Book Review and Discussion: A Psychiatric Study of Fairy Tales

Fairy tales have been around forever, and many story lines are universal, with certain elements repeated in nearly every culture on earth. Kids love to curl up in grandma’s lap to hear the same tales of adventure, danger, and the triumph of good over evil. But is there more to fairy tales than meets the eye?

A Psychiatric Study of Fairy Tales: Their Origin, Meaning, and Usefulness  by Julius E. Heuscher, MD F.A.P.A.  Illustrations by Melba Bennett

Let’s take a deep dive into fairy tales with this classic examination that launched a thousand research papers.

Book Facts:

The description on the cover is lengthy: 

Book cover   A Psychiatric Study of Fairy Tales: Their Origin, Meaning, and Usefulness  by Julius E. Heuscher, MD F.A.P.A.  Illustrations by Melba Bennett

"While Dr. Heuscher's approach to this basic question is phenomenological, viewpoints of the pschycoanalytic and Jungian schools help to create greater perspective. 

The numerous implications of his findings will interest not only psychiatrists, psychologists, sociologists, and educators, but also those who in these difficult times are aware of an urgent need to study and structure the specifically human aspects of existence." 


I imagine "these difficult times" refer to such events as the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Bay of Pigs, and the emergence of Bob Dylan as a pop culture icon.  


Dr. Heuscher's stated goal for this book was to "stimulate interest and develop the ability of the reader to recognize additional, ever new, significant treasures contained in these almost innumerable stories..."  

At the time the book was written, Dr. Heuscher was so successful in reaching this goal that Bruno Bettelheim (it is believed) plagiarized portions of it in The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales.

Note: Dr. Heuscher's reaction to this was very gracious, stating,

"Surely, the polite thing is to quote. . . but Bruno Bettelheim is brilliant. He has read many things, and probably some of the ideas he didn`t know for sure whether he was thinking them himself, or whether he took it. He may have copied a few things, but it really doesn`t bother me."

Dr. Heuscher believed that fairy tales were beautifully veiled but meaningful messages. He sought to undo the earlier dismissal of fairy tales as silly, with all those talking animals, people transforming into beasts, and wolves that can swallow goats and people whole without dying. Thank the Enlightenment, AKA the Age of Voltaire, for that attitude.  

Heuscher also suggests that many elements in fairy tales were lost in translation. Will people 200 years from now understand phrases like "the cart before the horse", "dissolving into tears", or "floating on cloud nine?" There may be meanings in some of the more fantastical elements in fairy tales—like a wolf swallowing seven goats—that we have lost over time, and may have been important for a more accurate interpretation of these tales. 

It's obvious that Heuscher was heavily influenced by Freud and Jung. He also mentions The Dream by Medard Boss, and The Wisdom of the German Folktales by Rudolph Meyer as major influences on the thoughts he expresses in this book. 

Book Review:

There are a couple of ways Heuscher breaks down the psychiatric analysis of fairy tales. First, he separates types of stories:  

  • Folk and Fairy Tales as stories with a child protagonist before their sexual awakening,   

  • Epic Tales, in which adolescent and adult characters have to deal with grand adventures and wild passions,  

  • Myths that attempt to explain our origins and the nature of the world. 

The author doesn't give detailed summaries of most of these stories, assuming readers would be familiar with the various versions of Grimm's and Anderson's tales. He does include descriptions of some uncommon fairy tales, such as a Czech tale called "Princess with the Golden Hair." 

He also saw fairy tales in terms of the stages of child development; early childhood, latency (pre- and early teens), and adolescence.  

Early Childhood

Among the examples of stories dealing with early childhood were Grimm's Hansel and Gretel and Little Red Riding Hood. In Hansel and Gretel, the young protagonists need their parents, and are fearful of abandonment--common issues for young children. Woods and forests often appear in fairy tales as a symbol of loss of security, or the unknown; witches and evil step-parents are manifestations of ruthless, uncaring parents; white animals—the kitten, dove, and duck, offer spiritual guidance.  

You might be surprised to know that Dr. Heuscher also addresses gender roles portrayed in these stories--after all, this book was written in the early 60's. For instance, he notes in Hansel and Gretel that while Hansel starts out as the leader, he is the one captured by the witch and rendered helpless. But Gretel steps up with a clever plan, and ends up rescuing her brother.  

Did I mention that Heuscher was influenced by Freud?  While reading passages describing the possible underlying meanings of Little Red Riding Hood (aka Little Red Cap), I couldn't help but think, "Sometimes a hat is just a hat!" However, I'll grant it's possible that in this tale, the mother is warning her prepubescent daughter of the dangers of sex, and her red hat symbolizes her imminent change into fertile female.

Am I being too subtle? The red hat is Little Red Riding Hood getting her period, OK? 

Add in the idea that the wolf, standing in as the sexual predator, acts as the tempter to lure LRRH off the safe path of abstinence. However, when the wolf eats the grandmother, he now becomes a symbol of the fear of pregnancy, a monstrous "womb." The huntsman is a male character who is in control of his 'animal urges', and he does a C-Section on the wolf, rescuing Grandma and Little Red.  

Oy vey. Super Freud! 

I suppose it doesn't require too many literary cartwheels to get the above interpretation, but in my opinion, LRRH seems much more likely to simply be teaching children to obey their parents, avoid bad influences, resist temptation, and develop self-control. 

I think in this case Occam's Razor works just as well for literature as for science, in that the simplest answer is most likely correct.

