November 24, 2012

The Abstract and the Concrete in Fairy Tales, By L.C. Ricardo



In academic circles, the Jungian theory of a universal unconsciousness is no longer in vogue. But human experience—moods and rituals, rites of passage, a curiosity for the unknown—is just that, characteristic of humanity. As such, it will continue to affect our lives, whether we are discussing it in academia or not.

Birth, death, love, fear, forgiveness, acceptance . . . these general abstractions are perhaps alone ineffective in capturing our scholarly interest, let alone the imagination. But infuse them into a fairy tale, and we have a living, breathing story indeed. The fairy tale provides concrete objects to embody life’s mercies, cruelties, and miracles.

That is not to say that fairy tales are mere allegory. Perhaps this one-sided interpretation carries some blame for people’s frustration in“telling the same story over and over again.” If a tower is always a phallic symbol and the maiden either imprisoned or protected from the masculine, we rob the tower of its first childhood impression. That of something tall, stone, unreachable. Something enchanted, according to that which makes up its very definition. And from there—who knows what it could be?

Fairy tales are universal; they are also deeply personal. The flavor of a tale is informed by the culture, religion, race, and geographic location of the person or people from which it arises. An immeasurable but large part of the magic of fairy tales is in their details.

So we have a specific tree—a juniper tree; three dresses, celestial yes, but made from moon, sun, and stars; an enchanted polar bear, snow-white and native; and a circle drawn in chalk to keep away the devil (somehow, we know a circle drawn of coal just wouldn’t do). These are the objects of earth and the everyday. They are ordinary and yet extraordinary.

While fairy tales are not born in a vacuum, and are no doubt informed by political, economic, and religious circumstances, they transcend them as well. To hold them hostage in the realm of thought is much like addressing a person’s physical needs and ignoring the rest of him. In typical paradoxical fairy tale fashion, the ideas are its flesh; the things are its soul. Because a glass shoe is not a symbol of female repression or a social-class stereotype. It is not even the embodiment of a cinder-girl’s pain or her shining redemption. It is a glass shoe. And because it is this and none of these things it transcends and contains all of them.

"The Juniper Tree, by Warwick Goble
L.C. Ricardo has published poetry in The Red Poppy Review, Bolts of Silk, and The Sandhill Review. She is currently undertaking a community fairy tale-writing project on Spinning Straw into Gold , where she blogs regularly.

15 comments

  1. This is a very insightful and thought provoking article, it makes one rethink all the things one has read about fairy tales allowing the idea that maybe those things are not really true. It gives the idea that maybe a fairy tale is just a fairy tale, something to enjoy reading while growing up then in turn read it to one’s children as they grow. I agree that fairy tales have the substance of life in them, if the didn’t they wouldn’t be as interesting and popular as they have been over the years. Although many believe that fairy tales contain symbols alluding to a deeper meaning, (and maybe their right about some of it), it seems as if the items that are represented repeatedly are there because they are the stuff of life and existence on this Earth. Maybe we do need to go back to just enjoying fairy tales and not look for some hidden meaning or the secret to life.

    Anna W.

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  2. L.C., I think I get your main idea: objects in fairy tales, as in dreams, are sometimes just what they are. And yet, they are more than that object would be in the mundane world, because they're shaped by the tale they're in, the kind of tale and the particulars of that tale. So they don't represent something else, they embody an idea? Or a fundamental essence? Here's where I think I lost the thread.
    Thanks for your thoughts. I'd love to hear more.

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  3. To start, the picture to go along with this comment is beautiful. Further, reading this post really makes me think about how much fairy tales have become much more significant in my eyes when it comes to studying them academically. It reminds me such of the tales in I have studied in mythology once before, stories like Aphrodite and Zeus that leave people wondering and have been around for centuries or even longer. The mythological tales, just like fairy tales, go in depth with a persons journies, struggles, and achievements. They are not only read just for entertainment but they sometimes can teach us things about our lives. They are not necessarily stories that people can explain because everyone looks at them in their own point of view, and takes their own scoop of enchantment with the readings. Relating to this post, all fairy tales are revolved around a child/children and the family dynamic. There are reasons why these stories were created and still told today to children. Each tale holds some sort of significance, usually leaving it up to the reader to comprehend for them.

    Ruth S.

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  4. John,

    Thanks for asking me to clarify. c:

    What I'm trying to get across (imperfectly, I know), is that the symbols in fairy tales are symbols: they do stand for things. But in the way all objects have meaning for us. We are human beings. We infuse everyday things with meaning, with our own experiences, with our own religious or secular beliefs.

    As an aspiring writer of fairy tales, I find that rather than choosing an object (or place, profession, etc.) by calculating what would communicate a specific agenda, it is much more effective to pick something at random. Of course, Jungian-type people would say that what I chose wasn't random at all. But even if I were to chose something with an intention in mind, readers might be affected by the choice in ways I couldn't even have foreseen.

    For example, in The Lord of the Flies, William Golding arbitrarily chose a conch shell for the island-stranded boys to sound in order to summon meanings. But for decades, readers have seen that conch shell as a striking symbol of order and civilization, especially when it is destroyed toward the end.

    Now, if Golding had chosen something else, say a drum of some kind or a bonfire signal, the impression in our minds would necessarily be different.

    On the other hand, Robert Frost wrote his famous poem "The Road Not Taken" as a reflection his his choice to leave farming and become a poet. But if he had called it something like "The Pen and the Plow," using those symbols rather than the one of the road diverging, readers would have a very different experience of the poem indeed. I daresay it would alienate some people.

    I realize what I'm saying is falling into the category of a paradox. Symbols in fairy tales don't mean anything specifically, but they have the potential to mean something specific. It is the potential that is so poignant.

