A Study on the Association Between Fairy Tales and the Unconscious

di Carina Coulacoglou (1)


This paper presents a review of the major psychoanalytic interpretations of fairy tales. The history of psychoanalytic interpretations of fairy tales goes back to the times of Freud. Bettelheim has produced one of the most thorough interpretations and has stressed the significance of these stories in children's development. One major criticism concerning these analyses, however, is their emphasis in some fairy tale features that did not exist in the original texts. After a general introduction, follows a review of psychoanalytic interpretations concerning the stories of Little Red Riding Hood and Snow White and the dwarfs. The author presents her own interpretations of these two stories, mainly based on children's responses to a personality projective test, the Fairy Tale Test.

A Study on the Relationship Between Fairy Tales and the Unconscious

The symbolic interpretation of fairy tales as well as their relation to the unconscious has become a challenging field of speculations for a number of Freudian and Jungian analysts (e.g Bettelheim, 1976; Dundes, 1989; Kaes et al, 1989; Kast, 1995; La Genardiere, 1996; Von Franz, 1982).
Freud was the first to discover the symbolic nature of fairy tales. Like the myth and the legend, the fairy tale touches the most primitive parts of the psyche. In the "Interpretation of Dreams" (1900), Freud turns to fairy tales to advance dream analysis. In the Wolf Man (1918), he argues that the fairy tale offers the child a way of thinking which corresponds to the representation of himself. The child identifies with the wild animal and that perhaps explains his lack of surprise to the anthropomorphic animals found in many tales.
Roheim (1953) maintains that fairy tales resemble dream experiences. He argues that a large part of mythology is derived from dreams. Thus, fairy tales are probably the outcome of dream experiences spread by word of mouth. Furthermore, according to Swartz (1956) the tale like the dream, deals (a) with opposites or contrasts, (b) is illogical, (c) has manifest and latent meaning, (d) uses symbolisms, (e) expounds and expands the concept of reality, (f) is a dramatized form of expression, (g) contains sexual as well as cultural elements, (h) expresses wishes, (i) has humor and (j) employs the mechanisms of condensation, substitution, displacement, devaluation and over evaluation.
More recently, Cramer (1991) notes that the defense mechanisms of denial, projection and identification may be encountered in a number of popular fairy tales.
Kaes et al. (1989) suggest that the fairy tale is closest to the dream in terms of its content, its processes and its subjective usage. According to these authors, the fairy tale serves three functions: as a link, as a transformation, and as an intermediary. More explicitly, it links primary with secondary processes; it transforms unconscious fantasies to structured narrations whereby the form and symbolisms express underlying desires; finally, the tale acts as an intermediary between the body and the social milieu.
Ferenczi (1913/1919) proposes that fairy tales represent a return to the stage of the omnipotence of the self. "In fairy tales, the fantasies of omnipotence continue to reign... (p.65). While in reality we feel weak, fairy tale heroes are strong and invincible; while our actions and thoughts are limited by time and space, in the fairy tale world we live eternally, we can be at a million places at the same time, we can foresee the future and we have knowledge of our past.
Bettelheim's book "The Uses of Enchantment" (1976) has become a landmark in the psychoanalytic theory of fairy tales. The book offers an elaborative account of the relation between children and fairy tales, placing special emphasis on the therapeutic value of the latter for the child. Bettelheim produces extensive analyses of popular tales and attempts to demonstrate how each one of these reflects conflicts or anxieties at specific stages of development.
According to Shapiro & Katz (1978) Bettelheim interprets the symbolic meaning of the fairy tale on three levels. First, a character is discussed as representing crucial others in the child's life; second, as representing an experienced part of the personality (good or bad self) and finally, as representing internal processes (id, ego and superego).
Jung attributed special importance to fairy tales when he claimed that in these stories one can best study the comparative anatomy of the psyche. In myths and legends one gets all the basic patterns of the psyche through an overlay of cultural material; in fairy tales there is much less specific conscious cultural material.
All fairy tales attempt to describe one psychic reality - the Self, while many fairy tales symbolically describe the initial stage in the process of individuation - the achievement of self - realization, by telling of a king who has fallen ill or grown old. The ego is usually represented by the hero and thus considered as the restorer of the healthy personality.
Though nearly all tales circle around the self - symbol, many stories reflect motifs, which remind us of Jungian concepts such as the shadow, the anima, the animus, or the persona. For example, in the story of Rapunzel, the anima is in the hands of an evil creature (the witch) and then the hero and the anima must escape. That means that the hero has to protect his anima from the evil influence of the unconscious.
The Jungian school of fairy tale analysis has been best represented by Max Luthie (1987)and Marie Louise Von Franz (1982). Von Franz (1982) notes that these tales are the simplest and purest expression of collective unconscious processes. The archetypes are the structural components of the collective unconscious and show the way to transformation and development. Archetypes may find expression through dreams, myths and fairy tales. Among the most well known archetypes are Birth and Rebirth, Death, Unity, the Hero, the Child, God, the Wise Old Man or Woman, the Earth Mother, the Animal.

The Fairy Tale Test (FTT)
Parts of the interpretations offered by the present author are derived from children's responses to a projective personality test. The main advantage of projective techniques is that they facilitate the projection of unconscious feelings and attitudes onto the stimulus material.
The Fairy Tale Test (FTT) (Coulacoglou, 1998/2001; Coulacoglou & Kline, 1995; Coulacoglou, in press) is a personality projective test for children aged 7 to 12 years. Its conception rests on the association between fairy tales and unconscious processes (e.g. Bettelheim, 1976, Kaes et al., 1989). Its broader purpose is to help the therapist assess the child's personality dynamics, offering information not just about isolated personality parameters, but also about their interrelations.
The test material consists of seven sets of cards, three pictures for each set. Each set of cards depicts three versions of popular fairy tale characters such as Little Red Riding Hood, the wolf, the dwarf, the witch and the giant. The fifth and sixth sets of cards present scenes from the stories of Little Red Riding Hood and Snow White and the Dwarfs. The pictures are presented in sets of three at a time and the child is asked to respond to a number of questions, such as "What does each ... think?"
The FTT was standardized on 800 non - patient children aged 7 - 12 years, who attended public schools in the greater Athens area.
Children's responses may be interpreted in a quantitative manner (most of them on a 1 to 3-point scale, whereby 1 is low and 3 is high) through the rating of 26 personality variables such as Ambivalence, different types of motivational Aggression, Fear of Aggression, Anxiety, Depression, Self - Esteem and others.
Qualitative analysis consists is mainly carried out through the study of the nature of anxiety and the assessment of several defense mechanisms.
Children's responses to questions reflect several latent themes or conflicts for each of the seven sets of cards:

Set I: Little Red Riding Hood (LRRH)
Conflict between autonomy (LRRH straying from the path, desire to meet the wolf, play) and compliance to authority (obeying her mother)
Self- image (will she make it on time, she can beat the wolf, does not like her appearance).
Fear of possible dangers (strange creatures, woods, wolf, traps).
Ways of coping with danger (she will deceive the wolf, she will strike him, she will return home).
Sexual feelings (feels shy when she meets the wolf, thinks of her boyfriend, her skirt is short).

Conflict between controlling or letting one's impulses free (devouring or not devouring LRRH)
Conflict between aggression and superego (if he eats LRRH the hunter will punish/kill him)
Oral needs

Affective needs (S.W will take care of them or the dwarfs will take care of S.W.)
Fear of possible dangers/insecurity (S.W may be a thief, witch will kill them too)
Coping with danger (they will kill the witch, ways of deceiving her, hide)
Self - image (doubting their ability to help S.W, concern about their small stature or their appearance)

Self- image (she is getting old, her magic power is diminishing, nobody
loves her, she is ugly)
Mother - child relationship (mother image)
Narcissistic feelings (she wants everyone to admire her)
Sibling rivalry (S.W is the sibling)
Oedipal feelings (witch wants to exterminate S.W so father will love her)
Superego (fear of getting punished for wrongdoing)

Oral needs
Self - image (he is ugly/stupid/big, nobody wants him)
Father-child relationship (rare)
Sexual feelings (he wants to find a girlfriend) (rare)

Mother image
Severity of superego (She begs mother to forgive her, she wants the story to end with Card 1 because she deserved mother's punishment)
Conflict between pleasure (playing, cutting flowers) and moral restrictions (she must visit her sick grandmother)
Fear of abandonment/rejection

Male - female relationship
Father - child relationship
Fear of abandonment (prince may die, father is old, prince may leave her)
Conflict between autonomy (getting married) and compliance (father forbids her to get married)
Conflict between growing old and staying a child (getting married or continue living with the dwarfs)

The story of Little Red Riding Hood
Although a large number of versions of this story have been traced in various France regions (Zipes, 1993), there are reports for Asian origins of the same story (Dundes, 1989). Asian variations (China, Japan, and Korea) of Little Red Riding Hood differ from European versions on a number of features: the aggressor may be a tiger, the heroines may be two or three girls. Another difference lies to the type of deception: the animal pretends to be the mother, or the grandmother or the aunt of the young girls and usually visits the girls at their own home.
The most popular versions of Little Red Riding Hood or Little Red Cap have been created by Perrault and the brothers Grimm. However, both recorders have been criticized for making alterations in what was considered to be the original oral text (Dundes, 1989).
The original text of this classic tale is reported to have been traced in France towards the end of the 19th century by Paul Delarue (Zipes, 1993). According to Dundes (1989) Perrault was aware of the existence of relevant folktales, which served as his source of inspiration for his own writings. Perrault's version omits gruesome elements such as the wolf's proposal to the heroine to taste the flesh and blood of her dead grandmother, or the girl's taking off her clothes or even the ploy of going outside to defecate. Perrault also changed the ending by having the protagonist devoured by the wolf. The Grimm brothers, who added the presence of the hunter and the saving of the two females later, restored the story's happy ending.
Among the most popular psychoanalytic interpretations regarding this tale are the ones proposed by Fromm (1951), Roheim (1953), and Bettelheim (1976).
Fromm's (1951) interpretation stressed on the significance of the red hood that is said to symbolize menstruation and serves as a signal of her forthcoming femininity. He also interprets this tale as a battle between the two sexes whereby the female attempts to humiliate the male, by placing stones in his stomach (stones considered to be a symbol of sterility) "It is a story of triumph by man- hating women, ending with their victory" (p. 242).
Geza Roheim's (1953/1992) interpretation of the same tale does not rely solely on details such as the red hood, or the stones placed in the wolf's stomach- details, that are not included in the oral versions. Instead, he emphasizes on the significance of the aggressive actions, which he claims to symbolize infantile oral aggression. He refers to the mechanisms of regression and projection whereby the infant's wish to devour his mother is projected on the mother-grandmother-wolf. "Aggression is combined with regression and it follows that the idea of being swallowed up, being eaten, is the talio aspect of this aggression. The cannibal child created a cannibal mother" (p. 152).
Along similar lines, Fairbairn (1972) makes an interesting connotation between the story of Little Red Riding Hood and the precocious oral stage of development. He argues that the story expresses anxiety over the destruction of the object (mother) as the heroine's need for incorporation takes the form of a devouring wolf.
Alice Miller (1981) challenges the notion of projection regarding violence and aggression in fairy tales. Instead, she argues that some fairy tales are adults' censored projections of abuse that they actually experienced as children.
Bettelheim (1976) claims that this fairy tale expresses the ambivalence between the pleasure and the reality principle. It also deals with the Oedipal conflict reactivated in puberty. Little Red Cap's budding sexuality is directed towards her father -wolf who is an externalization of the dangers of overwhelming Oedipal longings. The father is also portrayed as the hunter in his protective and rescuing role. Thus we may observe the splitting of the father figure into a ferocious and threatening animal and into a benign and helpful hunter.
Verena Kast (1995) adopting a Jungian perspective writes that the wolf symbolizes the instinctive/ primitive nature of the heroine. "She meets in the wolf part of her nature, the part of herself that she has denied: a Red Cap who is dreamy, aggressive, desperate and dangerously greedy in her search for life... As a wolf, she gets to know an aspect of herself that is loose, that doesn't care about duties or about what others think about her" (p. 14).
According to the present author, the story of Little Red Riding Hood reflects the child's separation anxiety and fear of annihilation. As the young girl enters the wood she feels anxious about having left the security of her home, the dangers that may lie ahead, getting dark, being alone (being left alone in the house, in some Asian versions). One theme that frequently comes up in response to the questions "What does each LRRH think?" and "Describe each scene from the story of Little Red Riding Hood" is anxiety over what will happen to the protagonist from the moment she enters the wood.
The most common responses in LRRH reflect anxiety over the impending dangers or risks that lie ahead. The following are some examples in response to the question "What does LRRH think?": "LRRH thinks that the wolf will eat her mother", "LRRH thinks that someone is watching her", "LRRH wants to run to her grandmother's cottage because it is getting dark", (LRRH thinks that tsomebody is watching her", or "LRRH is desperate because she lost her way". Another example comes from the question "Describe each scene from the story of Little Red Riding Hood": In response to Card I, a 10 year-old girl gave the following response: "LRRH asks her mother if she can go into the wood for a walk. Her mother says "No" because she was afraid that wild animals will eat her, or that some villain will catch her". We may observe in this response the heroine's separation anxiety projected onto the mother.
Thus the figure of the wolf or the tiger is the symbolic expression of archaic fears (darkness, strangers, solitude) and separation anxiety. The wolf as an externalization of separation anxiety and archaic fears may also be observed in other popular tales such as "the Wolf and the Seven Kids" and "The Three Little Pigs" whereby the protagonists are temporarily abandoned by their mothers.
Little Red Riding Hood is unable to cope with these fears because of her immature and weak ego, so she redirects them toward her (grand) mother, "expecting" that she will protect her by dealing with them. In this fairy tale we have the splitting of the mother into a young mother and into an old and disabled (grand)mother. In both cases the mother urges her daughter to cope with her fears and deal with dangers. At the beginning of the story, she sends her daughter to visit her grandmother who lives across the wood. She trusts the girl to make it there safely while being aware of the dangers that this walk entails. At the end of the story, as an old, sick woman, she is unable to protect the little girl and she succumbs to the wolf's cunningness, leaving LRRH alone to cope with her fears and anxieties "face to face".
When Little Red Riding Hood enters grandmother's cottage and sees the wolf in disguise, she does not recognize him. This refusal or denial may be attributed to her facing the devastating consequences of archaic fears, namely, annihilation (or death). Children's responses to the question "What does each LRRH think?" may reveal anxiety over the deterioration of grandmother's state of health, possibility of death and the need to reach grandmother fast and offer help. Examples: "LRRH wonders what to do in order to save her grandmother", "LRRH is anxious to reach grandmother's cottage and help her get well".
Looking at the happy ending of the French oral text as well as the happy ending of the Chinese and Japanese versions we observe that it is the heroine (s) who saves herself. When the wolf reveals his intentions, the heroine's ego takes over and she reacts with reason and maturity, thus managing to outwit the wolf. The ending in the Grimm's version demonstrates LRRH's inability to deal with her fears and thus she is eventually "devoured" by them. Still dependent, she expects to be saved by a strong paternal figure.

