From the days of yore, from far off lands, heard told by mysterious people – gypsies, I believe – is a story so fantastic most question the truth in it the first time they hear it, especially if it is after a pint or two at the Olde Towne Pub. Yet, when coming home in the mists, when the mind is weary, the horse is plodding, and the shadows are deep the dark of the dense forest; the mind will replay the story, however fantastically dismissed only an hour before. Most will begin to glance at fallen tree trunks, boulders covered with moss, odd shapes in the dark woods and with thoughts of the tale they just heard. Moreover, their steps will likely quicken to find their way to lantern and homestead, for however one may fancy good fortune from the like of fairies or benevolent leprechauns, it is another reality to entangle fates with witches, trolls, or violent beasts. Thus is the power of The Fairy Tale.
A fairy tale type of short story normally for children which typically features fantasy characters, such as witches, goblins, trolls, demons, mermaids, royalty, gnomes, or giants, and usually includes magic or enchanted feats. Fairy tales are found in oral and in literary form, are also used to describe tales blessed with unusual happiness or romance, as in “fairy tale ending” and can also refer to a story so far-fetched as to be a tall-tale or a ‘fairy story.’ Fairy tales differ from legends in the ‘once upon a time’ aspect as opposed to actual places, people, or times. For instance, the tale of Cinderella is a fairy tale while the tale of Davy Crocket at the Alamo is legend.
Of course, Psychology has turned to fairy tales in an effort to understand the human mind. This is accomplished by examining the characters in the stories. As many fairy tales hinge upon a revelation of the truth about those who have been somehow disguised, also the tales reveal disguise behind the human psyche.
Sigmund Freud believed that dreams and fairy tales came from a relaxed state that was a window into the unconscious. For Carl Jung, the theory of ‘collective unconscious’ was revealed by universal forms and symbols, known as archetypes, found in ample evidence in fairy tales. Another well known psychologist to use fairy tale in psychology is Bruno Bettelheim, who published Uses of Enchantment in 1976. Bettelheim believed that fairy tales are a tool for children learning to navigate reality and survive in a world ruled by adults.
Hans Christian Anderson, Brothers Grimm, and Mother Goose had been our primary fairy tale authors until Golden Books and Disney took up the challenge. The regular formula cast women as pawns, waif or wicked, powerless to their own design, men subservient to their class, and children as chattel. The Golden and Disney folks cleaned up the blood and guts off scene. Disney added animation, music, theme parks …and a cult was born.
Cult is not overstating it, if you are female. Princess and bride are what you desire more than air after seeing these films as a little girl. Perhaps it was all that psychologizing of our archetypes, Barbie dolls, Hugh Hefner Playboy Empire, and the onset of the women’s movement, but people began to realize that perhaps young girls might deserve other messages.
There was this ‘radical’ notion in literature and in Hollywood (also in psychology by Narrative Psychologist Michael White) that fairy tales could be rewritten to suit our modern sensibilities and would serve as culturally liberating and valuable. Even Disney is now making stronger, multicultural feminine heroines and more supportive male heroes who are less violent and more sensitive.
This weekend’s film release Mirror, Mirror, a modern retelling of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs features Lily Collins as Snow White and Oscar®-winner Julia Roberts as the evil Queen is a wonderful example of mixing elements of the classic fairy tale with modern values. The effect is hilarity and positive moral values for all. Snow White is transformed from low self-esteem to a strong positive role model. She reforms the dwarfs, saves the poor towns folk, reclaims her royalty, saves the prince and king, banishes the wicked queen, gets her man, and looks great all the while. Not an ounce of passivity, all power and respect!
As a study in re-writing fairy tales, ABC’s unique series Once Upon A Time is a most fabulous undertaking. The writers have made a brilliant premise, the inhabitants of our fairy tales have been cast into the modern day by the wicked queen without memory of their previous lives, just vague purpose. Incredible back stories have been given over the season explaining the ‘hows and whys’ of so many of our fairy tale happenings. Also, in this case the characters are not the passive pawns they seemed when I was a child, they are strong and resilient.
Of course, there are plenty of other fairy tales rewritten, too numerous to list them all, but I shall mention a few more. Ever After with Drew Barrymore is a delightful retelling of the Cinderella fairy tale, as is Pretty Woman with Julia Roberts and Richard Gere, and Once Upon A Mattress with Carol Burnett (The Princess and the Pea) is still hilarious. I’ll stop but I could keep listing!
The point is fairy tales are a part of our cultural consciousness, that’s why they are such a rich source material. When you call someone a ‘snake,’ a ‘wolf,’ or a ’witch,’ there is no mistaking your tone….that is due to the influence of those stories, rather than personal experience with snakes, witches, or wolves! That is the power of fairy tale.
Gail-Elaine Tinker, M.S. is a Psychotherapist in the Lehigh Valley PA who often uses Narrative Therapy technique among other positive therapeutic methods in her private practice. For more information please visit her website www.tinkerpsychotherapy.com.