Anatomies of the fairy tale Anatomies of the fairy tale
Inside Picture Books


Saturday, August 21, 1999. Toronto Globe&Mail

by Ellen Handler Spitz, Yale University Press, 230 pages

The Witch Must Die: How Fairy Tales Shape Our Lives

by Sheldon Cashdan, Basic, 288 pages

In the book-publishing world, the dog days of August signal not so much the waning of another summer as the harbinger of the fall publishing season. On or about Labour Day, a deluge of new books will rain down on the parched fields of our summer-fallowed brains. In anticipation, a little background reading might be in order: Two very good books -- not children's books, but books about children's books -- Inside Picture Books and Why the Witch Must Die: How Fairy Tales Shape Our Lives,could be the perfect vade mecums with which to cull the fall crop of children's books.

These are different books with different approaches, but they share an underlying principle: that books and reading are keystones in the emotional and intellectual development of a child.

Inside Picture Books is an excellent book, not least because it examines children's books from a number of angles -- moral, esthetic and psychological. All of which makes it sound like heavy going. It isn't, although it is densely packed and Ellen Handler Spitz, who has worked for many years in what eminent psychiatrist Robert Coles, who contributes a forward, calls applied psychoanalysis, provides a close reading of text and picture -- but that reading, those texts and those pictures beckon the enthusiast like a siren song. Goodnight Moon,most of Maurice Sendak, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, The Story of Ferdinand, Madeline and several versions of Little Black Sambo are among books she examines with her discerning eye.

Those for whom Sendak is a demigod will find her reading of his work fascinating and controversial. A 14-page disquisition on Where the Wild Things Are provides insights into text and picture -- what each is doing and to what effect -- and reasons for the book's phenomenal success, a success due to "the skill with which Sendak demonstrates two major agendas of early childhood: first, the push toward language and socialization, toward the acceptance of limits, losses and diachronic time; and second, the pull toward impulse, wish and desire."

Spitz is not entirely laudatory about Wild Things. In her view, it and other Sendak books are ethically shallow. Like that other Sendakian hero, Mickey (he of the Night Kitchen), Max is a bravura solo flyer, impelled by his desires, whims and wishes. There is no reciprocal love for Max and Mickey, no thanks, no return on kindnesses. Are Sendak's readers stirred by something Max took as his due -- that his dinner was waiting for him, that it was still hot? Is asking for more from Sendak asking for too much, especially considering the depth and richness Spitz discerns in his work?

All is not depth and richness, though, in the children's lit world, as Spitz makes very clear when she takes her dissecting knife to, for instance, Robert Munch's Love You Forever,a book she mentions, "not by way of recommendation but by way of concern." If you have ever wondered what, beyond its mawkishness, appalled you so in that book or for that matter in Shel Silverstein's The Giving Tree,Spitz's interpretations are satisfyingly revelatory.

If "interpretations" of the psychoanalytic variety are what Spitz brings to children's books, Sheldon Cashdan eschews them with some vigour in The Witch Must Die: How Fairy Tales Shape Our Lives. In fact, he goes to considerable trouble to distance himself from the late and not always lamented Bruno Bettelheim, whose The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales (1976) has informed thinking about fairy tales for some time.

Cashdan's treatment of Bettelheim's psychosexual analysis borders on scorn. Bettelheim believed, writes Cashdan, that the "hidden text in fairy tales revolves about such matters as penis envy, castration anxiety and unconscious incestuous longings." So, for instance, Snow White'sseven dwarves are "stunted penises" who because of diminished sexual capacity are no threat to Snow White and offer her a refuge from her stepmother, the queen.

Cashdan, while not denying that children are sexual beings, believes sex is not the most pressing issue on their minds. Children worry far more about "their standing in the family, and about whether they are loved as much as their siblings. They wonder about whether there is anything they might say or do that could lead to their being abandoned. Many of the concerns . . . of the very young have less to do with sex than with thoughts and impulses that affect their relationships with significant figures in their lives."

Cahsdan uses self theory, a psychological perspective that deals with, in this case, the child's developing sense of self, to explore the meaning and importance of fairy tales. Self theory "focuses on aspects of the personality that threaten to undermine a child's intimate connection to others, particularly parents and peers." And what might those aspects be? Why, the seven deadly sins: vanity, gluttony, envy, deceit, lust, greed and sloth.

Is it not possible then, to view Hansel and Gretel as a story that has at its heart the "sin" of gluttony? And Cinderella as a story about envy? Or Snow White as a story about vanity? In his characteristically lively and provocative manner, Cashdan makes a most convincing case for his thesis that children use fairy tales to restore their "good" self, and to exorcize those parts of themselves that are unacceptable or "sinful."

Fairy tales are captivating, in part, Cashdan suggests, because they tap into the dark corners of the psyche, routing, at least temporarily, the monsters lurking there. One of those monsters is, of course, the witch. Who is the witch and why must she die? Put simply, she is the "bad mother," a construct the young child employs to deal with disappointment about the nature of her or his mother.

Contrary to popular belief, there is no perfect mother; for the child she is a perplexing mix of good and bad, at one and the same time consistent and inconsistent, frustrating and gratifying. By a process known as splitting, the child externalizes the "good" mother as her or his "good" self, and internalizes the "bad" mother, the witch, as her or his "bad" self.

So the witch must die and it will not have escaped notice that the more blood-curdling the death the more satisfying the fairy tale. Think of the end that befalls the witch in Hansel and Gretel,shoved by Gretel into the oven to die the death she planned for the children. Or the wicked queen in Snow White,who dances to her death in red-hot shoes at Snow White's wedding.

After the conquest of evil, after the death of the witch, everyone lives happily ever after, which brings us to what must be considered the true benison of the fairy tale.

Cashdan gives the last word on the subject to Marina Warner, whose From the Beast to the Blonde (1994), is a brilliant and scholarly analysis of the role of the fairy tale. She states that fairy tales play an invaluable role in the lives of both children and adults because "they help us imagine another life. They allow us to tell alternative stories, to conjure up worlds where happy endings are possible. Fairy tales . . . strike a chord of optimism that resonates deep in the hearts of all human beings."