When I was a child, the popular books for kids included the Nancy Drew mysteries, the Bobbsey Twins, and the Hardy Boys. I loved burying myself in these stories that involved other youth who were trying to find their place in the world. But I also had a passion for fairy tales. I found them at the center of each fat red volume of The Books of Knowledge that my parents had bought from a traveling book salesman.
There is much fine fiction today written especially for young people. But while they offer practical guidelines for encountering the everyday, many of these works tend to be one-dimensional, unable to move the child’s deeper psychological processes. Except in the hands of a very great writer, realism doesn’t capture the imaginative faculty in quite the same way as fantasy does (Bettelheim 4). There are no echoes of forgotten layers of the psyche, no resonances of the compelling creatures that visit children’s dreams.
Some psychologists view the passages in human life as developmental. Julius Heuscher points out “that human development is not something continuous and gradual, but occurs in phases. Each phase may show its origins in the preceding one and contains the seeds for the following one; yet each phase has its own distinct characteristics” (115). Fairy tales have a unique role in this process. Parents and educators should stress them in a child’s education because they stimulate children’s developmental phases. This happens in several ways.
Children identify with the characters they’re reading about. A hero/heroine who has navigated a particular stage shows the child how to do it. In “Hansel and Gretel,” both characters escape from the wicked witch and flee the forest of the unconscious with a duck’s help. “Hansel and Gretel” also offers a heroic male and female model for the reader. Bettelheim points out that “fairy tales have great psychological meaning for children of all ages, both girls and boys, irrespective of the age and sex of the story’s hero” (19).
Heroic qualities are needed for a child to meet all the challenges s/he will face and to arouse his or her courage. According to Bettelheim, this is exactly the message that fairy tales get across to the child in manifold form: that a struggle against severe difficulties in life is unavoidable, is an intrinsic part of human existence—but that if one does not shy away, but steadfastly meets unexpected and often unjust hardships, one masters all obstacles and at the end emerges victorious (8).
For children who have difficulty believing in their ability to manage in the adult world, a heroic figure can be an inspiration, becoming part of their personality structure and offering encouragement at crucial developmental stages. Such encouragement may not be consciously experienced, but it is present subliminally in those corridors of the mind that we seldom have access to except through our dreams. In Bettelheim’s words, “Fairy tales enrich the child’s life and give it an enchanted quality just because he does not quite know how the stories have worked their wonder on him” (8).
The stories also can correspond with a developmental phase that a child is experiencing, such as fear of abandonment or anxiety about separation, and relieve him/her of the discomfort because it can be experienced at a distance, through projection onto the story’s characters. (Of course, this can happen, too, from reading realistic literature, but not quite so dramatically or with the same depth—certainly not with the same “magic.”) Fairy tales speak simultaneously to all levels of the personality so they are capable of reaching the deeper layers of the child’s mind. It is as if the grannies that originally told the stories are whispering soothingly into the child’s ear without others being aware of the message’s content since it would be individual for each person.
Fairy tales also can help children face death, smaller deaths as well as the ones that are more shattering. Learning to navigate the stages of one’s life involves confronting death, for each new stage attained requires the death of a previous one. Since deaths in fairy tales often happen to those who aren’t authentically alive (for example, Rumpelstiltskin, who feeds off the maiden’s fears and is not a fully developed being), children have an easier time of letting go of those parts of themselves that aren’t truly theirs: the difficult step-mother; a wicked half-brother or sister; someone/thing the child no longer needs to be related to. Deaths in fairy tales prepare the child for the fact that death is an intrinsic part of life—central to it. There is death in all growth. The child also discovers the cyclic nature of death; there is a new birth or new beginning as the cycle repeats itself.
As we move from childhood into adulthood, we need to discover how to express impulses in controlled ways that are acceptable to our culture and not suppress them. Besides encouraging children in the ways already mentioned, fairy tales give them safe, contained opportunities to experience wishes and desires that otherwise would be suppressed and regarded as witch-like tendencies in themselves or acted out inappropriately. In other words, rather than acting out an impulse—such as the desire to kill one’s parents or to batter a sibling—in a harmful way, a fairy tale can provide release from this need, especially the classic ones that don’t hold back from expressing the less civilized side of human nature. Given that children live much closer to the archaic, “primitive” level of personality than the normal, civilized adult, their fears of unruly feelings are much more intense and need an outlet.
Unless children have a blueprint in mind that allows for more than the mundane, then they will not likely get beyond the practical visible world as adults. Perhaps this is why W. H. Auden believed so strongly that fairy tales should be an educational requirement not just for children but for adults as well. Humans need to know of the eternal perspective—there is much we can’t fathom with our rational consciousness—so that life doesn’t become meaningless. Fairy tales facilitate this way of perceiving by connecting us to the mysteries and keeping them alive.
