Francis Spufford on Childhood books 2: Why fairy tales matter
Having considered the importance of stories and fiction in general, Spufford in The Child That Books Built now works through the different stages of growing up, moving from the simplest picture books onto fairy tales. Much psychologising about their significance has been indulged in over the last century or so, and Spufford weaves a careful threat through it all. The crucial thing is to understand why stories resonate:
‘Only those voices from without are effective,’ wrote the critic Kenneth Burke in 1950, ‘which speak in the language of a voice within.’ (p52)
So what is it about fairly tales that makes them so universal and popular? Because language (as quoted yesterday) enables representation, one key interpreter’s art is to discern what is begin represented. It is then no surprise that the chapter about fairy tales is entitled The Forest, for not only is it the place where so many fairy tales take place, it is also a place of foreboding and the unknown. But…
[Stories have] now come to be seen as deliberate journeys to the forest, which may enable self-knowledge all the more profound because they speak directly, in the mind’s own rich language of symbols. They have shifted from the problem to the solution side of the ledger. Bettelheim himself pointed out that ‘A fairy tale is not a neurotic symptom’: you are not trying to dissect it to make it go away. He described the ancient Indian practice of prescribing a story to the troubled in mind, for them to sift and contemplate. That was 1975. His endorsement of stories as therapeutic made him a pioneer. Since then, a crowd has followed him, offering all the deliberately crafted ‘myths’ of pop-psych self-help: Iron John, the Woman Who Runs With the Wolves, the promotion of the Tarot pack as a ‘box of stories’ tailored to individual needs. Whether this cultural move is an over-compensation for the previous error depends on whether stories are truly benign just because they are potent in their operation on the psyche; whether they are guides to the forest just because they give powerful commentary on it. (p31)
So of course things get taken to extremes. But the types and tropes of such stories must have significance.
… this is the fairy tale as a ‘thought experiment’. Its typecast kings, its identikit princesses, are representatives of elements in our inward dramas. They are devoid of individual characteristics so that they may be universal. They are wholly good, wholly beautiful, wholly cruel, because they embody the impulses of love, delight, rage in their primal, unalloyed form. They stand for pieces of us. The identifications are strong, but not blatant. For example, the wicked stepmother in a fairy tale, argued Bettelheim, embodies all the child’s fears of being rejected by their real mother, and gives play to all the child’s negative feelings about her, without disfiguring her necessarily loving image in the child’s mind. The good mother has conveniently died, ceding her space in the tale to the hateable monsters who degrade Cinderella, and drive Snow White and Hansel and Gretel out into the forest. There is never a wicked natural mother in a fairy tale. (p53)
In tomorrow’s excerpt, Spufford relishes the joy of libraries, before getting onto the wonders of fantasy and Narnia.