Taking the magic out of fairy tales

I’m not one who thinks fairy tales are just for children, or that their princesses and princes are in any way pink and sparkly or noble or – heaven forbid – cuddly. All the classic tales involve betrayal, violence, murder, injustice, and characters who get up to all sorts of outrageous foolishness and are as easily persuaded into bad acts or good as willow trees are swayed in the wind. Fairy tales do not grab our imaginations and never let them go because they are nice, but because they are, at the profound level of dreams and aspirations, true.

But when a psychotherapist says Cinderella is ‘ahead of its time’ because it deals with ‘the contemporary issue of “reconstituted families”’ and ‘people who have what are now euphemistically called “difficult childhoods”’ I do wonder what he means. What is Cinderella’s ‘time’? The essential story is undatable – and unplacable. Versions of Cinderella, under different names, have been found all over the world (there’s an Algonquin version where the heroine dresses herself in birch bark because she has no nice clothes). One of the fascinating things about these stories is the impossibility of tracing whether they all came, long ago, from a single source, or whether they appeared independently in so many different cultures through a process of parallel imagination.

The truth of Cinderella, according to this psychotherapist, is that women are hindered in getting what they really want by the envy of other women – and will even prevent themselves from finding happiness out of fear of such envy. Men meanwhile, are no part of Cinderella’s difficulties.

So much for female solidarity. But, why, I ask myself, are the women envious? Cinderella’s happiness is all about finding a nice rich man who can take care of her and remove her from her horrible family. And this is the future the stepmother also wants for her own daughters. ‘The bad mother says you must never have what you want, and someone else must have it instead’. But as Angela Carter has pointed out, the wicked stepmother is only bad to the heroine – to her own daughters, she’s a good mother who wants the best for them and will do everything she can to make sure they get it. It’s just unfortunate that there aren’t enough handsome princes or rich merchants to go round for all daughters (or that daughters can’t find happiness elsewhere).

I’m not one who thinks fairy tales are just for children – but neither do I think they’re strictly for adults. If I really believed the whole truth of Cinderella was that women are all monstrously envious of each other, or indeed that our only hope of happiness is to marry a prince, I wouldn’t much want impressionable little girls to read it. But I think the truth of all great fairy tales is so much more. They are about our worries about our families, our hopes for the future, our secret dreams. The horrible things people do to each other; the random kindnesses. And that magic can’t be explained by psychoanalysis.

And no, I’m not still waiting for my prince on a white horse – honest…

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