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Research Aim

Fairy tales form a socially symbolic and culturally vast genre of fantasy that conveys paradigms of the human condition through a veil of wonder, magic, and enchantment. The themes, motifs, metaphors, and intimate relational patterns contained within the fairy tale are illustrative of the human creative fantasy and of the human psyche itself. This mythic link – between the literary fairy tale and modern psychotherapeutic medicine – is the nexus upon which my research is focused.

Although far from comprehensive, my work will dive into the multifarious psychoanalytical theories of the fairy tale, provide an atlas for the many psychological and therapeutic uses of the fairy tale within medicine; provide a bibliography of research detailing its clinical applications, and ultimately make a case for the use of fairy tales and creative writing within health, social care, and the medical humanities. 

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A Brief History of the Literary Fairy Tale

The fairy tale began as an oral tradition and their origins can be traced by thousands of years to the ice age. Originally, fairy tales were passed down generationally through verbal recitation or dramatic reenactment, and as the tales evolved through their transmission, they became mirrors of the speaker and of the society in which they were told. Primitive folk tales were told as endeavors to interpret and understand natural and social phenomena while providing a sense of community. As the West experienced socio-economic shifts, the characters, content, and functions of the tales gradually transformed to reflect new social needs, desires, and fears (Zipes 23).


Folk tales were the traditions of wandering tribes, travelers, and traders until the 15th century, when the folk tale began to undergo “bourgeoisification” when Italian writers began to exploit and conventionalize the rhetorics, contents, and topoi of oral folk tales so that they may become suitable for bourgeois and aristocratic reading. This process continued until the 17th century, when the literary fairy tale came into vogue and was established as the mode appropriate for King Louis XIV’s court and the bourgeois literary salons (Zipes 23). This period became known as the Salon Era. 


These salons attracted intellectual, aristocratic women and fostered their creative and intellectual development during a time where women were formally barred from receiving higher education. The writing and sharing of fairy tales was a preeminent feature of these salons, and the tales monopolized upon the decorative and metaphorical language of fairy tales to conceal subversive messages that critiqued aristocratic society, court life, and the gender barriers that defined their lives (Feat 217-18). 


To learn more about the politically subversive nature of the literary fairy tales of the seventeenth-century salons, click on the link to the right to read “Playing the Game of Frivolity: Seventeenth-Century Conteuses and the Transformation of Female Identity” by Anne-Marie Feat. Feat's essay further describes how the autonomy women held within the literary salons nurtured an environment that bore a new form of mondain female creativity, one that engendered a potent authorial feminine persona that highlighted female solidarity and worked to reclaim the voices that traditional French society attempted to suppress.


During the Salon Era, Charles Perrault rose to notoriety with his Histoires ou Contes du

temps passé (Stories of the Past, 1697), which is better known as Tales of Mother Goose today. Perrault marked the beginnings of a cultural mode of discourse that used literary fairy tales as a form of moral narrative for children. By the time Madame Leprince de Beaumont published her Magasin des enfans (1756), which contained fairy tales such as “Prince Darling” and “Beauty and the Beast,” the literary fairy tale was a cultural institution used to convey Christian virtues, ideals, and etiquette to children of respectable upper-class families. 


Madame Leprince de Beaumont cemented social ideas within the children's fairy tales that are still considered standard today. These ideals were antithetical to the characteristics aimed for by the aristocratic Salon Era women within their tellings of fairy tales. Madame Leprince de Beaumont presented a framework that taught girls to believe that goodness and beauty aligned with their servitude towards a male-dominant code. She modified fairy-tale motifs to comply with the patriarchal conventionalized and institutionalized ways of Christian civilization and bourgeois industry (Zipes 24). 


Through its institutionalization, the literary fairy tale became socially acceptable as a conventional mode of writing for children. The classical writers of the literary fairy tale shaped the fairy tale discourse within their own societies and within the general western literary tradition at the same time.

Literary Fairy Tales: Defining the Genre

Fairy tales are differentiated from other literary genres by the magic contained within the story. Although this characteristic has allowed fairy tales to morph into their own distinct literary art form, it has made categorizing the genre a difficult endeavor for scholars and critics. However, to properly understand the literary fairy tale, it must be defined clearly.


