Wishfulfillment and Symbolism in Fairy Tales/Chapter III

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The Wish Structure of the Fairy Tale. Fairy Tales as Wish Structures

There are countless fairy tales which when submitted to analysis and taken as a whole are found to represent the most splendid wish structures. Innumerable fairy tales, as well as myths and legends, tell us about magic gifts, objects and qualities, which the human wish-phantasy has created.

In the "Bekenntnissen einer schönen Seele" (Goethe, Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, Book VI) this conception of the fairy tales is very beautifully presented:

"What would I not have given to possess a creature that played a very important role in one of my aunt's fairy tales. It was a little lamb that had come to a peasant maid in the woods and had been fed; but in this pretty little animal there was an enchanted prince, who finally appeared again as a beautiful young man and rewarded his benefactress by his hand. Such a lamb I would have loved to possess." The story of the "Nun of the Temple of Armida" gives us an opportunity to enter upon a group of fairy tales of which the story of "The Little Tear Jug" serves as a good example.[1]

Three days and nights a mother watched, cried and prayed at the sick bed of her only beloved child without whom she could not live. The child died. The mother was seized with a nameless pain, she did not eat or drink and wept three long days and nights without ceasing and cried out after the child. Then the door softly opened and before her stood her dead child who (in the present wording of the tale) had become a holy angel and smiled in glory. He carried in his hands a little jug that was almost running over. He said: "O dear little mother, weep no more for me! See! in this jug are your tears which you have shed for me. One more and the little jug will overflow and then I will no longer have any rest in the grave or any blessedness in heaven. Then weep no more, for your child has been raised on high and angels are his playmates." With that he disappeared and his mother wept no more tears so as not to disturb her child's rest in the grave or his joy in heaven.

If we take the motive here in "The Little Tear Jug" and in the Japanese story of "The Nun of the Temple of Armida" which appears as magic, in its psychological significance, so we have a teleological structure that is equivalent in its psychic healing tendency to the other wish structures. This fairy tale might just as well be the true narrative of a dream experienced by a person in the circumstances described which led to the stilling of their sorrow and to rest.

Now it is not only in regard to single events, but this healing agent has come to be a general, psychic purposeful belief that the dead as a result of excessive grief are disturbed in their rest. That is not a therapy for the dead but for the living. The same belief is expressed in the words of the spirit of the dead child who by autosuggestion has entered the Japanese priest and attains in the good O-Toyo the wished-for object. And does not the Christian belief, that the dead children all go to heaven, work quite the same way?

The same motive in a somewhat different setting is treated in another fairy tale, "The Shroud" (Grimm).

The mother wept after the death of her little boy. Soon after the child appeared at night in the place where it had eaten and played during life; the mother cried and so did the child and then disappeared at morning. As the mother would not cease weeping it came in the night in its little white shroud, sat at the foot of her bed and said: "O mother, stop crying or I cannot rest in my grave for my shroud is wet with the tears which fall on it." As she heard this the mother was frightened and cried no more. The next night the child came again holding a little light in his hand and showed that now as his shroud was dry he could rest in his grave. Then the mother commended herself to God in her grief and bore it quietly and patiently[2] and the child did not return but slept in his bed under the ground.

The hallucinations whose sudden appearance, for example, stays the hand of the would-be suicide often belong in the domain of the teleological defense mechanisms, indeed not only as cures for psychic wounds but as protection against danger.

We turn to numberless wish structures occurring in fairy tales—also in mythology, legends, beliefs in magic, etc.—which may be pointed out with little difficulty to correspond, in part most naïvely, to human wishes created from our insufficiencies, this is one side of their significance at least. (Probably they have still another, erotic side.)

In itself it is not striking that the fairy tale should concern itself so much about kings; the matter acquires a wish coloring, however, as soon as we consider many fairy tales in which the poor peasant maid marries a prince and the shepherd boy a princess. Those are wish structures!

