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  • The Ethics of Enchantment:The Role of Folk Tales and Fairy Tales in the Ethical Imagination

Are fairy tales pieces of moral instruction, or mere diversions, to provoke excitement and wonder? I argue that they are neither: fairy tales have an ethical role, but this is in virtue of the ways that they engage the imagination, rather than through providing veiled moral commands. I discuss this in relation to two stories from the Brothers Grimm, linking scholarship on fairy tales to philosophical concepts in Simone de Beauvoir, Martha Nussbaum, and Jean-Paul Sartre. I show how these stories can help us develop a subtle understanding of moral complexity, freedom, and embodiment.

Dedicated to the memory of Professor David Knight, a great storyteller

Ring the bells that still can ring Forget your perfect offering There is a crack in everything That's how the light gets in.

—Leonard Cohen1

In his "Thoughts on Poetry and Its Varieties,"2 John Stuart Mill suggests that an interest in narrative—plain, unadorned narrative for narrative's sake—betrays an uncultivated mind, and is at its most prominent in what he regards as unsophisticated cultures. Mill holds that literature can have (at least) two components: description of "outward circumstances," consisting of narrative, chronological portrayals of events; and description of "inner feelings," conveyed poetically. These elements may be present in the same piece of work, but they are always [End Page 192] formally separable, as the line of a drawing is separable from its colors. The poetic elements provide introspective, nonchronological pictures of how our sensibilities can be lit up or stimulated through our experiences, while narrative elements give shape or form to a work. In some works, one of these elements is dispensed with almost entirely, leaving us with pure poetry (exemplified, in Mill's view, by the work of Shelley) or pure story (exemplified, as one might surmise from Mill's words, by folk tales in oral traditions).

Were it not for the fact that we are dealing with fictional events, we might think of this distinction along similar lines to the way the fact/value division is often drawn. The factual component simply describes how things are in the world of the story, and the poetic component evokes the evaluative life of a character or author: a private, subjective realm colored by sentiment. In Mill's view, "outward circumstances" described in a narrative can be grasped by pretty much anyone, while the sentiments conveyed through poetry, and poetic prose, are only available to those who have cultivated their sensibilities to such a degree that they can latch on to what is being conveyed.

For Mill, once we come to experience the "higher" pleasures of poetry, we can leave the childish business of stories for their own sake behind us: a story "merely as a story" is frivolous and uninteresting in terms of what it can teach us.

Until recently, the role of literature in ethics has been underexplored in the Anglo-American philosophical canon, although literature in and as moral philosophy has thrived in other traditions. Literature began to resurface as something that may be of interest to Anglo-American ethics in the later decades of the twentieth century. Writers like Iris Murdoch, Martha Nussbaum, and Cora Diamond have all pointed to ways that literature can and should be central to the work of moral philosophy.3 Unlike Mill, they have also suggested that not just poetic description but narrative form combined with such description can play this role. (One could not imagine Murdoch assenting to Mill's claims that "the shallowest and emptiest [minds are] … not those least addicted to novel-reading" [Mill, p. 345]). In fact, it seems plausible to say that each (in her own way) demonstrates how these elements can be inseparable, just as each (in her own way) holds that fact and value are inextricably bound together in our language and experience.

Are there pure stories that contain minimal or no poetic description and, if so, is Mill correct to suggest that there is little of any depth or sophistication to be learned from them? If such things exist, a good [End Page 193] candidate for this category is the genre of folk tales in general, and fairy tales specifically. This is in virtue of both the relatively sparse descriptive language used in many tellings of these stories, and the fact that the story itself is not dependent on a specific form of words: structural elements of the story are more significant. Contrary to Mill's view, some of these stories can be rich sources of ethical education. This can be partially explained in relation to the descriptive gaps that they contain, allowing both the structure and the freedom for the moral imagination to work.

I will begin by sketching our territory, before giving two examples of how stories can be a source of ethical development, looking specifically at two stories from the Brothers Grimm. I will then attempt to place the type of development that we can attain through such stories in the context of philosophical ethics.


What is a folk story? Usually, when we study literature, we are studying a text. Sometimes there may be different versions, but our object of study is some form of words on a page. If I were to tell the story of the handsome and mysterious Jay Gatsby and his eventual downfall, from memory, to an audience who had never heard it before, tailoring my telling to that audience's interests and expectations, what I would be telling would be related to F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel, but it wouldn't be the novel.

