Monday, May 02, 2016

The Language Of Our Collective Psyche

From an introduction to a collection of Grimm's Fairy Tales written by W. H. Auden in 1952:

Miss Margaret Mead tells me the the traditional stepmother, which in Europe is a psychological euphemism for the mother in a malevolent aspect, is here (in America) a source of misunderstanding because there are too many actual stepmothers; one suspects, too, that in a society where the father plays as minor a role as he plays in America, the fairy-tale giant is a less frighteningly important figure than he was to those of us who grew up under the shadow of a paternal discipline . . . Broadly speaking, and in most cases, the fairy tale is a dramatic projection in the symbolic images of the life of the psyche.

I own a nice edition of the fairy tales Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm collected as part of their research into old German and Scandinavian languages, mythologies, and literature. Among them are such well-known stories as "The Golden Goose," "Cinderella," "Rumpelstiltskin," "Snow-White and the Seven Dwarfs," "Rapunzel," "The Sleeping Beauty," "Hansel and Gretel," "Tom Thumb," "The Bremen Town Musicians," and "Little Red Riding Hood." Most of us are familiar with at least some version of these European folk tales, especially the ones that have been made into animated Disney films.

The Grimm brothers, who were meticulous in their effort to produce the definitive versions of the old stories, insisted in 1812 that they were thousands of years old, a notion that was dismissed by contemporary critics, but recent phylogenetic analysis suggests that the Grimms were correct. At least some of these fairy tales can be traced back to the Bronze Age (around 3000 BCE).

Nearly every day, children in 21st century Seattle evoke the ancient names of Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty. Every one of them knows that a girl in a read hood is Little Red Riding Hood. We all know not to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. These fairy tales, these myths, come right out of the dawn of human kind and are still as fresh today as they have ever been. I mean, there's even a weekly drama on TV called Grimm. These stories are in a very real sense the closest connection we have with our most "primitive" ancestors.

I sometimes debate with the children, telling them that they don't know the real story of, say, Cinderella. I sometimes threaten to bring in the "real version" and read it to them, but I never have. I considered it a few weeks back, but then took an evening to remind myself of the original Grimm brothers' text. Cinderella is a story of incredible cruelty, with a truly wicked stepmother (and stepsisters), bloodletting, and an ending in which the magical birds who came to poor Cinderella's aid exact revenge on her behalf by pecking out the eyes of the stepsisters "because of their wickedness and falsehood." The other stories are similarly raw.

And despite that, to my mind, any human thing that survives 5000 years must be important, even if there are aspects our modern minds find less that savory.

These stories are not, nor have they ever been, intended for children. Fairy tales, like all mythology, are true folk art in the sense that they belong to the folks and they are about the nature of life: and that includes wickedness, blood, and revenge alongside goodness, love, and forgiveness. This, I reckon, is why we still tell these stories five millennia later. And the truths found inside our myths are for all humans, children included, but perhaps not yet, at least not just because their teacher is motivated to know how they would respond to the original tales. In this case, mine is a researcher's curiosity, I think. Would they defend their better-known versions? Would they like this one better? What kinds of conversations would we have? But, my own curiosity is not enough to subject the children to experiment and so I'm not going to read the Grimm versions to them unless they ask for it. And for now they seem happy with their familiar versions.

I have often let the children know that there is a "real" version, but none have taken me up on it. Until and unless they do, it's not up to me to expose them to the awful truths. They will reveal themselves on their own, all in due course, believe me. I'm not interested in rushing it unless I come across children who let me know they are passionate about exploring the darker things. My own child was one such seeker.

I hope, however, that when the children are ready, they will remember a teacher who told them that there is a "real" version, and that they seek it out, and read it, and that they then come to understand the wisdom of what playwright Mary Zimmerman calls our "mythic side":

It has been said that the myth is a public dream, dreams are private myths. Unfortunately we give our mythic side scant attention these days. As a result, a great deal escapes us and we no longer understand our own actions. So it remains important and salutary to speak not only of the rational and easily understood, but also of the enigmatic things: the irrational and ambiguous. To speak both privately and publicly.

I like the idea of these ancient stories, these tales that we tell to understand our own actions even when they are irrational and ambiguous. Having survived for 5000 years, these stories are clearly important; maybe that's because they are the language spoken by humanity's collective psyche.

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