Sense and Music–Gifts of the Daimon: “The Piper and the Puca”

the_pooka_by_fiszike-d6dpjdu

“Pooka” Copyright Emese, used with permission. See: http://fiszike.deviantart.com/

 

What to do when you’ve hit a rut in your life? Get tipsy, find yourself a little bridge to cross, and wait for this guy (above)! This month’s folktale is called “The Piper and the Puca,” and it’s from Fairy and  Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry,  edited and selected by W. B. Yeats. It’s in the public domain, so I’ve pasted it below. Give it a read, and then see what you think of my interpretation, which follows.


Croaghpatrick

Croagh Patrick, from Wikimedia Commons

 

THE PIPER AND THE PUCA

DOUGLAS HYDE.

Translated literally from the Irish of the Leabhar Sgeulaigheachta.

In the old times, there was a half fool living in Dunmore, in the county Galway, and although he was excessively fond of music, he was unable to learn more than one tune, and that was the “Black Rogue.” He used to get a good deal of money from the gentlemen, for they used to get sport out of him. One night the piper was coming home from a house where there had been a dance, and he half drunk. When he came to a little bridge that was up by his mother’s house, he squeezed the pipes on, and began playing the “Black Rogue” (an rógaire dubh). The Púca came behind him, and flung him up on his own back. There were long horns on the Púca, and the piper got a good grip of them, and then he said——

“Destruction on you, you nasty beast, let me home. I have a ten-penny piece in my pocket for my mother, and she wants snuff.”

“Never mind your mother,” said the Púca, “but keep your hold. If you fall, you will break your neck and your pipes.” Then the Púca said to him, “Play up for me the ‘Shan Van Vocht’ (an t-seann-bhean bhocht).”

“I don’t know it,” said the piper.

“Never mind whether you do or you don’t,” said the Púca. “Play up, and I’ll make you know.”

The piper put wind in his bag, and he played such music as made himself wonder.

“Upon my word, you’re a fine music-master,” says the piper then; “but tell me where you’re for bringing me.”

“There’s a great feast in the house of the Banshee, on the top of Croagh Patric to-night,” says the Púca, “and I’m for bringing you there to play music, and, take my word, you’ll get the price of your trouble.”

“By my word, you’ll save me a journey, then,” says the piper, “for Father William put a journey to Croagh Patric on me, because I stole the white gander from him last Martinmas.”

The Púca rushed him across hills and bogs and rough places, till he brought him to the top of Croagh Patric. Then the Púca struck three blows with his foot, and a great door opened, and they passed in together, into a fine room.

The piper saw a golden table in the middle of the room, and hundreds of old women (cailleacha) sitting round about it. The old women rose up, and said, “A hundred thousand welcomes to you, you Púca of November (na Samhna). Who is this you have with you?”

“The best piper in Ireland,” says the Púca.

One of the old women struck a blow on the ground, and a door opened in the side of the wall, and what should the piper see coming out but the white gander which he had stolen from Father William.

“By my conscience, then,” says the piper, “myself and my mother ate every taste of that gander, only one wing, and I gave that to Moy-rua (Red Mary), and it’s she told the priest I stole his gander.”

The gander cleaned the table, and carried it away, and the Púca said, “Play up music for these ladies.”

The piper played up, and the old women began dancing, and they were dancing till they were tired. Then the Púca said to pay the piper, and every old woman drew out a gold piece, and gave it to him.

“By the tooth of Patric,” said he, “I’m as rich as the son of a lord.”

“Come with me,” says the Púca, “and I’ll bring you home.”

They went out then, and just as he was going to ride on the Púca, the gander came up to him, and gave him a new set of pipes. The Púca was not long until he brought him to Dunmore, and he threw the piper off at the little bridge, and then he told him to go home, and says to him, “You have two things now that you never had before—you have sense and music (ciall agus ceól).”

The piper went home, and he knocked at his mother’s door, saying, “Let me in, I’m as rich as a lord, and I’m the best piper in Ireland.”

“You’re drunk,” said the mother.

“No, indeed,” says the piper, “I haven’t drunk a drop.”

The mother let him in, and he gave her the gold pieces, and, “Wait now,” says he, “till you hear the music I’ll play.”

