Anne Drolett Creany
Storytelling captures and reflects many facets of the human experience. Some tales relate astounding deeds of a country’s heroes, teach life’s lessons, or reveal human foibles. Other tales fuel the reader’s or listener’s fantasy with magical occurrences. Tales of magic have captured the imagination of children and adults throughout human history. Sleeping spells, supernatural creatures, talking eggs, or objects that bestow boons all inhabit the realm of the magic tales of people around the world. Wishes take wing, aspirations are realized, and the world is, or becomes, a safe, delightful place in magic stories. What is it that makes magic tales so appealing? What features distinguish the magic/fairy tale? Do fairy tales have value for adults? For children? What are the different types of fairy tales as represented by the classic European tales?
Various theoretical approaches will be used to answer these questions and examine the motif of magic in folk tales: the structural approach advocated by Jones (2002) and Luthi (1976); the psychological interpretations offered by Bettelheim (1977) and von Franz (1996); and the socio-historical approach proffered by Zipes (2006).
Features of fairy tales
Folklore, or traditional literature, so named because it comes from the oral tradition, includes mythology, fables, legends and folktales. Tales of magic, also known as wonder tales or fairy tales, are among the most well-known and beloved of folklore, and are categorized as a subgenre of folktales. Although such stories may contain fairies, most of the fairy tales do not. However, they do contain magic elements.
Prior to the eighteenth century fairy tales were such a common source of entertainment for both adults and children that they were for the most part, taken for granted, an unexamined part of the fabric of human existence. When Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm began to collect fairy tales in Germany in the early 1800s, as part of the Romantic Movement, they sought to preserve the oral tradition of the German people (von Franz, 1996). The Grimm brothers’ collection of tales was widely popular and triggered a surge of fairy tale collecting in several European nations. Immediately, recurrent themes in the collection of tales became evident.
Antti Aarne examined the tales collected by the Brothers Grimm and created a system for indexing folktales according to similar motifs, such as Beauty and the Beast tales (von Franz, 1996). Stith Thompson revised and expanded Aarne’s index, leading to a joint creation—The Types of the Folktale, which lists fairy tales as “Tales of Magic,” with the tale type numbers 300-749 (Jones, 2002). A review of the fairy tale motif yields some common structural features, despite the wide variety of tales that belong in the category.
According to Jones (2002), the fairytale is a narrative genre that has numerous variations, but also possesses basic characteristics. Primary among those characteristics is the inclusion of magical or marvelous occurrences as legitimate components of the human experience, in fact, the dimension of magic is central to the story. Jones explains that the protagonist is usually an ordinary individual with whom the reader/listener can identify and is typically a young person. Luthi (1976, 1970) adds that the protagonist is frequently from a remote segment of society. Typically, the protagonist embarks on a quest or must solve a problem that involves interacting with the magical realm thus validating the existence of magic in the world. The protagonist achieves success that affirms “the moral propriety of the universe,” (Jones, 2002, p. 30) so the messages are clear—generosity and kindness are rewarded, whereas greed and cruelty are punished. An example is the tale of the kind and unkind child in which the kind sister is rewarded by having diamonds fall from her mouth when she speaks, while her unkind sister is punished for her greedy and cruel nature when toads fall from her mouth. Finally, Jones contends that themes in fairy tales address life issues faced by audiences at differing stages of development and can be categorized by their focus on a particular audience. For an audience of young children, stories with themes that address parental abandonment, authoritarian parents, or sibling rivalry are especially meaningful. For the prepubescent child, themes of sexual maturation and overcoming obstacles to finding a mate are relevant. Jones (2002) believes that adult audiences react to tales whose themes address such issues as coping with marital strife or daily life.
