“…deeper meaning lies in the fairy tales of my childhood
than in the truth that life teaches.”—Schiller
Beginning with the fathers of the field, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, psychoanalysts have turned to fairy tales in an effort to understand the human mind. This is accomplished in two ways—either by studying the psychology and needs of the creators of these stories or by examining the characters in the stories. Just as many fairy tales hinge upon a revelation of the truth about those who have been somehow disguised, so too, fairy tales cut to the essence of the human psyche.
Freud suspected that dreams and fairy tales stem from the same place, and the relaxation of inhibition that occurs in the dream state is also true of many story tellers. So fairy tales might prove, like dreams, windows into the unconscious. (Indeed, many fairy tales include dream-states as important plot points.) For Freud fairy tales are rife with wish fulfillment fantasies and complicated sexual undercurrents.
Fairy tales are inextricably linked to the work of Carl Jung. The “collective unconscious” that lies at the core of his work, and which he believed is shared by all human beings, is revealed through archetypes, forms and symbols found in ample evidence in fairy tales. Some Jungians argue that one reason fairy tales appeal to children is that they are in a stage of their development only slightly removed from deeper layers of the collective unconscious. Jungian therapists study fairy tales to help analyze the dreams of their patients. Jung’s disciples have gone on to interpret fairy tales as lives in miniature, suggesting, for example, that each character within a tale may represent an aspect of personality.
More recently, perhaps the best known and certainly the most widely quoted psychologist to incorporate fairy tales into his practice is Bruno Bettelheim, who published Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales in 1976. Bettelheim argued that fairy tales are an important tool for children learning to navigate reality and survive in a world ruled by adults. The family conflicts and moral education of the protagonists (conveniently often children themselves) could provide models of coping. “Fairy tales are loved by the child…because—despite all the angry, anxious thoughts in his mind to which the fairy tale gives body and specific context—these stories always result in a happy outcome, which the child cannot imagine on his own.”
Others have disputed aspects of this interpretation. The German cultural critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin notes that the morality of fairy tales is very complicated, with protagonists known to lie, cheat, steal and torture villains. But there remains something empowering and psychologically insightful in these stories that, fairy tale scholar Maria Tatar writes, demonstrate the “triumph of small and weak over tall and powerful.”