Bruno and the Dark Fairy Tales

 

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Fairy tales were meant to be dark. Dark and sinister, full of evil stepmothers, vengeful ogres, big bad wolves and seemingly unsolvable problems. Fairy tales take us into hidden realms of the psyche, thus giving an opportunity to explore, provoke, and discover new power.

No one understood this better than 20th century child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim. Today I pay homage to this man, born on August 28, 1903, in Vienna, Austria.

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Having spent the greater part of his professional career involved with emotionally disturbed children, in 1976 Bettelheim published his masterpiece The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales.   In this book, Bettelheim explained how fairy tales are symbolic of healthy human development. He advocated fairy tales as necessary for children to make the process of ‘growing up’ easier.  A good dark fairy tale gives the child a chance to stimulate his/her imagination and think up creative solutions to problems.

While Disney was busy sanitizing Cinderella, and while the censorship dogs fanned the flames of banned books, Bettelheim became an advocate for exploration of the scary monsters, the bloodthirsty giants, the magic mirrors.

Bettelheim himself was no stranger to the Dark Side. His life was a series of unfortunate incidences, but it was also full of unprecedented victories.

Born just after the turn of the 20th century, Bruno was the son of a wood merchant. His family was Jewish and middle class.  In his early twenties he began study at the University of Vienna but when his father became ill he quit school to take over his family’s lumber business. Dark strike number one.

As it turned out – the illness Bruno’s dad was suffering from happened to be syphilis. This reportedly brought a slow and painful death, not to mention irrevocable shame and stress upon his family. Dark strike number two.

In 1930 Bettelheim married his first wife Gina. Eventually he returned to the university, earning a Ph.D in philosophy. In 1938 he became an accredited psychiatrist and was one of the last Jews in Europe to be awarded a Doctorate degree before the Holocaust.

Enter the Nazis. In 1939 Bruno was arrested by the Gestapo. He was imprisoned in Dachau and Buchenwald. Dark strike number three.

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Luckily, he was released through payment (Nazi officials not being beyond bribery.) Upon returning to a blighted Vienna, Bruno found that his wife had left him, his home and business were devastated, and he had lost virtually everything. Dark strike number four.

In 1941 he married his second wife Gertrude Weinfeld. They emigrated to the United States in 1943 and became citizens.  Bettelheim published his experiences from the concentration camps in his 1943 work:  Individual and Mass Behavior in Extreme Situations.  He eventually became a professor of psychology, teaching at the University of Chicago from 1944 until his retirement in 1973.

Bettelheim also served as director of the Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School at the University of Chicago, a home for emotionally disturbed children. His work there was world famous.  The Uses of Enchantment became a best seller. It was awarded the U.S. Critic’s Choice Prize for criticism in 1976 and the National Book Award in the category of Contemporary Thought in 1977.

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To be fair, it should be noted that Bettelheim was also considered controversial. He has been called “inspiring, aggressive, irascible, dismissive of fools, and capable of both great kindness and great unkindness.”

Perhaps he had to be. He was up against academia and a culture that, for the most part, does not like to examine its own flaws.

The need to sanitize fairy tales was no doubt well intended. Walt Disney himself was also no stranger to the Dark Side.  His remedy was to create likable dwarfs that whistled while they worked and a sweet as pie Cinderella that never did harm to anyone.

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Never mind that the original Cinderella sent her birds to pluck out the eyes of her stepsisters. Never mind that the stepsisters literally mutilated their own feet with knives in a effort to fit the slipper. Never mind that the dwarfs had prurient intentions toward the nubile Snow White — who might be considered a prototype for Nabokov’s Lolita.  Some things are simply not for children’s eyes and ears.

However, Bettelheim argued that an attempt to hide hard and sinister truths from children would only hinder their development, making them less able to cope as adults. (Besides that, it would cut out a good deal of the fun!) Most children are very interested in the Dark Side. It has a magnetic quality.  They love to hate the villains and identify with the heroes.

