The universal thirst for fairy-tales

When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty, I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.
– C. S. Lewis, “On Three Ways of Writing for Children”

In The Observer review of Jackie Wullschlager’s biography Hans Christian Andersen: The Life of a Storyteller (Penguin), literary critic George Steiner writes:

The Harry Potter phenomenon, coming after Tolkien, sets off many chimes. The thirst for fairy-tales and allegories, for the domestication of the supernatural, looks to be universal. It is incised in the child and in the fertile mysteries of childhood as these survive in adult men and women.

Fairy-tales join hands across time and space, across cultures and languages. The Argonauts become intergalactic warriors; Cinderella darkens into the fable of the three daughters in King Lear; a thousand tales of ‘impossible’ tasks to perform echo back to the labours of Hercules. Surrealism and science-fiction are derivative from the unrealities, consoling or menacing, of fairyland. Sirens and mermaids sing the great seas of our dreams, themselves voyages, from Homer to Walcott.

This universality, this compelling mixture of ‘childishness’ and enigmatic depths, of laughter and desolation, has long intrigued psychologists. Freud analysed fairy-tales, seeking to unriddle in their spell the suppressed impulses of childhood traumas and nascent sexuality.

Jung probed deeper, perceiving in their ubiquity, in the shocks of recognition they bring to us, certain archetypes of the human psyche, certain universal configurations of narrative which are remembered subconsciously and collectively. Like no other mental pattern, the fairy-tale, the metamorphosis of beauty into beast, of pauper into prince, leads us back, like the ‘background noise’ in modern cosmology, to the origins of the human psyche.

The iceberg mass of the world’s fairy-tales is anonymous. It arises from sources and occasions, from reveries and metaphoric imaginings innocent of authorship. The elves and imps, the talking animals and witches, the lost children and foundlings which people the landscapes of even the earliest cultures, come late. Millennia of animate shadows precede them. And even at his most inventive, the known, modern master of the genre will draw heavily on the shared inventory, on the global conventions of the genre. Charles Perrault’s ‘Mother Goose’ or ‘Puss-in-Boots’ draw on a dense layer of folk-tales.

The brothers Grimm are inspired collectors of German folk-lore, of tales festive and horrific which had been told and embroidered upon at the fire-side for centuries. The ‘invention’ of any fundamental motif, of a story that will enter and remain in our common remembrance, is exceedingly rare (if it exists at all). No one came closer to that magical turn than did Hans Christian Andersen.

RESOURCES

Hans Christian Andersen

Fairy Tales

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