Luthi examines both the style and symbolic meaning of fairy tales. In Once Upon a Time: On the Nature of Fairy Tales (1976), he argues that we are ambivalent about fairy tales, derogatively stating, “don’t tell me any fairy tales,” referring to lies, but also using the descriptor “like a fairy tale,” for that which is beautiful. He explains, “We love the fairy tale not only for its wisdom, but also for the manner in which it is told; its external appearance, which varies from people to people and from narrator to narrator, also delights us”
(p. 26). Luthi points out that a distinctive feature of the fairy tales’ external appearance is repetition, which generates a rigidity of form and intensifies the action at the same time that it provides an internal integrity of structure. Such repetition is evident in “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” where all three events occur in the same order, papa bear, mama bear and baby bear. However, repetition sometimes includes isolated episodes as seen in the story of “The Three Little Pigs.” Even though the third pig fools the wolf twice by going earlier than arranged to pick apples (or turnips), the wolf doesn’t manage to notice how he was being fooled in the first two episodes. The repetition of three also demonstrated fairy tales’ partiality toward certain numbers. The number three is evident in the previous examples, but other favored numbers, as Luthi observes, are seven, twelve, and one hundred. Other stylistic features of fairytales that Luthi highlights are characters who come from the edge of society, such as goose girls and princes (although this is not too surprising, considering the era in which these stories arose) and the use of extremes, such as giants and dwarves, lank hair versus beautiful tresses, punishment and rewards. The use of opposites coincides neatly with Levi-Strauss’ analysis of structured opposites in folklore (1967).
Luthi (1976) points out that certainty and sharpness are observable in fairy tales, thus objects are sharply defined, solid and clearly formed, as evident in a ring, a sword, or wooden objects. He states that “the fairy tale displays an imperishable world, and this explains the partiality for everything metallic and mineral, silver, gold…: (p. 45). Another feature Luthi describes is the absence of non-essential details in European fairy tales, which provides the fairy tale with its clarity and precision. He notes that monsters, for example, are not described in detail. An examination of most tales will reveal that the heroes and heroines are not given specific description besides being simple, clever, comely, or kind-hearted. Our image of Cinderella, for example, comes from illustrators or animators, not from the text of the fairy tale. Bettelheim (1976) contends that illustrations for fairy tales are distracting rather than helpful, reducing the child’s ability to infuse her own meaning in the tale.
In addition to sparse detail and objects that display permanence and solidity, Luthi (1976) observes that fairy tales exhibit a sharply defined course of action. Little description is attributed to characters or to their inner feelings; rather, relationships among characters is externalized. Objects frequently reveal the connections between characters. Thus, the ring that Princess Furball (Huck, 1994) slips into the soup she makes for the prince is one of the objects that makes her true identity known to him.
Another observation Luthi makes is that timing is always crucial in fairy tales (1976). The hero arrives at the last second; success is achieved in the nick of time. As an example of this trait, consider the Grimms’ tale of “The Seven Swans” where the sister who has maintained silence as part of the requirement for disenchanting her brothers and so cannot explain or defend herself, is knitting the last of the shawls for her brothers, the enchanted swans as a fire is being laid and lit at her feet just as the swans appear and she clothes them, breaking the spell.
Value of folk and fairy tales
Bruno Bettelheim uses a psychological approach to explain the nature and appeal of fairytales to young children. In The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales (1977), he claims that children’s intellectual growth is supported by traditional literature, such as legends and mythology that provide the child with an understanding of the world’s origins and heroes the child can emulate. Myths and fairy tales answer the questions, “What is the world like? How should I conduct myself in it?” (p. 45).
Bettelheim distinguishes between myths and fairy tales, however. He describes myths as pessimistic in tone and focused on success at a societal, rather than a personal level. The child understands that what happens to the hero in the myth will not happen to her. In fairy tales, on the other hand, the tone is optimistic, directed at the hero’s personal happiness, ends happily ever after, and the child sees that these occurrences and outcomes could apply to her, too.