Fairy tales are vital to young people’s development because they stimulate levels of the psyche not reached by other forms of literature and prepare the child’s mind for a variety of adult experiences, ranging from the darkest to that which gives greatest joy. While helping youth maneuver various developmental stages, they also make them aware that struggle is a healthy and necessary part of existence: one needs to meet a problem and wrestle with it until a resolution is reached. While including fairy tales in our lives will help fertilize the mythic dimension, they also suggest there is more to life than what is visible in our everyday world, reminding us that transformation of ourselves and our environment is possible.
Bettelheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976.
Heuscher, Julius E. A Psychiatric Study of Myths and Fairy Tales. 2d edition. Springfield, Illinois: Thomas, 1974
Pen-L Press will be publishing my novel Fling in 2015. A wildly comic romp on mothers, daughters, art, and death, the book should appeal to a broad range of readers. While the main characters are middle-aged and older, their zest for life would draw readers of all ages, male or female, attracting the youthful adventurer in most people. Though women may identify more readily with Feather and Bubbles’ daughter and mother struggles, the heart of the book is how they approach their aging selves and are open to new experiences. Since art and imagination are key to this narrative, artists of all ages would find something to enjoy. And because the book crosses many borders (Scotland, Canada, the U.S., and Mexico), it also can’t be limited to a specific age group, social class, gender, or region.
My first fan letter for Fling came from an 80 year-old woman who lives in the tiny village of Christina Lake, B.C. My son, who also lives there, had given her my manuscript to read. She said, “I just wanted to express to you how very much I enjoyed your writing. I started it and didn’t stop till I had read it all. I very much like your style and your subtle humor. Thank you for a most enjoyable read. I can’t understand why it hasn’t been scooped up by some publisher. But I know that it will be. In my estimation I know that it is excellent literary work. I am a voracious reader and have been since grade 4. I remember my first book was Tom Sawyer and I have never stopped since then. I go through 4 to 5 books a week. We are so fortunate here at the Lake now. The Library staff in Grand Forks come out here every Wednesday. I have become very fond of the young lady who comes out. She provides me with all the award winning books and orders others for me. Again I want to express to you how very much I enjoyed your manuscript. Have patience my dear….it will be published to wide acclaim I am so sure.” —Joan Fornelli.
Here is a synopsis:
Feather, an aging hippie, returns to her Calgary home to help her mother, Bubbles, celebrate her 90th birthday. Bubbles has received mail from the dead letter office in Mexico City, asking her to pick up her mother’s ashes, left there seventy years earlier and only now surfacing. Bubbles’ mother, Scottish by birth, had died in Mexico in the late 1920s after taking off with a married man and abandoning her husband and kids.
A woman with a mission, and still vigorous, Bubbles convinces a reluctant Feather to take her to Mexico so she can recover the ashes and give her mother a proper burial. Both women have recently shed husbands and have a secondary agenda: they’d like a little action. And they get it.
Alternating narratives weave together Feather and Bubbles’ odyssey with their colorful Scottish ancestors, creating a family tapestry. The “now” thread presents the two women as they travel south from Canada to San Francisco and then Mexico, covering a span of about six months. “Now” and “then” merge in Mexico when Bubbles’ long-dead mother, grandmother, and grandfather turn up, enlivening the narrative with their antics.
In Mexico, the land where reality and magic co-exist, Feather gets a new sense of her mother. The Indian villagers mistake Bubbles for a well-known rain goddess, praying for her to bring rain so their land will thrive again. Feather, who’s been seeking “The Goddess” for years, eventually realizes what she’s overlooked.
Meanwhile, Bubbles’ quest for her mother’s ashes (and a new man) has increased her zest for life. A shrewd business woman (she’s raised chickens, sold her crafts, taken in bizarre boarders, and has a sure-fire system for winning at bingo and lotteries), she’s certain she’s found the fountain of youth at a mineral springs outside San Miguel de Allende; she’s determined to bottle the water and sell it.
But gambling is her first love, and unlike most women her age, fun-loving Bubbles takes risks, believing she’s immortal. Unlike her daughter, Bubbles doesn’t hold back in any way, eating heartily, lusting after strangers, her youthful spirit and innocence convincing readers that they’ve found the fountain of youth themselves in this character. At ninety, she comes into her own, coming to age, proving it’s never too late to fulfill one’s dreams.
Fling, a meditation on death, mothers and daughters, and art, suggests that the fountain of youth is the imagination, and this is what they all discover in Mexico. It’s what Bubbles wants to bottle, but she doesn’t need to. She embodies it. The whole family does.