Wishfulfillment and Symbolism in Fairy Tales/Chapter I

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In psychiatry and the related sciences there has lately broken out a struggle for and against the Freudian theories. I count myself fortunate to be able, by means of such beautiful, inviting material as fairy tales, to bear a weapon in this conflict.

An accident, in which a chain of causes culminated in a careful examination of the Freudian mechanisms (the foundation works of this investigator have naturally become of the greatest importance for the proposed work) led me, through working with fairy tales, to go forth out of the realm of clinical psychiatry and tread ground that was formerly not especially known to me but where I soon felt myself at home. For the psychology of fairy tales, as we have learned to know through Freud, stands in close relationship to the world of dreams, of hysteria, and of mental disease. My excursion into this territory was fraught with certain difficulties all of which I could not overcome and which prevented me at first from getting anything conclusive from my researches. The material is too great for a novice to be able to fathom it in all directions in a short time, so I was provisionally constrained to take my examples from only a portion of the known collections of fairy tales. The greatest difficulty was due to my philological and my historical shortcomings. With a broader philological knowledge more could be gained from the same material. I have for example, an impression, that in the Germanic mythology many documents lie buried that to me were simply inaccessible.

However, that is not an absolute obstacle. One is entitled to examine the separate tales as final in themselves for when, in a given instance, the work of interpretation is successful and the symbols are explained, each tale is dealt with as a complete theme in itself. Some render, apparently unaltered, old myths, which we analyze with success as psychological wholes. Others contain and utilize only fragments of myths as material for a new one that again is complete in itself. These mythological fragments have been followed up actively but the full significance of these tales has not been grasped nor exhausted. Psychological analysis by the use of Freud's methods and results was the first to accomplish this. This is successful, for the fairy tales are inventions of the directly utilized, immediately conceived experiences of the primitive human soul and the general human tendency to wishfulfillment, which we find again in modern fiction only somewhat more complicated and garbed in different forms. Thus we come to examine and interpret fairy tales and myths not only along astronomical and abstract lines but primarily in accordance with their deeper psychological trends.

Anyhow I arrived at the pleasing and important conclusion, that for my work, it was not necessary for the investigation of fairy tales, in a psychological sense, to know their historical pedigree first. In fact this is often impossible. I found in the introduction to "Sammlung Neuisländischer Volksmärchen" by Frau Dr. Rittershaus[2] the following, for me, not a philologist, consoling conclusion: that the Icelandic fairy tales are found step by step in agreement with the German folk tales; that they, in part at least, are common Germanic property, but that, especially, the theory that all European fairy tales sprang from India is incorrect. Many facts establish, how a whole mass of fairy tales, especially in Iceland, are indigenous, autocthonous, that in certain ones a later immigration is demonstrable; that the great majority of fairy tales have probably arisen at different places and at different, indeterminable times; that it is impossible, to locate the home of the folk tales, as little as it has been possible to trace them all back to one hazy Aryan myth.

And Stoll ("Suggestion und Hypnotismus in der Völkerpsychologie," II. Auflage, Leipzig, 1904) shows in different places, how suggestive and autohypnotic actions, procedures and views of the same sort occur among peoples who are not closely related one with one another either geographically or historically or through descent. Only the psychic foundation is everywhere the same.

Finally my work itself proves to me that the human psyche produces at all times and in all places suggestive and hypnotic phenomena, produces universally, just as general, for example, a symbolism, which is chiefly constructed from the unconscious and which is found in fairy tales as a primitive poetic production, and again in the dream and in psychopathology.

Now certainly the scientific method in the psychological exploration of fairy tales is circumscribed by the investigation of dreams and of psychotic structures. Here, through many experiments, one can follow the sources and association paths which the elements in the formation of the dream story or the delusional structure have supplied. One can compel the psyche, through such wider information, to affirm or deny its meaning. The creator of these fairy stories in his traditional form is dead or unknown to us. We have, therefore, on the one hand, to refer to the comparison of existing documents in order to get at the correct interpretation; on the other hand, however, the human psyche in the dream and in conditions in which the unconscious is especially active, and also in abnormal psychic activity, is always still a fairy poetess, and a continued comparison of these products with the fairy tales permits us to draw the most valuable conclusions.

It is surprising how great a role the sexual plays in fairy tales and how great is the agreement of the sexual symbolism with that of dreams and psychopathology. When one realizes and admits, however, that the sexuality, besides hunger and the social factors, plays a leading role in life and constantly influences our thoughts and actions from youth up (for the sexuality develops, like everything else, from an infantile form to a full, many sided structure) then it does not appear in any way surprising, although the fairy tales appear to us in a new, less childlike garb. They lose on that account nothing of their charm and power of attraction.


  1. Wünscherfüllung und Symbolik im Märchen. Schriften zur angewandten Seelenkunde. No. 2. (Deuticke, Vienna.)
  2. Halle a. S., Max Niemeyer, 1902.