As I watch Disney’s precarious sense of womanhood evolve, I am finding deeper messages in fairy tales. Like “sacred texts”containing symbolism and moral meaning, they seem to speak to our unconscious selves, our primal minds, with precise imagery and universal morals.
Fairy tales – like folk tales – are charged with popular wisdom. A wisdom that doesn’t necessarily come from a God, a saint or a myth, but from the deepest parts of the collective human psyche. They are in a sense, humanity’s practical way of understanding the meaning of life and death, the inevitability of change, the presence of danger and the despair of tragedy. They aim at deciphering two fundamental concerns from the beginning of times: Why do we suffer? Why is there evil in this world?
The Bible, the Torah, The Quran, the Vedas, among thousands of thousands of sacred, mythological and religious texts, have delved into these two questions. And so do Fairy Tales. Over and over in every single one of them, the quest for happiness, the transcendence of the human spirit through hardship and the face of evil, emerge with the simplest of morals: growing up in this world is dangerous and it hurts, but if you navigate the dark forests with integrity and a pure heart, you can achieve happiness. Virtue pays off.
Folk and later on fairy tales, were about teaching people – especially children going into adolescence, how to deal with necessities, passions, fears, selfishness, jealousy, sexuality and social behavior, maintaining a moral order. They tackled the need of children to adapt to the social world while navigating complex, psychological problems such as Oedipal conflicts, narcism, frustration, dependency and sibling rivalry. Because of these aspects of the fairy tale, both Piaget and Jung considered fairy tales to have a therapeutic effect on children.
“Hansel and Gretel” – Reflects upon incest and cannibalism. It originated in the Middle Ages, when famines were frequent and cannibalism a very real danger. But like “Little Red Riding Hood”, it is also a story of cautionary awareness for children. At a time when orphans were a common population within communities, people took to themselves to “socially raise” these children, to fit into society (A practice humanity has seemed to have forgotten unfortunately) and used these folk tales to address growing up issues.
“Cinderella” – (originally a Chinese tale from the 9th century hence the importance of small feet to preserve virtue) is the quintessential fairy tale story. Even though the magic of the tale presents us with the optimism of believing that dreams do come true, Cinderella is actually about low self-esteem and dealing with – very common in childhood feelings of unworthiness. In the original story, Cinderella doesn’t sit and cry in rags, waiting for a Fairy Godmother. She goes to her mother’s tomb and reconnects with the time in her life when she was “loved”, when she was “appreciated” and this gives her the strength to overcome and “come out from the ashes”. She takes HERSELF to the ball, not once, but three times. The first night dressed in silk, the second in silver and the third in gold. Each night, leaving before midnight, each time being more desirable to the Prince. She finds her own value in this ritual and the more she values herself, the more the Prince values her. (Take THAT Walt Disney!) Cinderella addresses sibling rivalry, helping children cope with secret fears that parents love their siblings more. Children undergoing sibling issues, experience feelings of unworthiness and dirtiness and Cinderella serves as a vehicle for catharsis.
“Sleeping Beauty” – My least favorite fairy tale as a child. But now, as I became a woman, a mother and a wife, leaving my adolescent self behind, I see the importance of this tale, that addresses the sacred feminine and the “beautiful” cycle in a woman’s life.
From baby to girl, to young lady to woman. A flower that blooms for the sole purpose of reflecting the beauty of life. A flower that blooms to give life. The pricking of the finger, symbolizes the coming of menstruation. The time a girl becomes a woman. Originally, the fairies giving gifts to baby Aurora (from the latin word for “dawn”) were 12. Like the 12 months of the year and the 12 years it takes for a girl to have her first bleeding. The king wouldn’t invite a 13 fairy because of the bad omen, so the snubbed fairy turned evil. Enter: Maleficent, who curses the child to prick her finger and fall into a deep hundred years sleep, a sleep she would only be awaken from by the kiss of a prince who comes in true love. The witch is not cursing Aurora only, she is cursing the king by not letting him have a descendant. A clear moral to young beautiful girls, who menstruate at the ages of 12 to 13, that when the time comes to find love, they should remain pure and chaste and wait for true love to share the reproductive powers of menstruation.
Once Upon a Time- an indicator that the story is not to be taken literary, that the core moral of the story is the message to learn, but at the same time, that the story did happen “once” and if it did, then it can happen again.
Forests- forests in fairy tales evoke our inner world, conscious and unconscious, our deepest emotions. Forests are a representation of the darkness one has to overcome to evolve as human beings: the ultimate meaning of existence.
Witches, Evil Stepmothers and the Like– there are many theories regarding the evil sorcerers, narcissistic, cannibalistic witches in fairy tales. My first reaction to these, was that it seems as if evil is always represented as women in fairy tales, but when you look into the complete works of the Grimm Brothers or Hans Christian Anderson, you see that there are a lot of lesser knowns stories, where sometimes, not that many, but sometimes, evil characters are men, wolves, etc. Witches and the figure of the sorcerer is an ancient archetype of the female personality. One that is not easy to unravel and would take a whole blog post of its own, but the idea that a woman has secret powers or a “6th sense”, which can turn dangerous when she is wronged or angry … is a well-known archetype that we all got to witness at one point or another. But the moral in these characters lies in the fact that they are evil because their motives are selfish, narcissistic and materialistic. In Jungian psychology, the witches symbolize the destructive power of our unconscious. They are in the story telling us that if we go for the wrong motives, if we let our fear, passion, narcissism, greed posses us, those can destroy us.
A post from my favorite procrastinating blog: http://listverse.com/2009/01/06/9-gruesome-fairy-tale-origins/
A brilliant youtube interview: