Author Topic: How to Interpret Fairytales  (Read 9946 times)

Matt Koeske

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How to Interpret Fairytales
« on: June 24, 2008, 04:34:27 PM »

As an offshoot of our recent discussion in "a fairytale discussion" (focusing on "Beauty and the Beast") I thought it might be interesting to discuss interpretive techniques more generally.  Outside of Jungian and Freudian circles, I don't think the interpretation of fairytales is given much emphasis or respect.  It is perfectly legitimate to ask if it is truly possible to interpret a fairytale . . . or if fairytales have any inherent meanings that can be deduced.

Is the interpretation of fairytales merely projection or "creative writing"?  Do fairytale texts actually "innate" have subtexts or meanings?  In our postmodern/poststructuralist age of literary theory, suggesting as much is bound to get you sent to the front of the line for a lashing . . . at least if you let your opinion be known in a university setting.  But contemporary prejudices about "meaning" aside, there are notably very few rules and givens in fairytale interpretation.

As we have seen, even among Jungians there is much to debate.

Without delving into any of my revisionist theories, I would like to suggest a few basics . . . and I hope others will both add to and correct/challenge these as well as elaborate on their own general theories.  I've done a pretty healthy amount of fairytale (and other literary text) interpretation . . . devoting pretty much all of the many papers I wrote on literature, film, and folktales while I was in college to some variation of Jungian interpretation (closing in on 20 years of devoted Jungian interpreting now).  I also had the good fortune of being able to take three classes from a certified Jungian analyst in which we were able to practice such interpretations (plus one independent study in which I gave a Jungian treatment to Homer's Odyssey . . . and another in which I interpreted and analyzed Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient).  I've always enjoyed such interpretation immensely and have devoted myself to refining my skills as much as I could.

But, all learning, practice, and refinement aside, the interpretation of fairytales is, in my opinion, something one either has a knack for or doesn't.  That is, it's an intuitive enterprise where the "most buff" pattern-recognizers have the most success.  It is not a method that can be perfected by applying a theory.  Very much like dream interpretation, one has to allow the text to say what it "means".  One cannot ever say what the text means based on some preconceived theory or intellectualization.

My own interpretive (and psychic structure) theories are the product of analyzing and contemplating texts (literature, art, dreams, etc.).  I have always taken these texts as my teachers . . . and my disagreement with Jung and other Jungians on various subjects is entirely born out of what (I feel) these texts have taught me (as opposed to some outside, competing intellectual ideology I bring to Jungian thought).  So, when you hear me throwing around neologisms or committing various Jungian heresies, my apostasies came only after I could not work out discrepancies between more conventional Jungian theories and the logic of the texts I was most interested in.

I don't mean to suggest that there is NO theory in fairytale interpretation . . . and certainly, no one who lacks a strong understanding of psychic dynamics will be able to interpret fairytales very well.  A basic principle of interpretive theory is to find parallels between characters in fairytales and psychic structures (like ego, Self, shadow, animi, and other archetypes).  This is, of course, easier said than done.  One has to know how the ego or the animi or the Self "behave" in order to figure out which characters in the story reflect these phenomena.  In my opinion, most of the difficulty Jungians face in the attempt to interpret fairytales comes from an inadequate understanding of the corresponding psychic personages and their typical behavior patterns.  For instance, since the conventional Jungian theory of the animus is so limited and skewed toward the negative, Jungians, as a rule (with only very few exceptions) do a terrible job at interpreting animus tales.

They fare much better with anima stories (as the anima is better accepted and understood by Jungians than the animus is).  What we see in any interpretation are roadblocks set up by any theoretical prejudice or personal complex we might carry into the interpretation.  If our theoretical prejudice insists that all animus figures are dark, dangerous, and dysfunctional portrayals of masculinity in a woman, then we will be less capable of seeing how various stories completely reject such characterizations.  We will apply the Procrustean bed . . . just as Freudians have often hacked up fairytales with their reductive sexual/Oedipal theories.

My suggestion (which is of course debatable), is that we follow the text at all costs.  Any interpretation that goes outside the text to psychologize the characters is in great danger of projection and misinterpretation.  I'm not advocating an utter lack of psychologization, but I do think that these psychologizations should come only when the text gives us no direct data with which to work . . . and should only be posited with full admission of their speculative natures.  Perhaps this is a minor heresy among Jungians, because the idea of "amplification" (using similar outside texts to elaborate an interpretation) is not only widely embraced in our community, it is perhaps overused to the point of abuse.

