Jung and the Fairy Tale, Or Nosce Te Ipsum

by Maria S. Kardaun

October 24, 2010


The fairy tale or folk tale is the most widespread and possibly oldest form of literature: an unpretentious, dreamy type of story, without an identifiable author, recounting miraculous events that are set in some indefinite place and time. Simple as they may seem, fairy tales are not always easily accessible to a sophisticated audience. In our (post)modern times they have more or less disappeared from sight. ‘Enlightened’minds in the past have tried to suppress them and have succeeded to the extent that fairy tales are looked upon, nowadays, as infantile material, appreciated only by the very young, or perhaps by the occasional romantic soul. In our modern, no-nonsense world of career management and clever marketing strategies, fairy tales do not count for much. Yet, fairy tales are valuable repositories of wisdom. Freud did not hesitate to analyze E.T.A. Hoffmann’s literary fairy tale Der Sandmann in order to illustrate his psychoanalytic theory of the uncanny. And Jung-oriented research tends to value fairy tales even more.


You either have a taste for fairy tales or you don’t. I do not mean this as a judgmental statement, but merely as an observation. Superior appreciation of formal artistic skills can, to a certain extent, be learned and cultivated; it is a so-called acquired taste. The taste for fairy tales, however, seems to come naturally. What is more: too much education may seriously cloud one’s understanding of the tale. The fairy tale is the barest, most elementary form of story-telling art. Nothing more, nothing less. Not everyone can muster sufficient humility to drink the plain water of this deceptively simple wellspring. Strict reasoning, knowledge of historical facts, a degree from a posh university, one’s complete cultural baggage: all this has to be sacrificed, or at least temporarily suspended, if we want to gain an understanding of the fairy tale’s unique imagery. If we rattle the fairy tale’s gates with loud, boastful learning and intellectual bragging, they will almost certainly remain closed. Instead, we better attempt a careful, soft-footed approach and have patience. Then, if we are lucky, the miracle may happen of its own accord.

What in fact is a fairy tale? First, let us have a closer look at the connotations of the word in several modern languages. If I may start with my own language: the Dutch word for fairy tale is sprookje, a diminutive derived from Middle Dutch sproke, meaning ‘story’ or ‘tale’. So, sprookje means something like ‘little tale’. In German speaking regions similar diminutives are in use, namely Märchen or Märli (from Middle High German Maere, viz. ‘message’, ‘news’, ‘tale’). So, the original meaning of the German word for fairy tale, too, is something like ‘small message’ or ‘little tale’.[1] The use of the diminutive form is not coincidental; it is suggestive of the almost trivial, unassuming nature of this type of tale. A fairy tale has no specific intention, perhaps not even a point. There is not much to it, really. It does not convey a comprehensive religious worldview or a coherent system of thought.

A comparable terminology, though without the diminutive form, is used in other European languages: fairy tale or folk tale (Eng.), conte de fées (Fr.), fiaba (It.), cuento de hadas (Sp.), conto de fadas (Port.) Always, the basic connotation is ‘(simple) story’, which suggests that the main charm of the tale lies in its telling. Additionally, the word may contain a reference to the fact that this type of story is often about non-existent creatures like fairies (in other languages: fées, hadas, fadas), and hence is more or less exempt from the normal constraints imposed by the laws of nature.

As a matter of fact, the fantastic nature of the fairy tale is one of its most characteristic features. Animals that talk, seven-league boots, flying carpets and beanstalks growing up to the sky overnight: in the world of the fairy tale the supernatural[2] and the miraculous as such are nothing special at all. In this respect the legend (in German: Sage), a narrative form that is already to a certain extent ‘disenchanted’ and often contains historical elements, is different in that our normal, every-day human perspective prevails: the characters of a legend are usually bewildered when they are confronted with ‘impossible’ creatures such as devils, witches, trolls, elves and goblins. In legends the supernatural is present, but it is strictly separated from the realm of non-magical, ordinary reality. By contrast, the fairy tale – in a very dreamlike fashion – doesn’t even distinguish between the two realms. The fairy tale’s universe is a universe completely in its own right, ruled by its own weird and wonderful type of logic that is incompatible with our regular views. Yet on a certain level of understanding fairy tales apparently make sense to us, otherwise they wouldn’t be so popular: on a conscious level we may find fairy tales nonsensical, but on an unconscious level they are not.

