How folktales nourish the soul
One day Baba Yaga’s two trusted toads said,
‘You are truly terrifying!’
‘Good!’ said Baba Yaga. ‘Because that’s what I’m here for.’
From The Wise Doll by Hiawyn Oram.
As a professional storyteller, I have to confess my prejudices. I am totally and passionately in love with the genre of folktales. Yes, there are folktales that are boring or overly violent or model terrible values. These are the toad stories and yes, sometimes one has to kiss a few toads before finding the princes and princesses of the story. Also, if your main exposure to the classic fairytales has been Walt Disney films or books, you may be unaware of the earlier, earthier and more satisfying versions. As my friend and master storyteller Brian Hungerford often wryly asides, ‘There is a special place in hell for Walt Disney.’ Many adults seem also to have lost the ability to decode the metaphors in folktales, which leads them to confuse princes and princesses with toads. This means many parents miss the potential in folktales to heal, soothe and model ways of being for their children and themselves, in an entertaining and gripping way. Thus I want to write in defence and in praise of my good friends and lovers.
Folktales are often rejected for their violence, their ‘sappy idealism’ and happy-ever-after endings and for being all about kings and queens. For me, those things didn’t worry me, but the gender stereotypes did. So I avoided telling the classic Grimm’s tales and chose to tell more unusual folktales with active heroines. But two experiences reversed that rejection. The first was my son’s obvious delight in Little Red Cap (Red Riding Hood), Rapunzel, Goldilocks, Rumplestiltskin and Jack and the Bean Stalk.* He was then two years old. The second was reading a book called The Uses of Enchantment by Bruno Bettelheim.
Firstly, why are there so many kings and queens in folktales? Perhaps you associate the monarchy with dictatorial power, inbreeding and financial inequity. Yet symbolically, the king and queen represent our whole, mature and evolved selves. Kings and queens, in an archetypal sense, have high self-esteem and the wisdom to make important decisions. They manifest loyal supporters, can withstand opposition and live in a state of abundance.
Bettelheim says, ‘Every child at some time wishes that he were a prince or princess — and at times, in his unconscious, the child believes he is one, only temporarily degraded by circumstances. There are so many kings and queens in fairytales because their rank signifies absolute power, such as the parent seems to hold over the child. So the fairytale royalty represent projections of the child’s imagination.’
Now, let’s address violence in folktales. There are two things I’d like to consider here. The first is age appropriateness. The second is sorting out positive stories from destructive stories.
I have recorded a CD of stories and the first track, Molly Whuppie, is a traditional Scottish folktale in which Molly outwits and outruns a giant who wants to eat her and her sisters.1 My son’s friend, a very masculine boy who is four and a half, is afraid of the tale Molly Whuppie, while his younger sister and my son have loved it since they were two. So it’s not just age you need to consider, and certainly not gender, but individual temperament. My three-year-old adores scary stories and begs for them constantly. I ask, ‘Are you sure this isn’t too scary for you?’ He shakes his head emphatically, ‘No’ and begs for a story about a witch who eats children. In fact, for my son, his nightmares eased, then ceased, when we began telling stories like Red Cap (the older version of Little Red Riding Hood), Jack and The Beanstalk and Baba Yaga. I recognise that the opposite could be true for some children if given the wrong story too young. They are good medicine, but you have to get the dosage right.
Giving a historical context on our attitudes towards folktale, Joseph Campbell, a world authority on myth- ology and folktales says, ‘The “monstrous, irrational and unnatural” motifs of folktale and myth are derived from the reservoirs of dream and vision. On the dream level, such images represent the total state of the individual dreaming psyche… but clarified of personal distortions and profounded — by poets, prophets, visionaries — they become symbolic of the spiritual norm for Man the Microcosm. They are thus phrases from an image-language, expressive of metaphysical, psychological and sociological truth. And in the primitive, oriental, archaic and medieval societies this vocabulary was pondered and more or less understood. Only in the wake of the Enlightenment has it suddenly lost its meaning and been pronounced insane.’2
Children instinctively respond emotionally and unconsciously to the metaphors embedded in stories, if they are allowed. ‘I wanna keep this “too” please.’ Unconsciously and emotionally they recognise the witch, the giant and the wolf as the scary aspect of adults and/or themselves. When I am frazzled and exhausted and the baby is crying and my three year old playfully hits me one too many times after being asked not to, I can turn into something akin to a wolf, a witch and/or a giant. This is utterly bewildering to a child. Where did that nice mummy go who is playful and loving and on my side? It can be easier to imagine that mummy or daddy or grandma or teacher or whoever, has been temporarily taken over by an evil monster, than to contemplate that they are capable of being so frightening. Hence, grandma is engulfed by the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood.
