Fairy Tales - Contents  Click to go back to MousePlanet main page
 Discussion Boards | Reviews | News | Trip Planning | Shop | Travel | Site Map
Fairy Tales
A closer look at those familiar yarns
Look in: MousePlanet WWW

Kevin Yee

Theory & Method

First, a disclaimer. Today's article has little to do with Disney directly. It sets the stage, however, for the type of argument used thus far on the fairy tales, and informs you of the type of argument that will be used going forward in looking at the other Disney tales. Feel free to skip it if you like (as well as the next one, though that one is more humorous). Now we rejoin your lecture, already in progress!

Both Perrault and the Grimms enjoyed contemporary success as bestselling authors, so it was inevitable that their collections would receive critical attention almost from the start. For many years, French and German scholars bought into the notion that Perrault and the Grimms simply collected the tales without altering them, though we now know that Perrault very likely doctored his stories to match the royal court life he was used to, and that the Grimms used a set of entirely literate sources, all of whom were acquainted with the earlier Perrault tales.

Nevertheless, it is this implicit belief that the tales represented a kind of national social zeitgeist that propelled the enduring popularity for each collection. French people took pride in the apparent origin of the tales in France, while the supposed "Germanness" of the Grimms collection were used to withstand morally both the advances of Napoleon and the unification of Germany into an actual country rather than assorted dukedoms in the late 1800s.

Theory & Method

Out of this tradition -- or more precisely, out of both traditions -- arose the notion that perhaps the tales pointed to commonalities across the human existence, transcending the boundaries of nations and cultures. Thus was born the folklorist approach, which holds as its central tenet that there are so many common fairy tales worldwide (indeed, there is something of a Japanese Cinderella story that is in no way contaminated by the Perrault version) that there must be something inherent in the human condition in these tales. Studying the tales thus gives social scientists insight into the human mind and the nature of our existence.

That's the theory anyway. The fact that the Japanese "Cinderella" story is completely different in tone, message, and style means very little to folklorists, but all the difference in the world to many others. Or course there are similarities and coincidences. But a story that mentions feminine shoe- fitting is not uncommon, particularly in a country that to this day prizes small feet as a sign of high birth.

The introduction to the world in the early 1900s of Sigmund Freud's theories had a profound impact on a number of fields of study beyond psychology. Literary studies, for example, underwent a kind of renaissance, as texts were re- discovered to suddenly hold hidden meaning. Eventually, in 1975, a practicing child psychologist (and ardent Freudianist) named Bruno Bettelheim published The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. Bettelheim took as his central thesis the ludicrous idea that children, when hearing fairy tales such as those by the Grimms, innately divined the actual, hidden messages about sexuality in the stories: Rapunzel was imprisoned in a large male- like structure, the dwarves were to be seen as stunted male organs who worked deep in holes all day for a living, and the slipper and blood that come from all the toe- cutting in Cinderella "reveals" a pre- pubescent fear of menstruation, and so on.

Theory & Method

That's not the shocking part, though. Indeed, his ideas are par for the course for a Freudian. And his notion that the tale's model problem- solving behavior is probably on- target, though the focus on sexuality is misplaced. The real shocking part is that Bettelheim is always the scholar quoted whenever fairy tales are mentioned in newspapers and book reviews! [Amusingly, this is the same generation that banned "Little Red Riding Hood" as recently as 1989 in a few California schools for the appearance of alcohol in the story.] One wonders if the reporters and book reviewers have ever actually picked up Bettelheim to read the book!

Freud's teachings spawned entire industries, and just as Freud's theories led to an immediate successor in the form of Carl Jung, so too did the Freudian analysis yield to a Jungian analysis of texts. For Jungians, the interest is not so much the messages of the tales themselves, but rather that the tales correlate with others throughout the world so well as to reveal the "Collective Unconscious" that is such a cornerstone of Jung's theories. As such, Jungian analysis of fairy tales is highly similar to the folklorist approach, in that both seek to confirm an "outside" theory and are less concerned with the ultimate individual messages of the tales.

More recent scholarship has provided some interesting new directions for analysis. Historians such as Eugen Weber began to look at history from the "bottom up" -- peasants and their writings, rather than that of kings and scholars. The results were striking, and shed much light on the motivations for fairy tales, their intended messages, and their likely reception. Much of what we have done in this column in terms of "peasant messages" has been informed by Weber's approach that the world of the fairy tales is actually a reflection of the harsh peasant reality. Children were actually Hansel- and- Gretlified in real life, because peasants were too poor to feed the entire family.

Weber concludes that a careful reading of Grimms reveals hunger, poverty, death, danger, fear, and chance--this is not just a symbolic representation of the unconscious mind as Bettelheim would suggest, it reflects the actual reality of people in the nineteenth century who feared bandits and wild beasts and the dangers of human desires and appetites. Think about Hansel and Gretel, whose family is so starving they abandoned their own children. What do they find? A house that is edible -- here is wish fulfillment realized in physical form! But what they eat once welcomed by the witch, regardless of what you may have read in grammar school, was just food: milk, pancakes, apples, and nuts.

Mother Goose is another great example of peasant realities. "Peas porridge in the pot, nine days old" -- think about that. First, it sounds like a revolting concoction to modern ears, but to peasants it was necessary to sustain them. And the "nine days old" part? I suspect that "leftovers" is a term the peasants were very familiar with. The term "Mother Goose," incidentally, traces its history back to France. The terms appears a few decades before Perrault but is not heavily used. Apparently, it referred to an elderly, spinster- type woman who would tell stories. Perrault's collection was titled "Histories and Tales of Long Ago," but the frontispiece bore a picture of an old woman and the words "Contes de la Mere l'Oye" (tales by Mother Goose). The term made it into English when John Newbery took it for his 1760 collection of children's rhymes -- not fairy tales -- and has resonated more strongly in English ever since for rhymes rather than for fairy tales.

Theory & Method

One final approach in recent years has yielded significant fruit when examining the tales: scholarship inspired by feminist inquiry has refocused attention on the sex and gender roles in the tales. Without this new emphasis, we might not have noticed that the tales seem, in general, to be a type of "Women's Literature": told by older, experienced women to younger, vulnerable women often warning the younger female of the dangers posed by men's sexual desires, the harsh realities of the world, and even the dangers of female competition and envy (we need look no further than Snow White and Cinderella to see ample evidence of the latter). Indeed, the very fact that most main characters in the tales are female heroines underscores the point. Do female heroines in Disney movies -- Cinderella, Ariel, Snow White, Briar Rose, Belle -- have different goals in life from male heroes -- Mowgli, Pinocchio, Aladdin, Hercules?

These five approaches -- folklorist, Jungian, Freudian, historical, and feminist -- constitute the bulwark of fairy tale criticism, though as a rule we will use only the last two (and occasional Freudianism -- he wasn't all loony) when looking at the fairy tales a

We have one more stop to make before we rejoin the Disney films, and then I promise we won't depart them again until were all the way done. But I think you will like the next installment; it is a brief discussion of modern, non- Disney attempts (some quite humorous!) and an overview- slash- investigation of exactly what constitutes a fairy tale [hint: yes, "Star Wars" is a fairy tale].


Grimms - published their fairy tales in 1812 / 1814, with an unpublished and unedited collection of raw stories in 1810

Perrault - published his tales in France, 1697.

Click Here to Pay Learn MoreAmazon Honor System