Why girls need fairy tales to find a Prince Charming
Published 09/01/2013 | 08:00
I have never been treated by a psychotherapist, but I did have a fruitful friendship with a Jungian analyst, who strongly recommended the usefulness of fairy tales.
She was particularly keen on the story of Little Red Riding Hood, which she believed was a helpful guide for young girls.
The fable was all about good men and bad men: the bad man was the wolf, waiting to devour Red Riding Hood and her grandma. Yet there were also good men in the world, represented by the huntsman (or the woodcutter), who notices that something is awry in Grandma's cottage, and rescues the girl and the grandmother.
Look for the good men who take responsibility and are helpful, said the Jungians. And beware of the bad men who are dangerous.
There's been a resurgence recently of interest in traditional children's fairy tales. Movie hits such as Shrek and The Hobbit are outgrowths of the genre.
Some of these stories are, indeed, grim and unsparing in the original versions. (Cinderella's stepsisters are thoroughly punished for their wicked ways - birds peck out their eyes and they are blinded for life.)
Stepmothers generally get a bad press in all these tales, but both the Jungians and the Freudians have noted that when a mother is nasty, she is turned into a stepmother. When she is nice, she is a real mother.
Hansel and Gretel's parents, for example, were originally described as their natural mother and father. But as the father didn't want to abandon the children and the mother did, the mother was subsequently described as a stepmother.
The greatest tragedy that could befall a child, in these fables, is the loss of a loving mother. That's Cinderella's problem. Her birth mother dies and so she acquires the stepmother and stepsisters. Many of these stories are enduring, because the themes will always be with us - poverty, riches, family rivalries, greed.
The poor usually have children, but the rich are sometimes portrayed as infertile. That's the start of Rapunzel - the wife longs for a child, then gorges on the rapunzel plant in the witch's garden.
The Sleeping Princess is also the yearned-for only child. The Freudians have had a field day with The Sleeping Princess, seeing it as a symbol of a sexually unawakened young woman.
In the Grimm tales, nature is often fierce and cruel, although occasionally helpful - Cinderella is supported by small animals and trees.
Threatening old women are often seen as powerful witches who can cast spells. There may be redemption - a frog may turn into a prince - but there are harsh penalties for wrongdoers.
Nowadays, we soften the harshness of the Grimms' tone. The Disneyfication of these stories turn all animals into darling little creatures, whereas traditionally animals were frequently dangerous.
The wolf is not to be trusted ("wolves don't keep promises," a young girl warns her brother in Grimms' story Little Brother and Little Sister).
Every age will always interpret classical fables in its own way. Yet these tales probably carry as significant a message today as ever.
In a world where rape and domestic violence remain a threat to women, it is sensible to teach young girls to be prudent and sometimes watchful.
Stepmothers aren't necessarily wicked, but most still agree that their role can be very challenging.
And, as a friend of mine who married a rich and handsome man once quipped: "Honey, sometimes you have to kiss an awful lot of frogs to get the prince."