When people start working with fairy tales in individual therapy or groups, they know very little about the tale itself – or indeed, about therelationshipexistingbetweenthemandthefairytale.They only see a story which may attract or repel them with elemental force, but they are unable to say why. Perhaps it is because they recognise themselves in the fairy tale’s protagonist. Or perhaps the conflict between the characters is about something familiar to their own situation. Or maybe, the hero’s or heroine’s adversary reminds them of their own enemy. Why do they feel as if it was not the protagonist, but in fact themselves wandering in the thick dark forest with no clearings, no sign-posts, with the only hope that someone will finally take their hand and lead them out?
They are filled with unanswered questions, vague feelings, secret glimmerings – and the hope that by understanding what attracts them so much to the particular fairy tale, they will understand themselves and the world better.
But how should they embark on this path of realisation? How should they begin working with a story (and with themselves)? This question is central to the therapy. If we open up a symbol or archetype for someone at the wrong time, they could miss the chance to channel the psychic energy which comes from self-discovery. And similarly, if we make the meaning or the message of the tale too obvious for a person, we may deprive them of the possibility to face something they did not dare to face before in their own rhythm, propelled by their own courage. I often see at the first therapy session that there is a perfect “match” between the life of the person sitting face to face with me and the fairy tale chosen by him or her: the tale tells the story of his or her life almost word for word, motif by motif. But it is very rare that this obvious connection is seen also by the client. However, in fairy tale therapy, the therapist is not meant to make this connection obvious or translate the tale for the clients, but instead to encourage an inner process by mediating the tale to them so that they find a connection between their own secret or unknown inner paths and the tale.
In order to facilitate the beginning of the work, we may ask clients with whom or with what they identify themselves in the particular tale, or which character’s situation seems attractive or repulsive to them. In other words, we start the therapy by trying to understand the situation, disposition and actions of the chosen character; by doing so, we can analyse situations resulting from good or bad choices, map the web of relationships between the tale’s characters, and decode the different forms of communication protagonists use to communicate with the world. In this case, we interpret the fairy tale as a basis of reference, and consequently, we treat the protagonist of the tale as a person of reference. Clients interpret themselves and their actions in reference to the situation and the protagonist depicted by the tale, while using rational tools. But fairy tales are more potent than other forms of therapy, in that they provide an opportunity to open up irrational paths, while at the same time not ruling out experiencing rational ones either. Clients are not under hypnosis, or in a dream, a trance, a meditative state, or a field of free association. In other words, they progress step by step not by walking in their subconscious mind, but in the fairy tale’s strictly confined space paved with rules. This space holds them, provides boundaries and handholds for them, sometimes stops them or makes them think, while opening up a space that is no more the closed space of the tale, but the space of their own freedom. They can then consciously transfer their experiences gained in the fairy tale’s closed, safe space into this other, free space where they can transform their discoveries into action. These two spaces are constantly open during therapy sessions; therefore clients have to do just as protagonists of Hungarian folk tales do: on the one hand, they have to move according to the laws of reason; on the other, they have to enter a space where the laws of reason are void, and where events are a result of unknown connections and laws. It is within these two conflicting spaces, and under the tension of this pressure that clients have to sort things out, and create some harmony, in order to get out of a difficult situation.
In this type of work, I personally find it much more effective if the fairy tale is not present as a reference, i.e. if the therapy does not begin with the question “who are you in the tale?” The reason why this strategy is not ideal is that archetypal models can only serve as a framework to understand a personality; sticking to these models can restrict the freedom of both therapist and client. It would be a mistake to see every tormented teenager as a Snow White, or to only recognise and address the “goddess in us”. In my experience, it is much more revealing about people where they see themselves in the story. In fairy tales there are many locations. From the isolated hovel to the dense forest and the ballroom of the royal palace, protagonists turn up in many places. In the Grimm brothers’ tale Cinderella for instance, there is a cemetery, a kitchen, a heap of ashes, a royal palace, a pear tree, a pigeon-house, a ballroom and a staircase, just to mention the most obvious. If a “Cinderella woman” sees herself in our very first meeting in the ashes in the kitchen, and it does not even occur to her that she might as well go to the ball, I assume that she is a slave to her duties who keeps away from joys. Where she needs help the most is not to finally become able to “go to the ball”, but to have at least the desire awaken in her to go to the ball. The woman who in the same tale is excited while putting on her makeup is acting in the hope and desire of a relationship, in contrast to the one who sees herself fleeting the stairs, or curling herself up in the pigeon-house, when trying to picture herself in the story. Someone else may recognise herself in the scene where Cinderella has to decide whether she wants to try the lost shoe on or not. Is she willing to enter into a relationship with the prince or not? Is she ready to get married or not?
