Bengt Holbek and the Study of Meanings in Fairy Tales *

By Vaz da Silva, Francisco; Lindow, John et al. | Cultural Analysis, Annual 2000 | Go to article overview

Bengt Holbek and the Study of Meanings in Fairy Tales *


Vaz da Silva, Francisco, Lindow, John, Hasan-Rokem, Galit, Cultural Analysis


This paper argues that Bengt Holbek's attempt to reduce all "marvelous" elements in fairy tales to real-world referents drastically conceals the dynamics of traditional symbolic representations underlying this narrative genre.

Bengt Holbek is unusual among folklorists in that his Interpretation of Fairy Tales is uncompromisingly set on a theoretical level. After summarizing virtually all preceding scholarship on fairy tales, the Danish author proposes a comprehensive theory the basis for which is the clear assessment that all problems in the realm of "oral verbal art" have "to be seen as being dependent upon that of meaning" (8). After Holbek's magnum opus it is simply not possible to disregard the symbolic aspect of fairy tales. I thus concur with Alan Dundes in seeing in Interpretation of Fairy Tales "a seminal work, a veritable landmark" (203). Now this entails, for those of us who would profit from this heritage, an obligation of close readings.

Misgivings on Symbols and Context

In the field of fairy-tale studies nothing is of course simple, let alone self-evident. What one means by "meanings" must, therefore, be clarified. According to Holbek the "marvelous" elements in fairy tales are "symbolic," meaning they "convey feelings rather than thoughts." Moreover, such "vivid emotional impressions" are deemed to "refer to beings, events and phenomena of the real world" (409). Since fairy tales supposedly express emotional impressions (435), interpretation consists in retracing all "marvelous" elements back to the real-world referents of such impressions (409).

Holbek uses a system of seven rules for reverting symbolic expressions to their corresponding emotional impressions. In so doing he focuses on three thematic oppositions, namely young versus adult, male versus female, and low versus high. According to him these "define the three categories of crises which occur in fairy tales," all of which are in turn "real or possible events in the storytelling community" (416-8). Holbek thus surmises that the thematic axes of fairy tales express "sensitive, even painful" problems of rural communities. Such concerns are, in a nutshell, the youths' rebellion and incestuous attractions to parents, sexual maturation and the meeting of the sexes, and the tensions between "haves" and "have-nots." It follows that, ideally, "every element [in a fairy tale] may be read as pertaining to real life" (439, cf. 428).

This leaves of course "no room at all for the so-called supernatural beings, the witches, fairies, dragons, ogres, etc.," since--as Holbek stresses--"they represent aspects of real persons" (418). (1) "Interpretation" therefore appears as the systematic reduction of unknown elements in fairy tales to the familiar psychological predicaments of average people in rather vague socio-cultural settings. For example, the glass mountain that the hero must sometimes overcome is to be read as "a symbolic expression of the distance between the princess and her lover" (424). The heroine's "guarding monster, ogre, dragon, troll, devil or whatever he may be named ... is the girl's father seen as the hero's adversary" (425). In the same vein, the heroine who kills her guardian by breaking the egg that contains his heart "literally breaks her father's heart when she turns to her lover" (426).

I find the association of the dragon to the heroine's father very interesting, as well as the idea that the Dragon Slayer overcomes "the father in his daughter" (426). These insights, taken together and considered along with the well-known secret that in many traditions the Dragon Slayer kills his own father, (2) suggest however that the issue at stake is somewhat more complex than Holbek acknowledges. The dragon, which anthropologist Chris Knight defines as paradoxical to the core worldwide--uniting in itself high and low, death and life, animal and human, water and fire, dark and light (8)--is certainly more than the bride's father as seen by her wooer. …

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