The Scotsman

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)

 ?? PIC­TURE: Gary Doak/alamy ?? Dr Sharon Blackie says fairy tales can in­spire us to live more in­tensely, and more richly
PIC­TURE: Gary Doak/alamy Dr Sharon Blackie says fairy tales can in­spire us to live more in­tensely, and more richly
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