Folk stories are different. A text (or a sound or video recording) of a folk story is only a snapshot of one moment in its life. This is true for two reasons. First, a folk story does not have a single author or teller. Part of what it means for something to be a folk story is that it is the product of many narrators over generations. Folk tales belong to everybody and nobody within a given community of tellers and hearers: there can be no claim to intellectual property, but everyone who has grown up with the conventions of the story has a claim to belong within its world and to retell it in a range of ways. Second, even with one teller, the telling will vary from one occasion to another: the form of words will vary relative to the teller's mood, circumstance, and audience, as well as to wider social, historical, and political circumstances. There is room within the structure of the tale for significant variations and differences of emphasis that are highly context dependent.

This is sometimes put in terms of the stories being more comparable to processes than to static objects. In relation to the guslari, traditional [End Page 194] narrative singers from the Balkans, John Miles Foley writes, "For them the song exists in its doing, its performance—its movement from here to there, partially predictable and partially unpredictable; for them the song has nothing to do with the cenotaph of a book."4 Foley maintains (based on the fieldwork of Albert Lord and Milman Parry) that the song cannot be contained in any static text, but rather exists outside of any particular version as "a network of pathways that offers innumerable options at the same time that it connects with innumerable unspoken assumptions and implicit references." Were we to make a hundred recordings of different performances of the song, "none of these recordings would actually be 'the song', but all of them would in their different ways imply 'the song.' Oral tradition can no more be canonized than the Internet can be forced between two covers" (Foley, p. 21).

This complicates the task of the philosopher with an interest in folklore, whose object of study is not a static text that can be analyzed, word by word and sentence by sentence, but a network of meanings and practices only gestured toward by textual evidence. Perhaps some might suggest that this fact makes it impossible to look to stories of this kind for any ethical import, since we cannot find it only by reading the transcripts. Additionally, when one is working in a field so heavily influenced by the linguistic philosophy of the twentieth century, what hope is there looking for ethical significance in something that cannot be encapsulated in a single form of words? Where, in other words, will we find the moral language?

I suggest that this approach is a blind alley when we are considering how folk stories might be important to the ethicist, but for now, I would like to consider a form of folk story that might at first glance appear most promising to the moral philosopher: the fable.


Fables are short tales featuring anthropomorphized animals or other objects, which illustrate a clear moral lesson, generally a warning against greed, recklessness, or some other vice. One of the most famous examples is "The Ant and the Grasshopper" from Aesop's Fables.5 The grasshopper whiles away the summer months singing, while the ant diligently collects food for winter. When the cold weather arrives, the grasshopper is hungry and begs the ant for aid. Rather than helping the grasshopper, the ant replies that the grasshopper should have thought of that while times were good, and prepared accordingly. The tale, readily [End Page 195] appropriable by fans of the Protestant work ethic, is told as a warning against idleness and profligacy, and a lesson in the virtues of an honest day's work. It is hard not to feel, along with Bruno Bettelheim, that the ant demonstrates a meanness of spirit in the face of the grasshopper's need: "The fable seems to teach that it is wrong to enjoy life when it is good, as in summer. Even worse, the ant in this fable is a nasty animal, without any compassion for the suffering of the grasshopper—and this is the figure the child is asked to take for his example."6

What seems clear about fables of this kind is that they leave little room for alternative meanings and identifications. It is made plain that we should be like the wise ant and not the irresponsible grasshopper. There is no space to flex our wings and challenge the basis upon which the moral of the story is founded. As Bettelheim puts it, fables "demand and threaten—they are moralistic" (Bettelheim, p. 27): "Often sanctimonious, sometimes amusing, the fable always explicitly states a moral truth; there is no hidden meaning, nothing is left to our imagination" (pp. 42–43). We experience the fable as a piece of moral instruction, in which the hearer does not do any of the work herself, making the story psychologically unsatisfying. The moral force comes entirely from outside the audience.

While fables are superficially obvious candidates for ethical consideration, they are not particularly interesting ones. The fable (under Bettelheim's definition) asserts a moral proposition, and the moral philosopher may choose to accept or reject this proposition, but it is not clear what the fable adds, apart from a warning about the potential consequences of failing to abide by the standard that it demands.


