Alert and properly educated readers will realize that, aside from hero legends, myths, tragic drama, and the Bible, the basic pattern of the Dymphna complex is well-represented in another great branch of literature.
It is the motif of many fairy tales. It is almost in itself the essential fairy tale. Multiple tales collected in Scotland, France (Peau d’Ane), Germany (All-Kinds-of-Fur), and Italy (Doralice) even begin with the same motif of the king who wishes to “marry” his daughter, and her flight to escape.
What are these fairy tales, and where do they come from?
The source is usually said to be mysterious. It is often asserted that nobody really knows how or where these stories arose; their origins are lost in the mists of time. But one thing we do know: they were never until recently intended for children.
Bollocks, piffle, and codswallop.
It is perfectly clear where these stories came from, and every literary compiler has attested to it.
They were created by Mother Goose.
And they were intended from the start to instruct children.
The argument that they were not originally meant for children is based on the realization that the original stories were full of violence, cases of stern revenge, and vague sexual allusions. For example, in the original Rapunzel, the witch stepmother discovers that Rapunzel has been secretly meeting someone when the girl’s belly begin to grow.
The first edition of Grimms’ Fairy Tales includes this short tale:
“There once was a father who slaughtered a pig, and his children saw that. In the afternoon, when they began playing, one child said to the other, ‘you be the little pig, and I'll be the butcher.’ He then took a shiny knife and slit his little brother’s throat.
Their mother was upstairs in a room bathing another child, and when she heard the cries of her son, she immediately ran downstairs. Upon seeing what had happened, she took the knife out of her son’s throat and was so enraged that she stabbed the heart of the other boy, who had been playing the butcher. Then she quickly ran back to the room to tend to her child in the bathtub, but while she was gone, he had drowned in the tub. Now the woman became so frightened and desperate that she did not allow the neighbors to comfort her and finally hanged herself. When her husband came back from the fields and saw everything, he became so despondent that he died soon after.”
That story is obviously not suitable for children, is it?
Accordingly, throughout the 19th century and into the 20th, fairy tales were progressively bowdlerized to make them more civilized and proper. Sexual references were struck. Violence was deleted. Pagan things were pulled out—the Grimms did not like fairies, and turned them all into “wise women.”
Now, every several years, someone issues a new edition of the original tales and trumpets how shocking they really were. Great gambit; it gets headlines in the media every time.
It is, however, fallacious to think that our concept of childhood has not changed since these tales were composed. It obviously has; most notably since the beginning of the 19th century, when romanticism began to cast a golden glow over this first age of man. In 1804, Wordsworth published “Intimations of Immortality from Memories of Early Childhood.” The title sums it up. Rousseau saw adulthood as a fall from original grace. Childhood was paradise, said the romantics, spoiled by growing up. Children are innocent, and as long as possible ought to stay innocent, for this is a time of blessedness. It is a time without cares, where all is unicorns and rainbows. They should be protected from the bitter realities of the world. It is abuse to reveal to them that the world is not really so.
As you track back into the past, this ideal of childhood innocence vanishes.
Nor, frankly, did it ever make self-evident sense. Peter Pan to the contrary, children do need to grow up. It is as well to educate them about the world.
So it is reasonable to accept that the stories were always meant for little lisping ones. Useful advice: do not slit your brother’s throat. Adults may freak out.
Nor should we assume the original stories were unbearably traumatic to tiny listeners. Real kids like the bloodthirsty stuff. Even today, they favour tales of pirates, vampires, and witches, they dress to scare for Hallowe’en, and they have no problems with seeing Wil. E. Coyote executed in almost every cartoon.
It is the adults who must be shielded from it all. It shatters a common grown-up illusion: that childhoods are happy. It is perhaps too distressing to admit that for many children, they are not.
W.B. Yeats, the greater poet, recalls in his memoirs with gratitude his great uncle’s observation: “We should not make light of the troubles of children. They are worse than ours, because we can see the end of our trouble and they can never see any end.” Yeats remembers this as the great consolation of his own childhood. For he was aware of being terribly unhappy.
“I know that I am very unhappy and have often said to myself, ‘when you grow up, never talk as grown-up people do of the happiness of childhood.’ I may have already had the night of misery when, having prayed for several days that I might die, I had begun to be afraid that I was dying and prayed that I might live” (Yeats, Reveries over Childhood and Youth, NY: Macmillan, 1916, p. 2).
Fairy tales offer the same consolation. They cut through all the adult BS. Honesty is healing.
That the original audience for the tales was indeed children is demonstrated by the simple fact that the protagonists of the tales are always children or adolescents. Or talking animals.
They teach important lessons on the dangers of the world: dangers about which children might otherwise, indeed, be ignorant, to their peril. The dangers are real, and need if possible to be avoided or overcome.
Consider, for example, “Little Red Riding Hood.” Could the lesson be more obvious? Do not dawdle at your task; do not talk to strangers; do not easily accept appearances.
Perrault’s “Cinderella” gives another good lesson: young ladies should never stay at a party too late. All their glamour and mystery may be lost.
Hansel and Gretel learn not to accept candy from strangers. Wouldn’t you teach your children the same?
|Rackham: Hansel and Gretel|
In surgically excising the sex and violence, we are diminishing their value as cautionary tales; as well as draining them of excitement and entertainment value. As well as withholding sympathy for the suffering some child listeners experience.
It is almost as though adults want to keep children easy prey to any adult predators that come along. Or to avoid admitting the sins of adults.
There is a modern literary sort of fairy tale, with wonderful writers such as Hans Christian Anderson or Oscar Wilde composing new stories in the old tradition. But the redactors of the original tales always say they come from serving women. These were stories told by nannies and maidservants to the children of the better-off, and probably by village grannies to the poor.
“Amor and Psyche,” recorded by Apuleius in the 2nd century AD, is often called the first fairy tale. It may at least be the first true fairy tale put down in literary form. Apuleius introduces it, inevitably, as an “old woman’s fable” (Apuleius, The Golden Ass, trans. Thomas Taylor, London: Triphook and Rugg, 1822, p. 66).
Madame d'Aulnoy, who coined the term “fairy tale” (contes de fées) in the 17th century, “regarded their source as the tales that servants, or other women of lower class, would tell to children” (Wikipedia). “Mother Goose,” his anonymous source, is Charles Perrault’s portrait of the typical peasant matron. De Beaumont introduces “Beauty and the Beast” as a story told to children by their governess; an earlier version of the tale by Villeneuve is told by a chambermaid to an emigrant on a ship to America.
The brothers Grimm identify their source as Dorothea Viehmann, of Kassel, another peasant woman. Later critics have challenged this, and said that they acquired many of their tales from their relatives. But these are not contradictory claims. Did the various Grimms invent the tales? Or did they all have Viehmann as their nanny?
Fairy tales are an oral tradition. That is why their age and authorship cannot be determined. They preserve the wisdom of the working classes who could not read or write. They offer in particular the views of working class women. This explains why heroines rather than heroes predominate. They are aimed at children, because children were the female charge; the men were more likely off tilling fields, trading wares, digging ditches, or otherwise engaged. In a preliterate society these tales were, along with religious traditions, the child’s essential education. They still serve that purpose, if they are passed on.
And one of the lessons they teach is the danger of an abusive parent or other adult.
Consider only the best-known English lullaby: “Rock-a-Bye Baby.” It seems cryptic and unsuitable. What is a baby doing swinging from a tree branch in the wind? Is that good parenting? Might he not fall?
He does fall.
Surely there is some dark reference here.
When baby Zeus is rescued, in the Greek account of the children of Cronus, and a stone substituted to trick his father out of devouring him, Amalthea hangs his cradle on a tree on Mount Ida so that Cronus, who had a god’s supernatural senses, “might find him neither in heaven, nor on earth, nor in the sea” (Graves, The Greek Myths, p. 23; Hyginus, Fabulae 139). The child is provisionally safe in this green world, asleep—until and unless he should fall to the earth.
The lullaby present this as the existential crisis facing every newborn child. Will his parents destroy him?
It is not, understand, the parents singing this lullaby, to alert their children to these dangers. It is the nanny or the nurse; Amalthea. The fairy tales would not have been related by the parents. They would be told by a serving woman or a village elder: by Mother Goose, or Nan, or by the child’s godmother.
Let us look at some of the more famous tales, and isolate the elements of our Dymphna legend. It will not be hard.
1. The father is king, the mother is queen, the child a prince or princess; or this is the story of a prominent family
As every fan of Disney knows, the protagonist of any fairy tale is always a princess.
Psyche is indeed a princess. Sleeping Beauty is a princess. The Grimms’ “Twelve Brothers” are princes, and their sister a princess. Snow White is a princess. Cinderella’s father, in Perrault’s tale, while not a king, is a nobleman. In Baroness d’Aulnoy’s similar “Finette Cendron,” the parents are royals down on their luck.
|Beauty and the Beast|
Belle in “Beauty and the Beast” is not a princess, but her father is most conspicuous for his wealth. Of her and her two sisters, de Beaumont writes, “As it was known that they were great fortunes, several eminent merchants made their addresses to them; but the two eldest said, they would never marry, unless they could meet with a duke, or an earl at least.” Point made.
In Rumpelstiltskin, the heroine comes from a poor family. But the cause of her difficulties is still a king.
“The king” may represent more generally a greedy, controlling person, someone who acts as if they are a king, and one who, as a parent, holds absolute power over the protagonist.
Hearing that the girl can spin straw into gold, the king in Rumpelstiltskin locks her in a tower until she does so. But when she succeeds, it is not enough.
“By daybreak the king was already there, and when he saw the gold he was astonished and delighted, but his heart became only more greedy.”
The king, then, represents someone whose governing characteristic is an insatiable covetousness.
Cinderella’s stepmother in Perrault’s tale is not a queen, but a similar, queen-like temperament is noted:
“Once upon a time there was a nobleman, who took for a second wife the haughtiest and proudest woman that had ever been seen.”
The parent, in short, is narcissistic. This is how and why all the troubles begin.
2. The victim is beautiful, handsome, intelligent; he or she is exceptional.
This is another possible reason for the heroine being a princess: it is a way of showing her as exceptional. This is an entirely unnecessary hypothesis, though. If your father is a king, you are a princess.
