I dwell in my own enchantment. I cannot recall a time when fairy tales were not a part of who I am, and the legacy of a life lived in the pursuit of magic is etched into my very being. It is my well of inspiration and the source of my struggles. It is the dark shroud that covers my eyes and the saving grace that catapults me to bliss.
Dark forests, elves and satyrs; I float on a wispy cloud in a kingdom of peace. Fairy tales, what makes them so seductive? They evoke fond childhood memories of bedtime stories and an idealist, romantic longing for a bygone world of fantasy. In this charmed, otherworldly existence, far removed from the complexities of modern life, man is unhindered by logic and convention and his spirit set free to abscond the realm of the ordinary, a feeling beautifully encapsulated in the opening lines of The Princess and the Frog: “In olden times, when wishing still did some good…”
Alice is a druggie and Snow White a polyamorist. Rumpelstiltskin is a deviant and the Wolf could rival Ian Brady for his psychopathy
In the enchanted realm of the imaginary, resplendent with the immortal deeds of heroes, the capacity for adventure is infinite. The typically unambiguous distinctions between good and evil ubiquitous in fairy tales (Cinderella/Stepmother, Red Riding Hood/Wolf) may also explain the lasting appeal of these stories, as the comparative simplicity, where a man’s moral fibre is devoid of the uncertainty and shades of grey so endemic to modern life, can be an attractive prospect. I have never stopped reading fairytales; from Hans Christian Anderson and the Grimms to C.S. Lewis, Lloyd Alexander and Kenneth Grahame. It is interesting to reflect on fairy tales as an adult, when deeper echelons of evil and decadence are brought to the fore. Alice is a druggie and Snow White a polyamorist. Rumpelstiltskin is a deviant and the Wolf could rival Ian Brady for his psychopathy.
The Uses of Enchantment by Austrian psychologist Bruno Bettelheim has a pride of place in my library. Published in 1976, Bettelheim asserts that modern literature written for children fails to capture a child’s imagination and instill a sense of meaning, which is imperative for the development of self-esteem and finding sense in one’s place in the world. Instead, modern literature is shallow in substance and seeks to entertain, inform or teach new skills, an admirable effort that is redundant however if the child cannot personally relate to the story and if it does not add any concrete meaning to his or her life. The Princess and the Frog (aka The Frog King) is one of my favourite tales and an example of initiation into adulthood with a classic moral narrative that teaches the young reader a lesson about the importance of keeping a promise. It tells the story of a beautiful princess who plays with her beloved golden ball each day by a pool beneath an old linden tree, in a dark misty forest (the ‘dark forest’ motif is omnipresent in these tales).
One day, the ball falls out of her reach and into the dark, fathomless depths of the pool; the princess is distraught and cries out pitifully. A frog hears her sobs and calls out to her, proposing to retrieve the ball if she promises to take him back to the castle with her and let him eat from her plate, sleep in her bed, and be her companion. The princess concedes to this, secretly thinking that frogs cannot possibly leave ponds and be companions to humans. When the frog resurfaces with the golden ball the princess skips away happily without giving the frog another thought. Upon the morrow, when the royal family are gathered in the mess hall, the frog taps at the door and reminds the princess of her promise to make him her companion. The princess is indignant and tells her father, the king, about her meeting with the frog. The king demands that she keeps her promise, ‘you should not despise someone who has helped you in your time of need.’ Reluctantly, the princess lets the frog in and fulfills her promise. It is revealed that the frog is a prince who was enchanted by a witch and that the princess alone could break the spell. They live happily ever after.
A retelling of an early German folktale, the story was published by the Grimms in 1812. It introduces the child to a very simple dilemma that he or she can easily relate to and apply to their own young life, that of the importance of keeping a promise. Moreover, it teaches the child that ignoring or running away from a problem will not make it disappear and if the child learns to take responsibility over his or her actions, wonderful things can happen. Bettelheim argued that these stories, however removed from the conditions and intricacies of modern life, offer the young reader a greater opportunity to connect, relate and learn something important. True, fairy tales teach us little about the specific conditions of life in modern society, for these tales were created long before it came into being. But I believe that more can be discerned from them about the human condition and of solutions to common problems and dilemmas than from any other type of story.