He buckled on the pipes, but instead of music, there came a sound as if all the geese and ganders in Ireland were screeching together. He wakened the neighbours, and they were all mocking him, until he put on the old pipes, and then he played melodious music for them; and after that he told them all he had gone through that night.

The next morning, when his mother went to look at the gold pieces, there was nothing there but the leaves of a plant.

The piper went to the priest, and told him his story, but the priest would not believe a word from him, until he put the pipes on him, and then the screeching of the ganders and geese began.

“Leave my sight, you thief,” says the priest.

But nothing would do the piper till he would put the old pipes on him to show the priest that his story was true.

He buckled on the old pipes, and he played melodious music, and from that day till the day of his death, there was never a piper in the county Galway was as good as he was.


bagpiper-1644.jpg!xlMedium

“Self Portrait as Bagpiper” by Jacob Jordaens, 1644

 

“The Piper and the Puca”: Interpretation 

Encounter with the Daimon

I believe this tale describes, in the character of the seemingly untalented and unsophisticated “half fool” piper, an attitude that constitutes a precondition for creative inspiration, but one that is insufficient in itself for artistic and psychological growth: enter the Puca. The Puca, in my view, is a fearsome but no-nonsense version of a genius or daimon, who bestows on our piper tremendous gifts. “You have two things now that you never had before,” says the Puca to the piper at the end of their adventure together, “you have sense and music (ciall agus ceól).”

Elizabeth Gilbert has given a tantalizing TED talk about this entity, and argues for adopting the idea of the daimon or genius that is connected to, but separate from ourselves. My favorite part of the talk is her illustration of the idea via the very visceral experience of poet Ruth Stone, who may have had her own encounter with a Puca:

[W]hen she was growing up in rural Virginia, she would be out working in the fields, and she said she would feel and hear a poem coming at her from over the landscape. And she said it was like a thunderous train of air. And it would come barreling down at her over the landscape. And she felt it coming, because it would shake the earth under her feet. She knew that she had only one thing to do at that point, and that was to, in her words, “run like hell.” And she would run like hell to the house and she would be getting chased by this poem,and the whole deal was that she had to get to a piece of paper and a pencil fast enough so that when it thundered through her, she could collect it and grab it on the page. And other times she wouldn’t be fast enough, so she’d be running and running and running, and she wouldn’t get to the house and the poem would barrel through her and she would miss it and she said it would continue on across the landscape, looking, as she put it “for another poet.”

Who is this devilish being who rushes at us when we are least expecting it, yet somehow ready? “The ‘genius-daimon’ is that incorporeal, imperishable spirit of a place or person, possessing an inimitable character all its own,” says Stephen A. Diamond in Anger, Madness, and the Daimonic: The Psychological Genesis of Violence (p. 263) And William Desmond tells us:

The daimon is not a quaint exotism we find among unenlightened primitives. It may be the true word that describes the tutelary powers that aid us to become and be ourselves . . . We are in the care of something other, and greater. Transcending is not in our power, but our powers are in the power of transcending. The daimon must be with us, or we with the daimon, for our power of being to come into its flourishing. (Ethics and the Between, p. 205)

As an archetypal being, the daimon has many manifestations, but there is always a compelling or demanding aspect to contend with–not answering the call, not doing what one is called to is grounds for punishment. The Puca of our story, depicted as an anthropomorphised animal of some kind, perhaps part horse and part goat, is certainly not a comforting figure. He commands the piper, and makes no bones about the risk involved in going with him. Paradoxically, it seems, there needs to be an encounter with this “other” in order for a person to develop fully into their own selfness. If you take a depth psychological view, this makes sense, as under this view, the ego, the everyday going-about-our business mode of consciousness we spend most of our time in is very limited. According to depth psychology, without access to the larger and deeper structures of the psyche, and with only social adaptation to shape (and potentially warp) us, we end up, like the piper, playing the same tune over and over, treading the same path with stultifying predictability. But there is always this other force underneath, compelling us in one way or another, and giving us access to a different dimension of consciousness, and of life:

The daimon motivates. It protects. It invents and persists with stubborn fidelity. It resists compromising  reasonableness and often forces deviance and oddity upon its keeper, especially when it is neglected or opposed . . . it is out of step with time, finding all sorts of faults, gaps, and knots in the flow of life–and it prefers them. (The Soul’s Code, p. 39)

Fairies such as the Puca are shape-shifting, time-and-space bending entities who come from a psycho-cosmological place much vaster, more complex and more fluid than our own, and can be our living energetic connection, a psychopomp, to that wider domain. The force they embody is formidable, and like the piper we had better hang on tight, keep our egos open but intact.

