, or “the prince of the power of the air,” as the Apostle Paul described him (Eph. 2:1-3). Before the earth was created, he provoked a conflict across the cosmos between his troops and those remaining loyal to the Great King. This war makes The Lord of the Rings look like child’s play. God won, the devil lost, and the vanquished (a roiling force totaling one-third of the angelic realm) were thrown down to earth. You can catch the highlights in Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28.

We also get a clue that the demonic castaways are here on earth when we read Genesis 1:2. The pristine earth is “formless and void” – a Hebrew phrase with ominous overtones of God’s judgment.1 Yes – the prince is lurking in the bushes. He slithers out of the underbrush in Genesis 3 and seduces the woman, impregnating the world with his seed of sin, setting the stage for Christmas and the continuation of the cosmic conflict.

Now we fast-forward to Revelation 12, where the story continues with a woman who is about to give birth. The vanquished Lucifer is crouching greedily before her, his blood stained hands ready to crush the newborn child. Somehow… someway… the infant is snatched away to safety. A headlong flight into Egypt ensues, with hosts of demons on the tail of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus (catch the highlights in Matthew 2). Foiled, the prince slithers off, seething and declaring war on the followers of the Christ child. It’s meant to be a terrifying story, but was toned down years later. Who did this? When? Why?

In the 19th century, Victorian reformers, many of them people of Christian faith, romanticized the idea of “childhood” and believed that children should be protected from any exposure to evil. Childhood instead became an cherubic escape – we couldn’t stand to have children crying, for crying out loud. This meant the ancient stories about slithering princes seducing sweet princesses needed to be cleaned up. The process began with romanticized Christmas carols penned in the 19th century and eventually included an idealized Sleeping Beauty and Snow White in the 20th.

“Away in a Manger,” for example, was published in 1885 and glamorized the “stars in the sky” looking down on the cherubic child – erasing any conflict that might scare the kids. An Austrian priest named Joseph Mohr wrote “Silent Night” in 1816, waxing rhapsodically about “all is calm, all is bright” while neglecting the monstrous mayhem taking place that night. Rector Phillips Brooks wrote: “O little town of Bethlehem, how sweet we see thee lie” in 1868. But a “deep and dreamless sleep” while “the silent stars go by” seems a far cry from Revelation 12, where all hell was breaking loose.

Once religion was romanticized, many ancient fables became idealized. In the 20th century, Walt Disney turned Sleeping Beauty and Snow White into escapist entertainment. Snow White was Walt Disney’s first feature-length cartoon, sweetening the role of the prince while shrinking the dwarfs into comically adorable munchkins. When critics protested the broad changes, Disney responded, “It’s just that people now don’t want fairy stories the way they were written. They were too rough. In the end they’ll probably remember the story the way we film it anyway.” He was right about that.

When Victorian reformers expunged illicit sex and violence from ancient stories, they helped erase from our consciousness the first two social consequences of sin – illicit sex and violence (we still rate movies by these two markers in Genesis). That’s one reason why J.R.R. Tolkien warned against cleaning up seemingly salacious stories – it would ruin them.2 Every great story, Hollywood screenwriting coach Robert McKee says, has an “inciting incident” – when all hell breaks loose and protagonists do battle with antagonists.3 By reducing slithering princes to sweet Ken Dolls, or Christmas to Candyland, engaging stories become dull escapes – hardly the stuff of riveting religion.

“Religious happiness is no mere feeling of escape,” wrote psychologist William James. A riveting religion believes that “the world is all the richer for having a devil in it, so long as we keep our foot upon his neck,” James noted.4 We didn’t choose to live in a world infested with evil, but keeping a foot on Satan’s neck – thus, keeping our eye on him – is better than pretending that he doesn’t exist by telling prettified stories. Plus, if you tell the original, raucous Christmas story, your kids will not only be able to handle it – they might also find Christmas to be more riveting.

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1 Allen P. Ross, Creation and Blessing: A Guide to the Study and Exposition of Genesis, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1988), p. 106.
2 See J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-stories,” Andrew Lang Lecture (1938).
3 “Storytelling the Moves People: A Conversation with Hollywood Screenwriting Coach Robert McKee,” Harvard Business Review, June 2003.
4William James & Bruce Kuklick, “Circumcision of the Topic,” Writings: 1902-1910 (New York: NY, Library of America, 1987), pp. 51-52.

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5 thoughts on “A Foot on His Neck”

  1. Mike:

    I want to express my gratitude for your weekly articles’ consistent excellence. They are always thought-provoking, and often provide words to my impressions. You are a gift to many people. Thanks for your faithfulness.

  2. I learned something about these fairy stories. All the old Nordic tales are pretty grim, too. No pun, please! You make such a valid point. Our Christianity has become too feel good. Where will we stand when all hell breaks loose here in America? It’s on the way even now….

  3. The Irreverent Reverend's Wife

    Unless these stories stay true to reality by including both beauty and evil, they lose their power as myths. I remember reading through Genesis with third graders some years ago. When we read the chapter in which Noah enjoys the fruit of his post-flood vineyard and falls asleep naked in his drunkenness, one student exclaimed, “Wow! This is way better than Bible stories!” A child will eventually reject a meta-narrative that isn’t true to reality, however prudent it seems to be to clean it for her while she is young and “innocent”.

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