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As our society becomes more self conscious and politically correct, we are more in danger of sanitizing reading material. This trend could greatly damage young people.

I once read an internet review of Alice in Wonderland in which the adult reader claimed this story was ‘way too scary for children.’

Consider the so called scary parts of Alice: Tumbling down a big rabbit hole and then having no control over your own growth. Facing a queen who threatens to behead the entire world.

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Bettelheim argues that this type of scary story is good for kids because it allows them a chance to face terrible circumstances in their imagination, and follow the hero to a creative solution. Thus when kids are with a real life problem, it will not be so overwhelming.

 

Bruno Bettelheim and Albert Einstein both knew this. Einstein, a great fan of fairy tales, often advocated for the use of them in education. Magic hits us in the quantum heart.

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If we want our children to be free thinkers, problem solvers and imaginative  individuals, we would do well to let them to explore the dark side of fairy tales.

Happy Birthday Bruno!

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Ryder and the Wolf

 

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As I stepped to the forest path the moon was platinum full, bathing its pale light over the changing leaves of October. The Native tribes called this moon Hunter, and sure as I gazed at it, I knew Diana’s strength embraced me.

In my basket I carried victuals, all manner of  which would aid my ailing Granny. There were sweet cakes spilling with honey. Wine pressed from dandelion and elderberry. Ginger root to be brewed in a strong tea and garlic bulbs to be steeped in milk. All of it was surely enough to cure any grippe or fever. My poor Granny suffered. Her health and well being were the most important things to me in all the world.

The night was gray, a thick fog rising, air soft as early autumn’s gauze.  There was a stillness to the wind, an eeriness like the calm before a storm.  This night was odd, I felt it in my bones. Strange things were portended, and if it weren’t for my ailing Granny I would scarce have left from my cottage.

Yet the Hunter moon beckoned.

Halfway through the lupine pass I spotted the wolf. A coat black as ebony and blue eyes that gleamed bright as sapphire.

 

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No doubt the animal had sniffed out my victuals, or even, I daresay, my own blood. I was not a-feared. Humankind surely has dominion over the beasts of this planet. Still, I knew I’d best keep my distance.  I made myself scarce among the heather and pine. I even scattered a few cake crumbs so as to throw the beast off my trail. I then proceeded in another direction entirely, forgoing the shortcut yet proceeding to Granny’s cottage all the same.

My dodging was to no avail, for some three leagues down the road I encountered the wolf again. This time the most wondrous of things happened, so much so that you gentle reader, may doubt my words. I assure you it all is true, sure as my name is Ryder Redd and I dwell in the forest of Galbraithe.

The wolf spoke to me, in a voice clear and stern as any man. “Ryder Redd,”  quothe he. “What brings thee to the forest?”   I was, of course, taken aback.  And yet, in the pale light of the moon, where all manner of wondrous things  happened, and in the still of the fog where metamorphosis morphed, a talking wolf seemed, in that instant, not so very strange at all.

“I bring remedies to my Granny, black wolf,” said I. “For she ails in fever and such victuals are sure to cure it.”

The wolf then sniffed, stuck his snout in the flannel napkin of my sack.  “Have you no meat, woman?” he asked, a rise of tension in his voice.

“Nay sir,” said I. “So sorry to disappoint, but it is medicine I bring. Honey cakes, ginger, strong wine, and garlic, noxious enough to clear any head.”

“Bah, what good are you?” said the wolf. With that he bounded up the path. I silently thanked Diana, for she had no doubt protected me. As the Huntress keeps her animals at bay, so humans are free to wander the earth.

By and by I came to Granny’s cottage. I knocked upon the door. No answer. The house was still as rock, no sign of stirring within.   Granny was, no doubt, in slumber.  I opened the door. The house was dark and I fumbled for some candles.  Having lit them I checked the bedroom, looked beneath the sheets, lifted the dust ruffle and even peeked under the bed. “Granny?”  I called. She was nowhere to be found.