Giants usually symbolise that side of our nature that is grumpy, selfish, insensitive, foolish and mean. But to children, the looming height and ultimate power over them that adults possess, means unconsciously adults are their giants. This is amplified when we are grumpy, but even when we are reasonable, we can still seem frustratingly powerful. No matter if you are the most fair and calm parent in the world, your child will still enjoy fantasising that they can be the boss and even defeat you. In reality, they need your protection, guidance and boundaries to feel safe, and of course they don’t really want to see you come to harm. You are their beloved and the centre of their world. But in a story, they can unconsciously have those darker desires fulfilled without any real harm coming to you.
Furthermore, says Bettleheim,’… whatever the content of a fairy tale — which may run parallel to a child’s private fantasies whether they be oedipal, vengefully sadistic, or belittling of a parent — it can be openly talked about, because the child does not need to keep secret his feelings about what goes on in the fairy tale, or feel guilty about enjoying such thoughts.’
So folktales can give children access to ways of dealing with their natural fears, furies and frustrations. Folktales — even many with violent images — can give children important ways to deal with these confusing feelings. Some tales might model a kind of behaviour that is inappropriate. In Molly Whuppie I have taken the liberty of changing a significant part of the story, because the giant’s wife — who had actually been helpful to Molly — was beaten and this was set up as funny. This probably came from a time in history when wife-beating was seen as acceptable and the norm. But the trick is in differentiating a tale that is in itself sick, from a healthy one with a sick bit. We don’t need to throw the baby out with the bath water. A little bit of surgery made the tale acceptable to me.
In 2003, I had a very vivid personal experience of the healing and empowering qualities of folktales. I was due to go on tour to Sydney for two weeks work storytelling, but I was feeling really scared.
My work on tour involves delivering twelve to fifteen solo shows a week. Each show consists of 120 to 150 children of mixed ages. I have to drive and navigate through peak hour traffic to two city locations a day. This time, I was taking my then three-year-old Tamlyn and my breast-fed baby Layla, who was four months and would have to come to shows with me, while Tamlyn would be best off left in one place. This meant I needed a carer for each child, but no-one could do all the work. I was thoroughly sleep deprived, Layla was crying intensely in short car trips and I felt I was facing an impossible task. However, I was also determined to do it, so I had to find the courage.
At the same time, I was learning The Wise Doll, a version of a traditional tale about Baba Yaga, the witch of Slavic and Russian tradition, by Haiwyn Oram. Baba Yaga’s house is surrounded by a fence made of bones — small bones, because she likes to eat small children for dinner. It’s a pretty graphic and violent image. Her house stands on chicken legs and when she wants to travel she simply commands: ‘Rise chicken legs, rise and RUN!’ and the chicken legs rise up, and the house rises up and the chicken legs carry the whole house forward with the fence of bones surrounding it. The ‘Too Nice Girl’ is sent to Baba Yaga’s house in the middle of the forest, in the middle of the night to visit Baba Yaga and bring back a gift. With the help of her Wise Doll, given to her by her mother before she died, the terrified girl passes three tests, gains the gift and her courage as well. Indeed, the gift represents her courage.
The more I rehearsed it, the more I felt courage rising up in me — for if a young terrified girl could go to the house of a child-eating witch, alone in the middle of the night, what was two weeks performing in Sydney with two small children?
