Fairy Tales as Literature
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Why do we bother telling stories at all? In seeking an answer Christopher Booker, in "The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories" (Continuum, 2005) suggests that we may find an answer to that question if we contemplate the observation that in all of the world’s stories we may find only seven basic plots that engage our imaginations enough to make us attend to those stories. Let us therefore list the seven and see what we may discern.
1. Overcoming the Monster
The first of the most basic plots has at its center a hero, representing a community, who must challenge and defeat a deadly threatening figure. Perseus gives us the perfect example of this plot in the story in which he must slay the Medusa and then parlay that victory into the destruction of the Kraken and the consequent rescue of the maiden Andromeda. In this kind of story the monster personifies an all-id personality, one driven by an extreme narcissism. In the classic fairy tales we see this kind of story in "The Story of The Three Pigs". We may also see something of this plot in "The Fisherman and The Jinni", in which the monster is transformed rather than slain.
2. Rags to Riches
Aschenputtel gives us the archetypal story of this kind. Again, self-indulgent figures overshadow and oppress the central figure. Eventually that central figures goodness comes out and that person is revealed to be someone exceptional. The story usually ends with a man and a woman riding off together into the sunset.
3. The Quest
This plot reports to us the struggle that a hero and his companions, such as Jason and the Argonauts, to overcome ordeals and enemies in order to reach a far-off goal of great value. In the Argosy Jason and his men seek out and capture the Golden Fleece. In so doing they overcome the power of darkness and evil, secure the treasure, and thereby save the kingdom. Hansel and Gretel seem to be of this type, even though the two children did not set out on their adventure voluntarily.
But sometimes the plot gets lost. Consider "Moby-Dick". Where Jason brought the Argo and most of his men back home, Ahab, giving in to an obsessive narcissism based on his desire for revenge on the white whale, ensures that both he and the Pequod will be destroyed. The Quest becomes Tragedy.
4. Voyage and Return
The Wizard of Oz gives us the most familiar of stories of this type. In this plot the central figures are thrown out of their familiar world into a bizarre environment. At first they are exhilarated by the strangeness, but gradually it becomes more sinister and evolves into a nightmare. In a final thrilling act, they escape and return to whence they came.
In this plot confusion reigns over all. Misunderstanding keeps the main characters, who should be allies or lovers, apart. Eventually the misunderstanding is corrected and light fills the darkness. The central characters are reunited and all is well in the world. At its core tension builds, the risk to the characters increases (or seems to increase) until it is abruptly collapsed.
Macbeth exemplifies the story in which the central character passes under the dark spell of narcissism. Giving in to evil temptation, they enjoy a gratifying success. But gradually sinister nemesis makes her forces felt, turning the success into a nightmare and ultimate destruction of the character. We don’t have any fairy tales that exemplify this plot, because fairy tales invariably have happy endings. But tragedy can provide the backstory for the monster in a fairy tale. It might tell us what made the witch in Hansel and Gretel such a vile creature.
We might think of this pattern as an aborted tragedy. In it the central figure becomes trapped in something like a state of living death by giving in to the dark power of the id. But later that person is liberated and redeemed by a simple act of kindness. Snow White and her prince give us the prime example in the land of fairies and provide us with the perfect image of light filling darkness and life and love triumphing over death and separation.
The psychological value of those seven patterns rests upon the concept of fictionality. Originally it was applied to the novel, the literary genre that first began in Italy in the 16th Century and spread, but it works just as well with the classic fairy tales. Like the novel, the fairy tale isn’t true to Reality, like history, but in a way neither is it manifestly false to Reality, like legend or fable, presenting psychological truth rather than factual truth. That fictionality exists as an epistemological possibility midway between truth and falsehood represents an enormous cultural achievement; its possession gives us a valuable cultural resource.
Fiction is believable without soliciting belief, which means that it is referential without referring to real figures and events. Thus, because it doesn’t tell us about anyone in particular, fiction can tell us about everyone in general, including ourselves. Fiction enables us to identify with characters in the story because it frees us from moral responsibility toward those about whom we read, a feature of fairy tales that Bettleheim emphasized. As a consequence the reading of fiction enables self-reflection, an act that integrates intellect with feeling and reveals truths that transcend the merely factual. Going beyond the factual and specific, those truths represent the general and philosophical, yielding what people of earlier ages called wisdom.
But we seem to have lost something recently. In what we call the Age of Information we seem to have progressively less use for both reading and fiction. In the section titled Fear of Fantasy: Why Were Fairy Tales Outlawed? Bettelheim notes that fewer parents read fairy tales to their children because they feel that the fairy tale is a lie, that it does not give the child real information about the world. Fairy tales were not so much outlawed as dismissed as inappropriate for children. In their place a new doctrine took hold.
Because science and technology have produced such readily visible successes as radio and television, they have come to supercede all other means of understanding the world. More and more, people have given their assent to Scientism, the doctrine that postulates the idea that all truth is quantifiable and, thus, that we can attain all truth through the scientific method. Education has become little more than the sharing of information. When we thus reduce knowledge to mere calculation we lose the ability to imagine – to think and to feel our way into other people’s experiences in order to understand them. It is not enough to know matters of fact; we must also know matters of feeling and that little matter of fact obliges us to cultivate imagination.
And here we come back to fictionality. Because they share with the novel the property of fictionality, fairy tales stand with certain novels as part of the great literature of Humanity. As they grow our imagination they shape our souls as DNA shapes our bodies and help determine the form of our civilization.
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