Sleeping Beauty—Briar Rose—is given all the graces at birth: “the gifts of the wise women were plenteously fulfilled on the young girl, for she was so beautiful, modest, good-natured, and wise, that everyone who saw her was bound to love her” (Grimms, “Briar Rose”).
In “Beauty and the Beast,” Beauty is Belle’s defining characteristic. “When she was little everybody admired her, and called her ‘The little Beauty’; so that, as she grew up, she still went by the name of Beauty” (i.e., “Belle”—de Beaumont). She is also remarkable for her virtue and intelligence. “She spent the greatest part of her time in reading good books.”
Snow White is “as beautiful as the day,” and, as the magic mirror says, “the fairest of them all.” “Little Red Riding Hood” begins: “Once upon a time there lived in a certain village a little country girl, the prettiest creature who was ever seen” (Perrault). The princess in “All-Kinds-of-Fur” “was more beautiful than anyone who had ever been seen on earth” (Grimm). Of the heroine in “East of the Sun, West of the Moon”: “there was no end to her loveliness.” (Lang).
|East of the Sun, West of the Moon|
When Cinderella arrives at the prince’s ball, “There was immediately a dead silence; the dancing stopped, and the fiddlers ceased to play, so engaged did everyone become in gazing upon the wonderful beauty of the unknown lady.” Her sisters describe the mysterious guest as “the most beautiful princess—the most beautiful that ever was seen” (Perrault). She is also talented. Her sisters rely on her advice in dressing for the ball, and have her do their hair.
Hair? Rapunzel has a great head of hair. But more than that, according to the Grimms, she “grew into the most beautiful child under the sun.” She too is talented—so much so as to make a prince fall in love with her sight unseen:
“He heard a song, which was so charming that he stood still and listened. This was Rapunzel, who in her solitude passed her time in letting her sweet voice resound. The singing had so deeply touched his heart, that every day he went out into the forest and listened to it.”
The unnamed heroine of Rumpelstiltskin, simply described as “beautiful,” is tormented because of her father’s boasts of her skill and intelligence.
Hansel demonstrates, by his trick with the white pebbles, that he is especially clever and resourceful. He shows cleverness again in offering a bone in place of his finger to the nearsighted witch, to make her believe he is not yet fat enough to eat.
In Irish tradition, it is the exceptional child—the precocious or the beautiful one—who is likely to be abducted by the fairies. Lady Wilde writes: “The Sidhe often strive to carry off the handsome children, who are then reared in the beautiful fairy palaces under the earth, and wedded to fairy mates when they grow up” (Lady Francesca Wilde, Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland, 1887).
Is this not the same story, told from the fairy, rather than the human, perspective?
But what its the dynamic here?
In the fairy tales, it is usually the beauty or intelligence of the heroine or hero that leads to their suffering. And the motive is usually jealousy or envy, as Burton suggests in the frontispiece to “Anatomy of Melancholy.” Nobody likes to accept the existence of another who is smarter or better looking than they are. It is a blow to the ego. The person whose existence causes this blow is liable to be hated, regardless of what they do or don’t do. Too bad for them if they are under your control. And you are a narcissist.
Usually, although not always, the jealousy or greed is on the part of a parent. It is also apt to come from other parties, if a child is exceptional, but the parent is in the best position to act upon his greed or envy.
The obvious example is Snow White: the wicked queen cannot stand the thought that someone else somewhere is more beautiful than she. Fortunately, that someone else is under her power. It is good to be queen.
“The queen was shocked, and turned yellow and green with envy. From that hour, whenever she looked at Snow White, her heart heaved in her breast, she hated the girl so much. And envy and pride grew higher and higher in her heart like a weed, so that she had no peace day or night” (Grimm).
Poor woman. Alice Miller would sympathize.
The same motive once removed leads to Cinderella’s woes. Her stepmother cannot bear the stepchild being more beautiful than her own daughters: “The wedding was hardly over before the stepmother's ill-humour broke out. She could not endure the young girl, whose good qualities made her own daughters appear still more detestable.”
The envy of a step-parent also causes the suffering in the Grimms’ tale “Brother and Sister.” “When she heard that they were happy and well off, envy and hatred filled her heart, leaving her no peace. Her only thoughts were how she could bring about their downfall.”
|Amor and Psyche|
The envy inspired by Psyche’s beauty causes her hardships to begin:
“The beauty of the youngest was so wonderful that the poverty of language is unable to express its due praise. The fame of her beauty was so great that strangers from neighboring countries came in crowds to enjoy the sight, and looked on her with amazement, paying her that homage which is due only to Aphrodite herself. Aphrodite found her altars deserted, while men turned their devotion to this young virgin” (Thomas Bulfinch, The Age of Fable, Boston: Sanborn, Carter, Bazin and Company, 1855, pp. 115-28).
Aphrodite, accordingly, plans to destroy her. So do Psyche’s two sisters: “The view of these celestial delights caused envy to enter their bosoms, at seeing their young sister possessed of such state and splendor, so much exceeding their own.”
In “Beauty and the Beast,” too, it is the older sisters, rather than the parent, who are the main problem. Belle’s father is neglectful, and her mother is dead. That does not help. But “her sisters not only left her all the work of the house to do, but insulted her every moment.” They could not bear that she was both more beautiful and more intelligent than they.
This is the likely fate of the gifted child. Great beauty, as the Chinese say, is a curse to anyone possessing it. So is great intelligence. Both inspire envy in those around you. Yet they cannot, like wealth, be easily hidden.
There is a second possibility. When an exceptional child does not prompt jealousy in a narcissist, he or she will provoke greed. An example is the king in “Rumpelstiltskin,” who wants to possess this remarkable child and lock her in a tower for his benefit. One who craves possessions is liable to want to own the child completely, especially if the child naturally garners attention. This can easily be the parent, especially when the child is of the opposite sex. But it is also the instinct that drives a million narcissistic “stage mothers.”
One can see immediately how helpful fairy tales would have been to an abused exceptional child. They are daily being told by their parents or siblings they are evil or worthless. The stories advise them that this may not be true. Might they not instead be in Cinderella’s slippers?
A certain proportion of the stories also deal with children from ordinary families, or poor families, and children who are not obviously exceptional; so far as we can see, just average kids. Such kids have their problems too. Average children, while not inspiring envy, will nevertheless get no love from a narcissistic parent. They will suffer neglect, and sometimes active abuse for the crime of existing and being a burden. Examples are Jack of “Jack and the Beanstalk,” the animals in “The Bremen Town Musicians,” Puss in “Puss in Boots,” the literary character Huckleberry Finn, the “Children Who Lived in a Time of Famine,” Aladdin, or young Dick Whittington.
The fairy tales, in sum, are meant mostly to advise and aid abused and neglected children. Ultimately, the fairy godmother often found in the stories is to be identified with the unofficial godmother, the peasant woman, who tells the child the stories.
One may object here that fairy tales are popular with all children, not just the tiny minority who might be abused. But in fact, J.R.R. Tolkein, in his essay “On Fairy Stories,” maintains that in his own experience, fairy tales are not popular with all children; rather, they are immensely popular with a subset of them. “The fairy-stories as a rule go down well enough. But in fact only some children, and some adults, have any special taste for them” (Tolkien, op. cit., p., 12). For some, they may be worth their keep for pure entertainment value.
And we do not really know how many children are abused.
3. The victim is selfless and driven by ethical considerations. Like the classic hero, she (or he) craves truth and justice.
This is a factor we found prominent in the hero legends and tragedies. We should expect it to be less prominent in the fairy tales. Fairy tales, after all, are for children; children do not have a fully developed moral sense. In Catholic tradition, a child is supposed to first be able to properly distinguish right from wrong at age seven. Some listeners will surely be younger.
Belle, however, in “Beauty and the Beast,” is a model of selflessness. When her father loses his fortune, de Beaumont explains, she could have escaped poverty by marrying well. “Several gentlemen would have married her, though they knew she had not a penny; but she told them she could not think of leaving her poor father in his misfortunes, but was determined to go along with him into the country to comfort and attend him.”
More often, morality in these tales is shown in simple, visual terms. That is the way with fairy tales: mental states are expressed by objective correlatives, images. Wandering in sorrow, Psyche comes upon a temple. She finds it in a mess, and immediately starts to tidy it up:
“She had no sooner entered than she saw heaps of corn, some in loose ears and some in sheaves, with mingled ears of barley. Scattered about, lay sickles and rakes, and all the instruments of harvest, without order, as if thrown carelessly out of the weary reapers’ hands in the sultry hours of the day.
This unseemly confusion the pious Psyche put an end to, by separating and sorting everything to its proper place and kind” (Bulfinch).
For the abused child, as a child, the psychic need for righteousness can perhaps be expressed by the simple image of tidying up. This is an image or order, of justice, and even of beauty. Importantly, Psyche does this unselfishly. She is tidying up for someone else.
In the Italian tale “Doralice,” Doralice is locked in a wardrobe to escape her father’s plans to “marry” her. The wardrobe is then sold to the king of Britain, carried away to that distant island, and put in his chamber. When he is out hunting, Doralice emerges, sees the room is untidy, and takes it upon herself to make it more presentable. She hungers and thirsts, in her fashion, after righteousness.
“As soon as the king had departed for the chase in the morning, and had left the room clear, Doralice would issue from the clothes-chest, and would deftly put the chamber in order, and sweep it, and make the bed. Then she would adjust the bed curtains, and put on the coverlet cunningly embroidered with fine pearls, and two beautifully ornamented pillows thereto. After this, the fair maiden strewed the bed with roses, violets, and other sweet-smelling flowers, mingled with Cyprian spices which exhaled a subtle odor and soothed the brain to slumber.”She then returns to hiding.
Cinderella, Snow White in the cabin of the seven dwarfs, Peau d’Ane, the unnamed heroine of Rumpelstiltskin, Hansel’s sister Gretel, and the sister in the story of the Twelve Brothers, are all credited with similar tidiness and feats of diligence. Belle too tries to keep her family’s country cottage in good order in their poverty. “Beauty rose at four in the morning, and made haste to have the house clean, and dinner ready for the family.”
