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  • Writer's pictureRussell F. Hirsch

Wishing Well

I visited the National Leprechaun Museum—it’s a real place!—in Dublin earlier this summer. Inside, the tour guide filled us in on all sorts of lore about Ireland’s many magical creatures. She took us into a room decorated like a fairy forest, with a wishing well at the centre. Such wells connect humans, who live on the surface of the earth, to the fairies who live underneath. The wells are therefore an important system of communication between the two worlds.

Step 1) Throw in your piece of gold, silver, or food that you collect from your neighbours (typically on Halloween). Step 2) Make a wish. Step 3) The fairies get things in motion… perhaps in ways you don’t expect!

When I got back to Canada I was reading Christopher Vogler’s wonderful resource, The Writer’s Journey (3rd Ed.). Toward the end of this excellent book on story structure, there is a chapter called “Stories are Alive” (pg. 299) in which he discusses the power and importance of wishing in a story. While working for Disney several decades ago, Vogler was tasked with studying fairy tales, and came to the following conclusion:

“Stories are somehow alive, conscious, and responsive to human wishes.” (pg. 300)

In fact, he goes on to explain, many stories begin with a character making a wish and when it is granted—for better or worse—they are thrust into new adventures that comprise the story. He notes how sometimes this gives the story a “Be careful what you wish for” tone. We can think of King Midas in Greek mythology, for example, who wishes that everything he touches would turn to gold. It’s a great idea until he tries to eat breakfast and gives his daughter a hug.

King Midas

Or, to bring the fairy folk back into it, 80s-style…

Now fortunately, in Labyrinth, this initial, ill-advised wish leads to an adventure of growth and learning (and strange scenes with David Bowie) for the heroine Sarah.

The wish doesn’t always have to be poorly chosen, though. The wish might function as a way for the character to announce that they are ready for a change in their life, and the story is the resulting period of transitions and tests that help the character make that desired change a reality. The wish gets the growth going—sometimes immediately!

And, as my last post probably indicated, I’m (re)reading Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence right now. I only read the first two novels as a kid, and was thrilled to finally push deeper into the series by reading the 3rd book, Greenwitch this week. Sure enough, Cooper’s novel stresses the power of wishing as well. It shows how characters don’t always have to wish about themselves to cause change. At the start, the heroine, Jane, is in Cornwall, attending the ceremonial construction of an enchanted effigy called the Greenwitch:

As she came close to the Greenwitch she felt again the unimaginable force it seemed to represent, but again the great loneliness too. Melancholy seemed to hover about it like a mist. She put her hand out to grasp a hawthorn bough, and paused. “Oh dear,” she said impulsively, “I wish you could be happy.” (pg. 525)

As both good guys and bad guys try to steal a secret manuscript from the Greenwitch for their own gain over the course of the story, Cooper shows that sometimes the initial wish is ultimately the most important event of all, even with all the action that has happened since. In the climax:

“Here,” said the voice again, and there in Jane’s hand was the small misshapen lead case, that had fallen into the sea at the end of the adventure that had achieved the grail—and that held inside it the only manuscript able to unravel for them the secret of the grail. “Take it,” the Greenwitch said. “You made a wish that was for me, not for yourself. No-one has ever done that. I give you my secret, in return.” (pg. 604)

Wishing, undoubtedly, is a secret, magical ingredient in storytelling.

The version of Greenwitch I quote here is in the following volume with all five of Cooper’s TDIR novels: Cooper, Susan. The Dark Is Rising: The Complete Sequence. New York: Margaret K. McElderry, 2010. Print.

Do read The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler if you’re interested! It’s a wonderful book for writers and students of film, novels, and fairy tales.

Learn about Ireland’s National Leprechaun Museum here: Below, I hang out at the museum with Seamus, the resident mascot–


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