But we might ask: how does the meager ego get access to these larger, richer structures, these bigger, more complex energies in the first place? Or, in the context of our tale, we may wonder: why does the Puca even bother with the piper, who is merely going about his business, playing his one tune incessantly, collecting his gold, and taking it home to mother in infantile fashion?

Creative Naivety 

There are two clues in the tale to the attitude needed, I think, to facilitate an encounter with the Puca/Daimon/Genius, two qualities or conditions that open the way, and these are foolishness and drunkenness. Drunkenness lowers consciousness, allowing unconscious material to rise. At its best it can be initiatory and loosen rigid boundaries. Foolishness, often a corollary to drunkenness, can embody a certain creative naivete, a willingness to do as one pleases, to be daring, or just plain odd, without care for the consequences or the judgements of others. It is key, I believe, that our piper has both of these qualities in half-measure, for if he were fully drunk and completely foolish, he would not have been enough of a match for the Puca. But had he been too sober and too proper–not drunk and foolish enough–the Puca would have had no entree with him.

So the piper has just the right disposition for a meeting with the Puca. But there are plenty of half-drunk, half-fools out there. What would make the Puca think of testing him, of giving him the opportunity to earn his gifts? The Puca sees in the piper, apparently, underneath the veneer of the silly, unambitious, mama’s boy tinkerer a gifted, mature musician and man. The sense and music were there all along, but the particular force, energy, and otherworldly knowledge of the Puca was needed to bring them out. The piper is also at the right place: a bridge, or place of crossing. The Puca himself is another kind of bridge, bridging the human and fairy worlds.

How did the Puca know of the piper’s potential, and see fit to unleash it? The answer, perhaps, is in this strange connection to the stealing and eating of the priest’s gander, presumably close to a year earlier. According to The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore by Patricia Monaghan, geese, either domestic or wild were extremely important symbolically to the Celts: “So strong was the identification of Celtic people with the goose that it was a taboo food among the Britons, used for divination, and eaten only on ritual occasions. Some fairy beings could change by shape-shifting into geese . . . ” (p. 224) Perhaps we have a clue here, and may assume the gander to be a fairy being as well. So the consumption (integration) of the priest’s gander, we may conjecture, has a ritualistic aspect, and rituals, as we know, tend also to lower consciousness and draw out the divine or supernatural forces. The thievery, here, is also important, as acts of theft usually are in myths and fairy tales.

Stealing the gander seems in thematic terms to be the instigating action of the story. In psychological terms the piper stealing the priest’s gander likely represents the shift of energy or libido from a restrictive but ordered attitude (priest) to a more liberal, open one. Since there is no father in the story, and based on the authority the priest exerts over the piper, the priest can be slotted, in Jungian terms, as the father/father complex stand-in. The piper shares this stolen bounty with his mother, and gives a wing to “Red Mary,” likely a fairy-in-disguise and anima figure (female aspect of the male psyche) who repays him by tattling to the priest. (A whole other line of interpretation could be taken up around this peripheral yet key character of the story, but we’ll set it aside for now.)

The priest and the Puca, though opposites, are tied together symbolically: both hold a kind of otherworldly authority and power, and both, we should remember, require the piper to go to Croagh Patric, but with very different aims: the priest wants him to atone, restoring order and hierarchy, while the Puca wants him to shake off his restrictions and transform. To do this he must enter an underworld realm, and while there entertain, and pay respect toward, the wise old (grand)mother, who in this case manifests as a collective of faerie women living beneath Croagh Patric, in “The House of the Banshee.” Isn’t the Banshee a harbinger of death? Robert Moss has written recently of her, and reminds us that besides taking the form of the hag, she can assume the form of a beautiful young woman, and that she has a more complex role:

Above all, she comes to invite us or escort us on the Otherworld journey: not only the journey that follows physical death, but on journeys beyond the physical world from which we may return to the body with magic and power. (http://mossdreams.blogspot.com/)

Still, the visit to her realm is not without its dangers: Desmond goes on to warn that the daimon too is not only connected with creation, but also, necessarily, to destruction. It is is “connected to death. There is a demonic side the daimon, relative to the nihilating powers that rear up in us as creatures, that shadow all transcending.”

