When I first began to wonder about fairy tales, it was their strange imagery and symbolism that attracted me. Why are we repeatedly presented with kings and queens, princes and princesses, castles and towers, evil stepmothers and wizards, mermaids and dwarfs? What do they stand for? In Jungian terms, they are archetypes, figures of the collective unconscious, informing of us of our deep nature. But what do they mean to me?
In the beginning, I consulted symbol dictionaries to find out what various symbols meant. What does a tower represent? What does a mermaid represent? The symbol dictionary could tell me what a tower meant in different cultures, but it could not tell me what it meant to me, nor why I was attracted to it.
One day, while trying to understand my attraction to the symbol of the tower, it occurred to me to go and have a look at a few towers. Walk around them. Get inside them. Spend some time hanging out in Rapunzel’s tower, or the sea tower in The Impossible Enchantment (Grey Fairy Book) or the tower that imprisons Maid Maleen.
I soon discovered that the archetypal tower plays many roles. Rapunzel’s tower removes her from the world, raises her up, and keeps her blissfully ignorant of the wiles of witches and men. The sea tower in The Impossible Enchantment comforts and coddles the princess while keeping her in a state of fantasy.
The tower also plays darker roles. In the Grimm’s fairy tales, Maid Maleen’s tower shrouds her in darkness while protecting her from the wars raging outside. The tower that holds the Queen in The Pink entombs her and acts as a chrysalis for her rebirth.
As it turned out, I wasn’t attracted to all towers. I was attracted to a particular tower that played a particular role. Rapunzel’s tower held my attention, and the more time I spent in it, the more I understood why it was an important metaphor for me. I started to see how, like Rapunzel, I moved into an inner tower in adolescence. I studied hard, and to a high standard. When I went to graduate school, the tower became an “ivory tower,” and later, when I experienced chronic pain, my body became a “prison of bones.” I wrote an entire memoir called The Tower Princess during the time I reflected on that one, single symbol.
The role that a symbol plays in the story can tell us how we have lived it, and, at the same time, the symbol stands for many different experiences. The tower holds the experience of all the people who have ever felt that they were in one. The symbol itself is a collector of human experience, a powerful holding place for what the Greeks called gnosis, the knowledge of the heart.
On the ground of a fairy tale, all the rich symbols—the tower, the glass mountain, the witch’s hut, the shoes of the princess—hold experience. So too, the animals and the plants—the fox, the fish, and the myrtle tree—hold secret knowledge. When we enter a symbol, we come into a whole community of others who know what that place is like.
Here is common ground; a meeting place. You and I both know what it is like to be a still, reflecting pond. When I dwell there for a time, I somehow contact your experience and the experience of all the others who have been still, reflecting ponds. I am immersed in the quiet that is not just mine, but ours–the quiet that We All Know. The quiet that Is Known.
That’s why, for me, fairy tales are the greatest gifts that we could possibly have given to ourselves. They are letters from home, reminding us that we are not alone, and that, as Joseph Campbell said, “where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world.”