I borrowed the title of this article from two sources: Bettelheim's canonical work on fairy tales, The Uses of Enchantment, and Simone de Beauvoir's The Ethics of Ambiguity.7 For Beauvoir, ambiguity and freedom are interlinked: we are free to find meaning and significance in the world around us precisely because we experience its meaning and significance as ambiguous. Ethical systems that provide preestablished answers threaten our freedom by imposing authoritarian absolutes.

Beauvoir maintains that the child is born into a world which is already suffused with meaning. Established authorities demand conformity with their norms. However, children do not experience this world as restrictive because their imaginative capacities allow them to experiment in [End Page 196] ways that develop their free capacity to find meaning. We act out different roles and ways of living in the safety of the nursery or playground. This capacity for make-believe—for enchantment—prepares the child to take responsibility for her choices. Beauvoir describes the child as "mystified," but with the coming of adolescence, this mystification must end, and the adult must reject both the mystification of childhood and the network of meanings that the world has imposed upon her. This challenge, however, is one that not every adolescent will accept, and some spend the rest of their lives in a perpetual childhood.

Bettelheim understands the difference between fables and fairy tales in terms of similar concepts of freedom and ambiguity. Fables, which wear their moral messages on their sleeves, shut down possibilities for independent ethical development, and allow no freedom for the individual imagination. In contrast with fables, the fairy tale "leaves all the decisions up to us, including whether we wish to make any at all. It is up to us whether we wish to make any application to our life from a fairy tale, or simply enjoy the fantastic events it tells about. Our enjoyment is what induces us to respond in our own good time to the hidden meanings, as they may relate to our life experience and present state of personal development" (Bettelheim, p. 43).

We began by noting the multifarious nature of a folk story: the form and intent of the story may vary from teller to teller, audience to audience, and from occasion to occasion. This suggests flexibility and ambiguity in the tale from the perspective of the teller. However, fables, it seems, are relatively fixed in terms of what their audience may take from them. Fairy tales, if Bettelheim is correct, are open-textured from the perspectives of teller and of hearer, allowing freedom in the gift of a story, and freedom in the way that it is received. In this sense, the "enchantment" of Bettelheim's title plays a similar role to the "mystification" of the child (and the childhood imagination) in The Ethics of Ambiguity. In both cases, openness, ambiguity, and an absence of predetermined meanings allow fantasy to flex our ethical and meaning-making muscles.


"Das Märchen von einem, der auszog das Fürchten zu lernen" ("A Tale about the Boy Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was") features in the Grimms' collection of fairy tales.8 The younger of two brothers, judged by his family to be simple and foolish, and unlikely to make anything of his life, experiences an inability to "shudder," or "get the creeps." The [End Page 197] boy longs to know how to shudder, and to this end, he goes out into the world and has a series of surreal and macabre adventures: sitting by a fireside with hanged corpses until their clothes set alight; fighting giant, talking cats in a haunted castle; dealing with an enchanted bed that gallops about; playing ninepins with human skulls and dead men's legs; and so forth. Having survived these events through his lack of fear, he wins the hand of a beautiful princess and inherits great wealth. Despite his newfound fortune, the young man is unhappy, and longs to be able to get the creeps. The princess's maid tells the princess that she knows the answer. Following her maid's instructions, the princess goes to the well and collects a bucket of water full of live fish, which she tips over her sleeping husband in bed. He wakes up shuddering, and praises his wife for showing him how to get the creeps.

The story of The Frog Prince is familiar to many people in the English-speaking world. A princess is horrified by having to share her company, her food, and ultimately her bed with a frog. Eventually, the frog transforms into a prince, and—as is usually the case with these things—they live happily ever after. In the version recorded by the Grimms ("Froschkönig oder der eiserne Heinrich," translated as "The Frog King, or Iron Henry") the princess is playing with her golden ball by the side of a pond. She fails to catch the ball, and it falls into the water. A frog appears, and tells the princess that he will retrieve it, but only if he can sit beside her at her table, drink from her glass, eat from her plate, and sleep with her in her bed. The princess agrees, and the frog returns the ball. She goes home and forgets all about the frog until he turns up at the palace the next day, demanding entrance. She is unwilling to admit the frog, but her father impresses upon her the importance of keeping promises and orders her to keep to her side of the bargain. Although in some versions, the frog transforms when the princess kisses him, in the Grimms' version the metamorphosis occurs when the princess, disgusted at the thought of sharing her bed with the frog, hurls him against the wall (Grimm, pp. 2–5).

