“Folklore is the boiled-down juice of human living. It does not belong to any special time, place nor people. No country is so primitive that it has no lore, and no country has yet become so civilized that no folklore is being made within its boundaries.” (Neale Hurston, Zora, (1999). Go Gator And Muddy The Water, ed. Pamela Bordelon, New York and London:W.W. Norton.)
Fairy tales were initially part of an oral tradition, told by skilled storytellers; then written down, initially for the privileged few and as more people learnt to read, available to a mass audience; and now available through a mixed media. They have been created universally and have endured for more than a thousand years. They appeal to adults and children alike, not simply as an entertainment, but as something important that stirs the very foundations of our emotional, intellectual, physical, spiritual and soul life. Such stories may not only inspire self-discovery by connecting us to a whole range of feelings but as works of art themselves they can empower us to expand our imagination and develop our own creativity.
Originally, the storyteller would have told stories to a whole village or family including all ages; no doubt around the fire. These stories might have been called: fairy tales, sagas, animal stories, folklore or folk tales and may have overlapped with myths, legends, riddles and fables. Fairy tales are usually plot driven and even flat characters are able to carry the dramatic flow and emotions of the plot; charged with anticipation, probabilities, a variety of switches of scene and series of actions. They usually have an inevitability and an optimistic ending; bringing a sense of satisfaction. They offer us a safe place to feel the intensity of our feelings and are rooted in the display of a variety of human behaviours and explanations of the meaning of life itself. Their scope is fairly universal in appeal and form.
It seems to me that the source of fairy tales is their rootedness in the inner landscape of human beings, the world of feelings and imagination which is surely universal and which can guide our patterns of behaviour and choice of actions.
Christopher Booker suggests, in his book, The Seven Basic Plot: Why We Tell Stories, (New York) Continuum, (2005), that there are seven main plots in all of literature. He makes specific references to fairy tales. The seven main plots he has defined as: Overcoming the Monster; The Quest; Journey and Return; Comedy; Tragedy; Rebirth; and Rags to Riches
Stephen B. Karpman, in his article, ‘Fairy Tales and Script Drama Analysis’, Transactional Analysis Bulletin, vol. 7, no.26, analyses fairy tales in terms of Script Drama Analysis which is used as a psychotherapeutic tool. A script, in this sense, refers to a set of roles and behaviour that seemed to be our best choice for survival as a child but which might limit us as an adult. He explores the drama of switches in role. These may be identity roles or action roles and bringing them into focus can be informative and transformative. A classic pattern of behaviour that, because of its inherent energy and drama, can suck people in and limit their ability to act autonomously is the ‘Drama Triangle’.
“Only three roles are necessary in drama analysis to depict the emotional reversals that are drama. These action roles, in contrast with the identity roles…are the Persecutor, Rescuer, and Victim…Drama begins when these roles are established, or are anticipated by the audience. There is no drama unless there is a switch in the roles.”
Jung and Freud believed that the symbolism and archetypal characters in fairy tales act out our unconscious desires. I prefer to think more practically about such tales. They educate us subtly in terms of human beliefs, thinking, feeling and consequences. They show us a variety of roles and behaviour that we might try on for size and they develop our wonder and imagination so that we are able to look at things differently and accept in ourselves and in other people the possibilities of diversity and change. Some show us heroes and heroines with the courage to face challenges and take the risks needed to take new paths in our lives but they don’t tell us what to do.
Fairy tales and the wisdom found in them help us to accept the process of how we and others live our lives. Particularly for a child, their strongest emotions can be overwhelming and may create a desire in them to behave in the most heroic or villainous way imaginable. The fact that fairy tales often normalise a wide range of emotions and behaviour – our shadow side as well as our positive side – does a great service to all their readers and listeners.
According to Tatar, Maria (ed.), The Classic Fairy Tales, Norton & Company, 1999.