Marie Louise Von Franz reminds us that “demonism and creativity are psychologically very close to each other. Nothing in the psyche is more destructive than unrealized, unconscious creative impulses.” (Projection and Recollection in Jungian Psychology: Reflections of the Soul, p. 106)

That bears repeating: Nothing in the psyche is more destructive than unrealized, unconscious creative impulses.

We can assume our piper becomes sufficiently conscious of his creative impulses to ensure his daimon becomes a helpful force, and what’s known in fairy tale analysis as a “donor”–a figure who gives the hero some sort of magical assistance or bestows upon him or her some power. In return for becoming more conscious and giving something of himself to the underworld powers, the “hundreds of old women” whom he serves (an interesting contrast/parallel to his familiar mother and home), he receives the power of maturation, an accelerated ripening of his inborn potentials. The gold he receives, the real gold as opposed the illusory gold so often proffered by the fairies, is repeated access to inspiration, and the skill that evolves from having taken a path of “hills and bogs and rough places” instead of the familiar path, risking the difficult piece instead of the easy, well-worn tune.

So, in light of the wisdom embodied in this tale, here are some takeaways I’ve gleaned, things to tell myself:

  • Steal a gander: Be subversive to your “thou shalt” conventional thinking and sacrifice time and energy to feed the irrational forces
  • Sense (orderedness, thinking, rationality) and music (playfulness, emotionality, irrationality) are both necessary for growth and maturation of the personality and the development of one’s art, whatever form it may take.
  • Be half-drunk and half-foolish: Lower consciousness (daydream, but in an attentive way) and be willing to risk failure. If you do these things, the Puca, or rather, your own version of a daimon, will catch your scent and consider visiting you.
  • Be brave, trust the daimon and go with him or her: Inspiration can be frightening as well as vivifying, but when you are called, you need to answer. Opportunities for inspiration must be seized, and to do so we must trust the foreign-feeling energy enough to ride it, acknowledging that it knows better than us where to go.
  • Play up! Don’t think about it or doubt yourself. Just do that thing you feel you’re meant to do, even if you don’t think you can.
  • The warning from Von Franz: Nothing in the psyche is more destructive than unrealized, unconscious creative impulses.

Before I leave off, I want to bring up the oddness of the revivified gander, who, although eaten, is living with the wise women under Croagh Patric, and who gives the piper the unmelodious squawking pipes. Of course, if we know anything of fairies, we expected the gold to turn to leaves, but I for one did expect that the set of fairy pipes would be superior to the piper’s old set. But instead they sound atrocious. Why is that?

In terms of why the gander is still around, remembering the goose’s significance to the Celts and other peoples, perhaps this is an element of psyche that cannot be integrated, a mysterious fundamental energy that exists on multiple planes. In relation to the gander specifically and Hindu thought:

The cosmic gander (the divine presence in the universe) reveals itself through song, which is thought of as the breathing of the supreme being, the rhythm of inhaling and exhaling. (Funk and Wagnall’s Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend, p. 460)

The conscious rhythm of inhaling and exhaling is quite important to pipers, so having this particular instrument in the story makes symbolic sense. But why the horrid sounds coming from the faerie pipes? Perhaps the divine element gives the squawking pipes to our lad to keep him grounded, to balance his newfound powers and prevent an inflation. (Maybe this is why his gold pieces must not survive as well.) Don’t we all have times in our creative lives, and our lives in general that feel awkward, frustrating and stymied, as well as times where things are beautiful and flowing? That is what human life is meant to be, it seems, and since we know from mythic and folkloric wisdom that we can’t stay in the nether realms indefinitely without penalty, we had better be willing to play the squawking pipes on occasion, so that our real music, when it arrives, sounds that much more melodious.

More to explore:

If you haven’t watched Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk pertaining to the daimon or genius, here it is:

Hold me tight, and fear me not: The rescue of Tam Lin

http://www.wyliebeckert.com/

Image “Tam Lin” by Wylie Beckert. Used with permission Please click on image to visit her portfolio.

