For a student to want to participate in any work, some meaning must be brought to it, or found in it if any retention is to occur. Folklore is rich in themes and symbols which can stimulate the resources a student needs to cope with his difficult inner problems. The fairytales, fables and folklegend each provide their own kind of meaning.
Bruno Bettelheim applies the psycho analytic model of the human personality to the fairytale. He says that “...fairy tales carry important messages to the conscious, the preconscious and the unconscious mind, on whatever level each is functioning at the time.” The form and structure of fairy tales, he continues, “suggest images to the child by which he can structure his daydreams and with them give better direction to this life.”
While fairytales are excellent for young children because they present positive solutions to difficult problems, they also give form to what Bettelheim calls his formless, nameless anxieties, and his chaotic, angry, and sometimes violent fantasies. It is specifically this underside of fairytales that I believe will appeal to adolescents.
Fairytales show that struggles in life are unavoidable but that if one perseveres against unexpected and unjust hardships, he can be a winner. Fairytale characters are unusually very clearly drawn and are typical rather than unique. They are not ambivalent as we are in reality, but either all good or all bad, all beautiful or all ugly, all stupid or all smart. It is this polarization which makes identifying with the good or bad, smart or stupid qualities more clear for the child. The fairytale hero is also often in isolation or forced out like Hansel and Gretel. It is not solely on the happy ending which Bettleheim advises us to concentrate, but also on the process of finding his way, step by step, through unknown, terrifying circumstances which will lead to a successful end.
The variety of motifs which appear in the fairytales have meaning for children of all ages. “The central motif of ‘Snow White’ is the pubertal girl’s surpassing in every way the evil stepmother who, out of jealousy, denies her an independent existence—symbolically represented by the stepmother’s trying to see Snow White destroyed.”
Rapunsel is another preadolescent girl whose jealous mother tries to prevent her from gaining independence. Another motif of this story was that Rapunsel was able to use her own personal resource, her hair, to escape her predicament. This motif might have special meaning at an age when children need to find in their own bodies a source of security.
The theme of a giant in conflict with an ordinary person appears in Grimm’s “The Spirit in a Bottle.” The hero must then use his wits and cunning to extricate himself from a dangerous situation. Here there is also the theme of reason winning over emotions. Then the hero is not released on his first try. Efforts must be continued before success is achieved. Bettelheim suggests that giants are often parental figures and that children can thus project and work out family conflicts and anxieties. He says that the young child should not be confronted with direct interpretations of the symbols because his conscious is not yet ready to receive them. It seems, however, that by age thirteen or fourteen students would be ready to translate some of the images, consciously, with delicate and respectful guidance.
Other symbols in the fairytale world include animals which are either all devouring or all-helpful. The wolf, ferocity and maliciousness incarnate, is typical. Bettelheim theorizes that “Both dangerous and helpful animals stand for our animal nature, our instinctual drives.”
While certain stories of brothers or sisters may depict sibling rivalry, others such as Grimm’s “The Queen Bee” show characters which may be thought of as representing the “disparate natures of id, ego and superego; and the main message is that these be integrated for human happiness.”
Many tales weave the motif that love transforms even ugly things into that which is beautiful, as when the beast or frog which is loved turns into a prince. The theme of the struggle to achieve maturity is particularly geared to the adolescent and is well depicted in “The Three Feathers” and “Little Red Cap.” Although the fairytale may begin with a student’s psychological state of mind, according to Bettleheim, it never starts with his physical reality. There is a “Once upon a time...”, “In a certain country...”, vagueness in the beginning of fairytales which suggests that we are leaving ordinary reality. Old castles, dark caves, deep woods reveal that which is normally hidden, while “long ago” implies archaic, primordial events.
The fable which presents a moral truth, has much less hidden meaning, with little left to the imagination. Human motives and acts are attributed to animals and tell what one ought to do. According to the Junior Library Edition of
, the fable was used for political purposes in Greece when free speech was dangerous. Perhaps this is why fables appear to demand, threaten or be moralistic. In this case they present an excellent contrast to the fairytale.
The heroes of the personal legends are very powerful folk symbols in themselves. They personify the qualities that we would most like to have or that we most admire in ourselves. The great Greek and Roman heroes received their powers from the gods, but American heroes must depend on their own resourcefulness. Every walk of life and every occupation has its typical folk heroes from loggers, sailors, cowboys, minors and railroaders to jet pilots, journalists and even academics (consider the gentle, absentminded professor). Botkin says that Americans create or choose heroes in their own image.
The three main themes or motifs which run through the personal legends feature “the poor boy who makes good, the good boy gone wrong and the kind that is too good or bad to be true.” Botkin paints a composite picture of the American hero as a
“...plain tough, practical fellow, equally good at a bargain or a fight, a star performer on the job and a hell-raiser off it, and something of a salesman and a showman, with a flair for prodigious stories, jokes and stunts and a general capacity for putting himself over.”
In the local legends, themes and symbols are present but not so obvious as in the fairytales and personal legends. Chesnutt put together
The Conjure Woman
tales to educate a white audience, as his granddaughter says, without forcing a direct emotional confrontation. Chesnutt tells of the impact of slavery on blacks and illuminates its dehumanizing aspects by the various animal and vegetable forms that the characters must take, while under a spell, to achieve or avoid an end. The horrible treatment or trials the characters face after such metamorphosis symbolizes their lack of control over their predicament, and their attempts to come to grips with it. In one case Chesnutt turns the tables, and Julius tells of a white slave owner who was transformed into a slave and subjected to some of his own treatment. Here the lesson is quite clear. Julius, it appears, tells these stories to gain an end but also to preserve a system.
In Mules and Men, Hurston does not simply tell the tale but places them in the “world of jook joints, lying contests, and tall-tale sessions that make up the drama of the folk life of black people in the rural South.”
The story around the tales exposes the prejudices, love affairs and jealousies of the people who tell them. The reader is not excluded from the actual gathering of the folk material, and this is important for setting a better mood in which to appreciate the themes.
The book is divided into two parts, Folk Tales and Hoodoo. The Folk Tale themes go from “flood” to “freedom”, and include tricks, triumphs, defeats and explanations such as “Why Negroes are Black” and “De Reason Niggers Is Working So Hard.” Many of these tales read like the fairytales with themes of rites of passage, overcoming difficult situations, and motifs which include symbols such as helpful, harmful, cunning or wisecracking animals, god and the devil, to be sure. There is much here for interpretation and for the unconscious to be brought to the fore as with the fairytales.
The Hoodoo Tales focus on sorcery. Hoodoo is a blend of Christianity and African fetishism. The major concerns or themes in this section center around health, love, economic success and power over others. Charms, potions or amulets are readily prescribed to ensure a desired course of action. The hoodoo tales offer an excellent comparison to Chesnutt’s conjure tales.