The story of Snow White and the Dwarfs
Tatar (1999) writes that although the story of Snow White and the Dwarfs may vary tremendously from one culture to another the central theme remains stable. Although there is no indisputable oral text of Snow White, the central story appears to reflect an antagonistic relationship -to the point of extinction- between family members, often in combination with vanity.
Taking as examples the Greek "Myrsina" (Megas, 1962) and the Russian "The Magic Mirror" (Afanasiev, 1998) versions of the story and comparing them with the Grimm's adaptation, the central theme is hardly distinguishable as the cultural elaborations abound. For example, the antagonistic mother- child relationship in the Grimm version is substituted by an antagonistic relationship between the heroine and her sisters (Myrsina). Another example concerns the dwarfs who are substituted by the twelve months in the Greek version and the two knights in the Russian version.
Therefore, it appears that the queen stepmother, the magic mirror, the hunter, the seven dwarfs, the various gifts offered to the heroine, are not part of the central theme, but instead, are specific to the culture that the story stemmed from.
According to Bettelheim (1976) the story of Snow White deals with the Oedipal conflicts between mother and daughter and warns of the disastrous effects of narcissism. The queen is said to be fixated to a primitive narcissism and arrested at the oral incorporative stage. She is envious of Snow White's beauty and youth and wants to incorporate her as symbolized by her intention to eat her internal organs. Bettelheim interprets Snow White's temporary death as a preparation period before entering a more maturing stage, that of adolescence.
The seven dwarfs according to Bettelheim, symbolize males arrested at a pre - Oedipal existence. Girard (1999) notes that Snow White may be considered as the eighth dwarf as her sexuality is still at a latent phase of development.
Schectman (1993) in her Jungian analysis of Snow White, claims that the story reflects the bitter battle of a woman against time, against aging and decline that come with middle age. The witch as an archetypal image symbolizes a threat to the ego. The liberation of the princess from the witch - mother, through the love of the prince, represents the disengagement of the anima from the mother image. The witch seems to represent the archetype of the Dark Feminine. This archetype which is the opposite of the Wise Old woman, entails traits like a devouring, regressive quality, and a prehuman animalism.
Heuscher (1974) presents a similar interpretation as the one presented by Schectman. According to Heuscher, the story of Snow White reflects the ambivalent relationship between mother and child. The queen's materialistic personality threatens to destroy the child's spiritual development. The dwarfs represent supporting superego images, while the stepmother represents the inhibiting, punitive and cruel aspect of the superego.
According to the present author the story reflects Snow White's ambivalence towards her mother. Assuming that Snow White is at the Oedipus stage, she feels threatened by the mother - competitor - when she finds out her daughter's desire to possess her husband/ father (the antagonism between mother and daughter may appear as an attempt to win the love of the father or the prince). The mother figure is thus split into the stepmother /witch, that represents the threatening, rejecting, and antagonistic qualities of the mother, and into the dwarfs (or other protective characters) that symbolize the supportive and protective maternal characteristics.
The dwarfs' "maternal" qualities may be frequently observed in response to the question "What does each dwarf think?" in the Fairy Tale Test. The following are some characteristic responses "The dwarf wants to save S.W from the witch because he is strong", "The dwarf wants to help S.W get well", "The dwarf thinks that S.W will be their mother" (or S.W perceives the dwarfs as her mother). A disturbed child gave the following responses to the same question: Card 1: "He wants to build her (S.W) a hut, put animals inside, because S.W liked animals". Card 2: "He wants to offer her a dog because she liked animals, Card 3: "He wants to offer her some flowers because it is her birthday".
Occasionally, the positive and the negative aspects of the mother appear in response to the question "What does each witch think?". Example "This witch wants to tell the dwarfs to abandon S.W and leave. She wants to tell them something that will change their good opinion of S.W. She wants to tell them not to love her and take care of her". Oedipus conflicts may be observed in the following responses to the same question: " She wants to kill S.W and marry her prince", "the witch wants to kill S.W because the prince kissed her".
In response to the question "What can a wicked witch do?" a child said: "A witch may not treat her daughter well and poison her and send her away from the house and she hates her". In response to the question "Which is the most wicked witch?" a child said: "No 1 because she is good looking and wants to kill a girl and take away her prince".
It is worth noting at this point that the splitting of the mother in fairy tales does not necessarily occur in the form of another female such as fairy or witch. One may wonder why the positive aspects of the mother are represented by male yet asexual figures such as the dwarfs, the knights and the twelve months. In my view, the splitting of the mother into female and male figures occurs in order to emphasize that the antagonism between female adversaries (mother - daughter, sisters) is much stronger than between males and females.
The story also deals with the preparations of the ego to reach the stage of maturity symbolized by marriage: emancipation from the affluent, parental nest, cohabitation with protective but asexual male figures, temporary death or disappearance (regression to earlier stages of development or ambivalence between growing up and remaining a child) and finally marriage to a prince.

