In our modern arts, as in ages past, women storytellers have understood this best. Margaret Atwood, Olga Broumas, Carol Ann Duffy, Denise Duhamel, Sandra Gilbert, Theodora Goss, Liz Lochead, Lisel Mueller, Lisa Russ Spar, Gwen Strauss, Jane Yolen, and many other contemporary feminist poets have used fairy tale themes to powerful effect to portray the truth ofwomen’s lives. (Anne Sexton’s collection Transformations, in particular, is an extraordinary work which no lover of fairy tales or women’s writing should miss.) Prose writers, too, have used fairy tales themes in a variety of interesting ways, exploring tradition stories from fresh, shrewd, modern perspectives. Some of their fairy tale novels and stories can be found on the mainstream fiction shelves,such as Angela Carter’s ground–breaking collection The Bloody Chamber, Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride, Kate Bernheimer’s The Complete Tales of Ketzia Gold, Loranne Brown’s The Handless Maiden, A.S. Byatt’s Possession, Kathryn Davis’s The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf, Berlie Doherty’s The Vinegar Jar, Emma Donaghue’s Kissing the Witch,Alice Hoffman’s The Blue Diary, Susanna Moore’s Sleeping Beauty, and Gioia Timpanelli’s Sometimes the Soul. Similarly enchanting works can be found tucked away on the fantasy shelves: Gwyneth Jones’s Seven Fairy Tales and a Fable, Peg Kerr’s Wild Swans, Tanith Lee’s Red as Blood and White as Snow, Patricia McKillip’s Winter Rose, Robin McKinley’ Beauty and Deerskin,Rachel Pollack’s Godmother Death, Delia Sherman’s Porcelain Dove, Sheri Tepper’s Beauty, Patricia C. Wrede’s Snow White and Rose Red, Jane Yolen’s Briar Rose, and the stories in the Snow White, Blood Red anthology series, to name just a few. Still more can be found on the Young Adult fiction shelves,including Francesca Lia Block’s The Beast and the Rose, Gillian Cross’s <em.Wolf, Shannon Hale’s The Goose Girl, Sophie Masson’s Serafin, Edith Patou’s East, Ursula Synge’s Swan’s Wing, and the many fairy tale novels of Donna Jo Napoli. (A longer list of fairy tale literature recommendations can be found here.)
Fairy tales and fantasy are are dangerous, as Ursula Le Guin warns us in her essay "Dreams They Must Explain Themselves" (published in The Language of the Night). Fantasy, she says, is "not antirational, but pararational; not realistic but surrealistic, a heightening of reality. In Freud’s terminology, it employs primary not secondary process thinking.It employs archetypes which, as Jung warned us, are dangerous things. Fantasy is nearer to poetry, to mysticism, and to insanity that naturalistic fiction is. It is a wilderness, and those who go there should not feel too safe . . .A fantasy is a journey. It is a journey into the subconcious mind, just as psychoanalysis is. Like psychoanalysis, it can be dangerous, and it will change you."
As Le Guin reminds us, poets and fiction writers are not the only ones to note the power of magical stories — Freudian, Jungian, and archetypal psychologists have also found value in the imagery and symbolism of fairy tales. Jungian scholar Maria–Louise Von Franz, for example, explored fairy tales as metaphorical representations of the psychological healing process, expanding upon Carl Jung’s own ideas about the importance of myths and dreams.In The Feminine in Fairy Tales, a collection of her lectures at the Jung Institute in Zurich, Von Franz discusses themes in The Girl With No Hands, equating the heroine’s flight into the wilderness with the inner journeys we make into the unconcious and the lands of the soul. "The forest [is] the place of unconventional inner life," she says, "in the deepest sense of the word."It is there, in solitude, that the heroine can look deep inside herself and find the space, time, and clarity to heal, symbolized by the restoration of her hands at the end of the tale. Gertrude Mueller–Nelson builds on these ideas in her book Here All Dwell Free: Stories to Heal the Wounded Feminine in which she uses two fairy tales — The Girl With No Hands and The Sleeping Beauty —to examine the ways the Feminine is devalued in modern culture, and in men and women’s lives.
In her bestselling book Women Who Run With the Wolves, Clarissa Pinkola Estes popularized the idea that folk tales and fairy tales still have relevance to women’s lives today. Estes drew upon her varied experiences as a storyteller, psychologist and curandera (a healer in the Hispanic folk tradition) to create unusual renditions of traditional tales, emphasizing their transformative and healing properties.Spinning Straw Into Gold: What Fairy Tales Reveal About the Transformations in a Woman’s Life by Joan Gould is a book that looks at traditional tales and modern re–tellings in fiction and film, discussing the effect these stories have had on cultural ideals of femininity. For my money, however, the most insightful book on transformational themes in fairy tales comes from Doris Brett,an award–winning poet and clinical psychologist in Australia. Eating the Underworld is an extraordinary book written during Brett’s long battle with cancer, weaving fairy tales and myths into sharply insightful meditations on family, culture, memory, death, heroism, and survival.