Just then through the window I heard an earth shattering howl. Then more howls joined in unison. My heart quickened, for, confronted with one wolf I was able and competent, but this – a whole pack outside my Gran’s door? For this I was not equipped.

Still, curiosity got the better of me and I went to the window.  What I viewed, gentle reader, you will surely not believe. Yet I saw it with the eyes in my head, a steady gaze not tempered by imagination nor spirits. I even pinched myself to make sure it was so.

There, under the light of the moon I saw the pack of black wolves.  Nay wolves!  I say wolves – but not these! These were some strange form of animal, heads and bodies like wolves but with spans of feathered wings that fluttered from their backs.  They were like Pegasus, if such a creature existed.  Like Gryphon, were such a creature true!

 

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By my wits and my troth I should have been frightened. Frightened white as Diana’s moon. But no.  The winged wolves stared at me with eyes of interest. Something was so enticing, so inviting about them.  And so I opened the door, left the safety of the cottage and joined them in the field.

The one whom I had seen in the woods came forward. He  now had sprouted wings but when he spoke, the voice was exactly the same as I had heard it before. “Ryder Red,” quothe he, “we are pleased to see you.”

The wolves then swarmed in their circle. I moved closer.  And then! Such a hideous sight I have never before beheld.  Between them they shared a large carcass of meat, marbled  with gristle and tendon.  Upon closer look I recognized it as the torso of a human chest. The flesh was bloody, severed at the waist, spiky bones of a rib cage protruding. The air smelled of iron and meat.

I watched mesmerized as the gryphon-wolves, with dagger sharp teeth, ripped at their prey.  They growled and squabbled, slithered their tongues to lap up the pouring red blood. Finally one beast, the leader of the pack, dug his snout deep into the torso, gnawing until he pulled out a heart. Greedily  he chewed at it, a stew of scarlet veins, aorta bursting and even more blood that splattered on his fur like liquid roses.  The others consumed all  the leftover bits, licking remnants from the grass. I took a step back.

Pleased to see me? My ears burned.  Had the wolf  actually said ‘pleased to see you’?  And where o where was my Granny?

The wolf I’d made acquaintance with moved away for the circle and approached me.  He studied me and inasmuch as an animal can smile, he smiled at me.

“What name sir?” I asked nervously, for it seemed the beast must have a name and I should use that name to address him. “And what know you of my Granny?” I added. She was the most important!

“I am called Lycan,” he answered. “As for your Granny, she is changed. Never to be the same again.”

“Changed how?”

“She ails not.”

“Not how so?”

“She is well.”

“Well how so?”

“She is different.”

“Different how?”

“She is changed.”

“Aye sir!” I screeched. “Bring an end to this riddle! I am to tend to my Granny.”

“She needs not tending,” quothe he.

Then, with all the grace and ease of the moon and all the obscurity and blur of the fog, one magnificent gryphon-wolf flew forward. “I am she,” said the voice and I knew it was the voice of my Granny.

“To what form have they brought you?” I gasped. Yet as I watched her I was not frightened nor disgusted. Inasmuch as an animal can smile, she smiled at me.

 

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“My eyes child,” she said, “are all the better to see with. And my teeth all the better to eat with. My ears hear as never before. Sharp as an animal’s.”

In that moment I heard a scurry of feathers, the loud beating of wings.  A glitter of silver like so many falling stars scattered across the sky. All the gryphon-wolves, save for Lycan, disappeared quick as cats, vanishing into the fog.

“My Granny is no more?” I cried desperately.

“She is no more for you to see as such,” answered Lycan.

My heart fell although Lycan assured me it was for the best. He then guided me back to the cottage. Once inside, he bid me open my basket. “The honey cakes need not go to waste,” he insisted.