 

Since I first became acquainted with the story of Tam Lin (or Tamlin), I’ve run across some different iterations of the tale in song and prose (to see the Child Ballad [39] in full, go here). Essentially, the story runs that Janet, a well-to-do but lonesome and rebellious young lady, sets off one day on her own to Carterhaugh, where she longs to be, despite the warnings of her father or parents. Once there, she offends Tam Lin by plucking roses, and after a little row between the two over this in which Janet asserts her rights to Carterhaugh and general independence, the two become lovers. The result, naturally, is that Janet, as her father suspects, becomes “with child.” But how can she love this baby, begot in such an unnatural way? She returns to Carterhaugh and declares to Tam Lin that she won’t bear the child, but that if it were a fully human baby, fathered by a man and not some otherworldly being, she would love and cherish it. Tam Lin then reveals that he once was human, before he was abducted by the fairy queen, and that this Halloween she may be sacrificing him as a “tithe to hell.” On the other hand, he tells her that if she can wait in secret until the fairy procession arrives on Halloween night, pull him from his white steed, and hang onto him as he turns into all manner of frightening creatures in her arms, that he will again, at the end of the ordeal, be a man, and she will be able to love him, and their child. Janet, of course, succeeds in this rescue. Afterwards Tam Lin reverts to a “naked man,” and Janet wraps him in her cloak and takes him home to be her true love.

I don’t want to analyse the images in Tam Lin too much, but rather let them continue to work in me as they have done since I first discovered the story. There are many elements of the tale I find compelling, including Janet’s defiance of her family, and following of her impulse–I don’t see this necessarily as healthy rebellion mind you, but I rather sense it as a giving in to what begins as an unhealthy longing or obsession, as when we do something rash out of loneliness and/or temptation that might end very badly. But this is a redemption story, and what is most touching to me is Janet’s bravery in not letting go as her fairy lover shapeshifts into multiple terrifying creatures.

This reminds me of the Jungian advice to pin down an image that comes to you in active imagination, to not let it go until some understanding of its meaning has been reached. More deeply though, I feel this motif of holding on to the shapeshifter to redeem him (seen in other tales as well) is a moving depiction of what it’s like to endure harrowing emotions without letting them run away with you, nor shutting them down. Sometimes it is scary to live in this world, and scarier still to face that we have brought on our own misery or ruin. Yet there is something deep in the mystery of it all that waits for us to recognise and love it, to cut through enchantments and disenchantment and hold on bravely no matter what. Then what began badly can end in the triumph of human love: at the end of the story, Janet manifests the positive, redeeming side of mother-love, wrapping her naked lover in her cloak. Such maternal love is probably the most healing form love can take, towards others and ourselves. The fairy queen, as a counterpoint, seems to embody destructive, possessive, dark mother-love. This is how she reacts to Tam Lin’s rescue:

The Queen of Faery turned her horse about,
Says, Adieu to thee, Tamlene!
For if I had kent what I ken this night,
If I had kent it yestreen,
I wad hae taen out thy heart o flesh,
And put in a heart o stane.

Yikes!

The following rendition of the ballad, for me, while leaving out the fairy element of the rescue plot, captures the soul of the story of Janet and Tam Lin. Enjoy!

 

Angry Poem for October: “The One”

Henry_Meynell_Rheam_-_The_Sorceress_1898

“The Sorceress” Image by Henry Meynell Rheam, 1898, in the public domain

The One

© Lisa E. Coté

Now, when the battle sounds
In the blank recesses of fury,

Who will know me?

And when the devils rise
Out of the cracks between your skin’s dark armor,

Who will name them?

You wanted power, you wanted to be crowned
With more than leaves and feathers:
Blood and pain made a wreath around you,
And you stood in the center like a sorceress,
Tongue as black as poison,
Spitting your curses on the world and heaven.

You would rip their hearts out with your fingers,
Barely a mark left on them,
And bury them with shame.

But who will raise them?

Into the world you charmed your blurry wisdom,
Slippery as an oiled snake on the Tree of Knowledge,
But all the apples rotted on the branch.

Now who will eat them?