One notes, in this regard, as possibly significant that one symptom of autism is what looks like an excessive tidiness, a desire to put things in neat rows: to “line up toys and other objects.”
One of the tendencies of the fairies and the little people generally is to come out at night and straighten up the house. This is the characteristic activity, for example, of a Scottish brownie. Milton writes of:
... how the drudging goblin sweat,
To earn his cream-bowl duly set,
When in one night, ere glimpse of morn,
His shadowy flail hath thresh'd the corn,
That ten day-lab'rers could not end (L’Allegro).
Lady Wilde observes that fairies have “a fine sense of the right and just” (Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland, 1887). Gertude Faulding, in Fairies (1913) reports, “They are certain to keep all promises; they never waver in their serene conviction as to what is evil and what good.” Lady Wilde describes fairyland as “filled with sympathy for the mortal who suffered wrong or needed help.” An Irish informant explains to W. Y. Evans-Wenz, “The gentry [the fairies] take a great interest in the affairs of men, and they always stand for justice and right” (The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries 1911).
Bruno Bettelheim laments that the characters in fairy tales are always painted black or white: all good, or all bad (Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment, p. 9). In this he is wrong: the heroines in the stories almost always do something immoral, from Psyche peeping on Amor to Goldilocks burgling the Three Bears, and get into trouble. Characters who at first seem evil, like Beast, or the man who sells Jack the magic beans, can turn out to be good fellows, and people who first seem good fellows, like Rumpelstiltskin, can turn out to be bad. There is always character development. What Bettelheim must be feeling is that the tales are certain of their moral ground: characters may do right or wrong, but the tales seem never in any doubt of what right and wrong are. They have, in other words, a deep moral sense.
G.K. Chesterton too notes that fairy tales are resolute in their morality. Rules are rules, and must be obeyed:
“Cinderella may have a dress woven on supernatural looms and blazing with unearthly brilliance; but she must be back when the clock strikes twelve. The king may invite fairies to the christening, but he must invite all the fairies or frightful results will follow. Bluebeard’s wife may open all doors but one. A promise is broken to a cat, and the whole world goes wrong. A promise is broken to a yellow dwarf, and the whole world goes wrong. A girl may be the bride of the God of Love himself if she never tries to see him; she sees him, and he vanishes away. A girl is given a box on condition she does not open it; she opens it, and all the evils of this world rush out at her (Chesterton, All Things Considered, 1915).
This, I suggest, is the natural response of the outraged conscience to perceived injustice; if here expressed in a simple, visual, way. Having the long personal experience of been done injustice, the abused child craves, wants to believe in, and wants to do battle for ultimate justice for all. The fairy tales support and affirm her in this craving.
The best proof of this perhaps is that it is honoured in the breach. When a character has not been actively abused—when instead, their experience has been neglect—they do not show this strong moral sense. They lack the same experience of positive injustice, and so do not share this obsession. Jack, of “Jack and the Beanstalk,” for example, Aladdin, or Puss in “Puss in Boots,” each of whom have been simply overlooked, are cheerfully immoral.
|Jack and the Beanstalk|
4. The parent is selfish and self-centred—narcissistic. He or she treats others as objects.
The story of Amor and Psyche begins with the motif, familiar from Rank’s selection of hero legends, of parents abandoning their child to die. Psyche is fated, like Andromeda, to be devoured by a monster. Andromeda was lashed to a rock in the sea; Psyche is exposed on a mountaintop.
This, whatever the reasons given, does not speak well of her parents.
In the same story, Aphrodite is shown as a selfish parent. She keeps her son Amor apart from his wife, despite the separation apparently bringing him as well as her close to death. Aphrodite orders Amor to kill Psyche on her behalf: a cruel demand. She wants to own her son, even at the cost of his life, and to destroy her daughter-in-law out of envy.
Rapunzel’s mother, pregnant with her, develops a craving for rampion, a leaf vegetable eaten like spinach:
“One day the woman was standing by this window and looking down into the garden, when she saw a bed which was planted with the most beautiful rampion—rapunzel—and it looked so fresh and green that she longed for it, and had the greatest desire to eat some. This desire increased every day, and as she knew that she could not get any of it, she quite pined away, and began to look pale and miserable.
Then her husband was alarmed, and asked, ‘what ails you, dear wife?'
‘Ah,’ she replied, ‘if I can't eat some of the rampion, which is in the garden behind our house, I shall die.’
The man, who loved her, thought, ‘sooner than let your wife die, bring her some of the rampion yourself, let it cost what it will.’ At twilight, he clambered down over the wall into the garden of the enchantress [their next-door neighbour being a witch], hastily clutched a handful of rampion, and took it to his wife. She at once made herself a salad of it, and ate it greedily.”This, however, did not satisfy her.
“It tasted so good to her—so very good—that the next day she longed for it three times as much as before. If he was to have any rest, her husband must once more descend into the garden. In the gloom of evening, therefore, he let himself down again. But when he had clambered down the wall he was terribly afraid, for he saw the enchantress standing before him.”The father strikes a bargain with the witch: the coming child for the rampion. The witch agrees.
The matter could hardly be put more plainly: the parents sacrifice the child for their own transitory and selfish desires. And the wife, like the king in Rumpelstiltskin, is governed by greed.
This is the tendency illustrated most often in the adult stories by incest: the greedy parent driven by desires.
It also speaks for unnumbered families in which parents sacrifice the needs of children for alcohol or drugs. And, of course, a larger number of families in which parents simply sacrifice the legitimate needs of kids to their own desires, in one way or another. There is no magic that makes parents righteous.
The child is named Rapunzel as if to drive the point home: “Rapunzel” means “Rampion.” The name might sound nice enough in translation, but this is like naming your daughter “Cabbage.” It implies you care for her no more than for an object, of the sort, as Hamlet puts it, you might buy from a fishmonger in the street. Or perhaps it implies that you want to eat her.
The witch tells the father, on taking the child, “I will care for it like a mother.” And perhaps she does. She tries to control Rapunzel completely, locking her in the doorless tower familiar to us from Danae’s legend.
Sleeping Beauty, too, is sealed in a tower into adolescence. In the fairy tale, this is for her own good, because of the risk that she might prick her finger on a spindle and fall into a century-long sleep.
But the image of the spindle suggests another object, a part of the male anatomy; and might hint instead at a desire on the part of the parents to retain ownership.
A small child will surely not understand the sexual reference. But a good fairy tale abides in the memory. When older, they may remember, at the crucial moment, and understand.
A desire to cloister their daughter may seem honourable on the part of the parents. Unmarried fifteen-year-olds should not play with spindles. Nevertheless, the story suggests that more is involved. For normal children, playing with spindles does not cause a century-long curse. Most young ladies are not locked in towers. This child, it would seem, has been raised to be unreasonably terrified of sex. Her father, perhaps, sees it as the end to his ownership.
In Hansel and Gretel, the parents abandon their children in the forest so they will no longer have to feed them:
“He groaned and said to his wife, ‘what is to become of us? How are we to feed our poor children, when we no longer have anything even for ourselves?’
‘I'll tell you what, husband, answered the woman, ‘early to-morrow morning we will take the children out into the forest to where it is the thickest. There we will light a fire for them, and give each of them one more piece of bread, and then we will go to our work and leave them alone. They will not find the way home again, and we shall be rid of them.’”
When, awkwardly, the children find their way back, the mother recovers her composure quickly.
“They knocked at the door, and when the woman opened it and saw that it was Hansel and Gretel, she said, ‘you naughty children, why have you slept so long in the forest? We thought you were never coming back at all.’”And they try again.
Typically, when an abusive parent does something cruel to a child, as here, it is represented to the child as the child’s fault. Why not? Why should the parent take any blame? It is more convenient to scapegoat the child. After all, that’s what the child is there for: to be of service to the parent.
And so gaslighting seems to be a common and even inevitable element of abuse.
In “The Juniper Tree” we see a more dramatic example. A mother abuses her stepson in favour of her daughter. The little girl is wracked with guilt, as any child with a healthy conscience would be, over the unfair treatment. When her mother offers her an apple, she insists that her brother should have one too.
So when the brother comes home from school, the mother tells him he can open the bin and get himself an apple.
Then she slams down the lid and cuts off his head.
“Then the little boy came in at the door, and the devil made her say to him kindly, my son, will you have an apple. And she looked wickedly at him.
Mother, said the little boy, how dreadful you look. Yes, give me an apple.
Then it seemed to her as if she were forced to say to him, come with me, and she opened the lid of the chest and said, take out an apple for yourself, and while the little boy was stooping inside, the devil prompted her, and crash. She shut the lid down, and his head flew off and fell among the red apples.”She then the corpse up in a chair, head balanced on its shoulders, and calls her daughter downstairs.
“‘Mother,’ said Marlinchen, ‘brother is sitting at the door, and he looks quite white and has an apple in his hand. I asked him to give me the apple, but he did not answer me, and I was quite frightened.’
‘Go back to him,’ said her mother, ‘and if he will not answer you, give him a box on the ear.’
So Marlinchen went to him and said, ‘Brother, give me the apple.’
But he was silent, and she gave him a box on the ear, whereupon his head fell off.
Marlinchen was terrified, and began crying and screaming, and ran to her mother, and said, ‘Alas, mother, I have knocked my brother’s head off,’ and she wept and wept and could not be comforted.
‘Marlinchen,’ said the mother, ‘what have you done? But be quiet and let no one know it, it cannot be helped now, we will make him into black-puddings.’”
Obviously, the favouritism shown the girl had nothing to do with love or concern. It was an exercise in power. Arbitrary favouritism is a demonstration of control. This is simply the option of the greedy parent, seeking to own the child, as opposed to the jealous parent seeking to destroy.
The fairy tale shows us that parents who favour one child over another are doing no good to the favoured child. It is as likely to ruin them as is abuse. It makes them dependent, like a pet. Moreover, it makes them feel they are complicit in a criminal conspiracy, and that everything depends on maintaining the support and good will of their parent. Now there are strings to pull whenever desired.