A whole mass of means serve for the betterment of human deficiencies. Seven league boots for Hop o' my Thumb, strength giving belts, gloves, drinks; to the wish to be able to fly correspond cloaks and enchanted birds as means of transport; a little bed, with which one may be carried everywhere one wishes; or one is changed directly into a bird; the desire to eat is fulfilled by "little table set yourself." Magic hoods and stones serve to help against persecution or then magic combs that turn into forests, magic handkerchiefs that interpose a great body of water between the pursued and the pursuer, etc. Riches are acquired through the gold-shedding mule, or by vanquishing giants by magic means. There are tubes and magic mirrors to enable one to see and to know everything that goes on over the whole world. There are magic wands for turning living or lifeless beings into what one wishes and not the least in order to injure one's enemies. There are means to look into the future and to attain one's wishes, apples of life and water of life for rejuvenation and the preservation of this otherwise all too short existence.

This enumeration is naturally quite incomplete; it contains only examples. A more detailed citation is probably superfluous as in every collection of fairy tales examples may be found without much difficulty and mythology contains numerous proofs.

Two great groups of fairy tales show, for example, in their present completed form a distinct wish formation, namely the so-called stepmother tales, and the fairy tales in which the mentally or physically, weak- and feeble-minded are the heroes.

If we take these fairy tales as such they must be conceived at once as wish dreams or other corresponding wish structures of the rejected maidens or the simpletons. A similar relation can be worked out as with the motive of "The Little Tear Jug." What can be for the individual a healing, wish-fulfilling surrogate for reality, can also be generalized as a wish product of a whole set of people, of an entire category of people living under the same conditions, in which connection the appropriateness is not as important as the psychological tendency to think in the sense of the wish.

Is it otherwise with our poets? Think, for example, of Gottfried Keller as mentioned by Bleuler.

We have seen that it is precisely those who have been disappointed in their social or in their love relations who put wish structures into their poetry.

Later we will see that the stepmother fairy tales are only a special group of tales with sexual wish fulfillment. The stepmother (in other fairy tales the corresponding rôle is generally played by a giantess or a witch, the stepmother is thus also in this relation a special case) is the enemy, the marplot in the sexual wish structure, who is vanquished. In many fairy tales she herself, in others her daughter, is the sexual rival. The first category shows, still clearer than the latter, her rôle in the fairy tale wish structure. (A further interpretation of the figure of the stepmother will be noted further on.)

In the oriental fairy tales the stepmother perhaps cannot play this rôle because the relation in the sexual domain is otherwise than with us.

"Cinderella" with its variations serves best as an example of a stepmother fairy tale; also "Dame Holle" (Grimm, No. 24). An Icelandic Cinderella, where the stepmother is relatively secondary, we find in Rittershaus,[3] No. 66, with parallels to this theme. There is also a sexual symbolism contained in it (dog, fire, giant, burning the giant's skin), to which we will later return.

