Posts Tagged ‘Fairy Tales’


Fairy Tales: Critical Theory and Archetypal Interpretation

August 28, 2009

The question of how to read a text has been asked and argued by theorists since the first work was offered to an audience for interpretation. Questions of what should be considered separable and inseparable from the review of the text are many, the stronger of which have developed into schools of critical theory. The initial debate in reading a text is over the precedence of form versus content. Though Aristotle began this debate, it became publicly popular in the 20th century because of the cultural critic Susan Sontag. Taking a firm stance, Sontag argued for the supremacy of form, and then, over a decade later, changed her position and wrote discourse supporting the primacy of content. Beyond Sotnag’s writing, scholars throughout the world have found legitimate and convincing rationale for either approach. The crux of each perspective argues that through understanding the form, or by going in-depth into the content, the text will naturally open itself to a relevant interpretation. Beyond form and content, additional schools of criticism have emerged throughout the last century. T.S. Eliot headed the movement for New Criticism, in which the meaning of the text is found by staying with the text. Stanley Fish has argued for Reader Response, where the reader’s process of engagement decides the hermeneutic route of understanding. Sigmund Freud’s development of psychoanalysis introduced a new way of understanding textual relationships through the differentiation of Self and Other. The move toward Psychoanalytic interpretation lay the foundation for specialized interpretation, as is found in Cultural, Deconstruction and Feminist criticism.  These are only a sample of the different types of interpretive methods that have entered the formal conversation regarding textual interpretation. These conversations obtain new meaning as they are reassessed in regard to Jungian analysis and the interpretation of Fairy Tales. By reviewing von Franz’ interpretive method of Fairy Tales within the textual context of critical theory, we may then compare the strategic methods of interpretation that are introduced by Marie-Louise von Franz in her Introduction to the Interpretation of Fairy Tales and further explored by Professor Walter Odajnyk in his article “The Archetypal Interpretation of Fairy Tales: Bluebeard.” Through understanding the variations in critical theory, we may begin to recognize form and content of interpretation as it relates to psychology and healing potential.

Marie-Louise von Franz’ method of interpreting Fairy Tales is outlined in Chapter Three of her book, Introduction to the Interpretation of Fairy Tales. This is a multi-faceted endeavor and begins by conducting a structural analysis of the fairy tale by observing the time, place, and setting. Next, the characters are identified and counted at the different stages of the story.  Questions such as the following are asked: How many total characters are there? Are they male, female, animal, or other? What is lacking? If the story begins:

‘The king had three sons” one notices that there are four characters, but the mother is lacking. The story may end with one of the sons, his bride, his brother’s bride and another bride—that is, four characters again but in a different set-up. Having seen that the mother is lacking at the beginning and there are three women at the end, one would suspect that the whole story is about redeeming the female principle. (111)

Any unbalance between the number of characters or gender is significant to the interpretation and understanding of the archetypal conflict taking place. Third, a symbolic analysis is begun. This involves looking up and amplifying the symbols within the tale. Preceding this process, psychological analysis processes the information and attempts to translate the story into psychological terms. This does not mean that the tale is translated to promote a psychological agenda or to amplify psychological ideas (Freudian or Jungian), rather the goal of this step is to reiterate psychologically what takes place within the context of the fairy tale.  Finally, personal and archetypal analysis may be attempted. This involves in-depth knowledge of the self and the cultural community in which the fairy tale is active. To verify that the interpretation is authentic and functional takes experience and intuition.

In comparing von Franz’ method with other critical strategies of interpretation, we find that it is a fusion. However, a chief similarity is observed in relation to New Criticism. The importance of staying with the text, or staying with the image to be guided to interpretation is significant. Second, von Franz is working with a psychological model. This means that a vocabulary is introduced in order to amplify dynamics inherent in the material. It is important to note that one of the challenges of using psychological theory in relationship to text is that often a text can be used as a case study to support the foundation of theories. When done thoroughly, von Franz’ theory rejects usurpation of content for the service of theory. The key difference is that it is an interpretation, not a diagnosis.   Cultural and structural perspectives may also be brought into the discussion and analysis.

At this point, it is important to distinguish between the different types of text. While critical theory has opened up the canon to embrace texts from diverse authorship and from innumerable types of media, von Franz’ method focuses exclusively on Fairy Tales. She argues, “Fairy tales are the purest and simplest expression of collective unconscious psychic processes. Therefore their value for the scientific investigation of the unconscious exceeds that of all other material” (1). Here, it is stressed that von Franz sees her strategy as a scientific method that is researched, observed, interpreted, and reassessed. While critical theory has been known to assert a similar function in structuralism, it is not always the goal. Typically, theorists strive to achieve new strategies of engagement and understanding and are welcomed to them by the endless flexibility of form and content. In focusing solely on fairy tales, von Franz has changed the conversation by isolating the form and content of the text to a set number of variations. The isolated environment is essential for the success of experimentation. When the text is opened up to infinite abstractions, it is difficult to observe the innately abstract nature of the unconscious. Similarly to dreams, fairy tales enable a specific context and allow the unconscious to be observed.

