Fairy tales. We have known these stories since we were young, likely so young we cannot remember the first time we heard them. Every one of us grew up aware that it was the wolf in Red Riding Hood's bed; that the house of food in the forest had an evil witch inside; that Cinderella was the true heir to the prince's affection; that Sleeping Beauty would awaken when her true love turned up. These stories did more than entertain us; they were our constant companions. They helped us define who we were. They molded us into the person we would someday become.
We call them Grimm's Fairy Tales. But the brothers Grimm themselves did not create these tales, as some people I have encountered believe. Those two scholarly German brothers collected the stories in the Black Forest as the Eighteenth turned to the Nineteenth Century, labeling them not Fairy Tales but "Household Tales." The brothers Grimm were not even the first to collect these tales. Indeed, these stories had been collected in many forms by French, Italian, English, and German folklore collectors, with names like Bechstein, Perrault, and Basile, for many centuries. And they were not always the pretty tales we saw in movies or heard from our school books. These tales were often dark, creepy, and perverse.
Why have these tales survived when so many other ancient things have fallen away? I believe it is because, beneath the creepiness (did you know that in the original tale the dwarfs fight over whose bed Snow White will sleep in?), the darkness (in the original tale the princess does not kiss the frog, but squashes him against the wall), or the perversity (in the original Sleeping Beauty, Talia is raped by the King in her sleep and wakes to find she has given birth to twins), there is a secret language of myth, symbolism, and enchantment. This secret language has spoken to us for centuries, drawing each generation of new listeners into its mysteries, resonating with each listener's deepest sense of self. It has, I think, kept these stories alive.
Let's look at a couple of well-known tales, and see if we can discover the mythic and symbolic landscape beneath the pretty story. We'll start with a familiar one: The Frog Prince, collected by the Grimms as Iron Hans.
In this tale, a princess is in the habit of going into the forest with a golden ball to play at the edge of a certain well, situated in a grove of lime trees. Sitting at the water's edge she throws the ball into the air, catching it each time. But this time the golden ball falls into the deep well. The girl cries, and a frog crawls up from the depths, offering that if she will allow the creature to eat at her table and sleep in her bed, the frog will dive into the well and fetch her ball. The princess agrees to the bargain.
The frog keeps his word, bringing the golden ball up from the depths of the murky well. But the girl does not keep her promise. She leaves the frog high and dry, so to speak, returning home for dinner without the slimy amphibian.
That evening, the frog shows up at the palace, demanding to be seated right beside the princess at dinner. The girl tells King Dad of her promise, and His Royal Dadness tells her a promise made must be kept. The frog shares her food, and prepares to snuggle into bed with the girl. But the princess is not having any of it. She picks up the frog and throws him against the wall, squishing him like a bug. From the oozing guts comes the handsome prince we all remember emerging at this point in the story. His servant, Iron Hans, pulls up in a coach to take Prince Gooey and Princess Bratty away.
There is a familiarity to this story, deeper than the simple awareness that we have all heard the tale as children. It is very similar to a mythic tale that goes back fifteen centuries or more: the tale of Persephone and Hades. In that myth, Hades, lord of the Underworld, sees Persephone bathing and falls in love with her. He takes her to his kingdom in the lifeless Underworld. To enter there she must divest herself of all of her clothing and jewelery, and once there, she lives in a world of death. In the end she is told she may return to the sunlit world of earth if she has not eaten anything in the Underworld. But Persephone has eaten six pomegranate seeds, so she must live in Hades' land six months of the year (winter), and return to our world for six months where she may make all life grow (summer).
In The Frog Prince, the princess is life and light, as we see by her possession of a golden ball, the sun. This ball of the sun makes food grow, as we see by the lime trees that grow around our lovely, but maybe a little badly behaved, princess. But as it must do in winter, the sun enters darkness (the winter solstice, the longest night of the year) by falling into the murky well. Enter the Lord of the Underworld, the frog, who will brave the darkness of the Underworld to retrieve the golden sun ball (so that winter may end and summer return). But like the Winter God, Hades, the frog wishes to be reborn with the sun as the girl's husband and consort, eating at her table and sleeping in her bed (as a husband would).