Needless to say that the characters populating the fairy tale are classic flat characters, lacking psychological complexity and recognizable individuality. Fairy tale figures need not even be human. The main figure in a fairy tale may very well be a cat, a firebird or a tin soldier. Often these figures don’t have proper names, as in The Wolf and the Seven Young Kids, or they have very common names like Hansel and Gretel (Jack and Jill would have been equally distinctive, for that matter). Or they may be named after a quality, such as All-Kinds-Of-Fur, Tom Thumb or Cinderella. In other words, fairy tale characters are not perceived realistically as people of flesh and blood. They turn up when, and stay as long as, the story needs their presence and then disappear again. There is no point in speculating on how they fared thereafter; whether, for instance, Snow White after some years of happy marriage experienced a hysterical midlife crisis and whether subsequently she and her prince turned to Dr. Phil for relationship counseling.

According to Jung and Jungian scholars, such as the fairy tale specialist Marie-Louise von Franz, the otherworldly quality of fairy tale figures is due to their so-called archetypal nature. Archetypes are essentially unconscious, ‘eternal’[3] psychic forces and processes that we share with others. They dominate the collective unconscious part of our psyche, are highly energy-laden and tend to influence our behaviour. The less we recognize archetypal figures and patterns for what they are (collective images, convictions, and ways of thinking that we can’t help but see as ‘normal’; in a negative sense they may be our shared blind spots), the greater their power over us will be. Of course, different times and cultures produce (subtly) different archetypal material. To understand the archetypal patterns behind one’s own time, culture and environment is very difficult, perhaps impossible. However, after a while, and certainly with hindsight, things tend to become somewhat clearer. To give an easy example: nowadays it is hardly a new insight that the Western[4] mind inherited a strong tendency from Platonic and Christian thinking to identify ourselves exclusively with ‘The Good’, and hence to obsessively associate evil with The Other. There is a general awareness that we have this compelling pattern in our system. Many great thinkers – among them Nietzsche, Jung, Erich Neumann, Eugen Drewermann, Karen Armstrong – have pointed it out to us, and it is also clear that this unconscious pattern tends to disturb our relations with our fellow human beings. Yet it is very difficult to get rid of such an archetypal constellation and to stop projecting simple black-and-white moral dichotomies onto the outside world. That is because these mechanisms are firmly rooted in the collective unconscious, even though in the last two centuries we have begun to discuss them in the public domain and thus have started to understand them on an intellectual level. Archetypal changes are very slow, and the influence of consciousness is limited. In the case of our inclination to project ‘evil’, however, we should perhaps try to move on a bit faster, because as long as we are not capable of dealing with the problem of evil on a psychological level, that is to say within ourselves, we will continue meeting The Enemy (with capitals) outside; that will be our ‘fate’, and for obvious reasons that is a dangerous situation.

About ‘fate’: in this respect Jungian psychology resembles the mindset of the pre-Socratic Greeks who were – as Greek tragedy shows us – much more concerned with the forces of fate than we tend to be nowadays. To the Greeks it was important to find one’s humble place in a cosmos filled, not just with other human beings, but also with very tricky, often unpredictable and incomprehensible divine schemes and schedules. (Mind: from a Jungian, psychological point of view ‘divine’ is to be understood as ‘archetypal’.) However, contrary to popular belief, the ancient Greeks were not particularly inclined to surrender to fate – after all, human beings have free will, and they will use it. Nor were they striving to overcome fate – which would be a dangerous presumption or hybris as they would call it. No, the idea in Pre-Socratic Antiquity was that we should attempt something in between, namely to come to terms with fate somehow. The first step toward this goal was to recognize one’s limitations, not just one’s personal limitations but also one’s limitations as a human being. Human beings have limited views. Awareness of this fundamental flaw of human existence was considered a necessary condition for ‘the good life’ by the Greeks. In other words, they regarded self-knowledge as the basis of redemption, an idea that is expressed in the famous adage inscribed on the Apollo-temple at Delphi: ‘Know Thyself’.[5]

Depth psychology too is all about self-knowledge. It is by no means an overstatement to say that we owe to Sigmund Freud and his followers, including Jung, the re-introduction of the notion of self-knowledge into western society.[6] A potential source of self-knowledge is the fairy tale. These fascinating little stories show us what is going on in the psyche beneath the surface of our everyday concerns. In particular, they confront us with the shortcomings in our conscious attitude towards life. And they do so not just on an individual, but also on a cultural level; for example in pre-industrial Russia the high-minded holy Virgin-Mother Mary was the official object of worship, but at the same time a whole range of popular folk tales about the dark, down-to-earth witch Baba Yaga compensated for this utterly one-sided image of femininity.[7] Of course, the more a civilization’s dominant conscious attitude is focused on just one ideal of humanity, the more likely it is that compensatory insights will emerge.