I am the one you seek but cannot fathom,
I am the one you love and loathe, together;
I am the one who rattles in your dungeon,
I am the penitence you will not mention
I am the answer and the question
I am the rage that burns itself to heaven
I am the maker and the great un-doer,
And all your paths will lead you all around me:

Stop for a moment,
and I may come to you;

Stop for a moment,
and you may walk through me.

Are Fairy Tales Bad for Children? Part Three: The Promise of Redemption

800px-Mikalojus_Konstantinas_Ciurlionis_-_FAIRY_TALE_(CASTLE_FAIRY_TALE)_-_1909

Image by Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis, in the public domain (see Wikimedia Commons)

It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind, that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the “turn” comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art, and having a peculiar quality. (J.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories”)

Ultimately, many traditional fairy tales, if not offering straightforward “happy endings” do frequently embody in their outcomes the themes of restoration, transformation, and redemption, and while perhaps complex themes for children to absorb, they are, psychically and spiritually speaking, indispensable ones that foreshadow the individuation struggles to come. Marie-Louise von Franz says that “[i]n fairy tales redemption refers specifically to a condition where someone has been cursed or bewitched and through certain happenings or events in the story is redeemed.” (Psychological Meaning of Redemption Motifs in Fairy Tales, p. 7) Why does this matter? Because all of us are bound to become doomed, cursed or “bewitched”—in other words, held back, distorted and tormented by something in our own psyches. Fairy tales dramatize this in a spare, elegant, but powerful way, and generally provide certain formulas for overcoming this predicament, and achieving redemption.

In the process of getting to that outcome, it seems to me that the message (not moral!) is usually that: 1. Things will not be easy or fair; 2. Being brave and bold, even a little foolhardy, is necessary to overcome this; 3. At the same time one should be humble, compassionate, observant, attentive and trusting (this is normally how to gain favor with the helper or “donor” character); 4. Things will not resolve right away, and one normally must fail multiple times (usually at least twice) in one’s goal. I think these messages can be taken as guidance for both outer and inner life, and are useful for both children and adults.

Not all fairy or wonder tales are of this caliber, though. Some promote values of obedience, conformity and punish intrepid characters for their initiative and curiosity. These are the sorts of tales (along with the overly “cleaned up” cutesy fairy tales that swamp us today) that I find more objectionable from a psychological point of view. I believe they may pose a different but significant sort of danger to children, because they undermine values of individuality, initiative, ingenuity, and choice. I tend to agree with Guillermo Del Toro when he says, “I don’t like fairy tales that have a moral teaching at the end; I like them with a more subversive teaching.” (Read more here.)

I will, for one, indubitably be reading fairy tales to my children, and to myself, and will probably continue to write them as well.

Let me leave you with Neil Gaiman’s Instructions, which does a better job than I have in expressing what is essential and life-affirming about fairy tales, for children and adults both:

Wintry Poem in Springtime: “Chronology”

Martin_Johnson_Heade_-_Two_Owls_at_Sunset

Image by Martin Johnson Heade, in the Public Domain

Many a year ago this poem was published in a now-defunct (from what I can tell) journal called RIM Magazine. I still like it, so I thought I’d dust it off and share it with you. Might be a little at odds with the season, but then again, one can have a wintry mood, even in spring.

 Chronology

© Lisa E. Coté

When I was seven years and seven days
the owl of time with beatless wings
flew down, sunk its talons
into my shadow’s heart,
and made me an old woman.

See the ivory tower past the ridge
of soft pink granite, by the foaming
mouth of the sea? It’s made of a
giant’s tooth, carved by a dwarf,
polished by wind and water.

The old woman lives there,
looking out for signals.
She sits by the westward window,
knitting the night.

She takes a hedgehog’s bristle, rowan’s
berries; a lock of hair from the infant,
a plait of the old man’s beard.
She wraps them all in a white shawl,
talisman against bitter weather;
splint for the lame white hare.

When I am seven ages gone,
pull my body from the
sunless bog; make from my skin
a set of traveler’s boots, a saddle
for a black mare, a pouch
for silver coin. Stretch the rest of me
into a kettle drum.

Grind my bones and drink them as a tea;
then I’ll live another age in my own skin,
and you’ll live another age in me,
and know how to winnow grain and speak to crows,
and make friends with winter.