To be reborn, all things must die. So the princess, in a fit of brattiness, kills the frog by thrusting him against the golden wall of the golden castle. Squish! Now the frog may be reborn as the handsome sun God, Apollo (or Lugh, or Robin Goodfellow, depending on where you get your mythic information).
The servant, Iron Hans, has had metal bands placed around his heart so that this organ did not break with sadness when his master, the prince, was a frog. Now as Hans leads the prince and princess home, the iron bands crack and break. This sounds odd, but it represents the bounds of the soil breaking so that, in the sun of summer, food plants may grow from within the earth (just like those limes).
Okay, you say. I'm catching on to the whole mythic language thing. Let's examine another tale, that of Cinderella.
You will remember that Cinderella's mother dies when she is quite young, and her father remarries a woman with two daughters, the dreaded stepsisters who torment Cinderella and turn her into their house maid. You may also remember that word arrives that the prince will hold a ball, to which the step sisters have been invited.
Now you may remember, and perhaps this is your favorite part, that a fairy arrives to give Cinderella a lovely gown, and a coach made of a pumpkin, with footmen made of frogs and mice. Sorry, that never happened. In the Grimm's tale, it all goes down quite differently: Cinderella plants a hazel tree on her mother's grave, and waters it with her tears. A magical bird takes up residence in the tree, and gives Cinderella her clothes and shoes for the ball, a party that lasts three nights. Each of the first two nights Cinderella runs off before the prince can ask who she might be. In the end the prince lays tar on the palace steps to catch Cinderella by the shoe, as it were, and so the quest to find the maid who fits the slipper begins (in this case, not glass, but a gold slipper).
There are a dozen magical and mythic elements of this tale, from the enchanted bird to the fixation with Cinderella's shoes and feet, which are symbolic of her sexuality and blossoming womanhood. But we'll just focus on one element here: the hazel planted by our heroine at her mother's grave.
In Celtic lore Hazel is the tree of wisdom. The hazel nut imbues one with great wisdom and magic. This is why in the legend of the Irish hero Finn McCool, Finn is sent by a hermit to catch the salmon who lives in a pool beneath the Hazel tree, and cook the fish so that the hermit may take the first bite, giving him wisdom greater than any other human. But while cooking the salmon, Finn burns his thumb. Instinctively he puts it in his mouth, getting the first taste of the salmon, and all the wisdom. We hope the hermit at least got a tasty dinner out of it.
For Cinderella, the trial of losing her mother and having to become a woman on her own despite the efforts of her step sisters to usurp her place as rightful heir to her father's wealth and attention, is seen in the guidance of the Hazel tree. Growing on her mother's grave, we feel that Cinderella is not alone in the world: her mother guides her through the tree's wisdom, and provides for the girl through the enchanted bird that lives in the Hazel's branches.
As children and even as adults, we often feel that life is unjust, that we are entitled to things we cannot have, or must struggle for. The Hazel tree represents the wisdom we achieve in this struggle, however hard it may be. It also represents the guidance we receive from that which is greater than us, whether that is through faith, through magic, or through knowledge. Cinderella grows and matures enough to thwart her stepmother and stepsisters, securing her rightful place as wife of the prince. She uses her wisdom (the tree), her budding womanhood (represented by her shoes—ball slippers worn not by a servant child, but by an elegant woman), and her feet (representing her beauty; her stepsisters must each cut off a part of their feet to fit the slipper, marring their beauty while Cinderella fits the slipper perfectly, displaying to the prince her beauty and grace). We learn to prove ourselves through our wisdom and aptitude, securing our own rightful place in our world.
Fairy tales are an amazing body of lore, myth, enchantment, and symbol. Armed with a little knowledge of folklore, symbolism, and mythology, these tales become a labyrinth that one can wander into more and more deeply, taking from them the true magic, meaning, and enchantment. As you read each tale, in its original, you develop an understanding of this secret, mythic language. And in the right frame of mind, one can enjoy the creepiness, darkness, and perversity as well.