Initially, we might suspect that each story invites an objectionable reading. The hearer of "The Frog King" learns that if she keeps her promises and obeys her father's commands, everything will work out in the end, even when obedience involves allowing a strange and disgusting creature into one's bed. This might be taken as a tale about the "female virtues" of obedience and subservience. By contrast, the boy who went forth to learn about fear profits and gains the hand of a princess because he exhibits "masculine" traits of fearlessness and violence. Such [End Page 198] readings are available to someone who wishes to hear them, and fairy tales, as with other folk tales, may be put to ethically heinous uses. This is inevitably the case with a tale exhibiting ambiguities and spaces for multiple interpretations. Marina Warner gives an example of one use of the tale of the boy who wanted to learn about fear:

A puppet film, made in 1935, two years after Hitler came to power, by the German Paul Dihe, told the familiar Grimm story about the boy who wanted to learn how to shudder; it followed his daredevilry as he sleeps under the gibbet, enters the spooky castle, defeats the demons and wins the princess. What looks like an ordinary children's film about winning through turns out to be horrific when Hitler's own relish for the cruelty of fairy tales is borne in mind. This short film tells a story that was favoured in the education of the Hitler Youth, because it inculcated fearlessness, imperviousness, manly violence; the boy hero is tow-haired, his assailants hook-nosed, swarthy, hairy, dark, old. In the Grimms' text, these monsters are great black cats and dogs, so the change to grotesque humans is significant, if not deliberate.9

However, both of these stories allow us to move past this kind of reading. As it turns out, some of the messages that we can take from them have similarities in the case of the male and female protagonists.

One theme connecting the stories is disgust: specifically, disgust directed toward slimy creatures from a pond or well in the protagonist's bed. This juxtaposition prompts a reaction of horror, shuddering, or "getting the creeps," but this very reaction leads to the stories' resolutions and the beginning of happy, married adult life. It does not take a great stretch of the imagination to read both tales as stories about awakening sexuality. Bettelheim (heavily influenced by Freudian theory) and Warner (in her feminist readings) emphasize these elements. I agree that sexuality is central, but its significance only comes to the fore (as Bettelheim and Warner note) when we read it in the context of related themes of innocence, emotional complexification, and embodiment. What we arrive at is sexual, but it reaches beyond sexuality toward a more thoroughgoing account of what it is to develop as an independent, ethically mature person.


"The Frog King" begins with the princess playing with her ball. The ball, in Bettelheim's words, "is doubly a symbol of perfection: as a [End Page 199] sphere, and because it is made out of gold, the most precious material" (Bettelheim, p. 287). Images of roundness and goldenness are often taken to stand for perfection and simplicity. Bettelheim's account of the story has parallels with Henry James's eponymous golden bowl10 and Martha Nussbaum's reading of James's novel.11 The image of the golden bowl is taken from Ecclesiastes 12: "Or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be broken, or the pitcher be broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern. Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it."12 The biblical passage has attracted multiple interpretations, but it is typically read as telling of the impermanent and flawed nature of what is earthly and human. Nussbaum associates James's golden bowl with an unrealizable image of human moral perfection: "The novel is dense with images for this splendid aspiration: images of crystal, of roundness, of childhood" ("FC," p. 27). Ethical maturity comes with a realization that life is difficult, cracked, and full of contradictory commitments.

We can think of the princess at the start of "The Frog King" in similar terms. She is a child, as yet unfamiliar with the messiness, complexity, and hurt of adult relationships. Playing with her golden ball, she is—like Beauvoir's child—in a state of mystification, free to enjoy her games in the belief that the world is flawless and harmonious. Bettelheim understands the loss of the ball as the first intimation of the end of this childish stage: "When the ball falls into the deep, dark well, naïveté is lost and Pandora's box is opened. … Life has become ugly and complicated as it begins to reveal its darker sides" (Bettelheim, pp. 287–88).

The images of water, depths, and submersion also have their parallels in The Golden Bowl, and in Nussbaum's discussion of it. Nussbaum highlights "James's subtle use of water imagery in connection with both sexual passion and moral conflict or complication—frequently the two of these together" ("FC," p. 29). I will return to the sexual aspect of life's conflicts and complexity shortly, but first it is important to note how the first intimation of the "darker sides" of life eventually move toward the possibility of a more mature and fulfilling life.