Another important distinction is raised in Walter Odajnyk’s article, “The Archetypal Interpretation of Fairy Tales: Bluebeard.”  In the introduction Odajnyk distinguishes between the “personalistic approach” and “archetypal interpretation.” Instead of representing human beings and their neuroses, fairy tales personify archetypes, which in turn are the language of the unconscious. The characters in a fairy tale behave “stereotypically and appear to have hardly any inner psychic life […] We may conclude, von Franz writes, that the characters in fairy tales represent archetypes, not human beings, and that the stories address transpersonal difficulties, developments, and dangers and not neurotic complications of an individual” (10). This statement is continued to assert that in the personalistic approach there is no healing potential. In archetypal interpretations the possibility of healing comes from recognizing the archetypal interactions that are unbalanced and then witnessing their realignment. Unconscious elements become conscious and the complex is understood within an attainable context. Just as von Franz narrows the scope of content and form to a contained continuum, so do fairy tales make the unconscious accessible.

In his article, Odajnyk argues “The ‘personalistic approach’ has become the dominant form of fairy-tale interpretation among Jungians and non-Jungians alike” (11). Why is the personalistic approach dominant and how does it nullify the healing potential? One way of observing these questions is to look at the experience of children engaging in fairy tales in comparison to adults and critical theory. As noted above, the challenge of critical theory is to enable engagement with a text. This engagement should lead to some revelation that relates to human experience. Through archetypal interpretation the psyche is engaged and the individual and (in the case of fairy tales) the community have a healing experience. In observing adults, it is difficult to distinguish what is archetypal engagement and what is critical processing, because everything is being processed by a mature intellect. In reading fairy tales, an adult may either interpret a fairy tale in relation to a critical theory, personal identification, or, ideally, an archetypal interpretation. However, a child does not have the context for critical theory, or the developed ego for complex identification. Therefore, the clarity and appeal of archetypes is made more visible. Though a child is not typically in need of the type of healing that an adult may need, the fairy tale serves as a method of emotional and psychological instruction. A recognition of unbalance between binaries such as good and evil, positive and negative, feminine and masculine, and light and dark is made. For the child, an early education in archetypal structures facilitates adult interpretations and healing. This education begins with simple imagist representations that are depicted in cartoon form, such as Pokemon and many Disney films, and then extends to more complex fantasy genre, such as the wizard tales of Harry Potter (J. K. Rowling, 1997), the vampire narratives of Twilight (Stephenie Meyer, 2005), and the numerous stories navigated through video games.

The archetypal nature of fairy tales makes them appealing to children and adults, and transcends cultural boundaries. Fairy tales may be engaged as a means of education, entertainment, and healing. However, they may also be activated within a critical context to explore theoretical and interpretive methods of perception. Personalistic approaches enable creative re-visionings and engagement in a variety of critical theorizing. However, it is important to distinguish between the projection of personal or cultural experience and the archetypal representation of the Self and World that may be recognized by engaging in archetypal interpretation.


Modern Fairy Tales: Archetype vs. Stereotype

June 19, 2009

Since 1923 The Walt Disney Company has been making animated films, building theme parks, and accessing all other forms of entertainment. Much of the Disney Company’s box office success has come from their re-visioning of fairytales into animated events. Typical childhood memories include Disney’s renditions of Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Pinocchio, and many others. Marie Louis Von Franz describes the position of fairy tales in society in the following statement from The Feminine in Fairy Tales:

Fairy tales express the creative fantasies of the rural and less educated layers of the population. They have the great advantage of being naïve (not “literary”) and of having been worked out in collective groups, with the result that they contain purely archetypal material unobscured by personal problems (1).

In short, Fairy Tales are organically grown with the creative material of a collective group. Though immensely popular, The Disney Company has also been subject to continued criticism by a variety of interest groups. From religion to gender, sexuality to animal rights, and pro-life to racism, Disney has been accused of promoting an agenda beyond simply making a profit.  Von Franz continues on to state:

Until about the seventeenth century, it was the adult population that was interested in fairy tales. Their allocation to the nursery is a late development, which probably has to do with the rejection of the irrational, and development of the rational outlook, so that they came to be regarded as nonsense and old wives’ tales and good enough for children (1).