“…the staying power of these stories, their widespread and enduring popularity, suggests that they must be addressing issues that have a significant social function – whether critical, conservative, compensatory, or therapeutic…Fairy tales register an effort on the part of both women and men to develop maps for coping with personal anxieties, family conflicts, social frictions, and the myriad frustrations of everyday life.”
Strange to find realism within such fantastic tales!
From before birth, it has been discovered that humans play. Stories enable us to play in our imagination and play is a prelude to the development of our creativity which is the essence of a healthy human being. If creativity is stifled or stuck, destructiveness can fill the space where creativity would otherwise live inside of us. There have been attempts to dilute the potency of fairy tales, especially by the Disney cartoon films and in children’s books. It is ironic that as the horror of world news becomes more readily available to us, fairy tales have become increasingly anaesthetised.
The other side of fairy tales is that they will have had their own controlling influence on the evolution of human values, feelings and behaviour. When reading Sleeping Beauty, I wondered why no-one had told the young princess herself to avoid touching spinning wheels! No doubt scary stories would have been used to stop children venturing too far from home but may have limited them in other ways too. Other stories may have programmed our attitudes, assumptions and expectations towards romantic relationships.
According to Maria Tartar, Charlotte Bronte, ‘rejects the cult of suffering and self-effacement endorsed in fairy tales like “Cinderella” and “Beauty and the Beast”’. Over many generations fairy tales have been used to frighten, restrict, control, oppress, free, empower, instruct and educate. They give us a wide blueprint of human behaviour with roles that we can choose to accept or reject.
It is impossible to talk about fairy tales without some reference to the story tellers. When tales were passed on in the oral tradition, certain individuals would be chosen for this task and it would have been important to them to keep to the familiar rhythms, patterns and skills of previous generations. Anne Cameron’s book, Daughters of Copper Woman, is a retelling of the tales shared with her by the Nootka women of Vancouver Island in Canada. These tales were carefully guarded from ‘the dawn of Time itself’ by generations of members of a secret society of Nootka woman. They finally gave permission to Anne Cameron to write down these tales in 1980. These tales, a mixture of fairy tales, legends and myths, were released to the world when it was thought that they were most needed to educate the world to other ways of living and being.
Stories are being written that have directly evolved from fairy tales, which are as relevant today as they were centuries ago. According to Carolyn Heilbrun in, “What Was Penelope Unweaving?” in Hamlet’s Mother and Other Women, New York: Columbia UP, (1990):
“Let us agree on this: that we live our lives through texts. These may be read, or chanted, or experienced electronically, or come to us, like the murmurings of our mothers, telling us of what conventions demand. Whatever their form or medium, these stories are what have formed us all, they are what we must use to make our new fictions…Out of old tales, we must make new lives.”
A contemporary novel that uses fairy tales in a potent way is Kindergarten by P.S.Rushforth. The story is about three children coming to terms with the death of their mother, shot dead by the Red Phoenix terrorists. The book opens in the 1970’s with the oldest son watching news reports on television of a siege in a school in Berlin where children and teachers are held hostage and some are killed by the same terrorist group. It is Christmas time and their father is away. Their grandmother’s recovery from the results of the senseless violence of 1930’s Berlin, is entwined with the healing of the children. She has illustrated fairy tales which are referred to throughout the book as they are relevant to the situation the children find themselves in; the killing in Fitcher’s Bird; abandonment in Hansel and Gretel. Other tales are woven into the story: The Six Swans; The Juniper Tree; The Wilfull Child; Snow White and TheWolf and the Seven Little Kids. The oldest son finds letters, inside a copy of, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, from children wanting to escape from the horrors of Germany in the 1930’s and come to the school where the family now live. He had only discovered two years previously that his father’s family were Jewish and he was overwhelmed by this heritage so vividly portrayed in the letters he’s found. Several mentions are made of the phrase ‘dark pathless forest’ from Fitcher’s Bird. The story weaves back and forth, in a timeless way in and out of fairy tales, the children’s cartoon, Charlie Brown, the children’s story of Emile and the Detective. Fairy tales are helping the two eldest brothers, who are desperately attempting to come to terms with overwhelming feelings of loss, anger, terror and horror of their individual trauma; spending their first Christmas without either parent around; the realities of their everyday childhood and the innocence of their baby brother and how that fits into a world at war with itself. Several times there is a reference to a line, ‘Truly, this is the way of mankind,’ from, The Wolf and the Seven Little Kids, which is revised in Kindergarten to: ‘This is what mankind is like’.