Grimms’ “The Twelve Brothers” is another example of favouritism in parenting. It begins:
“Once upon a time there were a king and a queen. They lived happily together and had twelve children, all boys. One day the king said to his wife, ‘If our thirteenth child, which you are soon going to bring into the world, is a girl, then the twelve others shall die, so that her wealth may be great, and so that she alone may inherit the kingdom.’”And he has the twelve little coffins made in anticipation.
The brothers flee, and survive on their own in the forest. The daughter, unaware of their existence, is pampered. But when she then learns the truth, she is horrified, and driven to find her brothers. Although not herself to blame, to make things right, she must spend seven years in silence. Unable to defend herself, she is then almost put to death for a crime she did not commit.
That is what favouring a child does to the favoured child, the owned child: it condemns them to keeping an awful secret, and condemns them to death for a crime they did not commit.
“Hansel and Gretel” shows the same dynamic in the witch. She aggressively favours Hansel, and gives Gretel nothing but crab shells to eat. But here the strategy is perfectly clear: it is because she intends to eat the boy. Pampering is to fatten him up for the feast.
That is perhaps one advantage of fairy land. Things appear more plainly there.
While her malice is obvious from the outset, the Wicked Queen in Snow White also tries to kill with kindness. In disguise, she combs Snow White’s hair, as an affectionate mother might, but using a poisoned comb. She offers her the gift of a poisoned apple. She helps lace up her dress, but pulls tightly enough to strangle her—the smothering parent.
In the original version of Snow White, unlike the Disney version, the wicked queen is Snow White’s biological mother. This is a detail often softened in the stories as they have been handed down to us: parents, if wicked, are changed to step-parents by the editors. This is often not so in the original tale.
Snow White’s mother intends to consume her heart and liver. She commands her huntsman to kill Snow White and to bring back the organs. He substitutes those of an unlucky bear he encounters.
Similar examples of cannibalism, an objective correlative for wanting to completely possess the child, and more suitable for a children’s story than incest, abound in these tales. In “The Juniper Tree,” the mother makes the boy into black-puddings and feeds them to the father. In Perrault’s “Sleeping Beauty,” the prince’s mother tells the palace cook to serve up the daughter-in-law and grandchildren as lunch.
In their first edition, the Grimms include a short piece they call “The Children Living in a Time of Famine.” It begins:
“There once lived a woman who fell into such deep poverty with her two daughters that they didn't even have a crust of bread to put in their mouths. Finally they were so famished that the mother was beside herself with despair and said to the older child: ‘I will have to kill you so that I'll have something to eat.’”And it concludes:
“The girls replied, ‘Dearest mother, we'll lie down and go to sleep, and we won't rise again until the day of judgement.’ And so they lay down and slept so soundly that no one could awaken them. The mother left, and not a soul knows where she is.”
“Little Red Riding Hood” suggests the same in less literal terms. That old woman in the bed may look and even act like a loving granny, who fawns over you and knits you red caps, but is she a ravenous wolf in disguise? Does she really want to eat you?
In the Grimm original, “Little Red Cap,” the child has a premonition. “When she went into the room, she had such a strange feeling that she said to herself, oh dear, how uneasy I feel to-day, and at other times I like being with grandmother so much.”
Many children listening to this might recognize the feeling.
For example, has she been drinking? Does her breath smell funny?
If you accept that the cat in “Puss-in-Boots” is a surrogate image for a human child who thinks of themselves as less than human, it is worth noting that his father too, at the outset of the story, plans to eat him.
Less explicitly, consider the American folk tale of “The Gingerbread Man.” It was, incidentally, originally told to the transcriber by “a servant girl from Maine,” making it a typical fairy tale in this regard. It also tells of parents who plan to eat their child. The aged couple, bizarrely perhaps, think of a cookie as their baby.
“There was once a little old man and a little old woman, who lived in a little old house in the edge of a wood. They would have been a very happy old couple but for one thing – they had no little child, and they wished for one very much. One day, when the little old woman was baking gingerbread, she cut a cake in the shape of a little boy, and put it into the oven” (St. Nicholas Magazine, May 1875).
To think of a cookie as a baby is also to think of a baby as a cookie. This would explain, of course, why this particular gingerbread cookie can talk and run.
Similar tales of edible children are found in the British Isles, Germany, and points east.
To sum up once again, envy is one common motive for abuse: to destroy the child as a possible future rival. Let us call this option A. Covetousness or greed is another: to own and control the exceptional child as a trophy. Let us call this option B. Neglect is a third: not caring about the child one way or the other, then resenting her existence as a drag on your adult desires. Another mouth to feed, as they say. Option C.
The father in “Beauty and the Beast” is neglectful, although de Beaumont does not want to accept this. She does her best, working with the received material, to make him a good fellow. Yet his actions suggest otherwise. When he leaves on a business trip, Belle asks him to being her back only a single rose, because roses are rare near their home. “Since we have lived in this desert,” she explains, “I have not had the pleasure of seeing one” (Villeneuve version). Her father forgets to bring one, although it is such a simple request, and remembers only when he is near home—where they are not to be found. That, surely, suggests neglect. He then picks a rose illicitly from the Beast’s garden, an image of greed like Rapunzel’s father picking rampion. He then bargains his daughter’s life away to save his own. This is option C.
In the similar Norwegian tale “East of the Sun, West of the Moon,” the father simply and straightforwardly sells his daughter to the beast for money.
Different narcissistic parents can react to the same child in different ways. The same narcissistic parent can react to different children in different ways. The same narcissistic parent can react to the same child in different ways, depending on circumstances. For the root cause is the same: the narcissism of the parent.
In Cinderella, the motive of the mother is envy; option A. She is favouring her own children. But what of Cinderella’s father? Where is he in all this? Why is he not protecting his good and lovely daughter?
Perrault makes him simply uncaring: “The poor girl bore everything with patience, and did not dare complain to her father, who would only have scolded her, as he was entirely governed by his wife.”
A narcissist is, after all, likely to gravitate for marriage to someone easy to dominate and push around.
In the Grimm version, “Aschenputtel,” when the king’s servants have tried the glass slipper on two stepsisters without a fit, they ask the father if he has any more daughters.
“No,” said the man, “there is still a little stunted kitchen-wench which my late wife left behind her, but she cannot possibly be the bride.”
He, like Hamlet’s mother Gertrude, is heedlessly content to sacrifice his children for his own advantage in a new marriage. He is not actively malicious; he does not care. His interests matter more. Option C.
“Doralice,” an Italian version of the Dymphna legend, describes a father who, when he cannot permanently own his daughter through marriage, wants to destroy her. If she is not going to be his, she must not exist:
“With his rage still burning against her, he [Doralice’s father Teobaldo] set himself to try whether he might discover her whereabouts. He attired himself as a merchant, and, having gathered together a great store of precious stones and jewels, marvelously wrought in gold, left Salerno unknown to anyone, and scoured all the nations and countries round about....”
Finding her at the British court, he asks for hospitality as a traveller, and, unrecognized, is allowed to stay in the castle for the night. He locates the nursery, stabs the children to death, and leaves the bloody dagger in Doralice’s scabbard while she sleeps. She is condemned to death for their murder. Teobaldo, option A no longer possible, turns to option B. The exceptional child must be destroyed.
In the Grimm story “Brother and Sister,” the concern of the mother at first seems limited to the burden of having to care for the children. But when, abandoned, they come upon good fortune, this changes. Her attitude becomes hostile and insatiable; she now feels envy. Option C has turned into option A as the children begin to look exceptional.
“When she heard that they were so happy, and so well off, envy and jealousy rose in her heart and left her no peace, and she thought of nothing but how she could bring them again to misfortune.”
In the Italian story “The She-Bear,” when the father’s demand to marry his daughter is refused, he says, “Be quiet and hold your tongue. Make up your mind to tie the matrimonial knot with me this very evening; otherwise when I finish with you there will be nothing left but your ears.” Option B becomes option A almost without missing a beat.
Generally speaking, we see the following dynamic: the selfish, narcissistic parent will neglect a child perceived as ordinary or average (C). He (or she) will seek to possess an exceptional child especially when of the opposite sex (B). If the exceptional child is of the same sex, he sees a possible future rival, and seeks to destroy (A).
But, as we have seen, any of these can turn into any other as perceptions of the child change.
We have been citing only European fairy tales. But it is often observed that the same motifs and plots appear in similar tales for similar purposes all around the world. Every culture, for example, has their version of an archetypal tale like “Cinderella.” Almost the same story has been found in Kashmir, China, Korea, the Philippines, across Europe, and even among the Zuni Indians of New Mexico.
For the life situations they describe are a lived reality among children everywhere.
Pinocchio is not a proper fairy tale: it is a literary creation, born on the page. However, it may give us our best parable of the essential issue, a parent who considers his child a mere object. Like a wooden puppet.
Geppetto is not Pinocchio’s father. He is properly Pinocchio’s stepfather, as his name, “Joseph,” implies. The original father is “Mastro Cherry,” who is unable to accept the humanity in his little son. All he sees is another block of wood. Pretending to be anything else in itself warrants punishment.
“As soon as he saw that piece of wood, Mastro Cherry was filled with joy. Rubbing his hands together happily, he mumbled half to himself:
‘This has come in the nick of time. I shall use it to make the leg of a table.’
He grasped the hatchet quickly to peel off the bark and shape the wood. But as he was about to give it the first blow, he stood still with arm uplifted, for he had heard a wee, little voice say in a beseeching tone: ‘Please be careful! Do not hit me so hard!’
‘Here it is—a piece of common firewood, good only to burn in the stove, the same as any other. Yet—might someone be hidden in it? If so, the worse for him. I'll fix him!’
With these words, he grabbed the log with both hands and started to knock it about unmercifully. He threw it to the floor, against the walls of the room, and even up to the ceiling.”
5. The child has no hostility towards the parent. Instead, despite the cruelties the parent inflicts on the child, the child remains dutiful.
This point is more central in the hero legends, because they commonly begin with some oracle saying the child will overthrow the father. This, then is demonstrated in the tale to not be the child’s intent: it is always the parent’s envy that causes his undoing.
The motif of the oracle, does not occur in the fairy tales; so the second motif, of the child’s true loyalty to the parent, is accordingly less stressed.
