The power of fairy tales in women’s lives
Psychologist and author Dr Sharon Blackie explains how myths and stories can help her patients and readers through some of life’s great upheavals
Humans are storytelling animals, and indeed contemporary neuroscience suggests we’re hard-wired for story. Quite simply, they’re the stars we navigate by. Around 16 years ago, when I practised psychology from a lochside croft near Ullapool, I developed a specialisation in narrative psychology – the underlying assumption of which is that we use story as our primary way of making sense of our lives. We do this by telling stories about our experiences, envisaging our lives as an evolving story, and by listening to and learning from the stories of others, or the stories we read in books. But of all the story-types I ever worked with, those with by far the greatest transformative potential were fairy tales. Which is why I still write them – and write about them – today.
The lessons of fairy tales are deep and rich. Anywhere, there may be a door to another world: learn to look for it. Always leave a trail of breadcrumbs to find your way out of the dark wood. Don’t maim yourself trying to fit into the glass slipper which was made for someone else. Gold is never a good goal. Never take your skin off and leave it unattended. And although we usually associate fairy tales with childhood, the lushness of their imagery and the recognisably archetypal nature of their characters means that they can touch us profoundly at all stages of our lives. At times of transformation and transition, they can reveal to us longings that we never knew we had, fire us up with new ideas and insights, and inspire us to harness pain for growth and change.
‘The Black Bull of Norroway’, one of my favourite Scottish fairy tales, had particular resonance for me when I was a teenager. It’s one of many Scottish stories (think ‘Kate Crackernuts’, or Janet in ‘Tam Lin’) which are founded on a heroine’s, rather than a hero’s journey. Here, a young princess marries a prince who has been transformed into a black bull, and when he falls again into the clutches of the witch who originally cast the spell on him, she sets off on a long journey to rescue him. It’s a story that stresses not only courage and determination, but the now-unfashionable art of apprenticeship, because she must spend seven long years working for a blacksmith – the only person who can make the shoes that will enable her to scale an impassable glass mountain to continue her quest. When her time is up, she crosses the mountain and eventually saves her husband from marriage to the evil witch.
In young adulthood, women are often preoccupied with finding balance in their relationships. The old story from Arthurian legend, ‘What Do Women Want?’, has particular resonance at such times. To avoid King Arthur being killed by a renegade knight, Sir Gawain must agree both to marry an ugly hag, and to correctly answer for her the question of what women want most. The answer he eventually uncovers is ‘sovereignty’: women want the right to determine their own destiny, to be their own person. And because Sir Gawain allows his new wife her own sovereignty by permitting her to choose her own path, the ugly hag is transformed into a beautiful young woman.
Sometimes of course, as we grow older, we’re forced to re-evaluate those relationships which we once sought, and to navigate their demise. To determine not just what we want, but what we won’t tolerate. ‘The Lady of Llyn y Fan Fach’, a rich and beautiful story from the Brecon Beacons, is a potent cautionary tale: a fairy woman walks away from her chosen mortal husband, who three times breaks his vow not to raise his hand to her – because he doesn’t understand that she is seeing the complex nature of certain events rather more clearly than he is.
Midlife transitions can be some of the most challenging periods of our lives, and one of the stories I’ve found most resonates with women at that time is the story of the selkie, which exists in various versions throughout Scotland and Ireland. A fisherman steals the skin of a seal-woman who has the capacity to transform into human form once a month, and so prevents her from taking her natural seal form again and returning to the sea. If, as Carl Jung said, the first half of life is about actively building – relationships, jobs, children – then the second half is about individuation: turning inwards, finding who we really are, and what the unique gift is that we alone bring to the world. The selkie’s lost skin symbolises that searching, longing period of midlife in which we realise that we’ve lost sense of ‘who we are’. Ultimately, her challenge is to regain her skin and to find a true sense of belonging again – to herself and the world – after years of marriage and motherhood.
Menopause is the ultimate transformation for women. Through a long period of drastic change, we are forced to wholly redefine ourselves – learn to see ourselves not primarily as sexual beings in relationship to significant others, or to children as their mothers, but instead to find the purposeful centre of our own lives as independent women. In one old Welsh folk tale, it is the feminine creative, generative force which comes into its own at this time. The story of Ceridwen shows her cooking
Because transformation is at the heart of every fairy tale: they help us believe in the possibility of change
up, in her magic cauldron, the essence of inspiration and knowledge. Ceridwen shapeshifts constantly from one form to another as she pursues the young servant boy Gwion Bach, who has inadvertently consumed the first three drops of wisdom from the cauldron which were originally intended for her own son, and eventually rebirths him as Taliesin, the greatest of all bards.
And finally, in the Scottish and Irish folk traditions we have one of the richest role models for female elderhood: the Cailleach. The Old Woman is the geotectonic power of the land itself, giving shape to the Earth throughout all its long ages, and protecting its wild things from human excess. For me, as a woman of Scottish and Irish ancestry, to become elder is above all to become Cailleach: to represent the integrity and health of the wild places and creatures of this world; to become strong – strong as the white old bones of the earth, strong enough to endure the long, lonely vigil to the end of the world – and finally, to hold the power, and to stay the course.
These are characters we all recognise, and when we need to, we can find their courage, tenacity and fidelity within ourselves. The tasks which must be undertaken in these stories are the stuff out of which souls are forged. They help us not only to unravel the outmoded ways of being we once embraced, but to reimagine who it is we want to become. Because transformation is at the heart of every fairy tale: they help us believe in the possibility of change. When we’re lost in the dark wood, they can show us how to find our way back home – or our way forward, as we set off on a new adventure. Whatever journey through life we imagine ourselves to be on, fairy tales can inspire us to live more intensely, and more richly, in this beautiful, animate world in which we’re enmeshed.
● Dr Sharon Blackie is the author of If Women Rose Rooted; A Lifechanging Journey to Authenticity and Belonging (£8.99) and a new collection of short stories, Foxfire, Wolfskin, and Other Stories of Shapeshifting Women (£14.99), out now (both published by September Publishing)