Save Our Fairy Tales, Part 2 — Fairy Tales and Feminists

It will be helpful, but not essential, to have read part 1. Having made some preliminary observations there, I’ll turn now to the more important question, do critics of fairy tales really understand them? They argue at worst that we should abandon fairy tales altogether, or that we should rewrite them (feminists). Before discussing that, let’s take a look at what we might be losing if we follow such advice. Here are some statements made by those who disagree, who perhaps understand fairy tales and their importance:

  • Joseph Campbell, the greatest mythologist of the 20th century: “The folk tale is the primer of the picture-language of the soul”¹.
  • Friedrich Schiller, leading 18th century German playwright: “Deeper meaning lies in the fairy tale of my childhood than in the truth that is taught by life”².
  • C. S. Lewis said that fairy tales reveal “human life as seen, or felt, or divined from the inside”³, a phrase which Bruno Bettelheim, from part 1 of this series, used as the title of his first chapter⁴.
  • G. K. Chesterton, philosopher and playwright: “The things I believed most then (in the nursery), the things I believe most now, are the things called fairy tales. They seem to me to be the entirely reasonable things. They are not fantasies: compared with them other things are fantastic”⁵.
  • Novalis, Romantic philosopher and poet, called “the folk tale the primary and highest poetical creation of man”⁶.
  • Ananda Coomaraswamy (a name perhaps not well known, but a significant figure in the tradition of the Perennial Philosophy): “The content of folklore is metaphysics. Our inability to see this is due primarily to our abysmal ignorance of metaphysics and its technical terms”⁷.

Feminists might argue that these are all men. Does that mean that their opinions are worthless? I hope that you don’t think so; perhaps they had a better understanding.

It should be obvious from the content of fairy tales that they are not intended to be taken literally, yet this seems to be what the critics think. This has led Diane Perkis, a University of Oxford professor no less, to say “I think some fairy tales are incredibly misogynistic, even violent towards women”⁸. Some of the complaints run along these lines:

  • the males are heroes, while the females are locked up in towers, put to sleep, or chained to a rock, waiting to be rescued.
  • the woman is pretty and she sits and she waits. The man is busy and strong and active and clever, and he thinks his way out of the situation, he saves the woman at the end.

Fairy tales, however, or at least the best of them, are not stories of a fantastic nature with actual characters; they are about psychological processes within individuals, the hero or heroine, their spiritual journey. So when Keira Knightley says that Cinderella is about a heroine who “waits around for a rich guy to rescue her”, and that “it’s never ok for a man to kiss you while you’re asleep”, she has failed to understand that the Prince is not a separate person in the story, rather what in Jungian psychology is called the animus, the (potentially) divine masculine side of Cinderella’s own nature. She is rescued by something within herself.

Ms. Knightley said that she is not allowing her daughter to watch the Disney movie. As I noted in part 1, Bettelheim says that fairy tales have to be told in their original form. Disney has changed the original story, in which its spiritual content was much more obvious. Surely feminists agree that women in the real world are metaphorically locked up, in chains, and need to escape; that is the whole meaning of their campaign for liberation. Fairy tales agree with them and suggest solutions.

A similar argument has been made by Elizabeth Childs Kelly in a recent article on Medium, where she discusses Homer’s Odyssey. Her principal complaint is that Odysseus’s wife is “told to shut her trap by her own son, Telemachus, who proclaims, ‘Speech will be the business of men, all men and me most of all; for mine is the power in this household’ ”. She says that this line “is just the tip of the Odyssey misogyny iceberg”, and thinks that this text is a part of patriarchal systems, complaining that it remains a classic.

However, she is advocating a return to “the ancient traditions of Goddess worship (spiritual traditions that envisioned our source to have feminine attributes)”, and I am in agreement with her that this is a direction that our society needs to take. I also completely agree with her understanding of the world, that “we are absolutely, unequivocally inseparable from this immense and beautiful ecosystem that surrounds us”, and all that this implies. I do not agree, however, that the Odyssey is an appropriate target in this battle against patriarchal systems.

The line she quotes is, at face value, completely indefensible, and there may be others similar. The subject matter of this epic poem, however, beneath the allegory, is the transformation of Odysseus’s male nature so that he will become worthy of returning to his wife Penelope, who represents the divine aspect of his anima, the female side of his own nature, thus the goddess within him. Therefore an allegorical understanding of the Odyssey would actually be useful ammunition in the campaign in which Ms. Kelly is engaged, the need for men to transform their lower nature and find the feminine principle within them, an appreciation of the goddess.

The problem therefore, as I see it, is the inability, common in modern times, to think symbolically or allegorically; we need to understand the language of the psyche. It is not surprising therefore that Jungian writers, who are specialists in this language, do understand fairy tales and have taken a special interest in them. The best example is Marie-Louise von Franz, the greatest of Carl Jung’s followers, who wrote The Feminine in Fairytales⁹, The Psychological Meaning of Redemption Motifs in Fairytales¹⁰, and Individuation in Fairytales¹¹. What does ‘individuation’ mean? It is the psychological process by which people, including girls, become who they truly are. As Bruno Bettelheim says, as quoted in part 1: fairy tales: “direct the child to discover his identity and calling, and they also suggest what experiences are needed to develop his character further” (p24). He may, regrettably, say ‘he’ and ‘his’, but fairy tales do also concern themselves with female individuation, for example Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty.