So, perhaps, as “a tutor of mankind” fairy tales assist us to gain insights into both ourselves and the world we inhabit. It is a relief to have our most extreme and polarised feelings, normalised. It helps us to accept ourselves as ‘human’ to know that there is a shadow side inside all of us and that, given certain circumstances, we can easily move between innocence and murderous thoughts and feelings. Children and adults alike who experience strong negative emotions can believe themselves to a bad person, ‘a monster’, and this can lead to self-loathing and a heavy burden of guilt.
Humanistic therapies such as Cognitive Behaviour Therapy assume that umaniwe are able to understand our conscious and unconscious processes by recognizing how we and others behave, think and feel and what beliefs may drive us, and that we are capable of making changes in our lives and taking on new life enhancing choices. Fairy tales show us that transformation is possible. They enable us to imagine and to understand both the outer landscape (our relationship to the world) and the inner landscape (our relationship to ourselves) with their language rich in metaphor, fantasy and polarities. When someone tells a story with characters with whom we can identify, it helps us to feel less lonely and more connected to the world; a sense of belonging. Each person would derive different gifts and meaning from different stories according to where they are in their own development. The themes of the story are often something we can connect to. Marie Louise von Franz in her book, Interpretation of Fairytales, Spring Publications Inc., (1970), explains that in the fairy tale, Three Feathers, there is a theme of balancing male and female energies or power:
“The story ends with a marriage – a balanced union of the male and female elements. So the general structure seems to point to a problem in which there is a dominating male attitude, a situation which lacks the feminine element, and the story tells us how the missing feminine is brought up and restored.”
The themes commonly presented in therapy are similar to those of fairy tales: competition and jealousy between family members; fears of surpassing mother or father; unavailable fathers who hide behind strong women; rivalry and bullying between siblings; the polarity of siblings into ‘the good one’ and ‘the bad one’; people who feel ‘different’ – ugly, born into the wrong families; people who were abandoned, abused or neglected as children. Fairy tales depict real feelings about real experiences and give hope that whatever happens to a person, there can be a happy ending. Their strength is that they are exaggerated with magical elements to produce the drama and encourage the creative imagination that claims the attention of the reader and listener to move deeper into their inner self. Depending how they are used and read fairy tales can become our own personal guides. We may need to hear or read the same tale again and again until we have taken what we need from it. I heard of a young girl the other day whose teacher read the fairy tale of The Wolf and the Seven Little Kids but she stopped the story before the ending. This little girl cried herself to sleep despite being read the whole story by her mother and would not go back to school the next day. This was an important story to her and had not been treated with respect.
Children who act out fairy tales and other stories are using them physically to play; to try on different roles. Our imagination is the engine that drives our creativity and fairy stories and the feelings that they arouse are a satisfactory fuel for that imagination. Their heroes and heroines role model for us the courage to risk journeying either into the outside world or inside ourselves to find our passion and the desire for self-expression and success. The fairy tale itself is a work of art and as such may inspire us to produce our own works of art. They are also an important psychological tool and just as dreams might be our way of processing the past and releasing some of our excess psychological baggage, I believe fairy tales move us into the future, helping us to normalise, accept and understand ourselves and others better, empowering our journey towards autonomy and creativity. They will continue to be a ‘tutor of mankind’ and will continue to inspire us to play with our imaginations and playing is living creatively.
What would you write if you were to write your own life as a fairy tale?