Francisco Vaz da Silva
Because the marvelous elements in fairy tales call for an explanation, a cohort of bright minds have pored over the problem of fairy-tale symbolism. Models sharing the nineteenth-century penchant for genetic inquiries have assumed that symbols are the survivals of archaic metaphors. Thus, Max Müller proposed that myths and fairy tales stem from obscured metaphors about solar phenomena; Sigmund Freud speculated that fairy-tale symbolism is the fossilized residue of primordial sexual metaphors; and Carl Jung submitted that symbols express immanent archetypes of the human psyche. Such early approaches assume that symbols convey fixed meanings, and they disregard the effects of folklore variation on meanings.
Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm did take variation into account. They conceived Märchen in terms of immanent blueprints incessantly recreated in myriad retellings, but they never tried to make sense of the themes by means of the variants. This path was taken by folklorists influenced by Freud. Alan Dundes proposed to harness tale variants to grasp symbolic equivalences, and he pioneered the study of folk metaphors. But Dundes focused on preset Freudian symbols, a trend that Bengt Holbek followed. To this day, the prospect of addressing fairy-tale symbolism beyond Freud’s assumption of fixed translations remains elusive.
Nevertheless, the basic tools are available. Maria Tatar remarked that fairy tales are metaphoric devices, and Claude Lévi-Strauss pointed out that metaphors—in switching terms that belong to different codes—lay bare the broader semantic field underlying each transposition. Müller, Freud, Dundes, Tatar, and Lévi-Strauss variously glimpsed metaphoric patterns in tale variations. The time is ripe to synthesize these intuitions in the light of contemporary cognitive research on conceptual metaphor, so as to address the creative dynamics of symbolism in fairy tales.