I was reminded recently of how the Fairy Tale Heroine’s Journey that I’m describing might be helpful to people: or at least to me.
If you’ve been following this blog, you know that I teach a university class on fairy tales. As I taught some of the most familiar fairy tales, by the Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault, I realized that they often contained a very specific kind of heroine’s journey. So I started trying to describe it. I’m not a psychoanalyst or anthropologist; I don’t think of this journey as universal, in the way Joseph Campbell described his hero’s journey. Despite my respect for Campbell, I’m dubious of the univeralizing tendency. Among other things, it glosses over important cultural and historical differences. All I claim for the Fairy Tale Heroine’s Journey is that it’s a narrative structure we see in some fairy tales: the ones I’ve studied so far are European and usually go back to the middle ages. I think of it as a meta-tale type.
You might be familiar with tale types, which is a way that folklorists categorize fairy tales: different fairy tales that share common elements will be categorized as Cinderella-type tales, because there will be the wicked stepmother, the small shoe, even though in one version the Cinderella figure will be given clothes by a fish, in another a cow. Tale types also elide some cultural and historical differences, but at least they are aware of them. They do not try to say there is one Cinderella story underlying all Cinderella stories, or even all stories. They acknowledge that there are many different kinds of stories we can tell, and some of them have certain similarities. They also help us understand the historical development of fairy tales: Cinderella, for example, may originally have been Chinese. But we don’t know for sure, and for me that phrase, “We don’t know for sure,” is the hallmark of good scholarship. A scholar always tells us what she does not know.
So here I am, trying to describe a pattern I see in a number of different tale types. If you want to see the pattern itself, take a look at the “Journey” page on my website, where I list the steps of the Fairy Tale Heroine’s Journey and link to the various posts I’ve written about it. In my last post, I talked about the step where the heroine dies or is in disguise. Is it one step? Somehow, the death and disguise seem related to me. There’s Snow White in her glass coffin, the Sleeping Beauty in her forest of thorns. Rapunzel is not dead in her tower, but it too seems like Sleeping Beauty’s tower, a place of stasis. Meanwhile you have Cinderella and Donkeyskin in disguise, as servants — they even lose their names. The same sort of thing happens to the Goose-Girl. There is a variant in which the heroine’s true love is the one dead or in disguise: this happens in the “Animal Bridegroom” stories like “Beauty and the Beast” and “East o’ the Sun, West o’ the Moon.” In my last blog post, I connected this period of loss and stasis to the liminal state, the middle stage in a rite of passage. We must pass through a liminal state, a little death, in order to be transformed. It was a very technical sort of blog post.
And then I had a personal experience that highlighted for me why any of this might be important. It’s the end of the university semester; I’m exhausted. For the past few weeks I’ve been working every day, late into the night. During the day, I’ve been planning and teaching my final classes. On days I don’t teach, I’ve been meeting with students for up to five hours a day. In the evenings, and sometimes until the small hours of the morning, I’ve been reading and commenting on papers, answering emails. This weekend, for the first time, I have some free time before the final papers and portfolios come in, at which point I will be grading for a solid week. As you can imagine, I was feeling tired and rather down, getting my work done but dragging myself through the days. I got to Thanksgiving, which is a break for us, and all I wanted to do was watch British murder mysteries or baking competitions, which are surprisingly alike in their underlying narrative structure. And I thought, what is wrong with me? I blamed myself — perhaps I had planned the semester wrong? (No, semesters are like this for every professor who teaches writing.) I tried to push myself, but every time I did, I just got more tired, more despondent.
And then I had a revelation: I’m not in the dark forest. I’m in the glass coffin.
If you’ve read the structure of the Fairy Tale Heroine’s Journey, you know that there is a stage where the heroine must go through the dark forest. It’s usually fairly early on in the tale. The important thing about the dark forest is that you don’t die there. You’re lost, you’re scared, you’re usually alone, after you get rid of the huntsman who was sent to kill you . . . but you’re not going to die. The dark forest is simply something you have to get through, and it usually represents your fears, your encounter with the darkness in yourself and the world.
The lesson of the dark forest is: keep going.
The stage where you die, where you end up in the glass coffin, is usually a separate stage. (Except in “Sleeping Beauty”: she’s dead and in the dark forest at once. In tale types, and in the Fairy Tale Heroine’s Journey, there’s always an exception.) The lesson of the glass coffin is that you will be revived. You will eventually wake up. In fairy tales, death is temporary. In this way, I think, fairy tales hark back to a pagan past and a time when life was seasonal, cyclical. The year died and was born again. The people who originally told these tales lived in continual cycles — of the seasons, of life and death, of the pagan or later Christian festivals that marked the stages of the year. Even their daily lives were governed by the rising and setting of the sun in a way ours aren’t. When they became Christian, death was still figured as a rebirth.
The lesson of the glass coffin is: rest now.
What does that mean? It means that sometimes you are tired, and sometimes you are in a state of transformation, and in those times you must accept that you need rest. Don’t keep going. Instead, crawl under the covers. Watch British murder mysteries and baking competitions. This isn’t the time to power through. The journey includes periods when you’re not traveling, and you need to accept that. Sometimes, you won’t be going anywhere for a while. And that’s all right.
So I did: I rested. And afterward I felt better.
It helped me to have a model of the journey, to understand where I was on that journey. Because the journey itself, and this is one of my hypotheses, is based on women’s actual lives. Oh, not the lives we live now: no, it’s based on what women’s lives were like hundreds of years ago. But the underlying structures of those lives, the leaving home, going through dark forests, finding friends and helpers . . . all those fundamental things are still parts of our lives, and learning the patterns can help us identify them in our own lives. They can help us live the lives we live now, consciously and well.
(This illustration is by Louis Rhead. I chose it because the Queen looks so contemplative: here she looks less as though she’s admiring herself in the mirror and more as though she’s asking what it’s all about, anyway.)