As to what fairy tales are not: they should not be confused with heroic legends. The heroic legend is a related genre, but it is more directly linked to the official viewpoint of its audience, and therefore it is somewhat less otherworldly and strange than the fairy tale. Typically, heroic figures symbolically represent one or a few of a cultural community’s essential values, and their purpose is to overcome a collectively felt evil. By the way, in authentic hero legendry, heroic figures usually not only represent their civilization’s qualities but also their major flaw: Babylonian hero Gilgamesh who defeats the monstrous giant Humbaba, but gets into serious trouble with the Babylonian equivalent of the Great Mother; Jacob who successfully fights the mysterious adversary at the Jabbok river and thus becomes ‘Israel’, but at the expense of a limp; Romulus who does away with his twin brother and thus builds an empire upon murder; Siegfried who slays the dragon, but perishes because of a hidden weakness of his own; Oedipus who outsmarts the Sphinx but thereby unknowingly seals his own fate; Jason who manages to seize the Golden Fleece but loses everything due to his foolishness and arrogance; Theseus who rescues his home town Athens from the Minotaur and other evil riffraff but who subsequently, through a series of exotic wives, reintroduces that very same excessive brutality into the city, via the backdoor, so-to-say, and who finally meets an ignominious end. While the heroic tale is very intriguing and may be open to many different interpretations, on many levels and from many points of view, the fairy tale (I mean the authentic fairy tale or folk tale) is even more elusive. In the fairy tale there often is no well-defined central ‘I’ and there are hardly any restrictions on shifts in narrative perspective. According to Jungian psychology, this ‘slippery’ nature is due to the fact that fairy tales, like dreams, have no fixed conscious focus. Fairy tales are to be considered as raw archetypal material. While heroic legends tend to feature in a more or less official set of beliefs and at least in part convey conscious values, fairy tales are hardly influenced by the conscious mind at all, or only ex negativo, in a compensatory way.

Moreover, the heroic tale is sometimes reduced to a mere instrument, and deliberately tailored to suit well-defined propaganda purposes. For instance in the religious counterpart of the sun-hero myth, the legend of Saint George and the Dragon, the hero is, in line with Christian tradition, absolutely flawless.[8] The hero’s spotless purity makes the story smack of moralism, the taste of which ruins its original spiritual expressiveness in a directly proportional measure. Or even worse: the hero myth is abused to create cheap, futile and mind-numbing thrills. Take, for instance, James Bond. If we take away the special effects and the artificially complicated plot, we are left with a very skimpy and stereotypical story: bold hero defeats villain, saves the world at the very last second from disaster, and conquers the heart – and body – of a stunning woman. Time and again. Yawn.

Let us return to the fairy tale. For a proper understanding we must distinguish between fairy tales in the sense of folk tales, that have been handed down orally before they were written down (in German: Volksmärchen), and so-called literary fairy tales (Kunstmärchen).

The latter are tales that originate from the imagination of (mostly) just one author. A famous literary fairy tale, that has come down to us from Antiquity, is the story of Amor and Psyche. It is the centerpiece of the novel Asinus Aureus by the Romanized North-African author Apuleius.[9] In Northern Europe, the fairy tale as a literary genre started to unfold its wings especially after the publication of a French translation of the Arabian Nights, between 1704 and 1717. By the time of the Romantics the genre had become quite fashionable, and it remained popular during most of the 19th century. The most illustrious name in this connection is, of course, that of Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875): one would be hard put to find anyone who is not somehow acquainted with at least one or two of his literary creations. However, there are also numerous others who took up the art of fairy tale-writing, for instance E.T.A. Hoffmann, Adelbert von Chamisso, Wilhelm Hauff, Oscar Wilde, Herman Hesse, J.R.R. Tolkien, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and the Dutch authors Louis Couperus and Godfried Bomans. Typically, literary fairy tales are smoothly polished narratives that tend towards the allegorical, that is to say, in many cases the carefully designed images may not mean much more than the writer intended them to mean. For instance, even a moderately discerning reader can hardly miss the meaning of The Emperor’s New Clothes (Andersen, 1837) or The Ugly Duckling (Andersen, 1843). What one sees is what one gets. Or more or less so.