Much as Jung said of dreams, I feel that fairytales pretty much just say what they mean, even on a psychological/interpretive level.  The reason one CAN interpret fairytales psychologically is that the logic of fairytales (which is, by the way, an extremely strict and predictable logic . . . as is well excepted by folklorists, I think) is absolutely the logic of psychodynamics.  This isn't to say that fairytale structure and logic don't also parallel other logics (say, sociopolitical).  I only mean to say that the logic of fairytales and the logic of psychodynamics (where individuation, especially, is involved) are absolutely equivalent.  And so it is no surprise that fairytales are often anonymous and are the product of many authors over many generations.  Fairytales texts (in all their many variations) evolve a bit like . . . memes!  (There you go, Kafiri, that meme's for you!).  Except there is a clearer process (in my opinion) of "natural selection". 

The themes, characters, and events that resonate most with our psyches are selected for (by the "meme machines" that hear, remember, and retell the stories).  It's not a perfect process, and this is why so many variations of each tale can be found.  But generally, certain themes are remembered and have "numinousness" for us, because they are archetypal and have a way of reflecting aspects of human psychology that are universal (and instinctual).  Think of it like you think of films today.  Everyone's a critic, as the saying goes . . . but in the oral history of fairytales, not only is everyone a critic, but everyone's a potential author, too.

Also worth noting is that, often, the "definitive versions" of fairytales are the ones that were collected and spruced up by pretty accomplished writers and storytellers.  This means that there is some chance that these authors stamped the tales to some degree with their own complexes.  But it is also just as possible that these storytellers were the ones that had the special insight into these stories' themes and were able to draw out all of the partially developed aspects of the tale into more tangible forms.  This is a kind of artistry that is not often well-recognized . . . but it's one I have a lot of respect for.  After all, such storytellers are a precedent to Jungian interpreters.  They are logicians of the psyche.


A very common rule of thumb in fairytale interpretation is to start by choosing the "ego character".  This is a pretty solid idea and it parallels dream work, in which it is very clear that the ego plays some kind of central role (or is attached to some kind of protagonist).  But there are hazards to watch for even on this wide road.  For instance, in fairytales, the "ego character" is usually heroic.  We need to ask ourselves if the hero and the ego are really the same thing . . . and we have to ask this on a case by case basis.  Also, a typical compliment of the ego character identification is the assumption that all the other characters are Other . . . usually archetypes.  This assumption is based in the logic that an ego identity is singular . . . a conscious standpoint.

But what we know from the basic findings of any depth psychology is that the ego's singularity is significantly more illusory than it seems.  As Jung himself noted, the psyche can be seen as made up of "splinter psyches" or complexes . . . and as neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists now believe, there is no definite, centralized self in human psychology.  Less theoretically, we can note a common phenomenon of dreams that shows us multiplicity in ego characters.  There is a conventional prejudice in many Jungians that the dream ego (like the illusion of the waking ego) is singular, and that any other "ego-like" characters in a dream are shadow figures or other archetypes.  I believe this is a theoretical prejudice in some Jungians based on the privileging of a solitary ego (a prejudice of conscious egoic perspective).  I have frequently observed in dream work that a multiplicity of ego-like characters can easily be seen as a divvying up of not entirely compatible attitudes, all of which are held simultaneously in consciousness.  If we are "of three different minds" on a particular life situation, dreaming of that situation is likely to show us three different personages, each with its own "mind" or attitude.  Probably, we will identify more with one than with the others . . . and this will be the dream ego character.  But the other characters are also reflections of consciously held attitudes.

I merely suggest that we keep our eyes (and our minds) open to this possibility in fairytales, as well.


Most fairytales are hero stories (although many others are jokes and slurs or moral lessons, but these are less popular today).  It is conventional in Jungian thinking to see an individuation theme wherever a heroic character is found.  I actually agree with this attitude entirely . . . and have noted that many Jungians have fallen away from seeing these heroic fairytales as individuation stories.  Personally, I think this falling away leads to a great deal of abstraction, unnecessary psychologizing, and muddiness in interpretation.  I see no logical reason to deviate from the hero=individuation story equation.  In fact, I have become increasingly suspicious that the balking at this equation so common among Jungians today is itself complex-related.  That is, there is some kind of fear and anxiety surrounding the hero archetype in Jungian thinking, a resistance that seeks to pathologize the hero, but in an illogical and excessive manner.