When we were working with the Hungarian folktale The Beautiful Reed Maiden (Világszép Nádszálkisasszony) in a fairy tale therapy group, I asked the 14 groupmembers present where they saw themselves in the tale. One group member was right in the old woman’s house, another was riding the magic steed, the third saw himself facing the wolves who were guarding the frontiers. There was a member who recognised himself at the beginning of the tale, at the moment of setting off, someone else saw himself at the moment when the prince was losing everything. Others recognised themselves at the place of rebirth, in the diamond forest or in the golden forest; still others saw themselves in the reed stem, in the Sun’s vestibule or on the 77th island of the Black Sea. Group members saw themselves at fourteen different places of the same tale, because each one of them arrived with a different baggage and started off from a different situation in life. Fourteen different life situations and fourteen different options to move on were revealed during the group work, and we discovered and outlined fourteen different strategies of coping while working with the same story. The person who was waiting for her liberator in a reed stem had to realise that she had to fight the witch who held her prisoner on her own. The one who was staying in the Sun’s vestibule realised what consequences complacency and arrogance can have. In fairy tale terms, when the protagonist is in the “hole of the earth”, facing the hundred- headed dragon, he experiences the challenging moments of having to start afresh. And when he meets the wolves, he has to offer them a sacrifice: he has to give up something in order to achieve something else. After differences of opinion and debates, by the end of the intense group work, all fourteen members found solutions that were absolutely valid in a psychological sense. They managed to harmonise the closed space of the tale and the open space of their own freedom in such a way that all the elements of the story fell into place. There were no inner inconsistencies in the stories each of them staged individually in their own souls and minds.
In this kind of work, it is the therapist’s responsibility to identify inner contradictions and point them out. For instance, if we see ourselves in the hole of the earth, in front of the Iron Gate, and at the same time we identify the prince’s rash curiosity and impatience as the tale’s conflict, then we are obviously lost in this closed space. Because in the hole of the earth it is not impatience that has to be overcome; the question is whether or not we can rise from the bottom. Can we recover from a situation in which all seems lost? In such cases we can be most helpful by leading clients to the scene where they really are, psychologically speaking. In the case of this particular tale, to the place where due to inner temptation, they cut open the reed stem prematurely, when the situation is not yet ripe for releasing the beauty hiding there, meaning they are not yet ready to accept a new situation. It may be helpful – and it is up to the therapist to choose the right kind of help
– if we specify the presumed conflict of the tale, or if we work with the conflict that really covers the particular client’s problem. In other words, if it is beneficial to the client, we may gently guide him or her to another scene so that the real conflict can be identified. We can do the same if it is evident that based on their real life story, clients are actually not at the place where they see themselves at the given moment. This is usually a symptom of the clients’ inability to properly position themselves in a relationship or a life situation. It would then be very helpful for them to be led to another scene of the fairy tale, more appropriate to their actual situation.
The basis of working with fairy tales in psychotherapy is the realisation that characters of the fairy tale can be considered as inner characters, and scenes and locations of the tale as inner scenes and locations. In this sense, the story’s scenes “always correspond to spiritual or mental factors, and they represent different stages and situations of a person’s inner transformation”.1In my therapy sessions I met people who envisioned themselves at the following fairy tale scenes at our first meeting: on the road, wandering; in the garden, under a golden apple tree; at the frontier; on the river bank; in the witch’s hut; in the underworld; at the bottom of the sky-high tree; on top of the sky-high tree; in a dense forest; in the poor man’s house; on a bridge; in a tower; in a well; in a royal palace; by the side of a lake; at the bottom of the sea; in a glass palace; on a flowery field; in a cave by the forest; in the garden of a monastery; in the stem of a reed; at the stake; on a corn field; in a crate; in a narrow glen; in the door of a wooden hut; in the air; on a bright clearing of a dark forest; on the sea shore; on an island; at a den of witches; in front of a golden gate; in a dark and cold doorway; in a moat; in a no-man’s land; riding a magical griffin; in a shiny desert; in a glass coffin; inside an all- devouring head cheese; in the ashes; by the land of robbers; on a marketplace; in a carriage; in a snowfield; on the back of a black cockerel; between the sky and the earth; in the hollow of a large tree; in the valley of snakes; on a glass mountain; in an iron hut; in a ditch; on a dump; on a window-sill; in the middle of the sea.
