Introduction to Fairy Tales

Fairy tales are blunt, exasperating, tantalizing, they come across as spontaneous stories meant to be spontaneously experienced, yet they have been crafted over many hundreds of generations of fireside telling, to in turn tell us something of ourselves. Such that when they are read and re-read, or heard and re-heard, they take on a form that is all their own, and indeed becomes our own, imperceptibly, they begin to haunt us like some half remembered dream lodged deep in the psyche that wont let us go. Stories are a living vehicle for the psyche of the teller and the listener, they transcend the temporal, the intellectual, to both baffle us like a Zen koan yet satisfy like a Japanese haiku.

Indeed we can be affected by a story as much as we can by a dream, if its symbols and events have a certain mystery and power for us that in turn evoke our own memories and thoughts. We can be struck by the stories message or have a flash of insight that illuminates something we had not seen before, in much the same way a major dream affects us. In fact Carl Jung observed that dream motifs can be found in countless myths and fairytales from all ages and climes, and given that story telling is probably as old as our species it has been through the stories, folktales, myths that a particular cultures body of knowledge was passed on. It is in fact the telling of stories, that throughout all time,  mark the shifts from one level of human intimacy to another.   Remember that stories originated in pre-literate times, that they were (and are becoming again in the consultation rooms of many therapists), an oral tradition. Consider also how powerful can be the spoken word, as any Shakespearian play will testify, and we can but ponder the very first words of the New Testament, "In the beginning was the word."

As expressions of the stages and processes of the unconscious it can be helpful to amplify fairytale images with their parallels in myth, in art, indeed with other ancient symbol systems such as astrology, the Kabala, alchemy and the tarot. Jung applied the same kind of perspective to alchemy that he did to the symbolism of myths and fairy tales as maps of psychological development, and in particular as maps of the dynamics of individual unfolding in the process of individuation. Astrology, alchemy, the Kabalah and the tarot all emerged from the same sea of the collective unconscious as did fairy tales and myths but in a pictorial and symbolic form.

Fairy tales, or household tales as the brothers Grimm called them, mirror the most basic psychological structures of man, they guide in understanding what cannot be understood by reason. Often overlooked the motifs of fairy tales are also humbler and seemingly more mundane than the glorious pageants of the world’s great mythicsagas, being as they are less pruned, raw and closer to ordinary life. Perhaps it is because of this that they get less attention than they deserve; certainly one has to work a little harder to extract their meaning. Yet for all of this they are none the less relevant for modern men and women seeking self-understanding.


Further, they suggest in more humble, and personally accessible ways where myth does not, that a bridge might be built between man, his fate and destiny, if respect, effort, and the appropriate propitiatory rites are offered.  While, as maps of the typical configurations of human life in the social group, stories provide guidance to help us find our way through the crisis and transitions of the human life cycle.

Here, it is necessary to make a distinction between those tale that have been authored, and those of, for instance, Hans Christian Anderson, which in his case mirror beautifully the specific problems of his country, within which, he had a gift for showing what was going on underneath and produced almost genuine fairy tales, Von Franz notes that he was highly neurotic (he never left his mother and never married). His stories have a constant tragic atmosphere: the connection with the anima cannot be made as it was not in his own life. He could not free himself from his own personal problem.


As such there is not quite the same resonance; we are not touched in quite the same way. Consider then in the light of this that the Grimm's brothers did not in fact write any of the 210 tales in their collection, they collated them. Although not before filtering them through own brand of nineteenth century Germanic patriarchal Protestantism. Traveling through the villages of Germany in the early 1800's the brothers Grimm recorded the words of the old story tellers, usually women whose function it was in the village to pass them on. As Joseph Campbell so poetically notes ‘with the coming of the night the listeners gathered around to hear a world of magic symptomatic of fevers deeply burning in the psyche; permanent presences, desires, fears ideals potentialities that have glowed in the nerves, hummed in the blood, baffled he senses since the beginning.’

 These are tales that hint in their own richly symbolic, sometimes bafflingly obscure, way the initiations, transitions and rites of passage of us all. In an age that has all but lost these what greater testimony to their importance need there be. As Henderson says in Man And His Symbols, it is exactly the same in the initial crisis of the individual. Like the third son "one is seeking something that is impossible to find about which nothing is known."

Jung suggests that particular myths erupt out of the collective unconscious when there is a need within the collective psyche that is trying to express itself. Such that myths and fairy tales tend to deal with the larger questions and issues. The ones that small children ask, that inquiring adolescents again ask, or that as adults we leave for others to both ask and answer for us… except at times of crisis when the knocking on the walls becomes more insistent and we discover that the act of living authentically requires of us that we ask for ourselves. Perhaps never more so than today when the search for meaning (and other people’s answers) is such a mega-business.