I see no textual basis whatsoever for such interpretations (but I suspect some of my fellows on this site will disagree).  Here, I will simply refer back to the principle of interpretation I advocate: the fairytale says precisely what it means.  If the tale says the protagonist is brave or clever or faithful or patient or empathetic, etc. . . . than that is precisely what he or she is.  I don't think we should bring outside feelings and projections about "The Hero" into the interpretation of fairytales.  These tales will tell us what heroism means as far as the story (and its logic) is concerned. 

Good fairytale interpretation is really just translation of one language into another . . . and any good translation devotes itself to as accurate a representation of the original text as is possible (considering the differences in the two languages).  So, even if we say a specific character is an animus or a hero, we are not really "interpreting" or projecting into the fairytales language a preexisting concept from our psychological language.  We are merely saying that, in psychological language, the term animus or the term hero is the most accurate translation of the "Jack" or "Ivan" or "Beauty" or "Cinderella" or "Beast" of the fairytale's language.  But as I mentioned above (and this would be debated by most non-Jungians), the internal or subtextual "grammar" of fairytales is psychological . . . so translation into more technical/scientific psychological language is not one in which translation errors are unavoidably abundant.  We are talking Latin to Italian, not Egyptian Hieroglyphics to Humpback Whale.

Please feel free to disagree with anything I wrote if you are so inclined.  And please let us know some of the things you've learned or come to suspect based on your own work with fairytale texts.

Best,
Matt


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Sealchan

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Re: How to Interpret Fairytales
« Reply #1 on: June 25, 2008, 01:53:48 PM »
I have contemplated what are the apparent differences between a myth and a fairy tale.  If I pick up a book of Native American tales I think of these as myths.  If I pick up Grimm's, I think of these as fairy tales.  I think the difference for me is that a fairy tale is a story that is NOT vitally connected to a prevailing religious or mythic institution which orders the society in which the story is told, whereas a myth is.  This assumes a lot on my part but understanding that such fairy tales which appear in Grimm's collection which usual have little or no connection to Christianity which was the prevailing religion of the time seems to me to be significant. 

Fairy tales seem less to explain the specifics of the origin of this or that landmark or how the universe or people were created, but are more geared toward telling how the character of the protagonist fairs compared to others in a given circumstance.  Even the supernatural characters in fairy tales are often incidental members of a "kind" rather than unique symbols of power in a wider systematic mythology.  So as in Hansel and Gretel the witch is a witch and not the Witch.

So when interpreting fairy tales, I think that they often have more to do with individuation tales than do myths because fairy tales are focused more on the human character and how people act in given situations and what it might take to change a person's mind or attitude.  Fairy tales seem to have more to do with a development of "self-consciousness" than they are meant to overwhelm us with a "shock and awe" parade of the objects of the archetypal universe as so many supernatural wonders.

Fairy tales are the modern remnant of purer, stranger archetypal tales (myths) and contain a heavy dose, in most instances, of the mundane world.  They have been shaped not by the priests of religion but by the popular love of a good story that is worth hearing just for the magic and mystery of it, if not also for the moral example.  Myths may have rituals that accompany them whereas I believe fairy tales are fairly divorced from rituals although this may be because the fairy tales original mythic content is buried in generations of separation from the original tradition out of which the story evolved.


Kafiri

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Re: How to Interpret Fairytales
« Reply #2 on: June 25, 2008, 03:10:38 PM »
What interesting comments.  In light of diverse "interpretations" in the Beauty and The Beast thread I see one concept that runs through all the "interpretations," and that is projection.  In reading interpretations of dreams, myths and fairy tales I look to see what the interpretation says about the person doing the interpreting. Unless one takes the element of projection into account, one might be led down a rabbit trail.  Also in many so-called interpretations of dreams, myths and fairy tales I see an broad streak of autoerotism.  So I tend to attempt to examine my own projections when I read myths, fairy tales and the dreams of others.  Unless I own "what is mine" in the process I am being less than honest.
"We lie loudest when we lie to ourselves."
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Brother Harmonius

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Re: How to Interpret Fairytales
« Reply #3 on: October 27, 2008, 10:59:03 PM »
Fairy tales seem less to explain the specifics of the origin of this or that landmark or how the universe or people were created, but are more geared toward telling how the character of the protagonist fairs compared to others in a given circumstance.  Even the supernatural characters in fairy tales are often incidental members of a "kind" rather than unique symbols of power in a wider systematic mythology.  So as in Hansel and Gretel the witch is a witch and not the Witch.