A peasant pair had three daughters, Ingibjörg, Sigridur and Helga. While the two older sisters were treated as princesses the youngest had to do all the work and never received a good word for it. Once the fire in the cottage had gone out and as it was feared that Helga perhaps would embrace the opportunity to run away from the house Ingibjörg was sent forth to bring in some fire from somewhere. As she came by a hill on her way she heard spoken from inside "would you rather have me for you or against you?" She said that that was a matter of indifference to her and went on. Now she came to a great cave. In it meat was cooking over a mighty fire and nearby stood a pot of dough. She stirred the fire up and as the meat was nearly done she baked a good cake for herself from the dough and let the rest burn. Then she sat down and ate with a good relish. As she was eating an immense dog came in and sprang at her with wagging tail. Angrily she turned away from him but at the same moment he bit off her hand. Now she ran back to the house, without thinking of the fire, and related her mishap. With the second sister Sigridur it went no better, only that the dog instead of biting off her hand bit off her nose. Finally Helga must be dispatched to bring the fire. As she came to the hill the same question was put to her. She answered, however, quite differently from her sisters that nothing was so mean or insignificant that one would not wish to have it for rather than against one. In the cave Helga carefully cooked the meat and baked the cakes but did not take a bite herself. Tired and hungry she sat down to await the owner of the cave. After a time there were great crashes of thunder and a giant entered the cave followed by a great dog. He quieted the frightened maiden with friendly words. They sat down for the evening meal and then he let her choose whether she would sleep with him or his dog. Helga preferred the latter. After a while there came such a thunder clap that the cave trembled. The giant suggested to her, if she were afraid, to lay on the step near his bed. She gladly followed this suggestion. Still more awful thunder claps made her draw still nearer to the giant until finally she crept over him into his bed. At the same moment the giant's skin fell off and beside her lay a wonderfully beautiful prince. Helga quickly burned the skin and the young man thankfully greeted her as his deliverer. The next morning he related to her the story of his life. He promised soon to take her from her parents' house and lead her as queen into his kingdom. On leaving her he gave her a splendid cloak that she could wear home under her rags. Then he presented her with a casket with all sorts of precious things and two rich dresses. These gifts she must not hide in spite of the fact that at home they would be taken from her. Also the dog gave her with his paw on leaving, a gold ring, and now she turned back with all her treasure and the fire to her home. Here she was treated worse than before and robbed of all her presents. After some time a beautiful ship came and anchored nearby. The owner of the ship inquired curiously of the peasant about his affairs and asked finally whether he had daughters. The peasant said he only had two and called the two oldest. They came in the clothes stolen from their sister, however, one hid her hand and the other had a cloth bound about her nose. The newcomer inquired curiously for the reason of this covering up until their mutilation was made plain. Now the peasant had to, in spite of all his opposition, bring in his youngest daughter. She appeared in her rags but when the stranger tore them from her she was clothed in a splendid cloak. The dresses and the costly articles stolen from Helga were taken away from the sisters and the prince went forth with his bride to his kingdom.

In this fairy tale there is hidden a rich symbolism with the interpretation of which we will busy ourselves later.

I might mention now two beautiful, typical, Russian fairy tales with the same motive: "The Frost" and the "Desert Story."[4]

The Frost.—Once upon a time there was an old man and an old woman who had three daughters. The wife could not bear the oldest for she was her stepdaughter. She quarreled with her, awoke her earlier and gave her all the work. She had to water and feed the cattle, carry the wood and the water, heat the oven and mend the clothes. She had always to sweep the cottage and put it to rights before daybreak. The old woman was however, in spite of this, always dissatisfied and faultfinding. "How lazy and disorderly, the broom is not in its place, this and that are wrong and the house is dirty."

The poor girl wept and was silent, she sought in every way to try to please her stepmother and to be helpful to her daughters. The daughters, however, acted just like the mother, they vexed Marfuschka, quarreled with her and when she wept they were pleased. They got up late, washed in water that was all ready for them, dried themselves with clean towels and did their first work in going to eat.

So the daughters grew up and reached an age to marry. The old man was sorry for his daughter; he loved her, because she was dutiful and industrious: she was never wilful, she always did what she was told without a word of objection. He could not, however, help the difficulties, he was weak, the old woman quarrelsome and the daughters lazy and stubborn.

The old folks considered: he, how the daughters could be married and she, how the oldest one could be gotten rid of. One day the old woman said to him: "Old man, we will marry Marfuschka."

"Good," said he, and went to bed on his stove. The old woman followed him and said: "Get up early in the morning, hitch up the horse to the wooden sled and take Marfuschka along. You, Marfuschka, get together your possessions in a basket, put on a clean skirt, for tomorrow you are going on a visit."

The good Marfuschka was rejoiced over her luck and slept sweetly all night. Early in the morning she arose, washed herself, prayed, packed up everything carefully, and dressed herself. She was as beautiful as a little bride.

It was winter and grim Frost reigned. Before sunrise the old man was up, he hitched up the horse to the sled and drove to the front of the house. He went inside, sat down on the bench and said: "Now I have everything ready."

"Sit down at the table and eat," said the old woman.

The bread basket stood on the table and he took a piece of bread from it that he shared with his daughter. The stepmother in the meantime brought some stale soup and said: "Now, little dear, eat and away with you, I have had to put up with you long enough! Old man, lead Marfuschka to her bridegroom, however, look out on the way, old fool, first go down the straight street and then turn to the right into the woods—do you know, right by the big pine, which stands on the hill, there deliver Marfuschka over to the Frost."