    My way of thinking is informed very strongly by G.K. Chesterton and J.R.R. Tolkien. I encourage you to read their essays on fairy tales. I've linked to them online on the Resources page of Spinning Straw into Gold (http://spinstrawintogold.blogspot.com).

    I hope that helped and didn't just muddle you even more!

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  5. Post script:

    John,

    Don't I feel silly. I see you're already more than familiar with Tolkien's essay. I think what I'm approaching in this brief reflection is something close to Tolkien's using "mountain" and "green" to reclaim something primal and universal--in a word, human.

    Do let's keep the dialogue going. I'll add you to my link list on SSiG.

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  6. Christie,

    Thanks for the follow-up. That did help, yes. It makes an enormous difference, I agree, when you're writing in this vein not to overanalyze or try to go for "symbols" or "allegories" you can use in the story. That kills it, I think. (The muse, I mean.)

    And then there are those reused objects, like hearts in pouches. Like tools of the storyteller's trade, but what do they "mean" (if anything)? Or are they open-ended, as you suggest, and "mean" what they must for the reader (and the storyteller)?

    I would agree that when you're reading a fairy tale--and maybe this was a part of your article that I missed--it's important to allow room for a multiplicity of meanings. But I think I'm rambling. Thanks again, this does clarify what you were after.

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  7. “Birth, death, love, fear, forgiveness, acceptance . . . these general abstractions are perhaps alone ineffective in capturing our scholarly interest” I would have to disagree with this statement. I feel that many of these ideas are very primal to all people. Often in life we ponder what happens after death, we search for love, and we view the miracle of birth all with out placing them into story for meaning. In my own experience I have pondered the topic of death and wondered what happens when a life comes to an end and rarely does this topic need to be embedded into a story to be significant enough to reflect on. A story can enhance the meaning of all these topics though as the author talks about in the post. He says “they are often deeply personal” and this is a great description of many tales. Some of the most captivating stories are the ones that are the most honest. Many of Hans Christian Anderson's stories revolve around these mentioned themes and bring them to live through his characters. An interesting view on how fairy tales impact people.

    Jake Crawford

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  8. I must admit that L.C. Ricardo mind set is different from most writers. It is interesting how many times when we read fairy tales we don’t fully open our minds to the smallest details. This article shows that objects in dreams, fantasy, and fairy tales are all the same no matter what. Reading this post, makes me think about fairy tales in a different way. Every tales gives a child the sense of achievement, acceptance, and the importance of love, and most importantly how to forgive those who hurt them and have no fear for the monster in their closet. These qualities of fairy tales are not often thought about when reading until after the reading is done. The elements that fairy tales provides for every fairy tales lovers are very essential to everyday life. Thanks L.C for making me think about the simplest elements of fairy tales and how significant they are.

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  9. This is a good way to describe fairy tales in a nut shell. I totally agree with the elements you listed on what makes up a fairy tale. Birth, death, love, fear, forgiveness, and acceptance are all common keys needed in order to develop a good fairy tale. Every well-known fairy tale has consisted of all these elements which are what leaves us with a vision of the tale. When discussing the flavor of the tale and mentioning culture and religion as the main ingredients is a good analogy. I think that the real meaning or morals to most fairy tales are wrapped around culture or use religion as the background. The fact that you mention fairy tales are completely personal couldn’t be more true. Each person that reads a fairy tale can usually relate to it in some way or another. Overall, I thought this was a really good reading and could not agree more.

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  10. Excellent post, Christie.
    I especially like your idea that assigning too much allegory or symbolism to fairy tale images could be robbing our childhood impressions. Even though I've studied literature for some time now, I've always felt the same way.
    In some of the comments above, you mentioned Tolkien's 'On Fairy Stories'- have you read C.S. Lewis's 'On Stories'? In it he talks about Jack the Giant-Killer , and why it is a Giant- and nothing else- that makes the story what it is:
    "It is quite easy to contrive a story in which, though the enemies are of normal size, the odds against Jack are equally great. But it will be quite a different story. The whole quality of the imaginative response is determined by the fact that the enemies are giants. That heaviness, that monstrosity, that uncouthness, hangs over the whole thing....Nature has that in her which compels us to invent giants: and only giants will do"

    On Stories can be found in Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories by C.S. Lewis and is worth a read!

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  11. orazi,

    No, I haven't read that essay. Thank you for bringing it to my attention. And why doesn't it surprise me in the least that C.S. Lewis and I seem to be in total agreement on this topic? c;

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  12. John,

    Re: hearts in pouches, and what they "mean."

    I do believe that symbols have definite meaning, but in a Plato's-philosophy-sort-of-way, in which the things stand for their truest selves, their ideals, that which they are outside of these three dimensions so-to-speak, and hence the appearance of having many meanings. It's not that the symbols/things stand for more than one thing, so much as that what they stand for is so much more than we human beings can grasp with our finite minds.

    So a glass shoe is only a glass shoe--and yet a glass shoe is something wonderful, unfathomable, and deeply meaningful in itself. without having to "stand for" anything.

    Anyway, that is crossing into the realm of philosophy, which some may not think appropriate in discussion of literature. That's why I tried to stay kind of vague in the original essay.

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  13. orazi,

    P.S. Thanks for linking me to your blog. I've linked yours as well and look forward to reading it.

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  14. Christie,

    This did it for me. Plato, whether appropriate to literature or not, helps me see what you're getting at. And gives me plenty more to think on (which I like).

    By the way, thanks also for linking me on your blog. I tried to follow suit (not always great at such things - hope I did it right).

    And thanks to EC for hosting these conversations!

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  15. Most definitely! And thank you as well! I've enjoyed going back and reading your posts- just a pleasure :)

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