Another firm favourite is Mother Holle (Frau Holle). With roots in Germanic paganism, it tells the story of two young daughters, one pretty and hardworking and the other ugly and idle though favoured by their mother as she is her biological daughter (the ‘evil stepmother’, another archetype). One day, the pretty daughter pricks her finger on the point of a spindle by a well. Following instruction by her stepmother, she jumps into the murky depths and emerges in a tranquil meadow where she proceeds to assist a baker’s oven and an apple tree, before she reaches the house of Mother Holle, an earth/fertility goddess associated with Hel, Frigg and Jörð. Mother Holle employs the girl as a maidservant and is greatly impressed by her diligence and modesty. The girl is sent home with an apron full of gold. Seeing this, the mother instructs her idle daughter to follow in her stepdaughter’s footsteps so that she, too, can return with gold. The idle daughter bloodies her finger, leaps into the well, and emerges into the realm of Mother Holle. However, she refuses to help the baker’s oven and the apple tree and is lazy in her duties. So Mother Holle sends her home sans gold and covered in pitch.
The moral of the story is clear and easily applicable to our lives: honest hard work pays off. Laziness does not. Bettelheim argued that a child requires a tangible, ethical education that he or she can apply to daily life. These lessons must be simplified and devoid of the often ambiguous and politically correct relativism that, according to Bettelheim, only serves to confuse the child. I’m with Bettelheim on that one and would venture that this mode of indiscriminate relativism confuses not only children, but adults too and is one of the afflictions of our time. Nothing is sacred anymore; everything is game for dissection and dissolution. But I digress. Through the experience of the stepdaughter in Mother Holle the child learns to persevere, because hard work will be rewarded. Taking shortcuts and behaving in the haughty, selfish manner of the idle daughter will bring about only shame and regret, even humiliation. Brilliant tale—and how relevant it is to our lives.
The tale of Hansel and Gretel wandering alone in the woods in a bid to escape their evil stepmother requires little preamble. Tired and hungry, the siblings venture deeper into the forest and happen upon a gingerbread house, with icing for a roof and imagine-your-favourite-sweet for windows. The children proceed to eat the house, before a kindly old lady (the ‘wicked witch’, a fond classic) invites them into her house. She serves them with treacle tarts and sugared nuts, and takes them to two little beds; whereupon Hansel and Gretel lay down and thought they were in heaven. Then, she slowly fattens them up and eventually tells them that she plans to eat them. Here we go with cannibalism again. There are several morals to this story. Perhaps the two most obvious are that things are not always as they seem, and that it is prudent to afford each new situation with caution and objectivity.
Hansel and Gretel manage to outsmart the witch by careful planning (Hansel) and pure cunning (Gretel), and it is clear that, by the time they leave the witch’s house, they have left their innocence behind and matured beyond their years, thus underpinning their initiation into adulthood. It is interesting to note the Freudian elements, firstly that of the destructive relationship with the mother figure. Initially this can be seen in the stepmother’s plan to abandon the children. The pattern repeats in an allegorical link between the mother figure and gingerbread house, one that nourishes and protects Hansel and Gretel only to turn on them when they have exhausted its resources. The second element is that of an oral fixation. The subject of food and eating and consuming resources is central to the text. The children are abandoned because their stepmother no longer wishes to feed them due to a food shortage in the village. The breadcrumbs they leave in an endeavour to find their way back are soon eaten by the forest animals. Then, they happen upon a glorious gingerbread house and eat it, resulting in the witch plotting to eat them. The incessant munching is fundamental to the plot and denotes a strong oral fixation in all the characters involved.
The playwright Eugene O’Neill said that obsessed by fairy tales, we spend our lives searching for a magic door and a lost kingdom of peace. A child can relate to the ‘black and white’ simplicity because there are precious few shades of grey in his or her world. Presenting the stark polarities in fairytale characters makes it easier for the child to understand the difference between the two. The concept of initiation from childhood to adulthood underpins the acuity that things are not always as they seem, and this maturation is made flesh by the many tests and struggles that the characters undergo, after which they emerge like a butterfly from a chrysalis. This pivotal initiation can be described in terms of a transformation, sometimes a figurative one or a literal shapeshifting, like the prince in The Princess and the Frog.
By relinquishing ourselves to the realm of fantasy and imagination we are able to explore our unconscious nature in a healthy and productive way, and this precisely is why fairy tales are so important in my opinion. They empower us with a way to examine our thoughts, desires and dilemmas in a safe and healthy environment, that of the imagination. So many films and television shows plug the deception of hyperreality and take fantasy to an apocalyptic future that does little to promote joy or wellbeing; effectively destroying all that is still beautiful and wonderful in this world. But fairy tales exist in another dimension, forever pure and untouched by cynicism.
In this dimension, we all live happily ever after.