This is one of the reasons why the scary characters in folk stories need to be so vivid. If, by identifying with a hero or heroine in a folktale, you can vicariously experience facing and triumphing over an overwhelmingly scary foe, then facing your own real life challenges seems a lot easier and do-able. It is a psychologically empowering experience. Therapists use role play in a similar way to overcome fears. This has a particular poignancy for children whose fears can loom large. But there are other reasons.
Bettleheim says, ‘The fairy tale hero has a body which can perform miraculous deeds. By identifying with him, any child can compensate in fantasy and through identification for all the inadequacies, real or imagined, of his own body. He can fantasise that he too, like the hero, can climb into the sky, defeat giants, change his appearance, become the most powerful or the most beautiful person — in short, have his body be and do all the child could possibly wish for. After his most grandiose fantasies have been satisfied he can be more at peace with his body as it is in reality.‘
What about that sappy idealism and those happy-ever-after-endings? I believe what the world needs now is not only love, but hope. Folktales give hope by the bucket load. Once a child has been exposed to enough folktales, they begin to understand the form. Folktales usually end happily and hopefully. Far from misleading children, the optimism or happy-ever-after endings of folktales are a loving salve for their fragile hearts in their struggles toward maturity. Folktales are tailor-made for the young child.
‘In childhood, more than in any other age, all is becoming. As long as we have not achieved considerable security within ourselves, we cannot engage in difficult psychological struggles unless a positive outcome seems certain to us, whatever the chances for this may be in reality. The fairy tale offers fantasy materials which suggest to the child in symbolic form what the battle to achieve self-realisation is all about, and it guarantees a happy ending,’ Bettelheim continues.
Folktales are not only a loving salve for the hearts of children. We adults often need hope and empowerment too. For example, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is a sophisticated folktale with mass appeal. Good eventually prevails, even though the forces of darkness seem formidable and absolutely unstoppable. For me, the great battles in Lord of the Rings are symbolic of many of our modern struggles between right and wrong, both personal and political. As I watched them wielding their axes and swords, I realised that some of the modern day ‘warriors’ I most admire wield shovels or pens. They patiently and diligently devote their spare time to replanting the banks of the local creek or to the often tedious and drawn out lobbying of seemingly formidable corporations and governments.
As you re-enter the world of folktales with an eye to the metaphor, you may start having those little ‘Ah-hah’ experiences of recognition and tapping into the natural ability you probably possessed as a child to decode those symbols, but as an adult you can do it more consciously. You may notice that the cow that Jack has to sell in Jack and the Beanstalk is called Milky White. You may remember that tragic moment when you had to give up that delightful flow of milk and approval from mother and to venture forth into the world, take risks and find your own initiative.
Men, as they read of those beans sprouting in the night, may remember the days when their budding sexuality caused extravagant dreams akin to the powerful phallic beanstalk. In Sleeping Beauty you may remember that phase in your adolescence, or recognise it in your teenager, when there can be a need to withdraw from the world as if asleep, in order to deal with the huge transformations going on within. Alternatively you may simply enjoy the tales without a care for metaphor at all — but regardless, they will do their work on you. And perhaps you’ll kiss a few toads, as you roam through the world of traditional story, but be prepared, for once your children find those princes and princesses, they will want to kiss them again and again and again!
1. Molly Wuppy and Other Wonder Tales of Earth and Sea claimed a special award from the National Library of Australia in 1999. Molly Wuppy and a later CD, Mermaids Shoes, are available from Kindred’s office or our bookstore.
2. Campbell’s Commentary in Grimms (pp861-2)
Published in Byronchild/Kindred, Issue 13
Bettelheim, Bruno, The Uses of Enchantment (Vintage, New York, 1975).
The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales (Pantheon Books, New York, 1944). Commentary by Joseph Campbell.
Hiawyn Oram, The Wise Doll (Anderson, London, 1997).
Walker, Barbara, G, The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets (Harper and Row, San Francisco, 1983).
Sawyer, Ruth, The Way of the Storyteller (Penguin, New York, 1976).
Tolkien, J.R.R, Lord of the Rings (HarperCollins Publishers, London, 1991).