Von Franz’ statement helps to clarify why so many parties other than children are interested in discussing, interacting, and engaging with the fairy tales depicted by the Disney Company. According to a recent New York Times article, “Her Prince Has Come. Critics, Too” written by Brooks Barnes, the latest Disney film is being received and questioned by the American public. Specifically, the article reveals and questions the hidden narratives and unconscious motives of both creator and audience, and how von Franz’ structural method of reading fairy tales can re-orient the imagination in new mythic and psychological ways.

“The Princess and the Frog” is due to be released in December 2009 and may be one of the studios’ last hand-drawn animated films since the company’s acquisition of Pixar in 2006.The basic plot of the film is described by ImDb as follows:

A fairy tale set in Jazz Age-era New Orleans and centered on young Princess Tiana, a frog prince who desperately wants to be human again, and a fateful kiss that leads them both on an adventure through the bayous of Louisiana. (ImDb)

Princess Tiana is Disney’s first African-American princess to grace the royal Disney court. Her suitor, Prince Naveen “hails from the fictional land of Maldonia and is voiced by a Brazilian actor; Disney says that he is not white.”  The film is being celebrated by some for its return to classic animation,  plurality of races, and imaginative use of classic fairy tales. One African-American mother applauds Disney’s efforts to add diversity, “I don’t know how important having a black princess is to little girls—my daughter loves Ariel and I see nothing wrong with that—but I think it’s important to moms.”  However, the film is also being severely criticized. In her article, Barnes interviewed a number of people regarding the film’s reception and shares their concerns with her readers, “Disney obviously doesn’t think a black man is worthy of the title of prince,” “The princess’ story is set in New Orleans, the setting of one of the most devastating tragedies to beset a black community,” and “We finally get a black princess and she spends the majority of her time on screen as a frog.”  Disney executives respond to this criticism by stating that “people should stop jumping to conclusions about [the film]. In regard to the development of the film, characters and plot one writer states “that the idea for a black princess came about organically. The producers wanted to create a fairy tale set in the US and centered on New Orleans, with its colorful past and deep musical history. ‘As we spent time in New Orleans, we realized how truly it is a melting pot, which is how the idea of strongly multicultural characters came about.’”

The critical debate that is surrounding “The Princess and the Frog” reveals that the issue of race, mixed races, and class are issues with which Disney viewers are engaged. Over the years Disney has been accused of perpetuating stereotypes, and it is currently argued that this film is continuing to do so. Which leads us to ask, what is the difference between a stereotype and an archetype? A stereotype is defined as a “widely held but fixed and over-simplified image of a particular type of person or thing.”  In Interpretation of Fairy Tale,s Von Franz explains that fairy tales “represent the archetypes in their simplest, barest and most concise form. In this pure form, the archetypal images afford us the best clues to the understanding of the processes going on in the collective psyche” (1). Clearly, it is the perception of the receiver that recognizes an archetype rather than a stereotype. Disney’s ability to become successful has been in its ability to negotiate the boundary between fairy tale as archetypal art, and bigotry. The question is whether it will be able to continue to do so within the current cultural climate.

In her books, von Franz outlines her psychological method of re-orienting the imagination in new ways in order to perceive a phenomenon in a more mythically attuned manner, rather than in a purely reactionary one. She explains that there are many different ways of looking at a fairy tale including literally, ethnically, archeologically, mythologically, and historically. However, she also adds that, “If you start with the world tree, you can easily prove that every mythological motif leads to the world tree in the end” (7). Likewise, if you begin to look at the new Disney film for signs of racism, sexism, or class-ism, then you will find support for your argument. By doing so “you just get lost in the chaos of interconnections and overlapping of meanings which all archetypal images have with one another.” To avoid the chaos, confusion, and deterioration of seeing, von Franz suggests looking at the fairy tale through the four functions of consciousness, thinking, feeling, sensation, and intuition. By developing these four perspectives, interpretation becomes more engaging and colorful (11).  In reading the criticism and counter-criticism of  “The Frog and the Princess,” it is clear that while the creators were using an intellectual or thinking lens, many African-Americans are responding from a feeling perspective and creating a hierarchy of values. An additional complication for the existing interpretations is that only a short preview of the movie exists. This preview could be considered a sensate interpretation in that it just looks at the symbols of the film and amplifies them into a generalized conception of plot, conflict, and personified ideas. For the film to be a success, it must be viewed as a whole and interpreted intuitively by synthesizing all the different perspectives. If the writers and producers did their job well, then there will be substantial content to sustain a plethora of perspectives. If they did not do their job thoroughly, then the film will tend toward stereotypes and succumb to criticism.

© 2009 Cerena Ceaser