Why do fairytales continue to fascinate? Why do we think of Red Riding Hood when we find ourselves alone in the woods or even a city park? Why does Hollywood still reap profit from retelling the old stories? Why do they move us so deeply?
On the Nature of Fairy Tales by Max Luthi (1909-1991) is a wonderful place to begin to look under the surface of these deceptively simple tales. The eleven essays gathered in this book explore different features of fairytales such as structure, symbolism, and meaning. Luthi views the tales as a unique literary genre. He knew and referred to the major schools of folklore research – the sociological, the psychological, and the comparative historical approaches – but he always returned to the stories themselves. The meanings he found there were more than enough.
Fairytales have “a crispness and precision” in part, according to Luthi, because they eliminate most descriptions. We hear of a dark forest, a cottage, a witch, but any and all details come from our own imagination. In a similar way, there is no real character development. “The fairy tale is not concerned with individual destinies,” but this lends the tales a universal meaning. The prince or princess stands for all of us, “as an image of the human spirit.”
At its core, the fairytale is about our “deliverance from an unauthentic existence and [the] commencement of a true one.” Prince or princess, goose girl or goatherd, all have lost their way. Their radiance, which is our radiance, is hidden. The kitchen lad wears a hat to hide his golden hair.
Sometimes the hero or heroine sets off into the forest alone. Sometimes they sit and weep. “Crying, the sign of helplessness, summons assistance – again a feature recurring in innumerable fairy tales. Precisely as an outcast can man hope to find help.” The caveat is that one must be kind and compassionate to all living creatures in order to find the right kind of help at the right time. Even ants will repay a kindness that can save the hero’s life.
Luthi quotes Mircea Eliade who said that fairytale listeners experience an “initiation in the sphere of imagination.” In Luthi’s view, fairytales echo the truths of the great spiritual traditions – both we and the world are far more than what we seem.