Sealchan's explanation appeals to me very much, leaving no holes to fill and little to expand on.

The creation is the primal myth, and all the ancillary myths of any culture that I can think of ultimately encompass the creation myth, where all Gods, heroes and villains are integrated, even by brute force, if need be, into the creation story.

The cross section of fairy tales in Jung's "The phenomenology of the spirit in fairytales" are isolated from the culture's myth by time, and have a more provincial and feudal character, whereas the myth is more universal, bound to a common ancestor. He distills a collection of motifs like the old man, the boy, and magical props that help the journeyer along the way to discovery and success. They also have a temporal feel, where the journey as a discrete story has no connection to the greater world of Faerie. I mean, they weren't epic adventures, which are a modern invention, by the looks of it. Tolkien, Lewis, and Terry Brooks' Shannara series.

The fairy tale is irrespective of myth, and like sealchan said, it's a witch, but not The Witch.

Matt Koeske

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Re: How to Interpret Fairytales
« Reply #4 on: October 28, 2008, 12:02:28 PM »
Hello and welcome, Brother Harmonius!  I've seen some of your posts and dreams on Kaleidoscope.  It's good to see any brave soul willing to cross over and visit Useless Science.

I think we had a debate here about the fairytale/myth issue a little while back (it may be what engendered this thread).  Ah, yes, here it is: A Fairytale Discussion.  In the introductory post of that thread, Keri posted the following quote from Marie Lousie von Franz:

Quote from: MLvF
Fairy tales are the purest and simplest expression of collective unconscious psychic processes.  Therefore their value for the scientific investigation of the unconscious exceeds that of all other material.  They represent the archetypes in their simplest, barest, and most concise form.  In this pure form, the archetypal images afford us the best clues to the understanding of the processes going on in the collective psyche.

. . .

In many so-called Jungian attempts at interpretation, one can see a regression to a very personalistic approach.  The interpreters judge the hero or heroine to be a normal human ego and his misfortunes to be an image of his neurosis.  Because it is natural for a person listening to a fairy tale to identify with the main character, this kind of interpretation is understandable.  But such interpreters ignore what Max Luthi found to be essential for magical fairy tales, namely, that in contrast to the heroes of adventurous sagas, the heroes or heroines of fairy tales are abstractions - that is, in our language, archetypes.  Therefore, their fates are not neurotic complications, but rather are expressions of the difficulties and dangers given to us by nature.  In a personalistic interpretation, the very healing element of an archetypal narrative is nullified.

We were somewhat divided on this issue.  I generally agree with von Franz, especially regarding the psychic/instinctual purity of fairytales.  Therefore, I would probably disagree with Sealchan's statement that "Even the supernatural characters in fairy tales are often incidental members of a "kind" rather than unique symbols of power in a wider systematic mythology.  So as in Hansel and Gretel the witch is a witch and not the Witch."  That is, I disagree with the notion (if this was what Sealchan was implying) that a myth shows a kind of pure expression of an archetype while a fairytale shows a more specific archetypal image.  Perhaps I am misunderstanding his comment, but in my experience (as with von Franz) I have seen exactly the opposite.  Fairytale characters tend to be very distilled, sometimes even losing much of their cultural qualities and becoming expressions of the species itself.  In most myths, not only are archetypal movements being portrayed, but the interrelation of these movements and the creation of a particular culture are being depicted.  Creation myths are perhaps the clearest example of this.  I think they typically portray a cultural notion of the development of the ego out of the unconscious.  That is, they state: "In our culture, this is what the ego is made of . . . and this is who we are culturally."

Or, we can look at the hero stories of myth.  The Greek heroes or Sigfried or Gilgamesh.  There are elements of archetypal heroism in these stories, but they usually end in tragedy.  The heroes have distinct character flaws that ultimately undermine them.  I prefer to call them "conquering heroes" and differentiate them from archetypal heroes.  But the cultures that created these myths looked to these conquering heroes as egoic models.  The characters typically appear during a stage of advancement in civilization . . . and explain "heroically" why civilization advanced as it did.

