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The Irresistible Psychology of Fairy Tales

What can explain the recent explosion of interest in classic folk stories?

Hulton Archive / Getty Images

How can we parse our curious fascination with fairy tales, which persists while the times change and we change with them? The years between 2010 and 2015 have witnessed a spate of significant new books, including—over two centuries after the fact—the very first translation into English of the Grimm brothers’ original edition of fairy and folk tales, their 1812 Kinder- und Haus-Märchen, a collection far more terse, simple of language, and brutish than later editions, especially the 1857 edition most English readers have previously known. Jack Zipes, its eminent translator, additionally produced in 2015 a volume of new scholarship on their impact and afterlife: Grimm Legacies: The Magic Spell of Grimm’s Folk and Fairy Tales. The previous year, Marina Warner, too, brought forth Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale, in the pages of which breathless readers are swept away as if on a magic carpet and rewarded with intellectual adventures compressed into the tight Oxford series format.

To Warner, who has spent a lifetime pondering them, fairytales are “stories that try to find the truth and give us glimpses of greater things” and, she claims, “this is the principle that underlies their growing presence in writing, art, cinema, dance, song.” Truth in fairy tales matters also to Italo Calvino, another great lover of them, who, as Warner notes, deems them more honest than verismo because they own up to their fictitiousness. Yet others love fairy tales for the apparently opposite reason: novelist A.S. Byatt praises the “untrue” nature of fairy tale, by which I take her to mean its obvious magic, sorcery, and spells, its speaking cats (as in Puss in Boots) and its wish-granting fish (The Fisherman and his Wife), its avenging pigeons and enchanted trees (Cinderella), and its impossible plot twists resolved by uncanny metamorphoses that provide eerie yet satisfying “returns” to something both deeply known and unknown (The Frog King; The Frog Prince; The Summer and the Winter Garden, which is the Grimm brothers’ 1812 version of Beauty and the Beast).  All that seems clear. But in that case, wherein precisely lies fairy tale truth?

Zipes might argue that its truth stems from an engagement with its conditions of origin. As he has persuasively shown, both in his most recent book and in many previous ones, the tales reflect the cultures from which they sprang. When primogeniture held sway, for example, the tales gave rise to heroic roles for youngest sons, thereby compensating them in fancy for their poverty and for the devaluation they suffered in daily life. Similarly, under the terms of arranged marriage, fearful girls were soothed by monsters or slimy beasts who transformed at stories’ ends into loving princes and who thereby elevated young brides class-wise as well as gentling any anxieties fueled in them by their gendered destiny. This, in other words, is “truth” as a form of resistance to convention, a reversal of expectations: truth as social protest and as dreams come true.

Yet the core of fairy tales seems to reach deeper—well beyond the delights and shocks caused by improbable events and beyond the tough substrate of socio-political opposition in pre-modern Europe—towards a species of raw, non-contingent honesty and authenticity. It is through the sharply-focused lenses of psychology, particularly those of child development, and with many a debt to Marina Warner’s incomparable erudition and insight, that we can parse some whys and wherefores of our irresistible draw into these enchanted realms. 

Phillip Pullman, notable for His Dark Materials trilogy is not alone in believing that fairy tales bear no psychological heft and therefore call for no psychological discussion. “There is no psychology in a fairy tale,” he avers: “The characters have little inner life; their motives are clear and obvious.” And he goes on: “One might almost say that the characters in a fairy tale are not actually conscious.” Novelist A. S. Byatt apparently agrees, for she states that fairy tales “don’t analyse feelings.” Of course, this is superficially right. We are not privy to the inner worlds of Hans, Cinderella, or Little Conrad in the story of The Goose Girl. Indeed most fairy tale characters go unnamed; they perform no Shakespearean soliloquies; they do not ruminate aloud. Rather, they reveal their thoughts in action. But since when is action exempt from psychological scrutiny? And are there not fairy tale characters who do, on occasion, both wish and dream?

A postcard showing the golden goose from the fairy tale by the brothers Grimm.
Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Scholars, moreover, when pressed to consider the problem of motivation in fairy tales, tend to invoke fate, chance, inevitability and magic. Not psychology. They claim that tellers, hearers, and readers of the tales accept without question the sufficiency of fate, chance, inevitability or magic. Quite true. Yet, we must ask why. What inclines tellers, hearers, and readers to accept fate or magic as causal? What is it about fairy tale and the human psyche that enables this unquestioning acquiescence in a realm of discourse that defies ordinary modes of understanding and common sense? Even if there were nothing else to probe, there is this. And, indubitably, this is a psychological question.