The old man opened his eyes and his mouth, stopped chewing, and the girl cried.

"What are you making such a fuss about! The bridegroom is beautiful and rich! Only think how many possessions he has: All the firs and pines glisten and the birches are all feathery. There is scarcely a more magnificent life and he himself is a mighty hero." The old man silently gathered all her belongings, ordered his daughter to put on her sheep skins and started on the way. He finally came to the pine, and turned from the road just as the snow began to fall. In the solitude the old man stopped, ordered his daughter to get out, set her basket under an immense pine and said: "Sit here, await the bridegroom and receive him pleasantly."

Then he turned his horse about and went back home. The little girl sat there and trembled, the cold benumbed her. She wanted to cry but she only had strength to shut her teeth tightly together. Suddenly she heard in the distance the Frost making a fir creek; he sprang crackling from fir to fir. Finally he was high overhead on the pine under which the little girl sat and he asked: "Little girl, are you warm?"

"Yes, father Frost!"

The Frost came down nearer, creeking and crackling still more than before: "Little girl tell me, beautiful girl, are you warm?"

The little girl had almost lost her breath but she still said: "I am warm father Frost."

Then the Frost creeked and crackled still more: "Are you warm little girl, are you warm beautiful child, are you warm my darling?"

The little girl was almost frozen and answered hardly audibly: "Warm, little father."

Then the Frost had pity and wrapped up the little maid in furs and warm coverings.

In the morning the old woman said to her husband: "Go, old fool, and awaken the young pair."

The old man hitched the horse to the sleigh and went to his daughter. He found her alive wrapped up in beautiful furs with a silk neckcloth and beautiful presents lay in her basket. Without saying a word the old man put everything in the sleigh, got in with his daughter and went back home. There the little maid threw herself at the feet of her stepmother.

The old woman wondered very much when she saw the girl living and saw the new furs and the basket full of linen. "Eh, you can't fool me!" said she.

After a few days the old woman said: "Take my daughters to the bridegroom, he will give them still better presents." In the morning the old woman awoke her daughters, dressed them, as if she were sending them to their wedding and sent them forth. The old man took the same way and left the maids by the same pine. They sat down and laughed. "What occurred to mother to marry us so suddenly? As if there were not fellows enough in the Village! Who knows, what sort of a devil comes here!" The girls had great furs on but in spite of that the cold stung them.

"Paracha, the Frost runs over my skin, if the chosen one does not come soon we will freeze." "Nonsense Mascha, since when do bridegrooms come so early, it is only breakfast time." "Paracha! if he comes now who will he take?" "Not you, you goose." "You perhaps?" "Certainly." "Don't laugh." The Frost nipped the maids' hands. They put their hands in their furs and began again: "You sleepy child, you bad nuisance, you scold. You cannot spin and you never think of praying." "Oh, you boaster, what can you do then? In the spinning room you hang around and prattle. Wait and see who he takes." So the little maids quarreled and froze. "Why you are getting blue!" said they together. Far away the Frost crackled and snapped and sprang from fir to fir. To the maids it appeared as if some one was coming. "Ho, Paracha! he is coming; his bells are jingling." "Go on fool, the Frost is making me shake." "But will you still marry?" They blew on their fingers. The Frost came nearer and nearer, finally he alighted on the pine over the maids. "Are you warm little maids, are you warm beautiful little doves?"

"Oh Frost it is so cold. We are nearly frozen. We are waiting for the bridegroom and the devil does not come."

