Fairy tales are an actively evolving element of human history and culture, which has significantly impacted human life. In turn, humans have shaped and changed the tales to an extent that different versions of strikingly similar tales exist in current documentation. This occurrence shows how tales have morphed through time under the different change dynamics, which have shaped the tales. Therefore, fairly tales are an evolving cultural element that connects the past to the present, while at the same time giving room to interpretation and adaptation based on current dynamics (Nukiuk, “Introduction to Fairy Tale Interpretation”).
In order to comprehend the meaning and place of fairy tales in human life, there is a need to understand what they mean through interpretation. Apparently, interpretations are meant to develop a clear understanding that delivers definitive meaning. However, Koeske notes that the interpretation of fairy tales has never been sufficiently straightforward to deliver definitive meaning. Instead, the interpretation of fairy tales has shown that it is a challenging pursuit, which is influenced by a multiple factors that make interpretation subjective and contextual.
According to Lau (233), the interpretation of fairy tales is challenging and akin to an attempt of understanding a language, which requires a consideration of more than one factor. Lau states that in order to understand language, various factors have to be put into consideration as well as their interplay or dynamics (233). In order to understand language one needs to consider the interplay between cultural context, symbolism and structure (Lau 233). Additionally, the interpretation process is in itself a subjective process influenced by personal experiences and knowledge scope among many other factors. The inability to have definitive interpretation of fairy tales mainly results from the fact that fairy tales morph and change through time as they pass through different historical times and socio-cultural contexts. Therefore, there is no single definitive interpretation of any fairy tale, instead what exists are relatively different interpretations, based on contextual factors and cultural relativism considerations.
The subjective nature of fairy tale interpretations can be exemplified by the fairy tale about Cinderella. In modern times in the Western world, the fairy tale may have the meaning of an “underdog”, rising up the ranks to greatness. However, the contextual truth based on historical times and meanings of the surrounding themes show that the tale is more about the supposed injustices of denying rightful privileges to one that is of aristocratic birth (Nukiuk, “Introduction to Fairy Tale Interpretation”). The story was, therefore, a glorification of royal rights and aristocracy rather than the elevation of the lowly in class. In actual sense, Cinderella was of aristocratic royalty, and the story was more about dangers of marrying peasant women and rising above their societal cadre. Therefore, the contextual meaning of the fairy tale changes as it moves through time and cultural shifts. In essence, the meaning of one fairy tale may change according to the cultural context. The changes that fairy tales acquire as they get transmitted through different cultures and time may also influence their interpretation at any particular time. For example, the Bluebeard fairy tale has various variants, whose changes can be attributed to the dynamism that characterizes fairy tales as they move through time cultures (Tatar 46). In this fairy tale, the curiosity of the wife in the story is betrayed by different objects under each variant. In one example, the betrayal results from a worn singing rose. In another, a breaking egg and in another a key stained with blood (Tatar 46). These slight changes in the variants least affect the overall story, but they significantly influence interpretations. The differences result from the variations as well as the motifs borne and influenced by the specific object. These two examples show the subjective nature of interpretation, and it is totally agreeable that interpretations can never be definitive based on these observations. However, in order to develop a better understanding on interpretation, there is a need to review the origin of the subjectivity and influencing factors. This leads to the development of differentiated interpretation frameworks that are commonly applicable.
Types of Interpretation Frameworks
Fairy tales morph, because they are influenced by people, and in turn, they also influence people and culture through the time continuum. As such, there are different ways of interpreting them. The most common interpretation includes choosing to view the tales as historical artefacts, which reveal information about the culture that presents the fairy tale. Alternatively, people may try to interpret fairy tales in terms of their relation and meaning to the human mind. This is the popular belief behind Jungian and Freudian interpretations, which have a psychological basis to fairy tales’ interpretation (Nukiuk, “Introduction to Fairy Tale Interpretation”). In this framework of interpretation, cultural relationships among humans are also considered, and their interactions are used to make decisions.
Finally, a person may choose to view a fairy tale as a constantly changing and living thing that can be understood in the context of a dynamically changing world within which the interpreter exists. This consideration takes more into account the fact that people and the fairy tales are two constantly and dynamically changing elements that exert influence upon each other. Therefore, there are three interpretive frameworks namely: historical, psychological and literary interpretations (Nukiuk, “Introduction to Fairy Tale Interpretation”). These frameworks make different considerations, but they all present some truth about a tale in one way or another.
Virtually all fairy tales do not depict events that can be considered historical. The fact that there are human characters in the story is not sufficient to grant them historical truth, because when this happens it is often accompanied by naturally inexistent elements. For example, humans would be speaking to birds and riding on beings, such as hippogriffs, and this negates what would be considered as true. In Cinderella’s story rats turn into horses and a pumpkin into a beautiful coach (Lang 6). However, according to Warner (213), fairy tales may have something to tell about the history and times of the people that bore and transmitted the tale. For example, the recurrent nature of the wicked stepmother character, exemplified in Cinderella and other fairy tales, may be historically explained by the fact that a large number of women died in childbirth due to lack of proper healthcare. As such, most children ended up in the hands of their stepmothers after their father’s remarriage, and tumultuous relations that ensued formed a core theme of such fairy tales (Warner 213).
