Disney’s adaptation of the literary fairy tale for the screen led to a number of changes in the institution of the genre. Technique now takes precedence over the story, and the story is used to celebrate the technician and his means (Zipes 94).
If you were to ask an average bunch of people – in our modern American society – what they think a fairy tale is, they might refer nostalgically to children’s books and bedtime stories. And, some would undoubtedly refer to the beloved Disney films such as, Snow White, Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, etc.. Most of us in America grow up with these kinds of stories and, as a result, develop a construct of what a fairy tale is. While this construct is partly true, in that these interpretations and re-tellings come from an original tale, it is also mostly untrue: the interpretations and re-tellings of “modernized” fairy tales often cut out the inherent meaning and value of the original tale. This results in the tale’s universal content being supplanted by material from someone’s ( (like Walt Disney) ideal of social norms, or to pacify a particular gratuitous need for happily-ever-after entertainment. Yet, even so, why are these stories so popular? Why do they continue to recycle themselves over and over again? What makes them timeless rather than outdated? As writers, looking to hook into a fairy tale to write about or “reinvent” in a meaningful and substantive way, these questions are most pertinent.
The fairy tale is its own best explanation; that is, its meaning is contained in the totality of its motifs connected by the thread of the story (von Franz 1).
Like many other writers, when I first discovered fairy tales, the real ones, aka folk tales, I was more than a little bewildered and put off. They were unpolished lumps of coal as far as I was concerned. And, to be quite honest, they bored me. They were not as exciting or dramatic as Disney’s versions, or polished up as what was found in “children’s bed time stories”. For anyone who has read the original Grimm fairy tales, or Russian fairy tales, you get what I am saying. They read as almost nonsensical, convoluted nightmares – or acid trips – that often just don’t make any sense. They are also violent: most do not end well. When a lover of modern Americanized fairy tales comes up against this, the challenge is to either maintain the childish love of “happily ever after” versions of fairy tales, or explore just what the heck is going on in the original stories, and more importantly, why. When we get beyond personal bias and the brainwashing of the Disneyfied mystification of the fairy tale, the world explodes into shards of strident clarity. I know. It happened to me.
All [original] fairy tales endeavor to describe one and the same fact, but a fact so complex and far-reaching and so difficult for us to realize in all its different aspects, that hundreds of tales, thousands of repetitions with a musician’s variations are needed until this unknown fact is delivered into consciousness: and even then the theme is not exhausted ( von Franz 2).
Fairy tales contain universal themes and patterns. Cultures all over the world, isolated from each other, spontaneously developed the same kinds of stories. And, according to the people who studied (and still study) this phenomena- like Carl Jung and his protege, Marie Louse von Franz- the reason why these stories continue to exist and be told is because they express and resonate with the collective unconscious of all human kind. The content might change, but the containers don’t. And, the reason some of these stories read like lumps of coal, is because they express the rather disjointed dialogue of the psyche.
This ‘unknown fact’ is what Jung calls the Self, which is the psychic totality of an individual and, also, paradoxically, the regulating center of the collective unconscious. Every individual and every nation has its own modes of experiencing this psychic reality ( von Franz 2).
These tales portray the incredible drama of the psyche. When working with this stuff, as a writer, it is important to develop at least a basic understanding of Jung’s theory of the psyche and of the collective unconscious. Once we can see and experience a tale from this perspective, then all of the “nonsensical” and “trippy” elements in the tale take on meaning. And not just meaning: deep, cave spelunking meaning. Meaning that makes for a creative interpretive writing tool which can greatly inform one’s own psychic process, and therefore one’s creative writing ideas, character development, and story construction.
Different fairy tales give average pictures of different phases of this experience. They sometimes dwell more on the beginning stages, which deal with the experience of the [S]hadow… other tales emphasize the experience of the [A]nimus and [A]nima and of father and mother…others emphasize the motif of inaccessible or unobtainable treasure [Self] and the central experience…there is no difference of value between these tales…[because] every archetype is in its essence only one aspect of the collective unconscious, as well as always representing also the whole collective unconscious (von Franz 2-3).
The paradox, and incredible value, of original fairy and folk tales is that even though they might not make sense as far as a story, they makes sense to the unconscious part of us as we listen to a story. The fairy tale, in all of its peculiar illogical events, makes sense of the confusion of what is going on inside our minds, and shows this part of our mind “what to do”. And, this is why we “get them”- especially children- on an intuitive level: especially when we hear or read a tale. In spite of whatever folks like Disney have done to dilute, derange, or derail the fairy tale, the true fairy tale will always remain psychic medicine for our chaotic, and often Shadow ridden, psyches.
When working with a fairy tale, no matter how “simple” it might seem, study some Jungian theory first, and then re-read the tale. But, keep in mind, just like dreams, interpreting a fairy tale’s meaning has a personal aspect to it. No two people are going to interpret the tale the same way. And, this is the golden key to the how, and why, to work with fairy tales as a writer: your interpretation and utilization of a tale will have value and Truth because it will be as unique as you are.
Thanks for reading
von Franz, Marie Louise. The Interpretation of Fairy Tales. Boston: Shambhala. 1996.
Zipes, Jack. Fairy Tale as Myth, Myth as Fairy Tale. Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky. 1994.