The traditional oral fairy tale or folk tale is much older and much more mysterious. It is the product of the joint imagination of a (presumably large) number of unknown contributors, and its roots may go back a very long time. Actually, one of the most ancient fragments of literature that has come down to us is a folk tale, namely the famous, more than 3000 years old Egyptian tale of Anpu and Bata. This story centers around the theme of two brothers, a theme that is also found in more recent folk tales from all over the world, for example in Grimm’s Die zwei Brüder.[10]

Folk tales do not confine themselves to political borders or to a precise period of time. They may be connected to their historical and cultural background, but only in a very loose way. Stylistic devices are practically absent. There is no refinement in the outer form. Moreover, the text is variable, as the stories are told and retold by many different people. Clearly, in this type of tale the content of the image sequence is much more important than the precise wording. The folk tale makes no effort whatsoever to explain itself. The distinct images rather abruptly succeed one another, as in a dream, and it is up to the listener to connect and make sense of them.

Perhaps this is the reason why Charles Perrault in his Contes de ma mere l’Oye (1697) so emphatically added an explicit moral – albeit not a too serious one – to each of the folk tales he recorded (among which are some of today’s most well-known fairy tales, such as Little Red Riding Hood, Puss in Boots, Cinderella and Little Tom Thumb).

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, as well, deemed it necessary to explain and even ‘improve’ the folk tales that were entrusted to them. The first version of their Kinder- und Hausmärchen – usually abbreviated to KHM for the sake of convenience and known as the Household Tales in English – appeared between 1812 and 1815. This version was a comparatively thin book containing more or less authentic folk tales that the brothers had gleaned from various sources. The Household Tales partially overlap Perrault’s Contes. In later editions, the original dialect was translated into High German and the content was gradually adapted to the contemporary bourgeois mentality. The need for adaptation of the original tales seemed to impose itself the more because, in line with common Enlightenment belief, the brothers had claimed that these folk tales were meant for children. Therefore it seemed only natural that the tales should meet educational standards. ‘Our’ Grimm, the Grimm that most people are familiar with, is the latest version. It dates from the year 1857. All in all, the Household Tales contain an incredibly rich hoard of folk tales, but it is quite unfortunate that the brothers succumbed to the temptation of changing elements of the tales and adding to them. (Even so, they did only moderate harm compared to the damage that was done by Walt Disney’s later, purely commercially driven machinations.)

As I see it, folk tales are fine as they are. They are rooted in the fullness of life and may help counterbalance (some of) our culturally determined conceptions and misconceptions. Take for instance Little Red Riding Hood. Against the backdrop of the exclusively Christian official value system of the later Middle Ages and early Modernity this story is quite illuminating: that naive little girl with her one-dimensional emotional make-up, symbolized by the Red Hood she is so fond of wearing, doesn’t hesitate to generously volunteer any information to the very first wolf that comes along. That is very innocent indeed, and very touching. She is a good girl and a paragon of Christian virtue, but of course her example is not to be followed! Naivety provokes evil, as Perrault saw quite well:[11] in his version sweet Little Red Riding Hood is eaten, and that is it. Full stop. No need at all to throw in an artificial happy ending as in Grimm’s Household Tales.

Actually, the Grimm brothers added quite some extra elements to Little Red Riding Hood, and suppressed others. The sisters Jeanette and Marie Hassenpflug, who had told them several oral versions shortly before 1812, were of partly French descent. It seems that Jeanette’s version was by and large the same as the one in Perrault’s well-known French edition, that is to say Little Red Riding Hood is eaten by the wolf and there is no happy ending.[12] However, a few years earlier the German Romantic author Ludwig Tieck had already introduced a gamekeeper in a dramatized version of the fairy tale. The gamekeeper was not able to save Little Red Riding Hood, but at least he killed the wolf.[13] The brothers Grimm seem to have combined Tieck’s invention of the gamekeeper with yet another theme that they knew from The Wolf and the Seven Young Kids, namely the release of unharmed victims out of the belly of a gluttonous wolf.[14] The result was the story of Little Red Riding Hood as most people know it today, namely with the killing of the wolf and the rescuing of both Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother out of the belly of the wolf,[15] and of course without any explicit ‘French’ sexual allusions. The Grimm brothers make Little Red Riding Hood exclaim after her unpleasant adventure: “How frightened I was! It was so dark in the wolf’s belly!” And the brothers did not leave the fairy tale at that, but continued with a second adventure. In this second adventure, Little Red Riding Hood meets another wolf, but this time she has learned her lesson: she understands what the wolf is after, doesn’t leave the path, and is not eaten. Instead, she and her grandmother manage to kill the wolf all by themselves. This second story seems to have been the favourite version of Jeanette Hassenpflug’s older sister Marie. The Grimm brothers attached it to the first story as if it were not an alternative version, but an extension of the storyline. They also stressed the importance of the social virtue of obedience, because in the first, unhappy half of their story, Little Red Riding Hood does not obey her mother who had emphatically told her not to linger, and that is the reason she is eaten by the wolf, whereas in the happy second half of the story Little Red Riding Hood does exactly as her mother and grandmother tell her and consequently remains unharmed. Thus the brothers Grimm made the story both more intelligible and more edifying to their bourgeois public.