By then I had grown quite hungry, and so I devoured the cakes.  I had also grown quite thirsty and so I drank the wine. I felt my head go light. I became very sleepy and stupid, still unable to grasp what had happened. My world was a prism, a split of fog and moon, a mixture of fear and compassion. The fire blazed in its hearth, surreal in its ever changing facets.

 

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“Time for bed Ryder Redd,” said Lycan. With that he pressed his paws to my chest and unbuttoned the stays of my red cloak. Yet in that unbuttoning, his hands somehow changed. They were no longer the paws of a beast. The fingers that pulled at my stays were graceful fingers, with well manicured nails. The hands of a human and a wealthy one at that, the hands of fine breeding.

He pulled the cloak from my shoulders and pressed his face close to mine. It was not the face of a wolf, but a man with a mane of black hair, a face chiseled, cheekbones that glowed bronze and healthy.  His sapphire eyes glided over me. His touch was gentle upon my shoulder, gentle upon my waist.  He unlaced my camisole, slid my pantaloons off my buttocks and I, docile and sleepy with elderberry, complied to him.  I fell into the sheets of Granny’s bed and Lycan climbed beside me.

“You have not eaten, my lord,”  I said, for in that moment it occurred to me; I had been most inhospitable, gobbling all the tarts and chugging all the wine. “Of the honey cakes, I fear none are left,” I added sleepily.

“Ryder,” said he, “I am a carnivore, consuming only blood and meat.” His kiss was warm on my breast.

 

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Needless to say, he did not devour me, for if so I would not live to tell this tale. Yet suffice it to say he did not go hungry. That night, and every night thereafter I spent with my wolf- man.  He was an agreeable sort and a perfect gentleman toward me, save for once a month at Diana’s full moon when he transformed.

It was then that a pack of black wings fluttered over the forest. It was then that the gryphon-wolves feasted, the poor body of some disease-ridden human finally rescued from its illness. It was then that the flesh became silver stardust, spread across the sky like a flurry of crystalline diamonds.

The saved one would speak of new eyes, all the better to see with. And new ears, all the better to hear with. And of course, new teeth. All the better to bite with.

 

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Alice’s Journey

 

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The white rabbit looked at me with pink eyes, the color of clouds at dusk.  I became curiouser and curiouser as I watched him from my garden. The rabbit hopped fast, but not  fast enough to  get away from me, for I was quick on my feet.

They will tell you the rabbit pulled a watch out of his coat pocket and began to fret about the time, exclaiming “Oh my ears and whiskers, I shall be late!”  This could not be further from the truth. Everyone knows a rabbit will never carry a watch. They are timeless animals.  Nor will they wear a coat, as they have ample fur of their own.

My journey was one of impulse and instinct. For better or worse,  I followed the pink eyed creature.

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They will tell you I slid down a rabbit hole.  This, of course is a dimensional impossibility! Have you ever SEEN a rabbit hole? Have you ever tried to get so much as one FOOT down a rabbit hole?  Oh no.  What happened was, I ran after the rabbit until we came upon a vast lavender field.   It was there that the space craft  landed.

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The space craft was beautiful!  Cylinder shaped, dazzling as the sun at noontide, so bright I could barely look upon it.  A staircase descended from its door .  When the white  rabbit hopped up the steps, I simply followed.  I was young then, you see. I had  a habit of acting without thinking.   It did not occur to me where this journey would lead.

When I got on board  I walked down a long hallway to a room that seemed to be made  of blue sky.  A man in a top hat was hosting a tea party.  At his table were seated  the most peculiar characters;  a king and queen, a March Hare and a duchess who carried a pink flamingo beneath her arm. The man in the  hat  invited me to sit down.  I’ll admit I had a bit of trouble with the gravity at first…

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He poured me a cup of steaming tea,  which I drank immediately  (for I knew  it would be rude to refuse his hospitality.)  I then became sleepy and the room  began to sway.  The top hat man grew tall, his  hat protruding high out of his head.  His face contorted like a reflection in a fun house mirror. I  heard laughter. The queen’s tiara  shattered and  she screamed “Off with her head!”  I knew she could not possibly be speaking of  me, for I could barely FEEL my own head and  surely there was nothing  to cut off!

