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  • Metamorphosis: The Dynamics of Symbolism in European Fairy Tales
  • Jeana Jorgensen (bio)
Metamorphosis: The Dynamics of Symbolism in European Fairy Tales. By Francisco Vaz da Silva . New York: Peter Lang, 2002. 278 pp.

In Metamorphosis, Francisco Vaz da Silva synthesizes folkloristic, psychoanalytic, semiotic, and anthropological scholarship to introduce a new frame for understanding the symbolism in fairy tales. As Alan Dundes notes in his Editor's Preface to the book, one of the key features of Vaz da Silva's analysis is his "entirely original" synthesis of the works of Freud and Lévi-Strauss. Lévi-Strauss's notion of "mythism" informs Vaz da Silva's thinking, as do Freud's theories on the unconscious and sexuality. Vaz da Silva follows Dundes in utilizing folklore—which is "largely unconscious and involves projection" (3)—as not only material for the study of worldview, but he also suggests that fairy tales contain imagery that allows people to project symbolic themes "onto daily life events" (5).

Vaz da Silva begins by linking transformations in Iberian fairy tales to superstitions that mirror their thematic concerns. In chapter 1, "Fairy Tales and Ethnography," he connects werewolves to shamans through otherworldly journeys and skin-changing, concluding that "in shamanic narrations, in dreams, and of course in fairy tales, whatever unconscious elements there are [End Page 320] appear encoded in cultural patterns and motifs" (19). Vaz da Silva interprets these unconscious elements by deciding to apply psychoanalysis not to the folklore itself, which risks dissolving the subject, but rather to "previously reconstituted symbolic patterns" (19). However, Vaz da Silva does not adequately explain his reluctance to psychoanalyze fairy-tale characters, a method utilized by Dundes and Bengt Holbek.

He proceeds to criticize Holbek for his reductionistic use of projection in his Interpretation of Fairy Tales, and reexamines allomotifs in "King Wivern" (AT 433B). Using examples from Holbek and the Grimms, Vaz da Silva shows that "the essence of metamorphosis is an alternation between the inner and the outer, the hairy and the hairless, the bloody and the milky dimensions of complex beings cyclically turned inside out" (27). These symbolic equivalencies, along with details of Iberian beliefs, help resolve problems of dual feminine identity in a Portuguese variant of "Little Red Riding Hood" (AT 333), "The Girl of the Little Red Hat." Vaz da Silva lengthily discusses AT 333 in chapter 3, but here his aim is to show the connection between cyclic alternation in the oral tales and superstitions of a region.

The male aspect of skin-changing receives considerably more attention. Utilizing content from fairy tales and traditions worldwide, Vaz da Silva associates skin-shedding with dragon-slaying, as excess children, born with a symbolic extra skin, seem fated to become dragon slayers. This is related to Propp's insight, often quoted in this book, that the one born from the dragon is fated to kill the dragon.

Vaz da Silva switches gears to incorporate Norse sacrifices, Greek gender-bending, and Biblical bleeding in chapter 2, "Metamorphosis and Ontological Complexity." He considers characteristics of Odin and builds a homology between self-sacrifice and slaying one's ancestor. Like Odin, who gives up an eye for omniscience, the Greek prophet Teiresias overcomes sensory perception to "see" in a different sense, except his foresight is linked to serpents and sex-swapping. Turning to Genesis, Vaz da Silva discusses the origin of menstruation as associated with serpents and clairvoyance, and connects castration, menstruation, and clairvoyance to ophidian metamorphosis. The insights of Propp and Lévi-Strauss help relate these symbolic associations back to fairy tales: Propp by claiming that all fairy tale plots are variations of each other and contain metamorphosing characters, and Lévi-Strauss by his famous formula of mythic transformations, which Vaz da Silva applies to describe the "twofold dimension of ontological complexity (two in one) and of identity of opposites (two as one) concerning a dynamic notion of cyclically reversed identity, which spells out metamorphosis" (87).

The skins or filth worn by heroines in the Cinderella cycle reveal a bride, who can also be won by killing a dragon, leading to Vaz da Silva's fascinating [End Page 321] suggestion that "The...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1536-1802
Print ISSN
1521-4281
Pages
pp. 320-323
Launched on MUSE
2004-08-27
Open Access
No
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