Nevertheless, it is notable that, despite objectively awful things done to them by mom and dad, none of the heroines or heroes in the fairy tales spend a moment complaining or saying anything against their parents. Cinderella does not complain. Belle does not complain. Sleeping Beauty does not complain. Rapunzel does not complain. Psyche submits without objection to being bound on the mountainside to be eaten by some monster. Hansel and Gretel, when they finally escape the witch, simply return home—to the father who had left them in the forest to die. They know this, but it does not matter. Instead, they give him all the jewels they have taken from the witch’s hoard.
No doubt this makes them more welcome.
Although he is neglectful and exchanges her life for his, Belle shows total loyalty to her father. Told of the Faustian deal, she responds, “my father shall not suffer upon my account, since the monster will accept of one of his daughters, I will deliver myself up to all his fury, and I am very happy in thinking that my death will save my father's life, and be a proof of my tender love for him” (de Beaumont).
When Jack sells the family cow for a handful of beans, his mother thrashes him and sends him to bed without supper. But he does not seem bitter or self-pitying about it. “Sad and sorry he was, to be sure, as much for his mother’s sake, as for the loss of his supper” (Jacobs version, English Fairy Tales, 1890).
In some of the original fairy tales, it is true, the wicked parent is dealt rough justice. The queen in Snow White, for example, is fitted with red hot iron shoes and dances to death.
But it is never the abused child who demands or exacts the punishment.
In Perrault’s tale, Cinderella takes no vengeance on her wicked sisters. She puts them up at the palace and even finds them noble husbands.
In the Grimm version, however, the spirit world has other ideas. Ravens descend and peck out their eyes.
In Perrault’s “Sleeping Beauty,” her prince is apparently also an abused child: his mother is an ogre who eats children. She tries to eat his children too, and his wife. The ogre dies by falling into a tub full of poisonous creatures she had prepared for Sleeping Beauty and the grandkids.
There is no celebration on his part.
“The king could not but be very sorry, for she was his mother; but he soon comforted himself with his beautiful wife and his pretty children.”This is perceptive. Surely there can be nothing harder for anyone to accept, even when grown to adulthood, than the realization that her parent really never loved her. Rather than accept this, the abused or neglected child will keep returning to this dry well, in the tragic faith that some day, some way, something can elicit this lost love. This is surely in large part what keeps them in thrall, to the manipulative parent and to the depression.
The one apparent exception in the stories we here review to the rule that the child is always dutiful is “The Juniper Tree.” A beautiful bird declares itself the murdered son, proclaims the mother’s guilt, and drops a millstone on her.
Still, boys are not birds, and physical birds are not that good at transporting mill stones through the air. One suspects this retribution too comes from the spirit world.
Let us posit that the child in this story has died and gone to heaven; surely this is what the story intends. In heaven, all blinkers are off; he sees and understands things as they really are. Accordingly, his bird-soul is in a position to punish the true villain. He is no longer confused, as an abused child is probably confused, by conflicting feelings.
6. The symptoms of depression are shown: The child has a low opinion of himself. He unreasonably takes blame on himself (or herself).
We have established, I think, beyond doubt, that many or most of the fairy tales are about abused childhoods. And we hold that abused childhoods lead to depression and what we call mental illness. Are there then descriptions of depression and mental illness in the stories? We seemed to see them in the tragedies we have examined.
Do we see them here?
Surely not; fairy tales are all about wish fulfillment and happy endings―right?
True, unlike tragedies, the fairy tales are not themselves depressing. But this is a question of genre. Tragedies are tragic. They paint the problem, and offer no solution. Fairy tales are meant to make things all better. The first is diagnosis, the second cure.
If depression is or comes from a sense of worthlessness, meaninglessness, and anxiety due to never having been loved, or indeed actively hated, the fairy tales must not fix too firmly on this experience in their protagonist. She must somehow find in herself the opposite in order to fight through to a happy ending. That is the action of a fairy tale. The ugly duckling must be found to have been a swan all along; on the way to this realization he must be encouraged never to give way to despair.
Nevertheless, there are signs and rumblings of something dark. In “The Twelve Brothers,” when Benjamin, the youngest son, is told by their mother of their father’s intent to kill them all, his first thought, despite his tender age and great danger, is not for his own safety, but for his mother’s distress.
“As she spoke and cried, her son comforted her, saying, ‘Don't cry, dear mother. We will take care of ourselves and run away.’”
This implies he considers his own affairs nothing; only the parent matters.
In Apuleius’s Amor legend, at her lowest point, Psyche plans suicide: “Psyche was now satisfied that her destruction was at hand, being obliged to go with her own feet directly down to Erebus. Wherefore, to make no delay of what was not to be avoided, she goes to the top of a high tower to precipitate herself headlong, thus to descend the shortest way to the shades below.” So does Aladdin: “For three days he wandered about like a madman, asking everyone what had become of his palace, but they only laughed and pitied him. He came to the banks of a river, and knelt down to say his prayers before throwing himself in” (Lang).
When, in Perrault’s “Sleeping Beauty,” the queen’s cook comes to slit Aurora’s throat, her thought is not for herself, but for her children. And she welcomes death. “‘Do it; do it,’ said she, stretching out her neck. ‘Execute your orders, and then I shall go and see my children, my poor children, whom I so much and so tenderly loved.’”
“The Juniper Tree” gives another clear sketch of depression. Her mother has convinced Marlinchen that she is responsible for her brother’s death, and she is inconsolable.
But the main reason her anguish is dwelt on, when such feelings in other fairy tales are not, seems to be in order to compare it with the feelings of her mother, who is truly guilty of the crime.
We have seen Alice Miller’s concern for the sad fate of the narcissistic parent. “The Juniper Tree” seems aware of this second type of “depression” too. Both Marlinchen, the abused, and her mother, the abuser, show deep disquiet over the matter.
“‘Nay,’ said the mother, ‘I feel so uneasy, just as if a heavy storm were coming.’ Marlinchen, however, sat weeping and weeping….
‘Nay,’ said the woman, ‘I feel so anxious, my teeth chatter, and I seem to have fire in my veins.’ And she tore her stays open. But Marlinchen sat in a corner crying, and held her plate before her eyes and cried till it was quite wet.”
They experience similar symptoms; but it does seem Marlinchen’s suffering is greater. The mother only fears punishment; Marlinchen is also grieving for what has happened. Her burden is double.
The heroine of “All-Kinds-of-Fur,” when she is found by huntsmen in the forest, does not tell them she is a princess. She says “I am a poor child who has been abandoned by her father and mother.” “I am a poor child who no longer has a father or a mother.” She adds: “I am good for nothing, except having boots thrown at my head.”
This is self-destructive of her; she could have had better treatment by revealing she was a princess. Why didn’t she?
It must be that these statements reflect her mental state. This is how she really sees herself. It must be for the same reason that she wears a cloak of mismatched furs, making her look like an animal instead of a human, even though she carries with her several fine gowns.
Here is our clue: in fairy tales, unsurprisingly, mental states are shown visually, by objective correlatives, rather than simply described. “She felt sad” has little impact or narrative power. “She cried and cried” is not much better. “She went everywhere wearing animal skins, and would not take them off” is more vivid and interesting. This is the way with mental states. Metaphor and narrative are the best way to speak of them.
Taking up this clue, then, we can see that Cinderella’s rags and cinders probably suggest the same: they may be meant to be literal, but also to imply her mental state. What did Job say? “Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42: 6). In Perrault’s version, when her sisters ask her if she wants to go to the prince’s ball, Cinderella’s concern is not just lacking the proper dress. “Alas!” she responds, “you only jeer me; it is not for such as I am to go to such a place.” “Peau d’Ane” will not take off her donkey skin: “after she had smeared herself with soot from the chimney, she wrapped herself up in that ugly skin and went out from the magnificent palace without being recognised by a single person.” This is hardly a realistic account of a disguise. Anyone actually doing this would stand out like a two-legged donkey in a palace. The reason for it must be more than just practical.
And Preziosa, in “The She-Bear,” transforms herself into a bear.
This is how she sees herself. This is depression.
And then there are the cursed characters, transformed into beasts by others: the Frog King, or Beast, or the brother in “Brother and Sister” who is changed into a deer, or the twelve brothers changed into ravens. Perhaps they are cursed with seeing themselves in this way, as ugly and inhuman. In Beaumont’s “Beauty and the Beast,” it is not made clear why Beast is cursed; but in the similar tale “East of the Sun, West of the Moon,” it is clear: the beast-like bridegroom has been cursed by his stepmother. He is another abused child.
A “fairy curse,” in other words, is what we would call a mental illness, expressed in the language of the fairy tale.
Sleeping Beauty is cursed as well, of course: to lie asleep in an impenetrable forest for a hundred years. Snow White is cursed to coma by a poisoned apple. The sister in “The Twelve Brothers” is cursed with the obligation to stay silent for seven years, as her brothers are cursed to ravenhood. This too, sounds like an allusion to a mental illness. Catatonia looks like sleep. Schizophrenia looks like a waking dream. Any severe mental illness cuts us off from human society. They used to call psychiatrists “alienists.”
In other tales, the hero or heroine meets an evil spirit. This can be called an ogre: Rumpelstiltskin, or the lord of the castle in Puss-in-Boots; a giant, as in Jack and the Beanstalk; or a witch: Rapunzel, Hansel and Gretel. This evil spirit usually seeks to eat them—to “possess” or to “obsess” them, similarly to the evil parent.
Recall the Biblical understanding of mental illness: it is the action of evil spirits.
Here, in fairy tales, we meet these evil spirits. These ogres, giants, and witches are the same evil spirits that hounded Saul with spiritual anxieties.
In Amor and Psyche, of course, the evil spirit is Aphrodite, the Greek goddess.
As St. Paul said, the ancient gods are daemons. I Corinthians 10:20, “the sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to be participants with demons.”
7. The child escapes to a “green world.” He or she has some special connection with the spirit world.
A connection with the spirit world, the supernatural, is in the term “fairy tale.”