After that I remember little.  At one point I lay naked  upon an operating table. The top hat man smiled, and I imagined him as a cat with a huge grin. He said he came from Cheshire. I did not know where that was and wanted to ask him, but he simply disappeared, leaving only his grin behind.  Next thing I knew I felt a speculum being stuck inside me, cold steel against my vagina.   “The eggs, the eggs!” someone shouted. “Get her eggs!”  That was fine and well with me, for I had plenty of eggs.  I knew I would produce hundreds of thousands in my lifetime and  I could certainly spare a few for whatever was their cause.  After that I must have fallen asleep.

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When I awoke I was fully clothed. The space craft spun in its orbit  and I looked out the window where a thousand stars streamed like glittering diamonds in the darkness.  The Duchess sat next to me, her pointy chin on my shoulder. She handed me her pink flamingo.  I asked where we were headed. The Duchess smiled calmly, pointed  to a marbled  sphere and assured me I would like it.

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When we landed I descended the staircase, still following the rabbit.  The Duchess  however, was wrong .  I did not like this place!  Not one bit. We had apparently landed in the middle of a war zone, every man armed with weaponry. Land mines  exploded like fiery  traps, blowing  human bodies to a confetti of blood and bone. Children wailed in the streets and men hobbled, many of them missing limbs. I asked what was this horrible place, but the rabbit could only twinkle his pink eyes.

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I felt my stomach lurch and I vomited, barely missing the poor rabbit who hovered beneath me.  When I could stand it no longer the rabbit led me to another part of this world but I did not like this part either.  There I saw only  death and disease;  bodies rife with plagues and cancers and malnutrition.  I could not bear to look upon it, and the rabbit led me to yet another place. Here  were tall skyscrapers and inside, dark boardrooms where men  sprawled in leather chairs.  They drank champagne and spoke a language I did not understand but I remember their words: ‘market’ and  ‘bailout’  and ‘Wall Street’ and ‘junk bonds’.   These people were evil and when I could tolerate their presence no longer the rabbit lead me back to the space craft.

Top Hat and the Duchess welcomed me.  I wanted only to return to my home, to planet Wonderland.    Top Hat smiled.  “You have done your task well, Alice,”  he said.  “The hybrids from your eggs will be hatched  some time in the 21st century. With  the DNA of Wonderland within them, these beings will be  pure, void of greed and malice.  Your hybrids will be the only hope for that planet they call  Earth.  Without your hybrids the civilization  will surely destroy itself.”

The journey back to Wonderland  was quick. I bid Top Hat and the Duchess goodbye, kissing them on both cheeks. I then followed the rabbit off the space craft and back to my own garden.  I was glad to be home.

After that, I developed a  strange penchant for  drinking tea. My faithful rabbit never leaves my side. Recently I have heard word from the Duchess. It seems my eggs have yet to hatch.

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This post is in response to the Daily Prompt Journey

Glass Slippers

 

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By day I swept the floor, cooked their meals, washed their trenchers.  By night I slept in the hearth cinders.  I was no better than a slave, an indentured servant, bound by my stepmother’s rules and the whims of her spoiled, guffawing daughters.

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When the Prince’s ball was announced, my stepsisters were giddy with glee.  He was the Prince of their dreams. They wished only to wed him and from this lot of attendees he would pick an eligible maid.  Silly women!  As for me, I wanted no part of it.   A marriage to the Prince?  Such a thing would be little more than a step up in my indentured servitude. I could just imagine it.  “Yes your Highness.  No Your Highness.  Good morrow Your Highness. What bid thee, Your Highness?”  Bound to the Prince just as I was now to my stepmother.  Oh no.  I’d have none!  But what I DID have was an escape plan…

On the evening of the ball my stepsisters fussed and preened. I brushed their gowns, tied their bows, even pinched their cheeks to add color to their pasty, sallow faces.  “Cinderella,” they said, “You are to remain here. Do not wait up for us. Surely we will be late. That is IF we return at all!”  With that they cackled loud laughs like crowing roosters. My stepsisters planned to seduce the Prince and stay in the palace the entire night, scandals be damned.