Each location corresponded exactly to the given client’s state of mind or the desire represented by the chosen scene. If someone sees him or herself on top of a sky-high tree, it is not certain that he or she is already there, but the person at least knows he or she is heading there. If we disregard the fairy tale and treat these locations merely as independent symbols, it is fairly obvious that seeing ourselves on a dump, or at the bottom of the sea, inside an all-devouring head cheese, on a wooden stake or in a crate does not have the same significance as seeing ourselves in a flowery field, at a golden gate, on a golden bridge or in a bright clearing. These places in the fairy tale are not geographical locations; they represent actual psychological situations. They are an excellent basis for starting therapy because clients always visualise fairy tale locations in a much more intense way than the protagonists. When they see themselves in a dense forest, a narrow glen or a glass palace, they are very clearly trying to communicate where they have been blocked, at which stage of their lives they got stuck in a situation from which they cannot see a way out. When discussing the location in question, the therapist gets an insight into the psychological state of the client. This location is very useful in later phases of the therapy as well, because the location or situation can be populated, transformed or solved via the imagination of the client him or herself. If clients are able to imagine the location being different from how they see it now – as less menacing, less dark, not so deep, not so dangerous, etc. –, they have gained an inner experience that things can be changed. If they are unable to picture this transforming, populating or taming, then the plot itself will take their hand and guide them, as no tale ever leaves its protagonist at any place forever. In every tale there are pleasant and less pleasant, attractive and repulsive locations. But heroes and heroines never remain at locations where they experience unpleasant or repulsive things. They do not avoid the place; they do go there, but only to accomplish the task that awaits them there. They have to face a different task at each location and a different kind of adverse power. But as soon as they explored and got to know the situation and achieved what they were meant to achieve, they move on. However, the purpose of the therapy is not to rescue someone from the narrow glen or the glass coffin as quickly as possible, but to get to know the nature of the glen and the glass coffin as thoroughly as possible, as well as the traps and opportunities they offer. Both of them detain the protagonist or client, but this detention provides an opportunity to contemplate. The glen for instance may be steep-sided, but this allows greater perspective. And fortunately, the glass coffin is not under the ground, but its sides, and even its top, are transparent, making it possible to perceive the world in a different way. In other words, temporarily being cut off from life sometimes can help in further shaping one’s future path in life.
Setting off signifies something different in fairy tale therapy than in fairy tales. In fairy tales, protagonists set off at the beginning of the tale. In therapy, clients set off where they see themselves in the tale, and this has nothing to do with the story’s structure. If someone sees oneself in the glass coffin, then that’s where we start the therapy; if it is inthe heap of ashes, then we start from there; if it is when fleeing from the royal ball, then from there; if it is on the dump, from there and so on. In fairy tales, heroes and heroines always know their purpose and thereas on why they leave (or flee) the place where they are. In therapy, this is never obvious; clients know at most that they “don’t want to live like this anymore”, they “want to deal with something”. But they have no idea what exactly they want to deal with or how. This is when we turn again to the motives of setting off in fairy tales and we examine what motivates heroes and heroines to change their lives. They may set off by their own decision, or under a violent emotion, in despair, by mistake, out of curiosity or love of adventures; they may also set off because their parents turned them out, sent them away or chased them from home, or it may happen that chance or some misfortune removes them from their old situation, or perhaps someone asks for their help. But by far the most common form of setting off is “to try one’s luck”. Setting off somewhere to try one’s luck in the past only meant leaving to search for happiness, according to tradition.2That is to say, if someone takes the first steps either by his or her own decision or by necessity, there is only one reason to do this: the person wants to live happily.
We are all driven by this same desire; differences in solution techniques come from the fact that there are as many ways to picture happiness as there are people searching for it. That is why fairy tales do not deal with the nature of happiness: they do not want to show where it is to be found or how it is like, because no one has succeeded in satisfactorily reconstructing it so far. However, they do say firmly that no matter how we picture it, we have to work hard for it. There is not a single protagonist who only solves problems in theory. We do not know of any heroes who speak only of how one should lead one’s life. We do not know of any heroes who get stuck on the level of making plans, and give up their plans upon meeting the first obstacle. “I’m not going to climb the sky-high tree because it’s too high.” “I won’t cross the glass mountain because it’s too far away.” “The dragon is a very dangerous animal, so I’d rather stay home.” “A princess? It’s a lot of trouble. I’m not going anywhere.” We often hear such excuses in our lives. Fairy tale therapy helps us get rid of our excuses by confronting us with them, and by teaching us how to make the first steps. That is why it is so important where we start. The location has to be clearly specified and visualised; otherwise, it will not open up new roads. And we can only gather the necessary strength to make the journey from here.
The fairy tale progresses linearly from one point to another, detours and trials are merely stations on the road. In fairy tale therapy, linearity or the simple progression from one location to another is not the point. As a first step, the important thing is rather to begin working with the “location” where the problem has occurred. We can only answer the question “why has this person ended up in a glass coffin and how can he or she get out of it?” if we recognise ourselves in that glass coffin. Other elements of our lives are also present in the tale: the truthful mirror, the helpful hunter, the gold-mining dwarfs and the step-mother threatening our lives. But it matters very much, both in the fairy tale and in real life, where exactly the poisoned apple is: in one’s throat, in one’s stepmother’s hand, or spat out, in the dust of the road.
Translation by Orsolya Németh
1 Pressing, Lajos, Az égig érő fa. Szellemi tanítások a magyar népmesékben [The sky-high tree. Spiritual teachings in Hungarian folk tales]. Pilis-Print 2009, p. 48.
2 Berze Nagy, János, “Magyar szólásaink és a folklore” [Hungarian idiomatic phrases and folklore].
In: Nap és tükör. [Sun and mirror]. 1982, p. 240.