Here’s a further example of a possible misunderstanding. In a programme on BBC radio 4, broadcast on December 8th 2015, called The Misogyny Book Club, one of the contributors Rosie says that she remembered “the old school Snow White version, (in which) the witch says you will only get your prince if you have a tiny waist, straps her into a whale-bone corset, and pulled it so tight her ribs cracked, couldn’t breathe, fell to the floor gasping. Really horrid”. I am not aware of the version she is referring to — it is not the one in the Grimm collection. Even reading this brief extract, however, it is not hard to come up with an alternative interpretation. Why would you believe what a witch, obviously a malevolent character, says? According to the story, if you do, you become suffocated, crushed. Maybe Snow White’s prince will ignore the witch and love her anyway, whatever she looks like. This is surely a message feminists should appreciate.

There is a clear parallel to this scene in the story of Theseus who, on his initiatory journey to Athens, comes across the unpleasant figure Procrustes who “had an iron bed (or, according to some accounts, two beds) on which he compelled his victims to lie. Here, if a victim was shorter than the bed, he stretched him by hammering or racking the body to fit. Alternatively, if the victim was longer than the bed, he cut off the legs to make the body fit the bed’s length. In either event the victim died”¹².

Both passages seem to be an obvious allegory of the demands and pressures of society to conform, to fit in with normal expectations, preventing the hero or heroine from becoming the person they truly are, resulting in their psychological suffocation or death. These demands are symbolised by a witch or a sadistic figure which has to be fought against and overcome. It is a frequent complaint of feminists that women are pressurised into being thin, to conform with stereotypical ideas of body image, and that they should be allowed to appear how they want. Rosie’s fairy tale appears to be agreeing with them. So why does a feminist complain?

Some ancient tales, even though called myths, have remarkably similar themes to fairy tales, in that they describe the spiritual journey, the individuation process of the hero concerned. Their plots also contain symbolic fantasy elements, just like fairy tales. Examples would be: the Twelve Labours of Hercules, and the story of Theseus. Written down ancient stories with named authors are Homer’s Odyssey, and Virgil’s Aeneid. More recent examples along those lines are Dante’s Divine Comedy, and Goethe’s Faust.

It is true that in all these stories, whether ancient or modern, the principal figure is a man. However, in some of them we find the same theme as in the Odyssey. The closing line of Faust is “the eternal (divine?) feminine draws us upward and on”. In the Divine Comedy Dante’s guide on his spiritual journey for the earlier parts, the male poet Virgil (human reason), is replaced by the female Beatrice (divine knowledge), a switch deemed necessary to guide him into the heavenly realm.

One significant exception among the ancient myths, in which the lead character is a woman, is the tale of Psyche found in Apuleius’s Golden Ass, a lengthy analysis of which is provided by Erich Neumann in Amor and Psyche: The Psychic Development of the Feminine¹³. I would like to comment on this at some length, so, in order not to make this article too long, I will save that for the next one. I promise, however, that it is a story that feminists should relish.

Conclusion

It is clear, if the story-line is taken literally, that some fairy tales can be considered disturbing, and politically incorrect in our modern era. If one can get past the literal interpretations and understand the allegorical symbolism, however, the stories are often about the kind of liberation feminists want; fairy tales offer solutions to the problems. You would think, therefore, that these tales should be praised by feminists, rather than criticised. So feminists, please write new fiction, celebrating the lives of women, and the potential of young girls. Let’s not abandon or meddle with the wisdom of fairy tales by rewriting them.

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I hope that you have enjoyed this article (especially if you are a feminist!). I have written in the past about other topics, including spirituality, metaphysics, psychology, science, Christianity, politics, and astrology. All these articles are on Medium, but the simplest way to see a guide to them is to visit my website (click here and here).

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Further reading:

1. Interesting article by Ella Whelan: https://www.spiked-online.com/2017/11/28/ban-sleeping-beauty-okay-now-feminists-have-gone-too-far/

2. Stephanie Merritt, in the Guardian, while complaining about the content of fairy tales, and advocating some rewriting, nevertheless concedes: “this is how stories work; it’s generally understood that what we regard as acceptable or even desirable within the context of a fictional world is not a morality that translates to real life. Even quite young children are capable of grasping this”. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/nov/27/sexual-assault-sleeping-beauty-fairytales-ban-gender-rape

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Footnotes:

1. Flight of the Wild Gander, New World Library, 2002, p25

2. This is actually a quote from a character in a play, The Piccolomini, Act 3, Scene 4. I have not been able to find those exact words in online translations. An earlier translation of the German seems to be: “a deeper import lurks in the legend told my infant years than lies upon that truth, we live to learn” (http://www.gutenberg.org/files/6786/6786-h/6786-h.htm#link2H_4_0021). However, Joseph Campbell refers to the same speech, and gives as the German “Tieβere Bedeutung liegt in dem Märchen meiner Kinderjahre als in der Wahrheit, die das Leben lehrt”, which is a close translation of the quote above. (As footnote 1, p2)

3. The Allegory of Love, OUP, 1936

4. The Uses of Enchantment, Penguin, 1978

5. Orthodoxy, John Lane, 1909. See chapter 4, The Ethics of Elfland, available online: http://www.freeclassicebooks.com/Chesterton,%20G.%20K/Orthodoxy.pdf

6. Although there are several references to this on the internet, I am not sure what the original source is. It is quoted by Joseph Campbell, as footnote 1, p2.

7. “De la ‘Mentalité Primitive’ ”, Etudes traditionelles, 44e Année, Nos. 236, 237, 238 (Paris, 1939), p278

8. The Misogyny Book Club, BBC radio 4, December 8th 2015

9. Spring Publications, 1972

10. Inner City Books, 1980

11. Spring Publications, 1982

12. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Procrustes

13. Princeton University Press, 1971