In the present paper, the author attempts to offer her own interpretations of the stories of Little Red Riding Hood and Snow White and the Dwarfs. Some of these interpretations are based on children's responses to a projective test for children, the Fairy Tale Test. Although, children project their personal conflicts, anxieties, or thoughts, on the stimulus cards, some of their responses may be quite revealing regarding fairy tale symbolisms.
So far all psychoanalytic interpretations are the outcome of the theoretical background of their theorists. In this paper an attempt is made to demonstrate the relation between children' s responses to a projective instrument and fairy tale interpretation. The author believes that a large number of fairy tales employ ego defense mechanisms and in particular the mechanism of Splitting. In the Little Red Riding Hood story we have the splitting of the mother into a young woman and into an old and weak figure that both attempt to strengthen the heroine's ego and her ability to cope with separation anxiety and fears. In Snow White we have the splitting of the mother -probably due to Oedipus conflicts - into the wicked witch and into the benevolent dwarfs.
Although the relationship between responses to a projective test and fairy tale interpretation is not a direct one, it may serve as a significant lead in the field of fairy tale interpretation as well as in clarifying the relationship between fairy tales and unconscious processes.

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(1) Carina Coulacoglou, Ph.D
Child Psychologist
Address for correspondence: 40E Esperou Str., Kifissia, Athens 14564, Greece
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