Bettelheim (1977) explains that myth and fairy tales speak in symbolic language that represents unconscious content. Bettelheim posits that through this symbolic language, fairy tales assist children to discover their identity, their calling, and what they need to further develop their character. He states that in fairy tales internal psychological processes are externalized and become understandable to the child because they are represented by figures in the story. Thus, while fairy tales do not literally represent the external world, they capture the inner world that the young child does not have language or cognitive structures to understand or control. In Cinderella, for example, the child can feel justified in his feelings of jealousy for his siblings, and find confirmation for his belief that everything will turn out all right in the end. Even more importantly, children will see that as they grow up, their persistence in overcoming obstacles will be rewarded. Bettelheim proposes that fairy tales suggest that a good life is possible if children don’t avoid hazardous struggle. In addition, he suggests that children may learn to accept the valuable life lesson that appearances can be deceiving when they listen to tales in which a repulsive figure magically changes into a helpful friend.
Von Franz concurs that children readily identify and absorb the feeling of the story. She suggests that if children hear a story about a pitiable character, children with inferiority complexes will identify with that character and hope that they will also win a princess (or prince) in the end. This, she states, is as it should be, “it gives a model for living, an encouraging, vivifying model which reminds one unconsciously of all life’s positive possibilities” (1996, p. 73).
Appeal of fairytales
According to Bettelheim (1977), children trust the suggestions implicit in fairy tales because their portrayal of the world is in synchrony with children’s thought patterns. Researchers (Piaget, 1929; Rosengren & Hickling, 1994; Nemeroff, & Rozin, 2000; Woolley, 2000) differ in their explanation for the source, typical age, and precise nature of children’s magical thinking, but agree that children do engage in magical thinking, such as wish fulfillment or belief in supernatural beings or occurrences. Children can clearly relate to the granting and/or fulfillment of wishes that is an integral part of many fairy tales.
Bettelheim (1977) asserts that children are animistic in their thinking, as well. Thus, he contends, children believe that real or toy animals as well as inanimate objects could talk. Bettelheim proposes that, in concert with their egocentric nature, it is logical to children that these animals would talk about issues important to the child and would naturally want to help the child achieve her purposes. Since animals can roam the world freely, the child perceives them as appropriate companions and guides for the hero in a tale. Furthermore, since everything that moves is alive, the wind could carry a child where she wants to go as in the story, “East of the Sun, West of the Moon.” Even silent objects can come to life and give the hero advice (Bettelheim, 1977). The child projects her spirit onto others, and so it is believable that people can change into animals and vice versa (Bettelheim, 1977, p. 47).
Fairytales with themes of fulfilling wishes, winning out over all competition and destroying enemies are powerful stories because the tales express what we would censor in our daydreams and are unable to control in our dreams. The child who identifies with the hero who can perform magical deeds is able to compensate in fantasy for the limitations of his own young body. He can imagine that he, too, can climb into the clouds, defeat a heinous enemy and satisfy his wishes. Bettelheim (1977, p. 58) contends that a child is then more able in reality to accept his own real or imagined inadequacies. Repeated exposure to such fantasies helps children to internalize and discuss their understandings of themselves and the world that the fairy tale offers them.
Variations in fairy tales
Magic and fantastic occurrences take a variety of forms in fairy tales. Magical creatures, such as fairy godmothers, fairies, witches, and ogres can serve as helpers or hindrances, respectively. The classic example of the helper is the fairy godmother in Perrault’s version of Cinderella who clothes the child who is abused in her own home with the garments that befit her station in life. In the Grimm Brothers’ version of the story, birds come to Cinderella’s assistance, helping her to pick lentils from the ashes where her stepmother had cast them, with orders that Cinderella must remove them. When her stepmother still refuses to allow Cinderella to attend the ball, she goes to the tree growing at her mother’s grave and asks for clothes to wear to the ball. Luthi (1970) points out that Cinderella, rejected and humiliated by people, is helped by the natural world, the birds, a tree and even more, by the love of her deceased mother. Thus, he describes this tale as an initiation, where the hero endures cruelty and deprivation, but is called to a higher existence. It also addresses the matter of appearance and reality, and like the lentils the real is separated from the false with the assistance of magical beings and creatures.