Of course it is difficult to say what a folk tale ‘really’ means because, unlike officially published literary texts, folk tale material is very elusive. In fact, there are no fixed, definite folk tales, only temporary, shifting versions of folk tale motifs. And interpreters also may have very different perspectives, and hence be sensitive to different aspects of a folk tale, even if they agree upon one and the same story line. Still, it makes sense to explain the immense popularity of Little Red Riding Hood in the last few hundred years – be it Perrault’s version or Grimm’s – at least in part as a compensation of Europe’s conventional ideas about evil. What happens in Little Red Riding Hood is very different from what one is supposed to believe according to mainstream Christian and post-Christian tenets: evil does exist as a psychic force in its own right, and the best way of dealing with it is not at all to remain as innocent as one can. Even in the first of the two Grimm adventures, where in the end the little girl is rescued and restored to life with the help of the gamekeeper, her moral naivety is not presented as something we would like to imitate, because it is quite obvious that she isn’t any better off for having been in the belly of the wolf.

Let us try, however, to say something more specific about the symbolic meaning of some of the most conspicuous elements in Little Red Riding Hood. Freud is not too explicit about this particular fairy tale, probably because he deals with it only in a medical context and indirectly, but he seems to see the wolf as an imagined father substitute, and he interpreted the hidden content of the fairy tale as a whole, as an expression of infantile fear of the father.[16] From a Jungian point of view, we might see the grandmother who lives in (or in some versions: behind) the forest as a variety of the figure of the Great Mother, i.e. the undifferentiated source of all being, the age-old goddess of nature containing ‘eternal’ feminine wisdom, the very principle of Eros.[17] In the beginning of our fairy tale the mother, daughter and grandmother live together in a happy, all too happy symbiosis, without a fatherly element. That is to say there are three feminine figures in the foreground of the psyche and there is no masculine principle. It is all Eros, and no Logos.[18] This situation has its exact counterpart in the official religious worldview of Medieval and early-Modern Europe,[19] where the universe was supposed to be ruled by an exclusively masculine, heavenly, spiritually oriented Holy Trinity, viz. the Father, Son and the Holy Ghost. One compensatory insight that Little Red Riding Hood conveys, may be that the actual way of living in rural, pre-Modern areas of Europe, especially in the Mediterranean part where Mother Mary traditionally is worshipped much more than God the Father, had a certain resemblance with the archaic, down-to-earth situation as depicted in Little Red Riding Hood. Be this as it may, one-sided femininity is no less problematic than one-sided masculinity and one cannot expect it to remain unchallenged. Indeed, in our fairy tale masculinity soon enters the scene in the form of a male wolf. The animal-like, unredeemed, primitive, not-yet-human form in which masculinity here appears is an indication of its (as yet) unconscious nature. Wolves are not necessarily evil, but they are predators; they take what they need. Little Red Riding Hood could probably do with a little bit of predator mentality herself, but instead she goes on being nice, unselfish, connective, playful, innocent, subservient and trusting. In short, she keeps displaying all of the traditional feminine virtues and there is no integration, nor even a little bit of understanding, of masculine values like power, discernment, determination, logic, structure, discipline, independence and ambition. Like any one-sidedness, persistent identification with Eros is very likely to provoke at some point an enantiodromia (i.e. the emergence of an unconscious opposite) in the psyche. Because of Little Red Riding Hood’s continuing naivety and playfulness, the unconscious changes from the original benevolent, life-giving, supportive, motherly principle into its destructive opposite, a terrible truth that Little Red Riding Hood fails to recognize even when there can be absolutely no mistake about it any more. Like in a nightmare, she is able to name all the separate wolf-like characteristics of her ‘grandmother’ one by one: long arms and legs, big ears, eyes and teeth, but she is incapable of perceiving the whole picture. Everything about the former, familiar way of natural, happy-go-lucky existence has suddenly become a deadly trap. Little Red Riding Hood is devoured, not because she is bad, but because she is not in touch with all the relevant realities of life. That too is an un-Christian, and therefore (in light of the historical context of the fairy tale) compensatory insight: in life completeness is more important than perfection.