The princess is only reluctantly compliant with the frog because of her father's commands. Her wish is to shut out the creature that has brought new complications into her world. Bettelheim's way of describing this is unmistakably Freudian:

Still beholden to the pleasure principle, the girl makes promises in order to gain what she wants, with no thought of the consequences. But reality [End Page 200] asserts itself. She tries to evade it by slamming the door on the frog. But now the superego in the form of the king comes into play: the more the princess tries to go against the frog's demands, the more forcefully the king insists that she must keep her promises to the full. What started playfully becomes most serious: the princess must grow up as she is forced to accept the commitments she has made.

(Bettelheim, p. 288)

Freud's superego represents internalized moral and cultural rules that we have received from the society around us. Bettelheim thus presents this part of the story as a battle between different elements of the self, where our drive toward pleasure conflicts with the internalized moral demand that we must sometimes do what is inconvenient or unpleasant. On this reading, this moral demand is not fully assimilated in the personality. Compliance with rules is not what causes the eventual transformation but the princess asserting her independence. Flinging the frog against the wall is a rejection of what she has been commanded to do. As Bettelheim puts it, "Anxiety turns into anger and hatred as the princess hurls the frog against the wall. By thus asserting herself and taking risks in doing so—as opposed to her previous trying to weasel out and then simply obeying her father's commands—the princess transcends her anxiety, and hatred turns into love" (Bettelheim, p. 288).

We can take this as representing a young adult's challenge to the conventional morality externally commanded by those with authority over her, in this case both her father and the male with whom she is commanded to share her bed. By throwing aside the deliverer of her golden ball, she rejects the moral standard (in Beauvoir's terms, "the serious world") that it represents. Through this rejection she finally achieves the capacity to look another human being in the eye, and is able to choose him. He is no longer a threatening Other, drawn up from the depths of the pond, but another living self, with whom love is possible.


Nussbaum discusses the way that water, in The Golden Bowl, represents at the same time the complexity and conflicts of life, and sexual passion. She draws out some connections that James makes between these concepts and the idea of nature, noting that conflict, and the guilt that it carries with it, is "a structural feature of our situation in nature and the family": [End Page 201]

This novel, I have indicated, is about the development of a woman. To be a woman, to give herself to her husband, Maggie will need to come to see herself as something cracked, imperfect, unsafe, a vessel with a hole through which water may pass. … Later, as her perception is shifting, she will in fact see herself as a house not perfectly closed against the elements: "She saw round about her, through the chinks of the shutters, the hard glare of nature." And in the world of nature, what Maggie sees is the suffering of Charlotte, caused by her act. Her guilt has entered the vision.

("FC," p. 34)

In both of our fairy tales, much more significance lies in creatures that come from the water: the frog and the pail of fish thrown upon the young man in his bed. These creatures are linked with visceral reactions of disgust, but also with each story's happy resolution. Here we have a connection between the achievement of maturity, the idea of nature, sexuality, and fear or disgust. How are we to make sense of this web of connections?

Let us return to our unfortunate young man who is incapable of knowing how to shudder. What is striking about this character is the matter-of-fact way in which he deals with grotesque events, combined with an apparent lack of the usual understanding of death. When he spends the night at a gallows, sleeping beneath the hanging corpses, he pities them, and cuts them down so that they can warm themselves by his fire. When they refuse to move away from the fire as their clothes ignite, he grows angry with them, and hangs them up again. Later, in the haunted castle, "half a man" falls down the chimney and lands in front of him. The boy's reaction is to enquire about the whereabouts of the other half: "'Hey there!' cried the boy. 'There's a half missing. This isn't enough'" (Grimm, p. 17). He regards bodies as collections of parts, which can be assembled or dissembled, and together with this, he lacks the bodily reaction (shuddering) that such events would ordinarily prompt.

Contrary to the Nazi-era animated version of this tale that Warner discusses, far from being a courageous hero, the character is missing something very significant. He is not truly courageous, because courage consists in knowing and overcoming fear: instead, he is ignorant of it, and this is linked to a lack of understanding about the body, with its accompanying fragility and unpredictability. He, like the princess in "The Frog King," is unaware of much of the complexity, pain, and difficulty of life: the problems and genuine dilemmas that are forced [End Page 202] upon us through sexuality, aging, injury, and disease. These factors affect our activities and commitments, and are often either inevitable or beyond our control.