“Hansel and Gretel” offers the image of a magical hindrance in the form of a witch who wants to eat the children. Luthi (1970) identifies the witch as an echo of the mother/stepmother who persuaded the children’s father to lose the children in the woods because there was not enough food for everyone. Thus, the mother takes the unnatural step of putting her own hunger before her children’s. After Gretel overcomes the evil witch by pushing her in the oven, the children return home to find the mother/stepmother gone, too.
Magical objects may provide protection, guidance, or sometimes, food to the heroes in fairy tales. A cooking pot that provides an endless supply of food appears in Strega Nona where Big Anthony, Strega Nona’s foolish assistant, wants to impress the townspeople by using her magic pasta pot, but he never learned the magic trick of turning it off, with predictable disastrous results, befitting one who not only behaves like a show-off, but also fails to understand the power of magic.
Magic may also take the form of an enchanted place, often above or below the earth. “Jack and the Beanstalk” takes place in a magical realm at the top of the beanstalk where Jack confronts an ogre and secures a comfortable future for himself and his mother. Bettelheim (1977) offers a Freudian analysis of this story as maturation from the oral stage (the cow dries up) to the phallic stage while working through the oedipal stage when Jack confronts the giant, a father figure. He observes that this story is a good example of a fairy tale allowing a child to understand, on an unconscious level, and gain assistance with a developmental stage without having to recognize the psychosexual interpretation of the story on the conscious level (pp. 190-191).
Enchantment is a classic form of magic in fairy tales. The story of “Beauty and the Beast” is an example of the animal-groom tale. Bettelheim (1977, p. 283) describes three typical features of this motif: The reason the groom was changed into an animal is unknown; a sorceress has enchanted the man and is not punished for doing so; and the father of the girl is responsible for turning her over to the animal groom, she willingly joins the beast out of obedience to her father. Bettelheim offers the suggestion that the long ago, unexplained enchantment refers to an early explanation by a mother that sex is taboo. For the beast to be disenchanted the girl must love him truly and be able to transfer to him her oedipal love for her father. Thus, Bettelheim supposes that since the beast is typically male (in Western culture), the tales imply that a happy union can only be achieved if the female is able to overcome her view of sex as loathsome and animal-like.
Zipes (2006) offers a socio-historical interpretation of “Beauty and the Beast” as a discourse on manners and social class. His interpretation of de Beaumont’s version of the tale identifies the beast as a genteel person of noble birth who asks Beauty, a virtuous member of the bourgeoisie, to be his wife. De Beaumont approved of the alliance between the bourgeoisie and aristocracy, but makes her views of strict codes of conduct evident. Beauty refuses the beast’s requests at first, but eventually assents so that a fairy appears and presents the handsome prince to her as the reward for her good choice of virtue over beauty and wit. In contrast, her sisters are turned to statues as warning against envy and spitefulness.
This brief examination of fairy tales provides evidence that fairy tales continue to have appeal for both children and adults. Part of the appeal of fairy tales is the opportunity to form a concept of how the world works and what our place should be in it. Although fairy tales were “just there,” for hundreds of years without examination, an integral part of everyday existence, now they are analyzed as literary works, for the benefits they offer to imaginative children and adults, for their contribution to human psychosexual development, and as indicators of socio-political context. Can they still offer the magic of story if one plumbs their depths? Does analysis desiccate the story? Surely, it is possible for listeners and readers to maintain a dual approach, scholarly at times, but also capable of being transported to a place where persistent struggle against adversity, with the help of a little magic, is rewarded and the reader can bring some of the magic back to the real world where challenges await and a little magic couldn’t hurt.
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