But these egoic/cultural development myths are less created from human instinctual processes or "pure archetypes" than fairytales generally are.  Fairytales deal with a more introverted universe . . . and the egoic factors in fairytales are usually the universal (not culture-specific) ones.  These egoic factors are depicted in relationship to archetypal or psychic processes.  That is, the ego in fairytales is the ego in relationship to the archetypes (the psyche or unconscious), while the ego in myths is often the ego in relationship to culture or the world or outside environment.  The archetypal factors in many myths are in conflict with the ego's (hero's) desire or "destiny" or drive.  Gilgamesh scorns Ishtar, Heracles invades the underworld, etc.  The gods must be appeased or conquered or deceived or ultimately submitted to in myth.  And they seem larger, more powerful, more alien and hostile specifically because the culturally constructed ego has put itself in conflict with them.  But typically, the gods in myth are totemic.  That is, they don't change, they are tabooed fixtures with a great deal of mana invested in them.  While in fairytales, the archetypal elements are usually transformable (more like alchemy), mutable, they can be related to, interacted with.

Another differentiation that is common between myth and fairytale heroes is that the heroes of myth almost always kill and conquer foes with might.  In fairytales, the heroes rarely slay the shadow opponents, but find some way to depotentiate them.  Maybe through trickery, or by stealing some item of power the opponent was dependent on.  Or else the villains end up destroying themselves in their mania to get rid of the hero.  In the psyche, the ego doesn't really have the power to destroy what it doesn't like.  It can dissociate, repress, deny, etc.  But it cannot actually slay or excise its archetypal obstacles.  It is only in the outer, cultural world that we can simply wipe out an opponent or an entire tribe of opponents . . . any threat of Otherness (and therefore, we can believe that Otherness can be destroyed).  But in the psyche, Otherness is non-removable.  Fairytales therefore seem to depict ways of dealing with that Otherness, recognizing it, transforming it, incorporating it, or forming a relationship to it.  By contrast the mythic conquering hero kills and kills and kills his foes until finally his fatal flaw undoes him and some little dart slips through his armor or some unexpected poison invades him.

I think the perspective I've been arguing is viable, but as I said, even on our little forum here we had a lot of disagreement.  I had the feeling it mostly boiled down to the way we each valuated and understood the ego's role in the psyche.  I tend to be pretty hard on the ego, even for a Jungian.  Sealchan, for instance, expressed more faith in the notion that the ego is responsible for bringing light into the unconscious.  I think Jung waffled on this issue.  It depended on what mood he was in when he wrote or spoke about it.  Sometimes he felt the heroic ego had to subdue the darkness or reptilian nature of the unconscious, and other times he criticized the conquering hero attitude of the ego that thinks it can truly determine such things (as an inflation).  It's not surprising, therefore, that Jungians would still be divided on this issue.

I have personally found that the heroic attitude that is most conducive to inner work like individuation is one of valuating Otherness and learning how to surrender to and eventually facilitate the instinctual Self.  I've never seen the conquering attitude work for healing or prove effective or progressive in dream work.  If we cop such an attitude, usually we have dreams that undermine and criticize this (or Demonic dreams of stagnation and imprisonment).  Even in our myths, conquering hero tales always end in tragedy or defeat . . . while the more humble and wily heroes of fairytales resolve their conflicts and tend to live "happily ever after".  I.e., a state change has occurred.

If I remember correctly, you know your alchemy . . . and that the alchemists favored the idea that Art perfects Nature.  But Art doesn't create Nature or make it into something it never was originally.  "Nature delights in nature, and nature conquers nature, and nature masters nature."  So, even Art is an expression of Nature's Will.  It seems to me that there is no room in the alchemical view for an ego that conquers the unconscious.  The Green Lion devours the sun.  By contrast, ideas like the Roman Sol Invictus are expressions of "modern" culture's power over material nature.  Culture cleanses and conforms the ego with its laws and affiliations and taboos.  But the rise of Darwin and Freud and depth psychology in general has reminded us that we are not the masters in the house of the psyche.  Our control over consciousness is an illusion of our actual unconsciousness.

The myth vs. fairytale thing is a parallel argument as far as I'm concerned.  But it's a much bigger issue (psychologically) than it seems on the surface.  And this can make it a Pandora's Box.  It has definitely been that here on the forum . . . much to my initial surprise.  But when I started to see how deeply and intricately its roots ran into our personal psychologies, the tense disagreements started to make a lot more sense to me.
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