Are Fairy Tales Bad for Children? Part Two: The Wonders of the Fairy Tale Helper or Donor

Image

“Dreaming of Snow White,” by Franz Schrotzberg, in the Public Domain

Tolkien states in his essay, “On Fairy-Stories” (read it here) that fairy tales are not more suited to children than adults, particularly, and that ”

in fact only some children, and some adults, have any special taste for them; and when they have it, it is not exclusive, nor even necessarily dominant. It is a taste, too, that would not appear, I think, very early in childhood without artificial stimulus; it is certainly one that does not decrease but increases with age, if it is innate.”

I think he’s right. Personally speaking, I don’t remember being read fairy tales as a child—I rather came across them on my own, and then sought them out myself throughout grade school. I would say that from about age 8 through 12 years old I was somewhat obsessed with them, reading the Grimm’s tales and the whole gamut of Andrew Lang’s colored fairy books, as well as books about Greek, Roman and Norse mythology.

Short film versions of “The Happy Prince,” and “The Little Mermaid” (original story!) were shown on Canadian television every year around Christmas when I was a girl, and they held great sway over me: it’s impossible to articulate what a profound effect they exerted on my young soul. Had they been sanitized—e.g., the little mermaid is never faced with her dilemma of either killing the prince or being obliterated herself; the swallow in the Happy Prince makes it to Egypt and all is well in the Prince’s city—these stories would have meant nothing to me. (Even as a child I was not big on the moralizing about good and naughty children at the end of Anderson’s tale, although I did love the idea of “the daughters of the air”—they just should have been left as mysterious beings.)

Here’s the rub: children face difficulties, and heartaches, however we strive to protect them, and must make sense of a world teeming with loss, suffering, unfairness, immense challenges, and yes, also tragedy, cruelty and death. And it’s important to acknowledge that the reality of dark forces is both external and internal (the original “Star Wars” series captures this idea very well): some of the great minds of psychology have emphasized the intrapsychic nature of such stories, the fact that they symbolize universal aspects of the psyche and the particular internal dynamics within individuals:

Children feel anger and hostility, violent emotion and feelings of helplessness and fairy-stories enable them to realize that they are not alone, that others have such feelings and living involves a struggle between good and bad, fortune and misfortune. Fairy tales appeal to both sides of reality and help children deal with their own deep inner conflicts. Often dreams have a fairy tale quality about them and you can help children work through nightmares by making this connection. (Dream Time with Children: Learning to Dream, Dreaming to Learn by Brenda Mallon, p. 70)

I find fairy tales gratifying because they are for the most part balanced, incorporating dark, evil, or ignorant characters or elements as well as those who are eminently good-hearted, wise and brave. Usually, although not always, the latter types of characters prevail. More often than not they do so with the aid of some sort of magical helper, e.g. the little doll in “Vasalisa the Brave,” the grey wolf in the Russian story “The Firebird,” the spirit of a dead thief in the Norse tale “The Companion,” the kind and mysterious old woman in the German tale “The True Bride.”

I’ll write more about this element of fairy tales in a subsequent post. For now I will say that this element was probably one of the most important to me, psychologically, and I don’t think I’m alone in this. How comforting to have help from a magical “other” at your service, in your time of great need? (This is probably a variety of the “religious impulse” of the psyche at work.) When you are older, more academically-minded perhaps, you can understand these others as “just” or “only” aspects of yourself. But at the time that you read them, imagine them, or dream them, they are potently real, autonomous, mysterious, and a little spooky: anything but “just” or “only.” And I’m guessing that for young children this potency is not yet diluted, lucky for them. (Not because they can’t distinguish reality from make-believe, but because for them make-believe has not yet been dismissed as unimportant.) This helper or donor element of fairy tales is anything but “bad” for children, in the sense of polluting their young minds; it is rather a source of awe and a beacon of hope and trust in the midst of an inherently dangerous world, both inside the metaphorical world of the tale, and in the outside world of literal realities.

Stay tuned for Part Three of “Are Fairy Tales Bad for Children”. . .