Latency (Pre-teen) Phase

There are many common symbols in tales about the Latency phase, which include Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and Sleeping Beauty (or Briar Rose). 

common symbols in tales about the Latency phase, which include  Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs , and  Sleeping Beauty  (or  Briar Rose ). 

In Snow White the most obvious is the Good Mother vs Bad Mother. The Good Mother is maternal and caring, while the Bad Mother is vain, obsessed, and jealous.  This contrast usually becomes obvious when a female authority figure, like a queen or stepmother, tries to kill the protagonist.

Mirrors and apples make prominent appearances here, as well as in many other tales, usually representing knowledge and/or desire. They are also given importance throughout history in mythology, superstition, and religion; Narcissus, Paris and Venus, sitting Shivah, Adam and Eve. Mirrors can reveal and capture a soul, and broken ones bring bad luck. In one tradition, young girls can sit in front of a mirror and eat an apple; then when they brush their hair they will see the image of their future husband.  

In Snow White, the apple and mirror are used by the Bad Mother, aka the Wicked Queen. The Queen is obsessed with her mirror, and wants to destroy Snow White's innocence by tempting her with forbidden fruit.   

The reason this tale is classified as a Latency Phase story is that when young Snow White ventures out into the real world, she begins to show signs of maturity, agreeing to a division of labor in order to live with and be protected by the seven dwarfs.  

More fairy tales tropes arrive as three birds make an appearance: the owl, raven, and dove. These birds are, not coincidentally, also symbols of deities like Athena, Odin, and the Holy Spirit. Religious/Christian themes are frequently seen in fairy tales. There is the advent of a beloved child, a death, burial, and resurrection, evil personified, a Savior who rescues His Bride, and numbers such as three (Trinity), seven (perfection), and twelve (disciples, Zodiac). 

Sleeping Beauty (aka Briar Rose) again shows us a child beginning as an innocent, but then making a nearly fatal decision while alone and without parental supervision/protection. This kind of incident is often repeated in fairy tales and modern fiction; children are alone because they've wandered away from safety, or been abandoned. The consequence of Beauty's impulsive childish action is a sort of death, but then she awakens to maturity, as in marriage.  

Heuscher also points out the importance of the sentient animals in fairy tales. A popular animal character is the frog, who as an amphibian lives two lives. He begins in water, and changes from a tadpole to a frog, which gives him the ability to live in both water and on land. Metamorphosis is another concept often explored in fairy tales.

The rest of A Psychiatric Study of Fairy Tales follows this pattern of looking for meaning in such recurring motifs as golden hair, crowns and hats, rings, water, forests, names, and animals such as birds, frogs, wolves, and horses. 

A pattern we also see repeated is our protagonist living a happy, secure life, but then something destroys that happiness--an impulsive and unwise decision, or the machinations of an evil antagonist. The protagonist suffers for a period of time, but during that time they have adventures during which they adapt and mature. What follows is salvation, vindication, and restoration, usually in the form of a new kingdom or a marriage.

And then they live happily ever after.

Dr. Heuscher ends his book expressing his uneasiness over the effects of television in the lives of children, based on a study published in 1961 by Stanford University Press, "T.V. in the lives of our children" (Schramm, Lyle, and Parker). He felt that TV offered a "realistic looking distortion of reality." Reading involves some element of participation on the part of the reader, but he was troubled by the passive nature of television viewing, believing it offered only the illusion of participation.   

He wondered if children would understand that some of what they see on television is real (the news, documentaries), and some of it only looks real but is fictional. Other shows and films are dramatic reenactments of real life events, blending truth with lies, so to speak. Developing the ability to understand these differences is crucial during a child's formative years.

Furthermore, children usually identify with the stronger, more victorious character. That’s just great when this describes the hero, but sometimes the most compelling character is the villain of the piece. (Hannibal Lecter, anyone?)

sometimes the most compelling character is the villain of the piece. (Hannibal Lecter, anyone?)

These are worries that still plague parents and teachers today as we consider the causes and implications of the steep rise in violent acts committed by children. I guess there really isn't anything new under the sun.  


Did Dr. Heuscher accomplish what he set out to prove in this book? I think the technical term I'm looking for is "Sort of." I definitely agree with his premise; "genuine fairy tales carry a meaningful—though veiled—message in a beautiful form." There were some very interesting overlaps in symbols and themes from many different tales from a variety of sources.

I think a very important point is that fairy tales appear to us to be cold and barbaric—but we are reading them through the lens of our own culture, and ideas of what good parenting looks like. These stories are of their time and culture, and valid interpretations must take that into consideration.

My favorite quote from the book is: 

"The rather frequent assumption that tolerance and conviction are mutually exclusive is incorrect. In fact, rather the opposite applies. Only when we are capable of deep convictions ourselves does our tolerance of other convictions carry weight. If we have no convictions, our 'tolerance' toward 'everyone is not true tolerance but diffuse skepticism. The more sincere and earnest we are in our quest for truth, the more humble and tolerant we shall become." 

Cross stitch that on a pillow!

In my opinion, the influence of Freud and Jung warped some of the interpretations of fairy tales. While discerning symbols, motifs, and metaphors is one of my favorite reading activities, I believe that much of the time a hat is just a hat. There is a danger in simplifying multiple theories for the layman; in this case, fairy tales melting into a solipsistic puddle.

Plain English: fairy tales can mean anything the reader wants them to mean. 

What do you think about assigning deeper meanings to fairy tales?
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