German scholar Jens Tismar was the first to define the literary fairy tale separately based on his four principles: (1) Literary fairy tales are written by a single identifiable author; (2) they tend to be simple, anonymous, artificial, and elaborate in comparison to the indigenous forms of the folk tale that emanates from culturally unique communities; (3) literary fairy tales and oral folk tales are intrinsically linked and neither is better than the other; (4) the literary fairy tale can not be independently understood and defined without understanding its relationship to the oral tales, legends, novellas, novels, and other literary fairy tales it uses, adapts, and remodels during the narrative conception of the author (Neophytou 5-6).


Following these principles, the literary fairy tale can be further defined from other genres of folklore. Foremost, the literary fairy tale is neither myth nor legend. Myths generally refer to narratives about gods and supernatural beings while legends are stories of extraordinary events that happened to ordinary humans. Both myths and legends are typically believed to be true, but they insinuate that such events will never occur in the life of an ordinary mortal being. Fairy tales differ markedly as they portray a realistic event set in a fictional world with unrealistic and supernatural details (Neophytou 6-7). 


To further distinguish the fairy tale from the folktale, the distinguishing feature of the fairy tale is a complete detachment from reality. Typically, other types of folklore are set within a realistic setting with naturalistic details that allow for them to exist within reality. However, the fairy tale exists within a time and place that is beyond the veil of human existence (Neophytou 7). 

The Psychoanalytic Approach to Fairy Tales

Debate exists over which approach to analyzing fairy tales is correct, and a plethora of them exist. Whereas each approach reveals a different aspect of the genre, my research will primarily focus on the psychoanalytic approach to fairy tales. 

To learn more about the various approaches used by scholars to explore fairy tales, use the link to the right to read Ana Neophytou's "Why are Grimms' Fairy Tales so Mysteriously Enchanting?" Neophytou provides a brief overview of the structuralist, literary, psychoanalytic, and socio-historical approaches used by Folklorists and scholars to analyze literary fairy tales. She then combines the approaches together to provide an in-depth analysis of how fairy tales, namely the Brothers Grimm fairy tales, have endured throughout the years. 

Psychoanalysts argue that readers’ attraction to fairy tales is the result of the meanings that can be derived from the tales. Readers internalize the stories, connect with the characters on an emotional level, and vicariously embark on a journey with them. As the tale’s characters resolve their own issues, the readers also solve their personal problems. 


The study of fairy tales has yielded many different psychological methods that analyze fairy tales as symbolic expressions of the human psyche and emotional experiences. Most approaches focus on the semiosis of fairy tales and study the plots, motifs, and symbols of the stories to provide insight into human behavior. The two prominent psychoanalytical methods to studying fairy tales are the Freudian and Jungian approaches, although others exist. Whereas both the Freudian and Jungian approaches share similar methodologies to analyze and interpret the content of fairy tales, they differ in how they study the individual and the individual's reaction to fairy tales.


To further understand the theories, methods, and applications of the dominant psychoanalytic approaches to the study of fairy tales, hover over each block to read more.  


The Freudian Approach


Sigmund Freud believes fairy tales were analogous to dreams and contained symbols that reflected conflicts, anxieties, and repressed desires. He believed that fairy tales carry important messages for the unconscious, preconscious, and conscious mind -- the id, superego, and ego. Bruno Bettelheim, a Freudian psychologist renowned for his work in child psychiatry, used this framework to guide his bookThe Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales (1975), to describe how fairy tales educate, support, and liberate the emotions of children.


The Jungian Approach


Carl Jung believes in the existence of a collective unconscious that is shared by all until individuation - the process through which the unconscious being is brought to consciousness through their dreams and active imagination. Jungian psychologist, Marie-Louise von Franz, in her book, The Interpretation of Fairy Tales (1970), examines fairy tales as the purest and most distilled expression of the collective unconscious and of the archetypes of the collective psyche. 


To further explore the various analytic theories surrounding the appeal and longevity of fairy tales, view Moniek Hover's Ted Talk, "Fairy Tales are Full of Wonder."

Contemporary Application of Fairy Tales in Psychotherapy AND mEDICINE

Below is a collection of published articles and other written works describing the various uses of fairy tales within psychotherapy and medicine. The collected works are a mere sample of the vast body of folklore literature dealing with this research topic and its various subtopics.

Therapeutic Use for Children
Other Therapeutic and Medical Applications of Fairy Tales
Fairy Tales and the Body
Fairy Tales and Female Identity
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