Some of the implicit messages in Sleeping Beauty, to mention another of the world’s most popular fairy tales, are equally instructive. In this tale ‘evil’, symbolized by the wicked thirteenth fairy, is willfully excluded and becomes a threat precisely because it has been ignored, a mechanism that we call the return of the repressed. The same mechanism recurs when, somewhat later in the story, the king bans all spindles from the kingdom out of fear that the little princess might prick her finger. Of course, when she does chance upon a spindle, being inexperienced with it, she hurts herself.[20]

As for the danger of trying too hard to avoid evil, this theme is already found in Greek mythology. Apparently, the tendency toward excessive moral polarization and the repression issues that usually come with it were already present before the beginning of the Christian era, because the compensatory mechanisms we see at work in later European folk tales can already be encountered in Greek myth. In one of the Trojan war legends King Peleus and sea goddess Thetis, Achilles’ parents-to-be, have invited just about all the gods of the Greek pantheon to their wedding, with the exception however of Eris, the goddess of discord. Eris takes her revenge by throwing in a golden apple through the open doors of the banquet hall. It has a text inscribed upon it: ‘for the fairest’. With some steps in between, the inevitable strife for the possession of the apple leads to the Trojan War, in which conflict the royal couple’s son Achilles will meet his end. Peleus and Thetis did all they could to prevent discord from entering their universe, but it was precisely the trying-too-hard that opened the door.

Puss in Boots, too, provides a great many insights that compensate for our everyday conceptions of the world. The story is all too well-known. A miller dies, leaving his youngest son in a precarious position, as it is the eldest son that inherits the mill and, with it, tradition and property. The second son gets the donkey (which could well mean something like humility and tenacity, the ability to plod on until the work is done). The youngest, to his despair, inherits nothing but the cat. The cat, however, turns out to be a lucky draw. The miller’s son doesn’t know it yet, but from now on his problems are solved. The animal has got pluck. Through sheer imaginative power he successfully manipulates the world around him. The first thing we notice about him is that the cheeky little rascal is not only rather arrogant but also very stylish: he sets great store on snazzy looks and won’t lift a paw until he has been fitted with a pair of designer boots and has received a multipurpose sack. He then sets out on a bold mission of American Dream-like proportions. If, for the sake of convenience, we take the youngest of the miller’s sons to represent the ‘ego’ we can only conclude that in this story the ego is not particularly ambitious: time and again it is the cat that takes the initiative. The self-confidence illustrated in Puss in Boots is of the natural, instinctive type; that is why it is represented by an animal. The cat does not embody a conscious wish to devise clever strategies to serve ego-targets; instead, it represents something like the art of living, the ability to make use of the creativity that flows straight from the unconscious and will help you find your bearings in life. However, the cat can talk and, in his perfectly fitted boots, he prances around in an altogether human fashion. So we are dealing with a thoroughly domesticated cat, not with a wild instinct that is incompatible with the world of humans. Moreover, the instinctual impulse in this story does not materialize as a dog or a horse or a monster, but as a cat: a rather elegant little predator that likes to go about its own shady business (at least, humans tend to see cats as a trifle unscrupulous and just sufficiently immoral to comfortably get on in life).[21] To be sure, Puss the cat ministers to life or, in Jungian terminology, to the Self. The tale is not about a tyrannical, compulsive career obsession or the flawed, fatal logic of our craving for more, more and still more. On the contrary, as soon as the clever animal has accomplished its purpose – to everyone’s delight the miller’s son is happily united with the princess and succeeds his father-in-law as king – Puss recedes into the background. The bluff-your-way chapter is over and the focus of the story shifts back to the human. In the first edition of Grimm’s Household Tales (1812-1815) we are told, at the end, that the miller’s son becomes king and that the cat is promoted to the position of prime minister. In Perrault’s older, French version, the helpful little animal returns to being a normal cat again (albeit a palace cat, who still chases mice, but strictly for pleasure). In other words, for now the cat has played out its role. It is no longer needed, and that is just as well.