Are Fairy Tales Bad for Children? Part One: Confronting Darkness

arthur-rackham-hansel-and-gretelImage by Arthur Rackham, in the public domain

As a writer who is in the process of publishing a collection of fairy or wonder tales, an article I ran across in Slate caught my attention rather keenly. It’s titled “Are Fairy Tales Out of Fashion?”  In it, Libby Copeland states more or less categorically that fairy tales (the authentic kind) are not suitable for young children, and that she refuses to read them to her young daughter. (She doesn’t like the Disney fairy tale versions either, for other reasons.)

Many commenters objected to this notion, and someone amongst them was astute enough to point out that when selecting fairy tales to read to younger children the age of the protagonists of the story may provide somewhat of a guide to determining what might be appropriate. Steven Swan makes this point in The Fairy Tale: The Magic Mirror of the Imagination. But bear in mind that appropriateness here does not mean necessarily censoring out the disturbing elements if the child is younger: it just means that the concerns and anxieties represented in the tale are those typically faced by individuals of a certain age. Of “Hansel and Gretel” Swan says that “[t]he problem they face is that there is not enough food at home to feed the entire family. The lack of food may be read as a metaphor for there not being enough love at home. In essence, the children feel unloved and unwanted, as reflected in their stepmother’s desire to abandon them.” (p. 23) I think the point here is that young children are very dependent beings and thus naturally face anxieties about not being loved and protected, even if they are, for the most part, loved and protected.

So does that mean “Little Red Riding Hood” or “Hansel and Gretel” are good stories for all little children to hear? No, not necessarily. I do think Copeland may be prudent in censoring some of the more brutal or scary fairy tales from her very young daughter, depending on circumstances. I’m remembering that the wolfish evil called “The Nothing” in the Neverending Story film gave my little brother nightmares for months after he watched it. (I’m not sure if reading the book, or having it read to him, would have produced the same effect; perhaps having to depict “The Nothing” with his own imagination would have triggered a buffering action in his young psyche. But I suppose the converse might also have been true.)

So, discretion may be a virtue when it comes to a certain age group or temperament. But to categorically banish all non-sanitized fairy tales completely from childhood? In my opinion that is a form of psychic hygiene that is unhealthy, and ultimately untenable. Unhealthy, because darkness is better acknowledged and confronted, not denied; untenable, because it will come out anyway, one way or another, in dreams, most likely, and fantasy-play. Copeland herself admits to being attracted to gruesome fairy tales at about age 9 or 10, and to hoping that when her daughter is considerably older “and possessed of that child’s fascination with darkness” that she reads the original, unsanitized versions of tales like Cinderella. There is ambivalence in her attitude, then, for despite all her discomfort with the supposed anachronistic violence of the fairy tale in general, at the same time she seems to be conceding the point that darkness with have its due. Consider this quote by in Tremendous Trifles by Gilbert Keith Chesterton:

I find that there really are human beings who think fairy tales bad for children. . . . All this kind of talk is based on that complete forgetting of what a child is like which has been the firm foundation of so many educational schemes. If you kept bogies and goblins away from children they would make them up for themselves. One small child in the dark can invent more hells than Swedenborg. One small child can imagine monsters too big and black to get into any picture, and give them names too unearthly and cacophonous to have occurred in the cries of any lunatic. The child, to begin with, commonly likes horrors, and he continues to indulge in them even when he does not like them. . . . The fear does not come from fairy tales; the fear comes from the universe of the soul. (pp. 129-130)

If you refuse the reality of this “universe of the soul” to begin with, or insist on characterizing it as a light-filled paradise of benign cherubs (real angels can be scary too), schmaltzy poetry, or cutesy baby animals, I guess Chesterton’s argument falls flat, but if you concede that the “universe of the soul” is anything but this simplistic or banal, then it is hard to argue with him. So in this vein I suggest that fairy tales are “bad” for children, not in the sense of causing them harm; rather they convey “badness” and “horrors,” as well as wonder, delight, and joy in the service of children’s (and adults’) own souls, to give them an outward reflection and make them, therefore, possible to relate to in a potentially fruitful way. Which tales to select for one’s child at a given stage in their childhood (assuming that fairy tales appeal to them in the first place), is another matter, and there are no parenting rules to help us here: only our intuition can be of service, as well, as, perhaps, taking a cue from what we observe about their fantasy play and their dreams, if we are fortunate enough to hear about them.

Stay tuned for Part Two of “Are Fairy Tales Bad for Children?”. . .