Marina Warner touches on the matter in her chapter “The Worlds of Faery,” where she reminds us of the moment in theatrical versions of the modern fairy tale Peter Pan, when Tinkerbell is dying of the poison Captain Hook had intended for Peter, and audience members are asked to clap hands to save her if we believe in fairies. Children have no trouble with this, but adults clap sheepishly, if at all, while telling themselves they are doing so for the sake of the children. But the audience’s reactions go much deeper, and Warner strikes home when she claims the motivation for “these untrue stories” is “a need to move beyond the limits of reality.” This is a verity explored psychoanalytically by the notable French analyst Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel in 1984, when she writes, “Man has always endeavored to go beyond the narrow limits of his condition” (after which, however, she heads off in a different direction).

The acceptance of magic and fatedness in wonder tales can be fruitfully considered, I propose, from a child developmental perspective. If we take that point of view, we can understand that our vulnerability or susceptibility stems from a persistence in the mind of a receptivity we had when all the world was new. Fairy tale carries us back to this primordial kind of attention, the attention we gave the world when everything was “for the first time.” In earliest childhood, noticing and remarking matters most. Have you watched a small child gaze around, letting her eye be caught by this and that? Have you asked her to tell you about her day? The narrative will be disjunctive, lacking formal reason, yet filled with all that truly matters: filled what was seen, heard, tasted, touched, smelled, felt. The “why?” comes later. And of course such a way of perceiving is full of surprise: both unexpected delight and terror. Here is how a typical tale proceeds: Something happens. Then something else. Another occurrence. And another. And yet again another. But the nature and order of these events defy logic. Connections seem arbitrary if they exist at all and contiguous in a purely temporal register, with one experience simply following another.

Let’s take the Grimms’ Tale 42, in which a poor man with many children dreams he must ask the first person he sees to be their godfather. He does so, and the stranger gives him a bottle of water, which he says will cure a moribund individual if Death stands at the person’s head but not if Death stands at the person’s feet. The king’s child falls ill. Death stands at the child’s head; the poor man cures him. The king’s child falls ill again, and it goes the same way. The third time, Death stands at the foot of the bed; now the child dies. The poor man goes to tell the godfather. On the way, he notices a shovel and a broom quarreling. Next, he encounters a pile of dead fingers that also talk. Then, a pile of speaking skulls. Finally, he comes upon some fish who are frying themselves in a pan. Each group tells him to climb higher so as to find the godfather. The poor man does so and finally peeps through a keyhole, where he sees the godfather with a pair of long horns. The godfather hides under a blanket and, after interpreting the other visions, denies that he has horns: “Now, that’s just not true,” he says, and the story is over!

Vivian Gussin Paley, a distinguished MacArthur prize-winning writer on young children’s story creation and on their impromptu performances of their own stories, and Selma Fraiberg, beloved author of The Magic Years, a classic book on child psychology, would, I feel certain, detect in this tale the form of narration plotted by children who spring for vivid imagery with no concern for binding logic. Faerie employs a primordial mode of narration.

Little Red Riding Hood hides from the wolf in the forest.
Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Let’s make an anachronistic thought experiment and imagine Aristotle, in his unsurpassed treatise on poetics, analyzing the plot of Tale 42. Indubitably, he would characterize it as “post hoc,” rather than “propter hoc,” its events tumbling pell-mell, its paucity of causal logic, and the story ending up so far from where it begins. Trusting in reason and seeking to understand the elements of a refined, well-crafted plot, Aristotle would scarcely approve of this mode, or possibly he would treat it as comical, which, in part it is.

Turning the clock back even further than fourth century BCE Athens, again for just a moment, let’s consider Genesis. Genesis, like fairy tale, is paratactic: it strings events together by conjunctions absent the subordinate clauses that perform causality. Like faerie, Genesis yields minimal, non-elaborated stories. Its characters are never described in detail (we learn only that Leah had weak eyes), and we are no more privy to Adam’s feelings when Eve offers him the forbidden fruit than we are to the poor man-in-Tale-42’s feelings when he comes upon the blanketed godfather.

When characters are so scantly depicted, what makes us care about what happens to them? In the case of Hansel and Gretel, we do not even know how old they are meant to be, and every artist who has illustrated the tale has freely chosen their ages. How do these lacks affect our interest? Could it be in part that the lacunae prime our attention by giving us puzzles and riddles we feel drawn to solve?

I propose that, when confronted with texts of this kind, whether scriptural, mythical, or faerie, we are hooked not only by what is given, the positive imagery, but by the very gaps—“the negative spaces”—as we might say in visual arts. In this manner, the tales take on a projective valence, rather like a species of narrative inkblots. Meaning-making occurs through ongoing, evolving negotiations that are historically bound but highly idiosyncratic. For young children, the key word becomes “why?” plus its variants. Why is the king’s child sick? Why does Death stand at the foot of the bed? Who is Death? What happened to all the poor man’s own children? Why doesn’t he have a name? Why does the godfather have horns, and why does he say he doesn’t? A very young child will listen wide-eyed, an older child will pose questions, and an educated adult will feel impelled to criticize but with a gnawing deep-down feeling that the story merits attention and bears a species of uncanny truth. More anon concerning the uncanny.

