Fairytales for Midlife

Joseph Campbell’s groundbreaking series, “The Power of Myth,” broadcast on PBS in 1988, sparked a tremendous interest in myth and folklore.  A number of fine studies followed during the next few years.  One of my favorites was a series of books on fairytales by Allan B. Chinen, a San Francisco psychiatrist.  In his second book, Once Upon a Midlife, 1992, Chinen discusses stories about the problems and tasks that face us in middle age, “when the Prince goes bald and the Princess has a midlife crisis.”

once upon a midlife

Of the 5,000 fairytales from around the world that Chinen reviewed, 90% were “youth tales,” aimed at young people trying to find their place in the world.  The protagonists leave home, struggle to find their courage, fall love, find a treasure, and come into their kingdom or find a job.  Chinen calls the other 10%, “middle tales.”  The focus is middle-aged men and women, “juggling the demands of family and work, grappling with self-doubt and disillusionment, and ultimately finding deep new meaning in life.”

Allan Chinen

The first of the middle tale themes Chinen explores is “the loss of magic,” embodied in the German tale of “The Elves and the Shoemaker.”  Youthful protagonists thrive when they locate a source of magic; they lose it only if they are mean or greedy.  In middle tales, the magic fades in the course of living.  At some point, we realize we’re not going to write the Great American Novel; we don’t have an unlimited number of do-overs left; we don’t have the skill or the energy to realize all of our youthful dreams.  What is left?  If we listen to the stories, Chinen says, we begin to see other roads between the extremes of naiveté and despair, roads that leads toward renewal.

The next theme is “reversals,” often involving men and women dropping traditional gender roles.  The headline in this week’s newspaper Arts & Entertainment section was, “The Era of the Empowered Princess.”  That may be the theme in Hollywood, but not in traditional “youth tales.”  Where the emphasis is socialization, stories all over the world  praise traditional roles.  Things change in middle tales.  Men sometimes say, “To hell with work,” or quit the army, while women grow more assertive and often save the day, as in “The Wife Who Became King,” a story from China.

The third middle tale theme is a new awareness of death and evil.  Youth stories don’t dwell on either one; bad things happen to others, “out there.”  Dragons die, bad sorcerers die, and sometimes evil step-mothers, but never the hero or heroine, and neither of them are evil.  In middle tales mortality gets personal.  Evil gets personal too; no longer does it simply lie “out there.”  The expansiveness of youth gives way to the psyche’s need for wholeness, which means we have to “confront the shadow,” the darkness we carry within.  The best stories, honed by generations of telling, lead us to realizations by the path of wisdom and by the path of humor.  In “The Tell Tale,” a Japanese story, a woodcutter spies his wife in the arms of a pawnbroker.  At first he is seized by a murderous rage.  Rather than kill his wife and her lover, he concocts a ridiculous story and uses it to trick his wife, humiliate the pawnbroker, and makes enough money to live with his wife in comfort – and fidelity – for the rest of their days.  There is far more of the trickster than the knight-in-shining-armor in these stories.

The final middle tale theme in Once Upon a Midlife is renewal, which in these stories, most often involves descent to the underworld.

“Stripped of all their defenses, individuals come face-to-face with the core of their being.  There they find a primordial source of life, beyond conventional notions of good and evil, male and female.  Whether understood as the inner Self, or God, or the life force, this primal source helps men and women reforge their lives…[they] emerge from their suffering with deep healing – and the ability to heal others.”

To anyone interested in the interpretation of folklore, I recommend this page which lists all of Allan Chinen’s books.

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