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An article on the continuing relevance of fairy tales concluded that the main characters ‘all lived happily ever after’.[1] Many of the fairy tales we know came from Charles Perrault's Les Contes de ma Mère l'Oye (Tales of my Mother Goose), published in Paris in 1697 when Perrault was almost 70. Perrault's version of Little Red Riding Hood concluded with our heroine being eaten by the wolf. Only more recent versions have given the story a Hollywood ending. Charles Dickens said ‘Little Red Riding Hood was my first love’, so for Dickens at least the story had romantic connotations.

The Brothers Grimm published their seven editions of Children's Stories and Household Tales over 100 years later, between 1812 and 1857. The brothers were born a year apart and their father died when they were 10. They lived like twins and worked all their lives at adjoining desks. Although their tales were supposedly based on German folk culture, they took some stories from Perrault, including Snow White and Hansel and Gretel.[2] The Grimms were not averse to describing violence graphically. They heard two different endings to The Frog Prince. In one, the princess kisses the frog that turns into a prince. In the other, his transformation comes when she throws the frog against the wall in disgust. They chose to use the latter. Not for nothing are they called the Brothers Grimm.

What is the attraction of these endlessly gruesome fairy tales for children and of cautionary tales such as Struwwelpeter (see Figs 1, 2) that can be equally shocking? Why do children love to scare themselves by rereading them? Psychoanalytic interpretations shed some interesting light and offer explanations, which may resonate to varying degrees with readers (Fig. 3). Although it is customary to denigrate psychoanalysis, these ideas merit consideration. Freud's biographer, Ernest Jones, felt the persistent savagery in folk tales that represent expressions of the unconscious mind and in particular the ‘jealous and hostile attitudes inherent in the family relationship.’[3] Boys compete with their fathers for their mother's love and then fear retribution. Girls compete with their mothers for their father's love. Animals and birds in fairy tales often represent family members, Jones says, usually parents and less often brothers and sisters.[3] Indeed, in Grimms' tales of The Twelve Brothers and The Seven Ravens, this is explicitly stated. Giants represent grown-ups and Jones emphasises the sexual significance of dwarfs and jesters.[3] One may scoff that everything has sexual significance for psychoanalysts, but the sexual nature of Rumpelstiltskin is implicit in the story and one suggested meaning of his obscure name is ‘wrinkled foreskin’. Many tales have been modified because the originals were too confronting. The Grimms may have loved violence but they found sex and family strife threatening. The wicked stepmothers so common in Grimms' tales were originally biological mothers. The tale The Girl Without Hands was originally about an incestuous father, whom the Grimms changed into the Devil.[2] In Donkey-Skin by Perrault, the King has an unrestrained passion for his own daughter.[3] Fairy tales described child sexual abuse long before paediatricians acknowledged its existence.

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Figure 1. Conrad is cured of sucking his thumb permanently in Struwwelpeter by Heinrich Hoffmann (1845). Drawing by Fritz Kredel.

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Figure 2. Harriet plays with matches once too often in Struwwelpeter by Heinrich Hoffmann (1845). Drawing by Fritz Kredel.

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Figure 3. Modern interpretation of LittleRedRidingHood by Henry Kilham.

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For Jones, and later for Bruno Bettelheim,[4] fairy tales give conscious expression to complex, unconscious, infantile fantasies about sexual wishes, anger, guilt and fear of punishment within the family. It is unacceptable to consciousness for these to be explicit so they are expressed symbolically. The richness of fairy tales comes from their images and symbols, which are open to interpretation. Some psychoanalytic interpretations seem forced, others resonate. For both Jones and Bettelheim, the frog in The Frog Prince represents the penis, and the story is about a girl overcoming her initial aversion to the male organ.[3, 4] As evidence of the sexual significance of Cinderella's slipper, Jones reminds us of the tradition of throwing an old slipper or shoe after newly-weds, crying to the husband, ‘May you fit her as well as my foot fits this shoe’.[3] Psychoanalytic interpretations certainly attempt to explain the attraction and longevity of fairy stories. Bettelheim says that fairy stories represent in imaginative form the process of healthy human development and make great and positive contributions to the child's inner growth.

Bettelheim did not like illustrated fairy stories, preferring children to develop their own visual images, what he called imaginative autonomy. However, some stories, such as Struwwelpeter, are memorable as much for their illustrations as their content. Whether or not you prefer illustrated texts, fairy tales are wonderfully rich stories that capture some of our cultural heritage and that have stimulated children's imaginations for centuries. Some of the power of these stories may be that they help children confront and come to terms with their own sexual and aggressive thoughts and feelings. Recognising the psychological basis of the power of these fables and stories should not detract from their magic.

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