Authenticity and folklore

In his comment on my review of Once Upon a Time, Calmgrove zeroed in on one of author Max Luthi’s key concepts, that fairytales show us “man’s deliverance from an inauthentic existence and his commencement of a true one.” Luthi gives us story examples: “a penniless wretch becomes wealthy, a maid becomes queen…or a toad, bear, ape, or dog is transformed into a beautiful maiden or handsome youth.”

What can we make of such a statement in terms of our own lives? Is there anything we can learn from stories of toads and bears transformed?

Rumpelstiltskin by Henry Justice Ford, 1889. Public domain.

In trying to answer the question, our first hurdle is trying to figure out what an “authentic existence” might look like, a philosophical exercise right up there with defining “the true,” “the good,” or “the beautiful.” When I try to imagine “authentic” in our world, one of the first things that comes to mind is Crazy People, 1990, a movie in which Dudley Moore, as an advertising executive, is checked into an insane asylum after he suffers a nervous breakdown and begins writing truthful adds.

Truth in advertising wins Dudley Moore a straight-jacket in “Crazy People,” 1990

Fairytales mirror philosophy and religion in their concern with lives well lived, but they are much less precise in prescribing what to aim for and how to proceed. When someone achieves their happy destiny, we see outer events representing that highest good, like a royal wedding or the discovery of buried treasure, but what works for one hero or heroine may not work for others.

This observation offers a segue into the first of several attribute that fairytale heroes and heroines seem to share – they chart their own course. In Luthi’s terms, they are “wanderers” who “set forth into the unknown in search of the highest, the most beautiful, or the most valuable thing.” Most often, but not always, it is male characters who cover the greatest outer distance, but in Faerie, the unknown waits outside your door. Cinderella’s journey begins with a solitary trip every day to weep at her mother’s grave. The smallest step into the forest is fraught with danger for one who goes their own way, whether the goal is the end of the world or the prince’s ballroom.

Arthur Rackham illustration from “The White Snake”

A second attribute of successful folklore characters is kindness, at least for those creatures who turn up with guidance for the quest. It is not the kind of universal compassion espoused by religion, but is more practical and down to earth. Cinderella is kind to birds, and they always assist her, but she makes no objection when they later peck out the stepsisters’ eyes. The hero of “The White Snake,” who learns the speech of animals, goes out of his way to help ants, fish, and ravens, who will later save his life, but he doesn’t hesitate to sacrifice his horse when events demand it.

According to Max Luthi, the fairy tale character’s estrangement from conventional social relations allows him or her to connect with help from unexpected quarters, with toads or foxes, crones or dwarves. Luthi often distances himself from Jungian interpretation, but not in the case of fairytale helpers. They can be viewed,not only as outer creatures, but “as forces within the soul of the individual which are at first in need of assistance but finally unfold and develop.”

A third attribute of folktale heroes and heroines is patience. Things take a long time to unfold. In the Grimm brothers version, Cinderella has no fairy godmother. Instead she plants a hazel twig on her mother’s grave and waters it with her tears every day until it is grown. Only then do the tree and the dove that lives in its branches grant her wishes. In “The Devil’s Sooty Brother,” a former soldier works in the devil’s kitchen for seven years, forbidden to bathe, cut his hair, his beard, or his fingernails, or wipe the tears from his eyes.

“Kitchen work,” as Robert Bly calls it, applies to both men and women in fairytales. In Iron John, he wrote, “The way down and out doesn’t require poverty, homelessness, physical deprivation, dishwasher work, necessarily, but it does seem to require a fall from status, from a human being to a spider, from a middle-class person to a derelict. The emphasis is on the consciousness of the fall.”

Fairy tale time, as both Luthi and Bly point out, is not literal time. Seven years in the kitchen might equate to several decades for the writer who has to make a living by some other means. Yet in all the stories, this tempering process is essential. Shortcuts don’t work. After seven years, even the devil is forced to keep his bargain.

Arthur Rackham, “The Goose Girl”

When I was young, I assumed the signs of an “authentic life” were visible – at a minimum, bohemian trappings were required. Now I know that such plumage is far too easy.

The courage to go one’s own way, to keep one’s own council. To be kind to the odd and despised parts of oneself and to give them a hearing. The poise and patience to allow events to unfold at their own pace rather than try to push the river. Fairy tale heroes and heroines champion themselves and their deepest desires. Their stories lead us to wonder what would happen if we follow their example. What do their footsteps look like in the 21st century?

Once Upon a Time: On the Nature of Fairy Tales by Max Luthi

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.