“Fairy” was originally a place, not a class of being; we might now say “fairyland.” This “fairyland” is fairly plainly the same as the “green world” of which we have formerly spoken, which Northrop Frye found in Shakespeare’s plays. Sometimes, indeed, as in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” this green world is identified as fairyland by Shakespeare.
|The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania|
Given the similarities in the motif and in its description, fairyland is presumably also the same wilderness found in the hero legends, to which the hero is exiled or exiles himself.
Burton calls it “solitude,” while portraying it visually as a wilderness. It is the private garden, as well, of Democritus, where he pursues his studies.
It is, it seems, in sum, the spiritual world as distinct from the physical and the social world.
It is also, as the fairy tales reveal, a refuge for the abused child.
This is commonly understood of fairyland. W.B. Yeats writes, in the refrain to his poem “The Stolen Child,”
“Come away, O, human child!
To the woods and waters wild
With a fairy hand in hand,
For the world's more full of weeping than
you can understand.”
Whatever else this fairyland or green world is is difficult to say. J. R. R. Tolkien, who must be considered an expert, since he mapped it in detail, wrote in “Of Fairy Stories,” “I will not attempt to define that, nor to describe it directly. It cannot be done. Faërie cannot be caught in a net of words; for it is one of its qualities to be indescribable, though not imperceptible” (On Fairy Stories, p. 14).
Let us just take it at its minimum meaning, as the mental world one experiences when in solitary contemplation. The thoughts that might surround you if locked in a sealed tower, or wandering alone in the forest.
Then it makes sense that it should be the solution, or part of the solution, to depression and mental illness.
Let us posit again that mental illness comes from an experience of parental abuse. As we have said, it is a terribly difficult thing for anyone to accept that their own parents truly did not care for them. This naturally needs a painful period of reflection and inward turmoil to work out. The soul must retreat from all distractions to have a chance to heal, just as a broken body must be rested in a hospital bed.
Let us review a few examples of this green world:
Snow White escapes into the deep forest to live with a family of supernatural beings. They spend their days digging in caves: an image of hiddenness from the senses, invisibility. The same image of the green world as an underground abscess appears in the stories of Aladdin, or Ali Baba.
|Aladdin in the green world|
Hansel and Gretel retreat into the deep forest, guided by birds, a natural image of the spirit. They live with a witch, another supernatural being.
Psyche is transported by the wind, another natural image of the spirit, to a magical world where no one is seen, but where one meets the gods. It is a world originally encountered in sleep; sleep is one doorway.
“While Psyche stood on the ridge of the mountain, panting with fear and with eyes full of tears, the gentle Zephyr raised her from the earth and bore her with an easy motion into a flowery dale. By degrees her mind became composed, and she laid herself down on the grassy bank to sleep.
When she awoke refreshed, she looked round and beheld nearby a pleasant grove of tall and stately trees. She entered it, and in the midst discovered a fountain, sending forth clear and crystal waters, and fast by, a magnificent palace whose august front impressed the spectator that it was not the work of mortal hands, but the happy retreat of some god.”
Sleeping Beauty disappears into an impenetrable forest, which is again also the land of sleep.
All-Kinds-of-Furs flees her licentious father for refuge in a hollow tree, in which she falls asleep wearing animal skins. Her green world is like a venn diagram combining the intersecting significances of solitude, hiddenness or lack of visibility, something interior, and sleep.
“She walked the entire night until she came to a great forest. Being tired, she sat down in a hollow tree and fell asleep.
The sun came up, and she continued to sleep, and she was still asleep by broad daylight.”
The two children in “Brother and Sister” also fall asleep in a tree, and awaken in the green world. “Towards evening they came to a large forest, and were so tired out with hunger and their long walk, as well as all their trouble, that they crept into a hollow tree and soon fell fast asleep” (Grimm). So does the father in “Beauty and the Beast”: “Not a house was to be seen; the only shelter he could get was the hollow trunk of a great tree, and there he crouched all the night which seemed to him the longest he had ever known” (Villeneuve).
One is tempted to simply identify “fairyland” with “dreamland.” After all, both are reached by falling asleep. Tolkien, however, objects to this. Fairyland is in essence a magical place, a supernatural place, and there is nothing magical or supernatural about simply falling asleep and having a dream. Sleep must be a possible portal, perhaps a part of the thing, but not the thing itself (Tolkien, op. cit., p. 5). Indeed, Psyche enters the green world in sleep, but then wakes up and it is still there. So does Beauty’s father, or Hansel and Gretel, or the two children in “Brother and Sister.”
A juniper tree is the “green world” in the fairy tale of that name; and the tree is also the land of the dead. The children’s mother, and the bones of the murdered brother, are buried there. His spirit then rises from it as a bird, again an image of spirit, and works out justice for his sister.
“Then the juniper tree began to move. The branches moved apart, then moved together again, just as if someone were rejoicing and clapping his hands. At the same time a mist seemed to rise from the tree, and in the center of this mist it burned like a fire, and a beautiful bird flew out of the fire singing magnificently, and it flew high into the air, and when it was gone, the juniper tree was just as it had been before, and the cloth with the bones was no longer there.”
In “Beauty and the Beast,” the green world is not just the hollow tree, but then appears as the Beast’s castle.
After a sound night’s sleep, the merchant “looked through a window, but instead of snow saw the most delightful arbors, interwoven with the most beautiful flowers that were ever beheld. He then returned to the great hall, where he had supped the night before, and found some chocolate ready made on a little table. ‘Thank you, good Madam Fairy,’ said he aloud, ‘for being so careful, as to provide me a breakfast; I am extremely obliged to you for all your favors.’”
“The good man drank his chocolate, and then went to look for his horse, but passing through an arbor of roses he remembered Beauty's request to him, and gathered a branch on which were several.”
Odd, since the story is set in the dead of winter. There had been a raging snowstorm the night before.
The green world of “Puss-in-Boots” is also a deserted castle: the ogre’s castle, with the lands and bounty it commands. In Jack and the Beanstalk, it is entered by climbing a beanstalk, but is then the giant’s castle above the clouds.
In Perrault’s version, the green world comes to Cinderella: first white doves appear to help her with her tasks, then the fairy godmother appears with her magic.
In the Grimm version, there is no fairy godmother. The coach and gown and all are emanations from a green place identified earlier in the story. When her mother dies, “The child cried, and planted a little tree on her mother's grave. She did not need to carry any water to it, because her tears provided all the water that it needed…. And it grew and became a handsome tree. Thrice a day Cinderella went and sat beneath it, and wept and prayed, and a little white bird always came on the tree, and if Cinderella expressed a wish, the bird threw down to her what she had wished for.”
Birds later alert the prince’s men that the glass slipper does not fit her sisters’ feet. They had cut off their toes or heel to make it appear so.
The heroine in Rumpelstiltskin is able to break the curse when one of her servants, scouring the countryside for the name of the mysterious little man, finds the answer “on a high mountain at the end of the forest, where the fox and the hare bid each other good night.” At the point where the forest meets the night, and animals can talk.
If fairyland differs from other descriptions of the spirit, like the New Jerusalem or the Kingdom of Heaven or the Buddhist Pure Lands or Plato’s realm of ideal forms, this is perhaps because it is the spirit world, the world of the mind, as perceived by a child.
Fairyland is a place:
Where nobody gets old and godly and grave,
Where nobody gets old and crafty and wise,
Where nobody gets old and bitter of tongue (W. B. Yeats, “The Land of Heart’s Desire”).
A place, in other words, experienced only by children.
A child, whose reason is not yet developed, presumably does not yet have clear concepts of abstract universals and absolutes. So fairyland can seem relativistic and relatively dreamlike. But, I suggest, following Burton’s hint, when he sees the solace for melancholy in writing learned books, and Aristotle’s, when he points out that great philosophers are always melancholic, that fairyland is really the same intellectual world inhabited by the philosophers. As it would be seen by a child.
Ernest Renan has observed: “Les facultés qui engendrent la mythologie sont les mêmes que celles qui engendront la philosophie, et ce n’est pas sans raison que l'Inde et la Grèce, nous présentent le phénomène de la plus riche mythologie a côté de la plus profonde métaphysique.”
“The faculties which engender mythology are the same as those which engender philosophy, and it is not without reason that India and Greece present to us the phenomenon of the richest mythology alongside the deepest metaphysics.”
We can apply the same insight to post-Enlightenment Europe. In what lands have fairy tales been most popular since the Enlightenment? In France and Germany. In what lands has philosophy been most popular during the same period? In France and Germany. A taste for the one is a taste for the other, it seems. They emerge from the same faculty.
The philosopher, Plato says, seeks the good, the true, and the beautiful. And Aristotle agrees. These are the three great spiritual values.
This too, then, is the quest of the heroine in a fairy tale.
We have seen how the fairy tale values the good: how it values justice. Here justice prevails, there is no moral ambiguity, and everything works out in the end.
Another of the values of fairyland is truth. This is surely a vital salve to the abused and the gaslit. The Beast shows the same distaste for dissembling as Hamlet does with Polonius. When Belle’s father greets him as would suit the lord of such a grand manor, he responds, “My name is not My Lord, but Beast; I don’t love compliments, not I. I like people to speak as they think; and so do not imagine, I am to be moved by any of your flattering speeches.”
When the murdered brother’s bones are buried in “The Juniper Tree,” he returns as a beautiful bird, that sings a song so beautiful that all are transfixed by it. But the song also reveals the true, hidden state of affairs. It is a truth that could not be known to any one person in the story. Only the mother knows she really killed the child, and only Marlinchen knows what she did with the bones. It is, in other words, heaven’s truth, the absolute truth, above any individual’s perception of truth. The spirit world, fairyland, is aware of all, including what is hidden in the physical world.
“My mother she killed me,
my father he ate me,
my sister, little Marlinchen,
gathered together all my bones,
tied them in a silken handkerchief,
laid them beneath the juniper tree,
kywitt, kywitt, what a beautiful bird am I.”
Hearing truth is a vital antidote to the suffering of the abused. This is what gives the green world its power, as in Shakespeare, to unravel the troubles faced in the workaday world. Someone who is depressed or mentally ill perhaps needs above all to know the truth, to face the truth, when nobody else will tell the truth. There is the bitter truth that their parents did not love them, and the sweeter truth that it is not, in fact, them who are rotten to the core.