Warner documents the process of meaning-making over time vis-à-vis fairy tales in her chapters “In the Dock” and “Double Vision.” She traces a plethora of feminist re-readings and ideological exposés that probe the stories for their patriarchal biases and subject them to ironic re-visionings and critiques. Especially poignant is her citing of Eva Figes’s 2003 description of reading fairy tales to her granddaughter. Because Figes’s own grandmother perished in the Nazi camps, she cannot bear the horrible fate of Red Riding Hood’s grandmother and avoids that story altogether. Cradling the little girl with her arm as she reads other tales, she points out details in the illustrations and takes care to allay incipient fears by explaining that witches do not really exist and, regarding Snow White, that women do not die today when babies are born, even though they did so once long ago. But of course, witches do exist and mothers do die in childbirth, even today, and what signifies here is the differential projection of Figes’s own life story into her rendition. Another nana would tell it differently. And in that case it would, and it would not, be the same story.

Marina Warner’s previous book, her masterful, monumental Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights, contains an interlude of special delight to psychoanalysts, for she describes there the figured oriental carpet that covered Freud’s analytic couch in Vienna. Conjuring it, she proceeds to link it with the ornamented tasseled flying carpets of antique Araby and suggests that an analysand who reclines supine on Freud’s carpeted couch with eyes closed is primed thereby to lift off into realms of unconscious fantasy. In just this manner, I wish to hint at links between psychoanalysis and fairy tale in the twinning of inward mental journeys and the ways these stories have of spiriting us off to fascinating, hitherto uncharted realms, which were there all the time, somehow.

The seven dwarves find Snow White asleep in their bedroom.
Hulton Archive / Getty Images

In Once Upon a Time, Warner includes “On the Couch,” a chapter in which she acknowledges the relevance of psychoanalysis for fairy tales but reveals a certain ambivalence by adding a flippant subtitle, borrowed from Angela Carter: “House-Training the Id.” The chapter begins with a measured appreciation of Bruno Bettelheim’s iconic study, The Uses of Enchantment (1976), in which, in my view, Bettelheim dons hand-blown German antique spectacles, seedy and wavy, that permit vision but impel distortion. He uses them to read a chosen set of European fairy tales, including Little Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty, and so on, for their sexual and developmental themes, sometimes in a ham-handed way, for subtlety is not his forte. Yet, Warner’s assessment of his work seems wise, fair-minded, and charitable, for Bettelheim became notorious rather quickly for his alleged reductionism, and he has been mercilessly satirized for exemplifying the excesses of psychoanalytic zealotry. Generously and tactfully, Warner realizes there is much of value to be gleaned from his book.

A point Bettelheim overlooked is that fairy tales can be regarded as psychologically interesting in form as well as in content.  Their mode of narration, the structure of the stories, matters as much as the imaginary psychic lives of specific characters.  A key concept here is Freud’s notion of the uncanny, by which he meant the way in which familiar objects and events and people can suddenly seem strange and vice versa. This is of course part of the strategy at play in Tale 42. Selma Fraiberg, previously mentioned, has gracefully shown how the first few years of life are inevitably “uncanny” for children, a topic noted and often brilliantly exploited by the finest children’s book authors and illustrators.  An example would be Russell Hoban and Garth Williams, Bedtime for Frances, where the title character, a little girl badger, in the dark at night, sees her bathrobe thrown over a chair and thinks it a giant that has come to “get” her. The uncanny has connections, moreover, with the absurd and with notions of epistemological uncertainty. We accept the irrational elements of faerie and its enchantments in the same way we acknowledge that parts of our minds are unconscious—unknown and unknowable to us—and yet very much there, extant, real, true, significant.

If, by the term “psychological,” we mean relevance for mental life in its entwined cognitive and affective functioning, we are right to invoke it here, for fairy tales speak directly and indirectly to the psyche. They stimulate rainbows of feeling, insatiable curiosity, and inexhaustible searches for meaning. Psychology, moreover, pace Bettelheim, Pullman, and others concerns more than the so-called imaginary inner lives of characters; it concerns the experience of listeners and readers. Year after year, we still need to know what will happen to Cinderella and Rapunzel, to Jack, to the man who needed a godfather, and to the unnamed youngest daughter who asked her father for a rose. Beyond glittering imagery of silver and golden-haired princesses, roses, shiny keys, and iron caskets, thorns, and fry-pans, we are pulled by our deep yearning for, and terror of, that which defies understanding. Beyond sense and beyond justice and morality, the fairy tales beckon us and we sit on the edge of our chairs waiting to find out what lies ahead—even when we have heard the tale a dozen times before. 

Lead image: A postcard showing the princess from the fairy tale ‘The Frog Prince’ by the brothers Grimm.