Apart from the fairy tales depicting historical issues in society, their passage through time is influenced as they come into contact with other tales and cultures. For example, the tale of forest king (Leshii) and the bear from Russia morphs into a tale about Saint Nicholas, and Odin’s tales changes into a tale about Charlemagne leading a wild hunt in the woods. Such transformations show that the tales may at some point in time take up historical characters and events and, therefore, becoming carriers of some elements of history. Therefore, as fairy tales are passed on through generations and cultures they may interact with other tales and cultural changes, which will eventually change the tales (Bettelheim 47). As a result, the progression of fairy tales through time implies that they bear historical information and can be interpreted from a historical perspective.
The interpretation of fairy tales could also be understood in terms of the emotions and thoughts, which characterized their development. This forms a cross-cultural psychological view of interpreting fairy tales. In the Interpretation of Fairy Tales, which is a book authored by Marie-Louise, fairy tales are termed as elements that structurally mirror the human psyche (Marie-Louise 2). Therefore, their development depicts a collective understanding of the people to whom the tales belonged. The possible dual interpretation highlighted earlier in relation to Cinderella’s story, explains the psychological basis of interpretation. This framework of interpretations relies on frames of understanding developed through experience and knowledge. As such, people interpret what they read or hear about fairy tales based on their already developed frames of understanding, which rely on acquired knowledge and experience. For example, the view of Cinderella’s tale as an underdog rising to greatness is based on current Western interpretive frameworks with a little knowledge about past aristocracy.
The psychological view of interpretation explains the relative nature of interpretation, which explains differences in interpretation results based on differences among individuals and their understanding. Therefore, interpretations by individuals and societies may differ basing on their differences. Any similarity in interpretations may, thus, be an indicator of a greater commonality between the interpreting parties in terms of knowledge and experience. This also implies that while the current interpretation on Cinderella differs from the past interpretation, there is also a possibility of future interpretations being totally or slightly different from the present and past interpretations. The cognitive process of developing meanings about phenomena, events and nature may also be used to develop interpretations about fairy tales. For example, fairy tales may be developed to explain a phenomenon that is least understood. This implies that the tales are a basis upon which limits in cognition are supplemented by fairy tales’ explanations. Mitchell (267) explains this phenomenon in interpretation by stating that the “tales are a dramatic representation of basic psychological processes”.
A literary interpretation simply embodies an interpretive format that creates meaning based on handling content as part of a body of knowledge build by culture. The fairy tales are under this interpretation treated as a body of knowledge that has been transmitted through time and various cultures (Nukiuk, “Fairy Tale Interpretation”). Therefore, the tales are interpreted on the background of attempts to understand the knowledge held by a community. The derived meanings, therefore, represent a community’s understanding of various life factors. For example, religious elements in a fairy tale are strong indicators of a society’s religious nature. This would also imply that the community from which the tale emerged had a body of knowledge about religion, which is expressed within the tale.
Similarly, values about society on issues such as marriage and parenthood can be inferred from the interpretation of fairy tales from particular society. This form of interpretation heavily relies on cultural relativism, which requires interpreters to try viewing the fairy tales from the perspective of the society of origin and time. In such cases, contextual considerations are of greater importance. This form of interpretation is ideal, because it is agreeable that universal ideas only occur in rare cases, and different concepts and ideas appear differently to every social group and culture. This type of interpretation is quite challenging, considering that the societies and people from whom these tales originated are long gone (Nukiuk, “Fairy Tale Interpretation”). Therefore, much of the interpretation is based on the little knowledge that is known and some level of guesswork. The interpretations based on such a framework are, thus, as accurate as the information held about a society and the particular fairy tale under interpretation.
In conclusion, the interpretation of fairy tales tells a lot about not only the tales, but also the people, societies and times, from which the tales were born. However, these interpretations are challenging because there is little known about the specific times when the tales were created. Additionally, the fairy tales are not static and their dynamic nature of transforming with changes in culture and time greatly influences their nature and content. This changing nature of fairy tales poses the first interpretation challenge for fairy tale readers. The second challenge originates from the fact that people’s frameworks of understanding differ based on experience and knowledge. This explains why two or more people may have different interpretations on one fairy tale. It can, thus, be inferred from these challenges that there is no single definitive interpretation on any one fairy tale. Therefore, fairy tales should continue to be understood and interpreted within contextual framework, while considering anthropological, literary, cultural and socio-psychological frameworks of developing meaning. The application of all forms of interpretation is perhaps the best approach towards developing a comprehensive understanding on any fairy tale.