And then there is beauty: surely the most obvious aspect of the fairy tale. Beauty, the aesthetic experience, is elemental here. The brother in “The Juniper Tree” is transformed into a bird of surpassing beauty, that sings a song so beautiful that anyone hearing it will give anything to hear it again.
In the recesses of the Beast’s chateau, Belle finds a suite labelled “Beauty’s Apartment.” In it are “a large library, a harpsichord, and several music books.”
Did Beast prepare it for her? Perhaps; or perhaps ‘beauty’ is always at the heart of the green world: the beauty, for example, of the arts, of books and music. And beauty as an absolute value, along with the good and the true.
8. The second exile: a cure for depression?
In the hero legends, we have often seen two distinct and separate exiles or periods of solitude for the hero. The first is when they are rejected by their parents. The second is when they are adults, at which time they often (always?) opt for exile again. This is the period of their hero quest: killing dragons, fetching the holy grail, tilting at windmills, rescuing princesses, that sort of thing.
Why might this be?
The green world is plainly not, as Freudians would suppose, a place of “wish fulfillment.” If it were, the action would be simpler. The heroine just retreats into the green world in her time of need, the fairy godmother waves her wand, and all her troubles are over.
But it never actually happens that way.
As anyone who has actually heard a fairy tale can attest, fairyland is not all pixies with gossamer wings, handsome princes, pots of gold, and happily ever afters. There be dragons here, and warty witches, and giants, and ogres, and Bluebeard as well. There are long-leggedy beasties that go bump in the night. And there is always some sort of a trial for the heroine, a moral test, the equivalent of the hero’s quest.
|Bauer: Ogres ogle a lovely princess.|
Consider the situation of an abused or neglected child. The abuse or neglect in symbolic terms abandons them in a forest at night. It leaves them all alone in the world, spiritually speaking, regardless of whether they are physically exposed to die on some wild mountainside or not. They have nobody they can trust, nobody they can rely on, nobody to appeal to for help. They are forced into the solitude of their own thoughts.
These thoughts are not likely to be happy or hopeful ones. They are most likely to fix on internal narratives like “I am innately unlovable.” “I was born bad.” “I am disgusting.” “Everyone wants to kill me.” “Everyone wants to do me harm.” “I must have done something terrible some time, somehow.” And so forth. Results may vary, depending on whether the child was actively abused, abusively favoured over another sibling, or simply neglected.
These are the demon voices. These are the ogres one meets in fairyland. This is the mental illness, which may then express itself in different ways. You have been thrown into the green world at night without a map, and once there you have picked up a curse. Now there is a witch or ogre on your back.
Sensible people in places where fairies are taken seriously fear as well as favour the “good people.” They can possess you, just as in the Bible or in the Quran.
“Rose Carroll was possessed by a fairy-spirit,” reports W.Y. Evans-Wenz, collecting fairy lore in Celtic lands at the turn of the 19th into the 20th centuries. “It is known that her father held communion with evil spirits, and it appears that they often assisted him. … Rose grew so peculiar that her folks locked her up. After two years she was able to shake off the fairy possession by being taken to Father Robinson’s sisters [she got her to a nunnery, it seems], and then to an old witch-woman in Drogheda” (W. Y. Evans-Wenz, The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, 1911).
To overcome these evil spirits, these evil thoughts, you plainly need to return to solitude to do battle. You cannot beat them by ignoring them. You must enter the cave, confront the dragon, and slay him. This is probably not going to be either easy or fun.
This requires your second exile.
And what is the nature of the trial you must then undergo?
Cinderella’s sisters make her sort a vast quantity of beans, seeds, and peas. Psyche must complete four tasks: sorting seeds, retrieving golden fleece, filling a flask from the river Styx, and descending to the underworld to get a box of Proserpine’s beauty. Peau d’Ane had to “wash the dishcloths and clean out the pig troughs.” The princess in “East of the Sun, West of the Moon,” must take a long journey to find his location, and on her way acquires three treasures: a golden apple, a golden carding comb, and a golden spinning wheel. All-Kinds-of-Furs drops, on successive days, a golden ring, a golden spindle and a golden reel, into the king’s soup, which she has prepared for him. The ring stands perhaps for loyalty, the spindle and reel for effort, constancy, duty, moral striving. We have seen, more generally, epic feats of tidiness.
These tasks, or labours, are generally set by the persecuting spirit: by the wicked stepsisters, by Aphrodite. In other words, the abused child is driven to these accomplishments, whatever they may signify, by the voices telling them they are worthless. They are driven to do something exemplary to prove to themselves their own worth, having never been loved.
This, in turn, would explain why, as Aristotle observed, both great heroes and great philosophers always seem to have been melancholics: “Why is it,” he asks, “that all those who have become eminent in philosophy or politics or poetry or the arts are clearly of a melancholic temperament?” (Problem XXX) It may take such a demon on your back to drive you to any great accomplishments. As we have seen, for example, it drove Burton to write his great book. The depressive is driven to such things in order to dispel, in his or her own mind, the conviction that they are worthless or worse.
But even then, as we can see, the trials and troubles of the abused child are not over. Having passed these trials of virtue never, in the stories, ends their suffering. It only makes an end possible. For Cinderella, for example, all this is necessary just to get to the ball in the first place. For Psyche, on emerging from the underworld, all is again almost lost before Amor rescues her.
After the trial, after slaying the dragon, something further is still needed to break the curse.
Any clever child can probably say what it is.
In the Disney animations, fairy tales are ultimately all about love, and love is the answer to everything. The beautiful princess is awakened by a kiss from the handsome prince. After years at the bottom of a well, the frog is finally kissed by a princess, the spell is lifted, and they live happily ever after. Amor vincit omnia, eh?
This must be essentially right. After all, the subject of our first tale found in literary form, “Amor and Psyche,” announces it: “Love and the Soul.”
If, indeed, the essential issue facing an abused child is the lack of parental love, love is the obvious and necessary cure; just as vitamin D cures rickets.
But it is still not as simple as that might sound. A kiss from Prince Charming doesn’t do it.
In the Grimms’ original “The Frog King, or Iron Henry” the spell is not broken by a kiss. It is broken when the princess throws the frog against a wall in disgust, shouting “Now you will leave me in peace, you disgusting frog!” Not nearly so romantic.
|The Frog King|
In the original “Snow White,” the beautiful princess is not awakened by a kiss. She wakes when her coffin is dropped. This dislodges a chunk of poisoned apple from her throat. She pukes herself back to life.
In the Grimm version, “Sleeping Beauty,” is indeed awakened by a kiss, and they indeed live happily ever after. But it is not the kiss that lifts the curse. The curse had run its course; the hundred years were up.
Perrault’s version ends differently. In the first place, Princess Aurora is not awakened by a kiss. The prince falls on his knees, they “talk four hours together, and yet they said not half what they had to say.” It seems to have been a meeting of minds.
Unfortunately, the prince’s own family background is not ideal. His mother is an ogre who eats children. “Whenever she saw little children passing by, she had all the difficulty in the world to avoid falling upon them.” Beauty must remain in exile for her safety. While the prince, now king, is absent, mother-in-law tries to consume the grandkids, and then Sleeping Beauty herself.
It would appear that, kiss or no kiss, finding the right guy and exchanging vows was not the full solution to Sleeping Beauty’s mental health problem. She was still plagued by an ogre, as was her husband.
In an earlier Italian version of “Sleeping Beauty,” recounted by Giambattista Basile, the beautiful princess is not awakened by a kiss from the handsome prince. Instead, the handsome prince, who is already married, rapes her in her sleep, and she does not awaken. Eventually, she gives birth to twins, and one baby wakes her by sucking on her pricked thumb, mistaking it for a nipple.
Here, the love that breaks the spell is plainly not romantic love. It is more like the love between a parent and child.
That makes better sense: if you have suffered lack of love as a child, something can surely be gained by expressing true love to your own children. Some kind of justice is served.
But neither is parental love enough to end Sleeping Beauty’s troubles. It overcomes the sleeping sickness, but Basile’s Sleeping Beauty, Talia, has more trouble to come. She is then persecuted by the prince’s wife.
So the romantic love bit may be an oversimplification.
In "Amor and Psyche," two kinds of love are presented; this seems to be the main freight of the fable. When she is rescued from the mountaintop, Psyche is saved, literally in the terms of this figurative world, by Amor, Cupid, Eros, Love himself. Simple and clear as can be. But this does not end the story. She wants to see him in the flesh: she requires physical love. And that destroys everything. Indeed, it is then the goddess of romantic or erotic love, Aphrodite, patroness of beauty, pleasure, and procreation, who hounds her to Hades with her trials. Looks as though erotic love was a wrong turn.
Strip away the images, and, in seeking escape from her initial lovelessness by exploiting physical love, she has become possessed by an evil spirit—the spirit, perhaps, of possession itself. She is trapped in a world of suffering by this wrong turn. A temptation for many beautiful women, no doubt.
This, unfortunately, is the trap we spring on many unsuspecting young listeners if we make the fairy tales just about chasing down Prince Charming at some ball.
In the end, Psyche is nevertheless indeed rescued by love; but only after she has, through her trials, shown diligence, morality, a commitment to the absolute values, and selflessness. She has shown herself ready to sacrifice her own life, by descending to Hades, in order to recover Amor. And then she almost loses everything again at the last moment by opening the forbidden box of Proserpine’s beauty, to brighten her cheeks for when she meets her husband—a relapse to a physical conception of love. In the end, she cannot escape the curse alone. Amor descends ex machina when he sees Psyche is about to die.
So the moral is that romantic or sexual love is not true and saving love. Pairing off and sex is not enough to break the curse upon the abused child. It is more likely to make things worse.
In “Beauty and the Beast,” the problem, the dramatic conflict, from Belle’s perspective, is that the Beast is both physically and intellectually unattractive. There is no erotic appeal; and there is nothing about Beast to inspire possessiveness. The final breakthrough is when Belle finds she loves him nevertheless. This breaks the spell. He is no longer a beast, because someone has loved him.
Beast, too, also an abused child, has had to demonstrate a true, non-possessive love. He agrees to let Belle return to her father. He wants her to be happy, rather than to possess her.