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They will tell you a fairy godmother appeared to me, offered me a fine gown and made a carriage from a pumpkin. That is rubbish.  The truth is, I weaved my own gown, from discarded lace and damask thrown away by the Queen’s dressmakers.  (You’d be surprised how much the Palace let go to waste.) I needed no carriage, for my feet were good enough to carry me to the ball.

But it is true I had a godmother of sorts.  Old Nelly  lived in the wood.  She eked out her living by blowing glass figurines.  Such beautiful sculptures they were! Fit for the King’s Court. The palace knew well of her work, but Old Nelly lived in squalor, never adequately paid for her creations.

 

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It was at Nelly’s  hovel that I weaved my  ball gown till it was finally complete, rich blue, the color of sapphire with a taffeta train, fine enough for any castle.  I now needed decent shoes. I had only my tattered wooden patterns, worn from trudging to market, soiled with soot.  If my plans were executed correctly, I’d have far to walk that night.

Old Nelly blew her glass into a fine pair of slippers, a perfect fit to my rugged feet, which were, by the way, not small.  I was no delicate thing; my chores had made me strong and sturdy.  My slippers too were strong , made of unbreakable glass,  with hard cleats, fit for any journey.  Nelly then braided my hair and rubbed my skin with her own perfumed creams.  “This,” she said, “will help a good deal.” I smiled, for I knew Nelly was wont to put a bit of magic in all her creations.

When I entered the ball, I was myself, but not myself. I looked like some otherworldly creature.

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The Prince was well taken with my beauty.   It took no effort to catch his eye and engage him in a sparkling conversation, which he quite enjoyed, for the Prince was not used to women of my bold manner.

A servant girl such as myself is no stranger to the world of men.  I had lain with many, and proud I was of my skill. The Prince was no virgin either, and eager he was to partake of my gifts.   Together, we rolled in lust upon the satin sheets of his palace bed. Oddly,  no one at the ball seemed to notice his absence. When it was finished the clock struck midnight. The Prince was so exhausted he could no longer entertain his guests.  How sweetly he slept, so innocently.  I even felt a bit guilty when I took the pouch of gold from his chamber. Ah, but no matter!  My services were worth it.   Besides, he would not miss it. That gold, although it meant the world to me, was a mere tuppence to him!

I left the Prince sleeping  and vanished away in the night.  My glass slippers carried me like the wings of Mercury, cool on my feet.

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I walked all the night and still felt no fatigue.  When daylight broke a coach approached along the cobblestone road.   The driver pulled back the reigns and studied me. His eyes popped at  my blue glass slippers, for who else in the kingdom wore such a thing?  “Your Majesty,” he called to the Prince inside the carriage. “I believe we have found your woman.”

The Prince offered me marriage but I refused.  What I accepted instead was his eternal friendship.  That and more gold. Which I would use as seed money for my new glass factory!

Old Nelly and I created a line of fashionable glass slippers, available in every color, custom-made to fit to every foot.  We sold them at cut rates to the women of the village, peasants and gentry alike, so all  could own a piece of that beauty.   When the women wore our glass slippers, wonderful things happened, for each shoe was imbued with a bit of Nelly’s magic.  Most of all, with each pair came knowledge; no women should ever sell herself short of her skills, talents and ambitions, whatever they may be. My stepsisters even bought a few pairs, though they complained they never got another servant as good as myself.

The Prince?  As my business prospered I paid him back tenfold!  Besides that, he and I had an eternal friendship that was mutually beneficial to us both.

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This story is in response to the Daily Prompt Glass