Incest, Separation, Initiation: What Are Tales Really Telling About?


“Fairy tales are about the eternal problems facing humanity, including those that concern the child the most and contribute to his development,” explains the author of the book “On the Benefits of Magic,” American psychologist and psychiatrist Bruno Bettelheim. – I have repeatedly come across the fact that the favorite reading of children of any level of development, both healthy and sick, is folk fairy tales. Why?”

The author, being a psychoanalyst, offers his own version: fairy tales reflect the child’s inner conflict, but through heroes. They have conscious and unconscious components of our “I”, where the Ego, Id (It) and Super-Ego meet and fight.

They describe in simple and figurative language how we can satisfy our true needs without conflicting with the requirements of the “I” and “Super-I”. They are addressed to all levels of the human personality, and the style of presentation is clear to both the preschooler and the adult.

“Growing up, the child overcomes numerous psychological difficulties: narcissistic disappointments, Oedipal complexes, rivalry with brothers and sisters. He ceases to depend on adults, acquires a sense of “selfhood” and self-worth, as well as moral obligations. To do this, the child needs to understand what is happening in his conscious “I”, and thus he will be able to cope with what is happening in his unconscious.

Fairy tales make it clear that they speak of the most ordinary people, very similar to us

Children are occupied with fairy-tale plots, in their imagination they unfold them in their own way, drawing their own images of heroes. Through fairy tales, a child can live what is displaced by him, is forbidden by the adult world. He faces evil and violence, but this often scares the parents, and they try to keep their children from getting to know this dark side of life.

But it is the fairy tales “in homeopathic doses” that give the child an understanding of how the world actually works. They bring him face to face with the main problems of human life, which he will very soon face in reality. Existential questions in fairy tales are formulated briefly and sharply. Good and evil are divided there between different characters.

It is already later, growing up, a person discovers that in the real world everything is different. That one and the same person can manifest himself this way and that. But in the black-and-white children’s world, such information is still redundant. And it is in this “package” that the child will learn the difficult material now.

Fairy tales make it clear that they speak of the most ordinary people, very similar to us. Even the author’s stories – “The Ugly Duckling”, “The Little Prince”, “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” – correspond to this principle.

“Three piglets”

The piglets’ houses symbolize historical progress: a hut with a lean-to roof at the end is replaced by a brick house. This is the process of development of the personality itself – from a careless kid, adhering to the principle of pleasure, to one who lives according to the principle of reality.

“When a child listens to a fairy tale (while he is actually invited to identify himself with one of the heroes), he not only gains hope,” the psychoanalyst explains. He learns that by developing his mind, he will be able to defeat an enemy even stronger physically.

The wolf wants to destroy, he is ready to kill the pigs. A small child discerns something similar in himself and understands what happens if you allow a destructive beginning to take over.

Incest, Separation, Initiation: What Are Tales Really Telling About?

“Little Red Riding Hood”

There are many variations of it, the most famous recorded by the Brothers Grimm, where the grandmother and granddaughter eaten by a wolf are revived. And Charles Perrault’s version rather resembled a moralizing horror story, which the author did not hide: he believed that it was better to intimidate a child than to dispel his anxiety.

In our usual version, this is not, but Perrault wrote a poem in the finale, the essence of which is this: pretty girls should not listen to everyone. As for the wolves, they appear in a variety of guises, and the most dangerous are the polite wolves, especially those who follow the young maidens and enter their house.

“At the heart of this tale is the danger of being eaten. Little Red Riding Hood is an example of a teenage girl already faced with puberty problems when she has to choose between “want” and “must”. She sniffs flowers at the direction of the wolf, looking back at the beautiful forest, but then she remembers her grandmother. She asks the imaginary grandmother questions about big ears and eyes, she is surprised by her big hands and a terrible mouth. Before us is a listing of the four senses: hearing, sight, touch. And taste, – the author of the book is sure. “Using them, a teenager learns the world.”

Female roles (mothers and grandmothers) are minimal. But the masculine principle is fundamentally important. It is split. A man can be a dangerous seducer who turns into a murderer. And a hunter is a father figure, a savior, a strong man you can rely on. The girl’s naivety captivates the reader, but it is dangerous to remain naive all her life.

In the version of the Brothers Grimm, another important point appears in the fairy tale: from the belly of the wolf, Little Red Riding Hood comes out changed, this is a kind of transformation, initiation. A naive girl dies and a wiser girl appears, who now knows that she needs to be careful with men.

“Sleeping Beauty”

And again, the addressees are teenagers and their parents. In contrast to heroic tales, this one draws attention to the need for prolonged concentration in silence on oneself. At the beginning of puberty, many adolescents, both girls and boys, become inert, seem drowsy, immersed in themselves. During periods of strong change – and puberty is such a period – not only activity is required, but also peace.

A fairy tale helps a teenager not to be afraid of his own inaction, he learns that development goes on as usual. Inertia is usually observed in early puberty (before the first menstruation in girls, in a fairy tale it is blood from a spindle prick, of which she was scared to death) and then followed by violent, almost unbridled activity.

Sometimes teenagers, showing their awakened masculinity or femininity, embark on the most dangerous adventures. Not all princes survive in the fight for a princess, only the most patient. The sleeping beauty wakes up when she is ready emotionally and physically for love, marriage, sex.

The tale tells us: do not be afraid of inaction and peace, development often goes unnoticed. Do not rush things, everything has its time.


The most beloved and famous fairy tale in the world for modern readers is a metaphor for sibling, bullying and childish jealousy. And even rivalry with your own mother. Maybe that’s why in a fairy tale, sisters are replaced by half-sisters, because how can children in a family behave like that (we know that they can, and how). It is to this struggle, to the suffering of a small child in the throes of rivalry with brothers and sisters, that Cinderella is dedicated.

But the feelings are rather internal, even if outwardly brothers and sisters behave quite friendly. The theme of rejection by the mother, who is turned into a stepmother in a fairy tale (after all, it does not happen that a mother does not love her own child, society says, but in fact we know examples of the opposite).

Even if a child has no brothers and sisters, he loses in some way to other children – in the class, in the yard. He is always compared to someone – if not his stepmother and sisters, then he himself.

Sometimes children believe that they themselves, like Cinderella, will receive a well-deserved reward, because they also have secret desires. For example, to defeat sisters and mother, to be chosen, special.

“You can treat me like a dirty trick, but in your heart you envy me, because I am much better than you. Even if his own father chose his stepmother and her daughters. ” And there are many such semantic layers in fairy tales.

The book deals with a lot of fairy tales. Without fairy tales in childhood, our psyche runs the risk of remaining immature. If the child is told only true stories, then he will not resolve his internal conflicts and, becoming a teenager and an adult, he will hate a world where rationality rules.

Therefore, think hard when you want to pull the collection of fairy tales out of children’s hands and replace it with a masterpiece of realism from the compulsory school curriculum. There is a time for everything – remember the story of Sleeping Beauty?

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