In "The Frog King," happiness and love are made possible through an embracing of freedom—the princess rejects her father's authority and develops a mature capacity to love—but freedom itself is never unambiguous. All our activities are contingent on our bodily existence, which can be hampered, threatened, or extinguished at any time. In our sexual and reproductive being, our bodies (and those of others) can behave in ways that we cannot command or predict. Nature—associated with embodiment, contingency, and the lack of our purposive agency—is connected with the conflict and complexity of life. The boy in the other tale has no understanding of this, and his life is therefore very simple. What changes this is the experience of having fish—watery, slimy creatures—thrown over him by his wife when he is in bed.

Jean-Paul Sartre expresses a fear of becoming matter—a threat to existential freedom—through the idea of le visqueux (the viscous or slimy). For Sartre, this fear is associated with the feminine and sexual desire—it compels at the same time that it disgusts. Sartre's remarks have provoked controversy and accusations of misogyny. In some respects these accusations are well founded: one cannot read remarks like the following without having such concerns: "Slime is the revenge of the In-itself. A sickly-sweet, feminine revenge which will be symbolized on another level by the quality 'sugary.'"13 However, Sartre also identifies le visqueux with himself, and especially with himself in relation to the feminine. My examples drawn from fairy tales contain a male experience of a feminine visqueux in the fish from the well, but also a female experience of a masculine visqueux in the form of the frog—perhaps a consequence of the fact that fairy tales, unlike canonical written literature, have always had a great many female tellers. Sartre insists that the sexual is simply one manifestation of le visqueux. Our fear of being absorbed into mere matter (associated with a fear of complexity, contingency, and nature, and felt as a reaction to the viscous) can be expressed in the sexual, but it is something that is apprehended and experienced prior to the development of adult sexuality, and is part of what forms and develops that sexuality.

In their treatment of the two stories, Bettelheim and Warner both make the connection between slimy creatures in the bed and the awakening of sexuality. The boy [End Page 203]

at last encounters the princess, and in bed with her learns how to shudder when she tips a pail of live fish over him—perhaps a metaphor for the overwhelming power of physical passion. (In the compelling Freudian interpretation, shuddering euphemistically replaces orgasmic spasms.)

(Warner, p. 276)

The closer the frog comes to the girl physically, the more disgusted and anxious she gets, particularly about being touched by it. The awakening to sex is not free of disgust or of anxiety, even anger.

(Bettelheim, p. 288)

A shuddering or disgust is associated with these creatures—to some degree because they are part of the natural, animal order of things; partly because they come from the unfamiliar watery depths; and also because of the juxtaposition of the slimy, slippery visqueux with the clean, dry bed sheets. In both stories the natural, animal, and embodied provides the key to growing up and learning to be happy and to love. The princess who flings the frog across the room acknowledges the viscous, embodied thing, and takes command over it. The boy who has the bucket of fish thrown over him finally shudders in recognition of his own fragile and responsive embodiment. These are two sides of the same coin. The princess exercises control, where previously her reaction is merely to comply passively with the commands of her father (a "feminine" ideal), and this discovery of independence makes it possible for her to experience adult passion:

In a way this story tells us that to be able to love, a person first has to become able to feel; even if the feelings are negative, that is better than not feeling. In the beginning the princess is entirely self-centred; all her interest is in the ball. She has no feelings when she plans to go back on her promise to the frog, gives no thought as to what this may mean for it. The closer the frog comes to her physically and personally, the stronger her feelings become, but with this she becomes more a person. For a long stretch of development she obeys her father, but feels ever more strongly; then at the end she asserts her independence in going against his orders. And she thus becomes herself, so does the frog; it turns into a prince.

(Bettelheim, p. 288)

By contrast, in his acknowledgment of embodiment, the boy becomes something more than the fearless, active, "masculine" warrior so valorized in the Nazi interpretation. He is able to feel because he becomes aware of his rootedness in a world of physicality and flesh that constrains, [End Page 204] commands, and potentially threatens him, as well as allowing him to achieve riches and success. Ethical maturity must involve this complicated understanding of the self as ambiguously free.


