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Arguably, faerie stories work in one of two ways. They can gesture to things in the world around us, or they can gesture to things in the world beyond us.
Indeed, the key ingredient to a good faerie tale is that it gestures without giving away too much. It does not explain, but rather invites—connections, conversations, and arguments. It invites us to ignore the arbitrary division between the real and imagined; fantasy and reality are of a piece and in the best instances both point toward truth.
The episode “Hush,” a masterpiece of Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer canon, uses faerie marvelously. At the heart of the episode is the legend of the mysterious gentlemen, who steal everyone’s voices in a town or village, and then collect the hearts of their victims in the silence. The reason they need the hearts and what will happen when they collect the allotted seven remains unexplained, as does the rule central to the narrative: the gentlemen cannot be defeated by weapons, but only by a scream produced by a real human voice.
Ranged about this Grimm-like tale are “real-world” problems toward which it gestures. Various characters are in the middle of crises of communication. Buffy and Riley are romantically attracted to each other, but are too awkward around each other to articulate anything except meaningless small talk. Tara sees in Willow a kindred spirit interested in real magic rather than Wiccan tea and bake sales, but she is too shy to speak up or initiate friendship. Xander and Anya, whose relationship at this point is primarily physical, are beginning to realize that there might be more to a functional relationship than sex—perhaps honest communication is necessary.
The implications are clear. Silence and evasion in relationships are a threat; hearts are at stake in the narrative:
“Can’t even shout, can’t even cry/ the gentlemen are coming by.”
It is not shouting but silence that is the harbinger of relational death.
“Looking in windows, knocking on doors/they need to take seven, and they might take yours.”
And well they might. For though the gentlemen are fictional and the world of Buffy is fictional, the truth is not, and the truth is that none of us are inherently immune to the deadly silences and evasions that so jeopardize our relationships—with others, with God, and with our own selves.
Buffy can kill off the monsters with a scream at the end of the episode, but what about us? What can save us from the silences and evasions that can infect our very speech? “The more words, the more vanity,” says the Ecclesiast—and it is frightening how silence and meaninglessness can devour words themselves and render them useless. Is there any room left to scream?
Long before there was Buffy, there were the desert fathers and mothers, and they confronted precisely the same problem symbolized by the gentlemen. They saw societies infected with silence—not literal silence, necessarily, but the evasions and distractions that the masses were happy to use as an opiate. Juvenal had said of the Roman citizens that their only interests were panem et circenses—bread and circus games—and despite the empire’s newfound Christian identity, there were still many areas in which this observation remained true. And so the mothers and fathers decided to do something radical. They decided to fight silence with silence. They confronted the silence of the desert, and there they found—demons.
St. Anthony, the exemplar of desert asceticism, encountered and fought demons. St. Guthlac, emulating him much later, fought demons in the fens of England’s Croyland. Less is known about the desert mothers, but their experiences seem to have been similar; Amma Sarah is said to have battled a demon for thirteen years. And these spiritual warriors were really only following the example of Christ, who was led into the desert, away from society, and tempted by the devil. Encountering and overcoming demons and devils seeking to capture human hearts amidst aching silence? It happened long before Buffy.
Indeed, what is narrated in “Hush” is just a small piece of the broader Christian narrative of salvation, for Christians too speak of a silence. It is the silence that fell upon the world after the loss of Eden, the silence known as Original Sin. And as in “Hush,” the spell is broken by the voice—the word—of a real human. Salvation comes about with a cry—“It is finished”—from the first man to have a truly and fully human voice since Eden, the man of whom it was said, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
It is this voice—this truly human and divine voice—that sends shockwaves behind and before, shaping the past and the future. It is this voice precisely that the desert fathers and mothers find inhabiting them and leading them to fight devils in the silence and win.
At the sound of this voice, the terrifying silence once haunted by demons becomes the blessed silence and stillness in which Elijah encountered God after the storm, the holy silence of sacred ground. When people think of Christianity and traditions of silence, the first thing they usually imagine is some version of this holy silence, perhaps a Trappist silence, or a silent retreat, or a sanctuary of stillness where God is met. And it is true. We are blessed with such silences. But only because a Word—a fully human and divine Word—has spoken; and his followers are crazy enough to go to the ends of the earth to stubbornly assert their Master’s liberation of His creation. Silence may be golden—but its transformation is forever due to this miraculous instance of divine alchemy.