Jung and the Fairy Tale, or Nosce Te Ipsum

Article excerpt

abstract

The fairy tale or folk tale is the most widespread and possibly oldest form of literature: an unpretentious, dreamy type of story, without an identifiable author, recounting miraculous events that are set in some indefinite place and time. Simple as they may seem, fairy tales are not always easily accessible to a sophisticated audience. In our (post)modern times they have more or less disappeared from sight. 'Enlightened'minds in the past have tried to suppress them and have succeeded to the extent that fairy tales are looked upon, nowadays, as infantile material, appreciated only by the very young, or perhaps by the occasional romantic soul. In our modern, no-nonsense world of career management and clever marketing strategies, fairy tales do not count for much. Yet, fairy tales are valuable repositories of wisdom. Freud did not hesitate to analyze E.T.A. Hoffmann's literary fairy tale Der Sandmann in order to illustrate his psychoanalytic theory of the uncanny. And Jung-oriented research tends to value fairy tales even more.

You either have a taste for fairy tales or you don't. I do not mean this as a judgmental statement, but merely as an observation. Superior appreciation of formal artistic skills can, to a certain extent, be learned and cultivated; it is a so-called acquired taste. The taste for fairy tales, however, seems to come naturally. What is more: too much education may seriously cloud one's understanding of the tale. The fairy tale is the barest, most elementary form of story-telling art. Nothing more, nothing less. Not everyone can muster sufficient humility to drink the plain water of this deceptively simple wellspring. Strict reasoning, knowledge of historical facts, a degree from a posh university, one's complete cultural baggage: all this has to be sacrificed, or at least temporarily suspended, if we want to gain an understanding of the fairy tale's unique imagery. If we rattle the fairy tale's gates with loud, boastful learning and intellectual bragging, they will almost certainly remain closed. Instead, we better attempt a careful, soft-footed approach and have patience. Then, if we are lucky, the miracle may happen of its own accord.

What in fact is a fairy tale? First, let us have a closer look at the connotations of the word in several modern languages. If I may start with my own language: the Dutch word for fairy tale is sprookje, a diminutive derived from Middle Dutch sproke, meaning 'story' or 'tale'. So, sprookje means something like 'little tale'. In German speaking regions similar diminutives are in use, namely Märchen or Märli (from Middle High German Maere, viz. 'message', 'news', 'tale'). So, the original meaning of the German word for fairy tale, too, is something like 'small message' or 'little tale'.[1] The use of the diminutive form is not coincidental; it is suggestive of the almost trivial, unassuming nature of this type of tale. A fairy tale has no specific intention, perhaps not even a point. There is not much to it, really. It does not convey a comprehensive religious worldview or a coherent system of thought.

A comparable terminology, though without the diminutive form, is used in other European languages: fairy tale or folk tale (Eng.), conte de fées (Fr.), fiaba (It.), cuento de hadas (Sp.), conto de fadas (Port.) Always, the basic connotation is '(simple) story', which suggests that the main charm of the tale lies in its telling. Additionally, the word may contain a reference to the fact that this type of story is often about non-existent creatures like fairies (in other languages: fées, hadas, fadas), and hence is more or less exempt from the normal constraints imposed by the laws of nature.

As a matter of fact, the fantastic nature of the fairy tale is one of its most characteristic features. Animals that talk, seven-league boots, flying carpets and beanstalks growing up to the sky overnight: in the world of the fairy tale the supernatural[2] and the miraculous as such are nothing special at all. …