The discussion prompts a range of questions. First, some doubts may arise about the possibility of extracting any ethical significance at all from these stories, at least in a way in which we can say the ethical significance is genuinely a function of those stories. If folk tales are so ambiguous and open to different interpretations, what gives these readings significance? Second, we might wonder how these lessons can be learned. The hearer of the tale will not usually enter into the process of analysis that I have offered, so in what sense do these thoughts have any bearing on what actually goes on when people encounter these stories? Third, whom are these stories supposed to help? If we are reading into them messages about the complexity of adult sexuality and relationships, it seems that children will not grasp these meanings, but those who can grasp these meanings already have that level of adult understanding, and so the tale serves no educational or therapeutic purpose. Finally, some might doubt the ethics of this project itself—why does everything have to be useful or morally instructive? Can't we simply enjoy the wonder and escapism of a fantastical tale without it having to serve some further end?

I cannot provide answers to all of these questions, and some will be answerable only after a deeper philosophical engagement with existing folklore scholarship than I am able to offer here. However, I think that we may get some clues as to how at least some of these issues might be addressed by looking at an element of Bernard Williams's moral philosophy.14 What follows is a sketch of how we might proceed.

Williams distinguishes between ethics and morality, two terms that I have been treating as broadly synonymous up to this point. For Williams, morality is merely one form of ethical thought. He writes about the "morality system," which he describes in Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy as "the peculiar institution" (a term used by the Confederacy to describe slavery during the American Civil War) (Williams, p. 174). The morality system has many aspects, but several of them are especially pertinent here. First, the morality system is impersonal in its demands—that is, all moral judgment is ultimately made from an impartial point of view, without attention to the specific situation, psychology, and relationships of a particular person. Second, the morality system reduces all moral [End Page 205] concepts to obligations. Any moral statement or judgment must concern what is obligatory, forbidden, or merely permissible. Third, the morality system does not allow conflicts of obligations: if action A is obligatory, and is incompatible with the performance of action B, then action B cannot be obligatory.

Various consequences of adopting a morality of this kind ensue. In particular, we are left with a series of stark contrasts: (1) people are either absolutely free in a given context, and therefore absolutely morally responsible, or they are absolutely constrained and bear no responsibility for how they act; (2) if acts are neither obligatory nor forbidden, then how we decide to behave is morally arbitrary; and (3) if we act in the right way, then no guilt or remorse about alternative possible courses of action is appropriate.

Under the morality system, it would be hard to make a case for an ethical role for fairy tales. Either they would have to be read like fables, as sources of moral instruction in specific rules of action (a role which, as we have seen, they wouldn't play particularly well), or they could have no moral purpose whatsoever, being a mere source of wonder and diversion to occupy the times when we are under no particular prohibition or obligation. Since they are open to multiple readings and meanings, they would be poor textbooks in morality, and would have no place in the system. At best, they might have the effect of just happening to steer people, unconsciously and independently of their particular wills, toward the right course of action. But if we, with Williams, reject the morality system, the fairy tale can occupy a more significant role: it allows its hearer to be exposed to difficulties and complications in life, and arrives at a form of psychologically satisfying conclusion at the end, without forcing specific decisions or judgments. The fairy tale, as we have seen, offers windows into how feelings and commitments can be complex, ambiguous, and contradictory. The tale doesn't so much offer a solution as a series of resolutions—ways in which life might turn out all right in the end, despite the seemingly impossible challenges before us.

This scenario highlights the role of imagination. The hearers find their path through the tale (if they choose to engage in it in that way at all) through empathy, fantasy, and mental imagery. This allows the tale to do something that mere moral instruction could never do: the resolutions of its conflicts are always personal from the point of view of the listener. The sparseness of descriptive language in the fairy tale allows this: the thin narrative descriptions of events invite identifications and reactions, rather than imposing them. In a related way, one should not [End Page 206] approach a story purely for the purpose of finding a moral message. If we come to the story with such expectations, we are liable to be left cold by the story, and it will not have performed any ethical role whatsoever.

This is not to say that a fairy tale can mean anything that we want it to, because not every interpretation would be psychologically available to us. We inhabit a world where frogs and fish have certain associations, and we cannot simply stipulate that something else is the case, even if the range of interrelated possible meanings is fairly broad. These networks of associations might provide the key to how fairy tales might be of relevance to the child, and to the adult, as they grow and develop. Sartre's view on le visqueux is that it is not initially encountered as sexual but that it absorbs the sexual into its possible range of meanings as we awaken to sexuality. If something like this is the case with images that we encounter in fairy tales, they can equip us with structures of thought into which we can breathe new levels of meaning as we become ready for them.