So where do fairy tales come from? Just like literature and art they do not primarily stem from the outside world. Or, to put it in somewhat fancier words: the fairy tale originates from the propensity of the human mind to think and feel in narrative structures, that is, to spontaneously make a story, with a head and a tail, out of everything it experiences, irrespective of empirical facts. Stories, and fairy tales in particular, are telling: they tell us important things about ourselves, about the activity of our unconscious mind that cannot be lastingly suppressed, neither by a religious straitjacket, nor by political or economical ideologies, nor by the terror of production targets or the volatile mood of the stock markets. The real spontaneous fairy tale is like a dream. It does not strive to be politically correct, does not moralize, or if it does, it is concerned with the morality of life itself and not with the morality of the fortuitous forces that happen to be in power or in fashion.

In short: nothing is more realistic than the fairy tale. Fairy tales are about the things in life that really matter. Fairy tales have this in common with art, that other infallible yardstick of people’s innermost thoughts and feelings. Life is too short and far too interesting to be wasted on ephemeral fads and fashions. Let us renounce the world of make-believe, and believe in fairy tales again!


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[1] For historical reasons, mainly because of the work done in this field by the brothers Grimm, the German conceptualization of the fairy tale – and the fairy tale’s exact position in relation to associated genres like myth, saga, legend, parable, fable – is still dominant in international (e.g. Scandinavian, Swiss, Dutch) fairy tale research. Of course, this does by no means imply that the genre of the fairy tale has its origin in Northern Europe. Nor should the by and large medieval setting of the tales that were collected by Giambattista Basile (1634-1636), Charles Perrault (1697) and the brothers Grimm (1812-1857) be taken as an indication that the genre was a medieval invention. For an overview of the history and the different types of (mostly European) fairy tales, see Max Lüthi 2004/1962. The most encompassing annotated catalogue of fairy tales from all over the world is provided by Uther 2004. This monumental work is a modernized and extended edition of the famous international tale-type classification that was started by Antti Aarne in 1910 and carried on by Stith Thompson until 1961. A good source for archetypal motives in fairy tales from all over the world is Symbolik des Märchens by Hedwig von Beit (von Beit 1952-1957). Actually, this three-volume work was financed by von Beit, and she saw to it that it was published under her own name only, but large parts of it were written by the now famous Jungian fairy tale specialist Marie-Louise von Franz, who was still unknown at the time (the forties and early fifties of the twentieth century), and relatively young, and who simply needed the money that von Beit offered her to perform this time-consuming job.

[2] As an aside, the great fantasy and fairy tale author J.R.R. Tolkien was so steeped in the fairy tale way of thinking that he even objects to the term ‘supernatural’ in this connection. To him it is man who is ‘supernatural’, in the sense that man has the habit of transcending and even violating the limits of nature, whereas fairy figures according to Tolkien are the most natural things in the world: they pop up spontaneously in our fantasies and will always act according to their nature. (Tolkien 1966, pp. 34 ff.)

[3] The ‘eternity’ of the archetypes is, of course, of a psychological nature, and not at all to be taken in an empirical sense. As compared to our individual lives archetypes do not seem to change, or not much anyway. For example the Greek gods – the ancient Greek equivalent of what Jung calls archetypes – were both of collective importance and eternal to the Greeks. Even so, the Greeks had mythological stories about earlier gods that had been overcome by newer ones and other stories about changes in the divine universe. In other words, even within the archetypal realm of a particular civilization nothing is completely eternal: archetypes do change. However, these changes are so gradual that at least in a human lifetime they are hardly visible, hence the ‘eternity’ of the archetypal figures and patterns.

[4] This is not to say that other civilizations cannot have the same problem (or other problems of their own, for that matter).

[5] About the difference between the Socratic-Platonic (‘western’) worldview on the one hand and the Pre-Socratic (‘mythological’) worldview on the other, see Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy (Nietzsche 1872) and also his Twilight of the Idols (Nietzsche 1889). Perhaps also Nussbaum 1986; Kardaun 1997 and 2000.

[6] In the same vein Norman Holland and Murray Schwartz keep stressing the importance of self-knowledge in the field of literary criticism, under telling names like ‘Delphi teaching’, ‘Delphi Seminar’ and ‘Know Thyself’ (Holland and Schwartz 1975; Holland 1995; Holland and Schwartz 2008).

[7] About the (darker sides of the) Russian mother complex see e.g. von Franz 1993, pp. 172 ff.; von Franz 1995, pp. 190 ff.; Kardaun 2006.