Gone are the old anchors, the old milestones and the initiations that characterise them. In those fateful epoch announcing words of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra: "Dead are all the Gods." Thus went the spell of the past and the dream web of myth and fairy tales with it.

In the time when these stories were still being passed down as an integral and vibrant part of pre-industrial village culture, all meaning was [as Campbell points out] in the group, in the great anonymous forms, none in the self-expressive individual. Today no meaning is in the group – none in the world; all is in the individual. But the meaning is unconscious. One does not know toward what one moves. One does not know by what one is propelled.

And so the archetypal hero/s journey becomes one's own, for this journey is a map both of the development of culture and of the individual’s psychic voyage through life, it applies to men and women, to the primitive tribe dweller and to the sophisticated city dweller, to the adult and to the child. At different times of our life different tales become meaningful, like dreams they are not fixed but reverberate with different shades of meaning according to your perspective and life experience.

Almost all fairy tales tell of trials, tests and dangers that the principal figures have to undergo, describing in intimate detail the obstacles to growth, and the qualities that will serve them on the way, be they, peasant, poor girl, tailor, cobbler, princess, handless maiden or ailing king.  Yet as soon as it is realized that these are real events in the life of the soul they cease to be fiction but recognizable pictures of inner experience. Fairy tales are so beyond the known world that we do not even need to comprehend their layers of meaning intellectually, for if they are accessible to awareness they are capable of informing and confirming it. Thus it is enough that we behold the story and apprehend.

This is supported by research that tells us that 95% of all learning in both children and adults takes place beneath the level of consciousness awareness. 8 It just happens. In this instance silhouetted in the landscape of the fairy tale, beyond where the ego can roam, in learning unencumbered that can be grasped when abstract meaning and concepts have no meaning. And what of the meanings of these tales? What of them? Perhaps we can be too preoccupied with meaning, what after all, is the meaning of a rose?

And yet?

Before moving on to the tales themselves a word of warning, fairy tales possess an unerring simplicity, both in image and event, the particular relevance to us of a particular tale, will be clear from the deep satisfaction with which we hear or read it.

Remember though, that these stories are the recorded versions of an original "telling," and still work best when heard rather than read. When listened too, the imagery somehow bypasses the conscious mind, going straight to that part of us from where dreams and symbols arise. Consider the different feeling that comes from reading, say Shakespeare, or James Joyce or Dylan Thomas, as contrasted with the richness of hearing them. Joseph Chilton Pearce in Magical Child asks us to consider how "it is the ear that captures the indelible accuracy of image in fairy tales. In reading fairy tales the eye can be too quick, too facile, too scanning to register the simple directness of what image is accomplishing through the telling of the tale." You have only to glance at the rapt attention of an audience spellbound by a good tale, well told, to become aware of the hunger we have for stories, and how deeply fulfilling and healing they can be.

In the Steiner pedagogical tradition such stories are told to the younger children at least three times, perhaps over four days, for it seems to take three days, or more importantly nights for new learning to be accommodated into awareness. Three is a common and recurring number in fairy stories, three sons, three daughters, three tasks. Consider too the Irish tradition of the wake extending over three days, or the Hindu one that it takes three days for the soul to depart from the body and even the recognition that this is given in law with the provision of three day cooling off periods.

Giving due respect and treating them in this way can be a useful way of coming to know these tales, of holding them in consciousness somewhere at back of our daily doing, such that we begin to make connections with different parts of them, and ourselves. A "chance" remark overheard here, a headline there, a "stray" thought or association, a lost image from childhood or a dream, and low, the mind begins to make bridges to meaning. We have a "aha" experience and know beyond doubt that an idea contained in the story or within a particular interpretation is addressing something personally very important. Verifying something you already know, but may not have made conscious. Such an experience can make your very scalp tingle, for you not only grasp something entirely knew for you, but a profound shift takes place that allows you to see through to a truth. A very personal truth that is perhaps a part of your own personal myth, as in turn the tale starts to take root in your psyche and become as strong a fabric of your inner life as any childhood memory.

Dwell awhile then within the images of each tale, that they might have the space to take root within your very bones, lest in hurrying to meaning, meaning in fact eludes you.


Further Reading:

1  Jean Shinoda Bolen, Crossing to Avalon

3  Polly Young-Eisendrath,  Hags and heroes  

4  Marie Louise Von Franz, Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales

5  Joseph Campbell, Complete Grimms

6  Carl Jung, Man and His symbols

8  Joseph Chilton Pearce, Magical child

9  Psyche Stories, Stein and Corbett