The challenge in “Cinderella,” or “Peau d’Ane,” or “All-Kinds-of-Furs,” is for someone to recognize the beauty not visible under the rags, or the donkey skin, or the patchwork of furs.
The critical moment, or rather, the first critical moment, in the Cinderella story is not the intervention of her fairy godmother with her magic wand. Given that alone, Cinderella’s life would soon have gone back to what it was. The critical moment comes when Cinderella loses her slipper, allowing the prince to track her down. And why does she lose her slipper? Because she must confront a moral choice: run back and get the slipper, or obey the fairy’s dictate to leave by midnight. She chooses the option that is not possessive, showing she puts the moral good above her own desires. This breaks the “spell” she is under.
But an additional test must then be passed. Once he finds the shoe fits, it seems entirely possible for the prince to reject her. After all, she is still dirty, unattractive in her rags, and obviously not of the proper class; not really a suitable marriage partner for a prince. He, too, passes this test, and it is only then that her life is permanently transformed.
Doralice, in the Italian fairy tale that resembles the Dymphna story, is saved from execution when her old nurse appears, having travelled all the way to Britain to explain to the king what has really happened.
“When the rest of the company had gone and left them alone, the nurse thus addressed the king, ‘Sire, know that Doralice, your wife, is my child. She is not, indeed, the fruit of my womb, but I nourished her at these breasts. And if you find that I speak falsely in this, I offer myself to suffer the same punishment which the wretched Doralice is now enduring.’”
Doralice is not clearly saved by the nurse’s explanations—why should she be believed?—so much as by the nurse’s showing true maternal love towards her. This proves Doralice’s worth. The nurse is ready to go to any length to help her spiritual “child”―ready to travel the breadth of Europe, even ready to offer her own life in exchange.
Rapunzel marries her prince in the end, but not at first. It is only when she encounters him later as a blind beggar, no longer an attractive marriage prospect. Neither, for that matter, is she: an unwed mother barely surviving in a desert. Her tears restore his sight, and the curse is lifted for both of them.
In “The Twelve Brothers,” the spell is broken when the sister, the favoured child, shows herself ready to die for the sake of her brothers. At the same moment, her brothers appear to rescue her.
It is love that conquers, but specifically a selfless, non-physical, non-possessive love. It has nothing in particular to do with one party being male, and the other female.
In “The Juniper Tree,” the crucial moment seems to be the girl’s tearful secret burial of the bones of her brother. This demonstrates that she cared for him as a human being, although to others in the family he was just something to be devoured. This lets him rise again as the spirit bird, and set things right. The spell of depression that hangs over her is ended when he absolves her from responsibility with the gift of red shoes.
In the original Grimm “Snow White,” the curse seems at first to have been broken by pure chance: the prince’s servants drop the coffin, and the corpse coughs up the poisoned hunk of apple. But perhaps the crucial moment is just before this: the seven dwarfs, although they revere Snow White, and have set up her coffin as if a shrine, agree to give her body to the handsome prince, who claims he cannot live without her. This selfless act—and lack of attachment to Snow White’s physical presence—may then have worked its magic.
There is an odd bit that seems gratuitous at the end of the tale of Hansel and Gretel. Having escaped the witch, the children come to an impassible lake.
“’We cannot get across,’ said Hansel. ‘I cannot see a walkway or a bridge.’
A large duck appears and offers to ferry them across.
Gretel, however, insists they must go one by one, not together, because the weight might be too great for the bird.
“’No,’ answered Gretel. ‘That would be too heavy for the duckling. It should take us across one at a time.’”
The children thereby prove their concern for others—their selfless love. At the same time, they prove themselves beyond the need for the other’s physical presence. That is what rescues them from the curse of solitude.
Another traditional tale that seems to have something “extra” tacked on at the end is “The Frog King.” “Iron Henry,” a faithful retainer, mysteriously appears once the frog has transformed into a handsome prince to escort the happy couple home in a carriage. As they ride along, they hear loud explosions. Henry explains that these are iron bands around his heart, now burst by seeing the prince himself again.
|The Frog King|
Bruno Bettelheim, in his analysis of the tale, considers this an irrelevant addition. The princess, after all, had already found her prince. The happy ending had been achieved. Somebody must have stuck this in in error from some other story.
But why then would the Grimms give “Iron Henry” as an alternate title for the story as a whole? Clearly, somebody—them or their informant—thought Henry the most important figure in the tale.
Let us look more closely.
Unlike our other heroines generally, this princess is not an abused child. Nor is she a spoiled child. She is surrounded by fine clothing and jewels, and plays happily with a golden ball. But the king her father is also featured in the story, and shows himself a stern and fair parent, demanding from her that she keep a promise. She has not been pampered.
So the fault is all her own. She is a narcissist. She is materialist, and, she demonstrates, uncaring towards others. Like a typical narcissist, she makes promises to the frog when it is in her interest to do so, and then sees no moral obligation to honour them.
Nor does the princess develop or change in the original story. She does not kiss the frog; she thinks it is icky and throws it against the wall.
Yet this breaks the spell and turns him back into a prince. Why should it?
Because she is not the focus of the story; she is not cursed. The story is about the frog.
He turns back into a human because he has gone through an ordeal, a trial, that demonstrates to himself his worthiness. He is offered jewels and riches, but turns them down. Then he bravely pursues her, and bravely endures her disgust.
However, had the story ended here, it would not have ended well. For the princess is obviously incapable of loving the frog back, in a way that would restore him permanently.
Enter Iron Henry for the second part of the cure. Henry shows he loves him.
The cure for depression in all these stories seems to have two parts. The first is that the depressed or cursed character must undergo a trial or ordeal to prove their worth. And then, someone else must show them true love. They cannot do this for themselves; they can show true love to another, but, as with the frog prince, this by itself cannot be sufficient. They must both give it and receive it.
That’s great when it happens, and the abused child who has undergone her trial seems to have a special ability to bestow such love on others. But surely it cannot be relied upon. Because such real love is probably a rare thing: someone who is not possessive, wants your interest, and would, if necessary, be ready to die for you. It seems like a daunting prescription.
Yet here, surely, a historical figure who comes to mind, who modelled such selfless love. Since we are already dealing with spiritual beings, might He, perhaps, be called upon in such cases?
If this sounds like the fairy tales are pointing towards a Christian message, I believe they are.
It is fallacy to suppose, as it often is supposed, that fairy tales are a pagan tradition surviving in defiance to Christianity. The ogres and witches are pagans, not the tales themselves. Their message is the Christian message. “Godmother, as in “fairy godmother” is, after all, a Christian office, and it implies that a full understanding of the Christian message is the goal. Cinderella’s “fairy godmother” is, when first introduced, simply her godmother, with the usual implications of that title: her proper duty is to bring this child to God. Only later is it mentioned that she is also a fairy.
There are obvious Biblical allusions in all these stories; to point them all out would take a separate book. A bird drops a millstone on a mother who has caused her child to stumble, to think she has done wrong? Matthew 18:6. The youngest of the twelve brothers is named Benjamin? A child throws seeds out the window, and a beanstalk grows overnight, reaching to heaven? Mark 4: 26-7. These references would probably be more obvious to those living in a time when the Biblical passages were more familiar to all.
Jesus or God do not appear in person in these stories. Why would they? For any of us, that might be a bit too intense. No one can see the face of God, after all, and live. Perhaps this is more troublesome again for a child who has been saddled by her parents with a false sense of guilt, or of being innately evil. A gentler approach is probably required.
Plato gives a useful analogy. He speaks of the man who has been freed from Plato’s cave of shadows, and brought up to the daylight.
“Later, however, he would be able to view the things themselves: the beings, instead of the dim reflections. But within the range of such things, he might well contemplate what there is in the heavenly dome, and this dome itself, more easily during the night by looking at the light of the stars and the moon, more easily, that is to say, than by looking at the sun and its glare during the day (Republic, VII 517 a, 7).”
The best teaching method often requires revealing things slowly and indirectly. Consider fairyland as the spirit world seen at night, with the many stars visible.
If that seems odd, notice that Jesus himself used a similar approach: he spoke in parables.
To recap, then, the full story of depression or mental illness, as revealed through the fairy tale:
Abuse or neglect by a narcissistic parent forces a child into the solitude of her thoughts.
Evil thoughts of self-disgust or anxiety will obsess her. This is the “mental illness.”
To overcome this later requires solitary contemplation without distractions in order to think things through. Some symptoms of what we call “mental illness” may simply be the attempt by this soul to achieve solitude for this purpose. One way or the other, she must shut out the madding crowd.
In this solitude, she must undergo painful emotional trials and moral tests.
First, she must accept that the parent never did love her.
Second, she must prove to herself she is worthy. This is the hero quest.
Third, she must love, in the true, non-possessive, sense, and be loved.
Both the fairy tale and Christianity, not to mention Buddhism and perhaps other religions, seem to exist largely to guide the soul through this process.
In “East of the Sun, West of the Moon,” when the princess comes to the ogre castle, she cannot herself awaken the handsome prince. Instead, a group of Christians, already living in the castle, wake him on her behalf. She then must undergo a final ordeal: she must show she is able to launder a shirt that she has stained, and that a rival ogre bride cannot. When the ogre tries to clean it, the stain just grows. But when the princess dips it in water, the stain disappears.
The prince says why: “That’s a work only for Christian folk, and not for such a pack of Trolls.” Christianity, with its message of love and forgiveness of sins, has this healing power.
In the Irish fairy tale of “The Swan Children,” a jealous pagan stepmother turns her four children into swans. They are condemned to live this way for nine centuries; until, at last, St. Patrick arrives in Ireland. He baptises them, freeing them from the Druid curse.
The historical Patrick seems to have spent a good deal of his time with such exorcisms. Evans-Wenz writes, “When we come to the dawn of the Christian period in Ireland and in Scotland, we see Patrick and Columba, the first and greatest of the Gaelic missionaries, very extensively practising exorcism.… Among the nine orders of the Irish ecclesiastical organization of Patrick’s time, one was composed of exorcists.” The Church Council of Orange, held among the Ostrogoths in 529, decreed that those still demonically possessed could not be admitted to the priesthood (Evans-Wenz, The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries 1911).
It must have been a common problem.