[8] Unsurprisingly, one of the objections of (mostly evangelical) Christians against Tolkien’s hero figure Frodo Baggins is that poor Frodo is not completely impeccable: though he sacrifices himself to save the world from evil, his heroic mission is, at the very last moment, saved by mere luck, or at least not by Frodo’s conscious will to do good, because it is the Smeagol-Gollum creature who eventually, by accident, destroys the Ring of Doom (Pirson 2002). Also, in Tolkien’s mythological world evil is not defeated for ever, but only temporarily, which from a Christian point of view is another major flaw in Tolkien’s works (Wright 2003).

[9] For two (renowned but quite different) Jungian interpretations of this fairy tale, see Neumann 1949 and von Franz 1992, pp. 77-138.

[10] No-one less than Otto Rank wrote an extensive interpretation of this fairy tale, together with Hans Sachs (Rank and Sachs 1972 [1913]).

[11] In the verse moral that Perrault adds to his Petit Chaperon Rouge, he makes it quite clear that the particular evil he has in mind is sexual seduction and even rape. He presents the fairy tale as a warning to young girls. I have nothing against highlighting this particular element of the fairy tale, but perhaps we should not narrow down the meaning of the fairy tale to only sexual naivety and violence, as this might reduce the tale to a mere metaphor. Bruno Bettelheim sees Little Red Riding Hood’s red headwear as a sign of her ‘budding sexuality’, and assumes that this sexuality comes at too early an age; hence the destructive outcome of her meeting with the wolf (Bettelheim 1989, pp. 166 ff.). Indeed, the red cap that the heroine keeps flaunting instead of brains is hardly accidental; for one thing it is to be contrasted with the cool celestial blue that covers the head of the Holy Virgin Mary. Red is the traditional colour of life, joy, warmth, love, passion; also the colour of rage, sexual heat and prostitution, and not to forget – more recently – of communism. However, her head cover being red does not make Perrault’s Petit Chaperon Rouge in any way less innocent. Unlike Grimm’s Rotkäppchen, Perrault’s heroine is not even disobedient to her mother. She is described as the nicest and cutest little darling one can imagine. She’s a sweet, loving creature that literally knows no harm. And she meets a horrible fate, which is really not what they teach you in Sunday school.

[12] Dekker, Kooi and Meder 1997, pp. 308 ff.; Uther 2008, pp. 63 ff.

[13] Ludwig Tieck, Die Tragödie vom Leben und Tod des kleinen Rothkäppchens, Jena 1800.

[14] Jäger 1977, pp. 85 ff.; Uther 2008, p. 64 f.

[15] According to Hans-Wolf Jäger the happy ending of the Grimm version was patriotically inspired, and has to be seen in light of the contemporary Napoleonic wars. In his view, the Grimm brothers thought of their Rotkäppchen as a personification of the German countries and of the big bad wolf as Napoleonic France, and that would be the reason why they decided that in their story it would eventually be the wolf that gets killed. (Jäger 1977, pp. 94 ff.)

[16] Freud 1913, p. 289; Freud 1918, pp. 29 ff.

[17] For the concept of the Great Mother, see Jung 1935, passim; Neumann 1955, passim; von Franz 1995, pp. 135 ff. Psychoanalytic interpretations of mother figures in literature are found in Hillenaar and Schönau 1994 (passim).

[18] Jung’s pair of concepts ‘Eros and Logos’ is somewhat different from Freud’s ‘Eros and Thanatos’. See Freud 1930; Jung 1917.

[19] The oral versions of the fairy tale, that Perrault based his version on, were notably rooted in Medieval and early-Modern France and Northern-Italy (Rumpf 1989). The wide-spread German popularity of Little Red Riding Hood seems to have begun only after its publication in the first edition of the Household Tales, that is to say in the nineteenth century (Dekker, Kooi and Meder 1997, pp. 308 ff.; Jäger 1977).

[20] Most psychoanalytic interpretations point out that Sleeping Beauty is about female psychosexual development, and again I do not want to deny that this is a genuine and rather conspicuous element of the story (though some interpreters are a bit over-enthusiastic; there is a tendency to explain Sleeping Beauty’s reluctance to give in sexually to just anyone that comes by as a mental disease, e.g. Friedman 1969; Fetscher 1979, pp. 143 ff.).

[21] Hannah 1992, pp. 55-82; Von Franz 1999, passim; Chevalier and Gheerbrant 2002, s.v. ‘chat’.

To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Maria S. Kardaun "Jung and the Fairy Tale, Or Nosce Te Ipsum". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available http://psyartjournal.com/article/show/kardaun-jung_and_the_fairy_tale_or_nosce_te_ipsu. April 12, 2024 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: March 22, 2010, Published: October 24, 2010. Copyright © 2010 Maria S. Kardaun