As we grow and learn we may choose to reject some of the meanings and lessons that we have taken from stories, although in many cases the story is sufficiently capacious to accommodate new ones. One cannot use rejection of this kind as an argument against the role of stories, since the stories provide us with the images and structures that make ethical life possible. As Alasdair MacIntyre remarks, "Deprive children of stories and you leave them unscripted, anxious stutterers in their actions as in their words."15 We should not take such remarks as confined to childhood. Many of us are liable to encounter fairy stories at three stages in our lives: as children; as parents, aunts, and uncles; and as grandparents, great aunts, and great uncles. We should not pretend that we gain less as tellers than the child gains as a hearer. The Grimms were keen to emphasize that the motifs of fairy tales represent the emotional and social lives of all human beings, and that they were for adults as much as they were for children.16

To conclude this section, I note that folk tales and fairy tales have always existed alongside, and at a step removed from, official sources of authority. Plausibly, the folk story offers a broader way of thinking through the problems of human life, where established authorities such as the church or king provided the voice of the "peculiar institution." The symbolism and imagery of folk tales allow space for ethical autonomy beyond the mere serving of an obligation, and the tellers have often been poor, illiterate, and/or female. This makes engagement with these stories something that is politically—as well as ethically—significant. [End Page 207]


Let us return to Mill's claim that the taste for a story is indicative of an uncultivated mind, and that we can take nothing of great importance for the development of character from a narrative. In some senses Mill is right—stories of the kind that I have been discussing are appealing to people from early childhood, and to a broad range of people irrespective of their level of education or cultural development. In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, they provide us with a vocabulary of images and structures that help us to develop and flourish. These considerations do not mean that we should look at transcriptions of fairy tales for moral language: the significance lies in the enchantment of the tales. Enchantment lives not in the words themselves but the gaps that stories create for our imaginations to illuminate.

Liz McKinnell
Durham University


I would like to thank John McKinnell for his comments, and for introducing me to folk stories in the first place. I have benefited from useful comments on versions of this piece presented at the "Inventions of the Text" seminar series in the English Department at Durham University, and at the Research Seminar in the Department of Philosophy at Durham University. Thank you also to Stephen Clark, David Cooper, Sylvie Gambaudo, Tom Greaves, Andy Hamilton, Simon James, Sarah Lohman, and Simon Summers.

1. "Anthem," track 5 on Leonard Cohen, The Future, Columbia Records, 1992.

2. John Stuart Mill, "Thoughts on Poetry and Its Varieties," Autobiography and Literary Essays, vol. 1 of Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, ed. John M. Robson and Jack Stillinger (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1981), pp. 341–65; hereafter abbreviated Mill.

3. See, for example, Iris Murdoch, The Fire and the Sun: Why Plato Banished the Artists (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977); Martha Nussbaum, Love's Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992); and Cora Diamond, The Realistic Spirit: Wittgenstein, Philosophy, and the Mind (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1995).

4. John Miles Foley, "The Impossibility of Canon," in Teaching Oral Traditions, ed. John Miles Foley (New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1998), p. 21; hereafter abbreviated Foley.

5. Aesop's Fables: A New Translation by Laura Gibbs, Oxford World's Classics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), pp. 65–66.

6. Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976), p. 44; hereafter abbreviated Bettelheim.

7. Simone de Beauvoir, The Ethics of Ambiguity, trans. B. Frechtman (New York: Citadel Press, 1976).

8. Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, trans. Jack Zipes (New York: Bantam Books, 1987) pp. 12–20; hereafter abbreviated Grimm.

9. Marina Warner, From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers (London: Vintage, 1995), p. 364; hereafter abbreviated Warner.

10. Henry James, The Golden Bowl (1904; repr., Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1966).

11. Martha Nussbaum, "Flawed Crystals: James' The Golden Bowl and Literature as Moral Philosophy," New Literary History 15 (1983): 25–50; hereafter abbreviated "FC."

12. Ecclesiastes 12:6–7 (King James Version).

13. Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology, trans. Hazel E. Barnes (1943; repr., London: Methuen, 1969), p. 609.

14. Bernard Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (London: Fontana, 1985); hereafter abbreviated Williams.

15. Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 2nd ed. (London: Duckworth, 1981), p. 216.

16. See Jack Zipes, "Once There Were Two Brothers Named Grimm," in Grimm, Complete Fairy Tales, pp. xvii–xxxi.

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