The Frost came down lower and crackled and snapped still more: "Are you warm little maids, are you warm my beautiful ones?" "Go to the devil! Are you blind, our hands and feet are already frozen off." Then the Frost came still further down, stung hard and asked: "Little maids are you warm?" "Go to the devil and rot, cursed one!" Then the maids were benumbed. In the morning the old woman said to her husband: "Harness up, put hay and warm coverings in the sleigh for the girls will be cold. There is a strong wind outside! Be quick old fool!" The old man hardly allowed himself time for breakfast and went forth. When he came to his little daughters they were dead. He put them in the sleigh, wrapped them up in the rugs, laid the hay over them and turned homeward. The old woman saw him coming from a distance, and went out to meet him: "Where are the children?" "In the sleigh." The old woman put the hay aside, took off the rugs, and found the children dead. Then she set upon the old man like a tempest and abused him. "What have you done with my daughters? You old hound! My own, my sweet buds, my rosy berries! I will beat you with the broom stick, I will beat you with the poker!" "Be quiet old witch. You tried to get riches but your daughters were obstinate. I am not guilty, you did it yourself!" The old woman was angry and kept on wrangling, but later reconciled herself with the stepdaughter and so lived a good and considerate life and no longer thought evil. A neighbor came and wooed and married Marfuschka. Things went well with her. The old man took the grandchildren under his care, frightened them with the Frost and bid them be willing and diligent.

"Desert Fairy Tale."—An old man lived with his wife. He had one daughter and she had one. His wife said to him: "Take your daughter away,"—and he took her in the dark forest. In the forest there stood a cottage and then he said to his daughter: "Sit here and wait while I go for a while and chop wood." He left, fastened a small board on a birch before the cottage, and went home.

The maid waited and waited for her father and the wind played with the little board. " My little father is chopping wood," thought she and went on waiting. But the day grew into evening. The sun set but her father did not come back. Night came on and the maid was still waiting. Between the trees there was extended, with some noise, a horse's head.

The head ran to the cottage and said: "Mistress, mistress, open the door!" The maid opened it. " Mistress, mistress, carry me over the threshold!" The maid did it. "Mistress, mistress, give me some supper!" She gave it some. "Mistress, mistress, make me up a bed." She made one up. "Mistress, mistress, tell me some stories!" She began to tell one. "Mistress, mistress, climb into my left ear and climb out again by the right!"

She climbed into the left ear and out by the right and had become indescribably beautiful, then she seated herself in a golden coach with silver horses and started for her kingdom. First, however, she went home and gave her father and mother all the treasures of the world but to her sister, the daughter of the wife she gave nothing.

After a year had passed the old man was speaking with his wife when she commanded him: "Take my daughter forth, you know where! Take her to the place to which you brought your daughter."

So the old man took her daughter and led her into the dark forest. In the forest stood a cottage. Then he said to her: "Sit here and wait while I go and chop wood." The little board swayed and rattled in the wind. "What has the old turkey-cock fastened up there?" asked the maid angrily and listened. Between the trees the horse's head was noisily stretched. It ran to the cottage: "Mistress, mistress, open the door!" "You are not a great man, do it yourself." It opened the door. "Mistress, mistress, carry me over the threshold!" "You are not a great man, come in yourself." The horse's head came in. "Mistress, mistress, give me some supper!" "You are not a great man, get it yourself." The head got it. "Mistress, mistress, make me up a bed and put me to sleep." "You are not a great man, do it yourself." The head did it. "Mistress, mistress, climb into my left ear and climb out again by the right!" The maid climbed into the left ear and climbed out of the right and had become old, an old gipsy without teeth, with a crutch. She ran into the woods and drowned herself from grief in the marsh.

There are in fairy stories similarly masculine Cinderellas that at the end marry a princess.

The fairy stories, in which simpletons or imbeciles are affectionately treated as heroes, belong also partly in this category with wish fulfillment, partly however to the so-called farces. I mention, as examples, from the German fairy tales: "The story of the man who went out to learn to shudder," "Jack in Luck," "Clever Hans," "The Three Languages" (Grimm, Nos. 4, 83, 32, 33).


  1. Ludwig Bechstein's "Märchenbuch," II. Illustrierte Ausgabe, Leipzig, G. Wigand, 1857.
  2. For further literature see Rittershaus, "Neuisländische Volksmärchen," pp. 14 and 15.
  3. A. Rittershaus, "Neuisländische Volksmärchen." Halle a. S., 1902.
  4. Afanassiew, "Russische Volksmärchen." Deutsch von Anna Mayer, Wien, 1906. C. W. Stern.