Bengt Holbek and the study of meanings in fairy tales *.

Author:Vaz da Silva, Francisco
Position:Critical essay

This paper argues that Bengt Holbek's attempt to reduce all "marvelous" elements in fairy tales to real-world referents drastically conceals the dynamics of traditional symbolic representations underlying this narrative genre.

Bengt Holbek is unusual among folklorists in that his Interpretation of Fairy Tales is uncompromisingly set on a theoretical level. After summarizing virtually all preceding scholarship on fairy tales, the Danish author proposes a comprehensive theory the basis for which is the clear assessment that all problems in the realm of "oral verbal art" have "to be seen as being dependent upon that of meaning" (8). After Holbek's magnum opus it is simply not possible to disregard the symbolic aspect of fairy tales. I thus concur with Alan Dundes in seeing in Interpretation of Fairy Tales "a seminal work, a veritable landmark" (203). Now this entails, for those of us who would profit from this heritage, an obligation of close readings.

Misgivings on Symbols and Context

In the field of fairy-tale studies nothing is of course simple, let alone self-evident. What one means by "meanings" must, therefore, be clarified. According to Holbek the "marvelous" elements in fairy tales are "symbolic," meaning they "convey feelings rather than thoughts." Moreover, such "vivid emotional impressions" are deemed to "refer to beings, events and phenomena of the real world" (409). Since fairy tales supposedly express emotional impressions (435), interpretation consists in retracing all "marvelous" elements back to the real-world referents of such impressions (409).

Holbek uses a system of seven rules for reverting symbolic expressions to their corresponding emotional impressions. In so doing he focuses on three thematic oppositions, namely young versus adult, male versus female, and low versus high. According to him these "define the three categories of crises which occur in fairy tales," all of which are in turn "real or possible events in the storytelling community" (416-8). Holbek thus surmises that the thematic axes of fairy tales express "sensitive, even painful" problems of rural communities. Such concerns are, in a nutshell, the youths' rebellion and incestuous attractions to parents, sexual maturation and the meeting of the sexes, and the tensions between "haves" and "have-nots." It follows that, ideally, "every element [in a fairy tale] may be read as pertaining to real life" (439, cf. 428).

This leaves of course "no room at all for the so-called supernatural beings, the witches, fairies, dragons, ogres, etc.," since--as Holbek stresses--"they represent aspects of real persons" (418). (1) "Interpretation" therefore appears as the systematic reduction of unknown elements in fairy tales to the familiar psychological predicaments of average people in rather vague socio-cultural settings. For example, the glass mountain that the hero must sometimes overcome is to be read as "a symbolic expression of the distance between the princess and her lover" (424). The heroine's "guarding monster, ogre, dragon, troll, devil or whatever he may be named ... is the girl's father seen as the hero's adversary" (425). In the same vein, the heroine who kills her guardian by breaking the egg that contains his heart "literally breaks her father's heart when she turns to her lover" (426).

I find the association of the dragon to the heroine's father very interesting, as well as the idea that the Dragon Slayer overcomes "the father in his daughter" (426). These insights, taken together and considered along with the well-known secret that in many traditions the Dragon Slayer kills his own father, (2) suggest however that the issue at stake is somewhat more complex than Holbek acknowledges. The dragon, which anthropologist Chris Knight defines as paradoxical to the core worldwide--uniting in itself high and low, death and life, animal and human, water and fire, dark and light (8)--is certainly more than the bride's father as seen by her wooer. Likewise, all over Europe the crystal mountain is very clearly the realm of the dead, where the means to immortality may be sought when it opens up periodically--and, as Propp shows, its crystal is related to the dragon inhabiting it (1983:82-4; cf. Belmont 63-5). In the same vein, Claude Gaignebet points out that the green color often ascribed to this mountain is traditionally linked to death and resurrection and is, moreover, emblematized by the curled-up serpent that delimitates a realm immune to death and corruption (1974:12). Finally, James Frazer's demonstration that the external heart or soul motif in European fairy tales (and elsewhere) relates to the idea of immortality must be taken into account (668).

Even a cursory consideration of fairy-tales motifs thus suggests that Holbek's readings are severely restrictive. The point here is that his "real-world" perspective conceals a complex underlying system of metaphysical representations, which an interpretation of fairy tales ought to address. Now the Danish author agrees with this in principle. Indeed he recognizes that Jakobson and Bogatyrev's notion of folklore as a specific mode of creation, which he claims to endorse (39-40, 256-7), leads to "'transcendent' interpretation" of an underlying system that is coterminous to Levi-Strauss's "later notion of a (mythical) meta-language" (43). Thus, Holbek acknowledges "a 'system' or 'meta-language' which is common to several tales, maybe the entire fairy-tale tradition of a given area or group of people" (601-2). Yet, he inflects Jakobson and Bogatyrev's specific use of the Saussurian notion of langue--an unconscious semiotic system expressing ideas (Saussure 30, 33, 107)--as he redefines it as a set of rules of oral craftsmanship for the conscious expression of feelings (39-41, 406-8).

Dundes' "plea for psychoanalytical semiotics" (1980), which Holbek explicitly supports (407), may be the key issue here. In general terms, Dundes is concerned both with showing that "psychoanalytic theory can greatly illuminate folklore" and that folklore may be of service to psychoanalytic theory. The two purposes involve distinct analytical procedures, namely "the crucial device of projection" and "allomotific equivalence" (1980:36-8; 1987a:36-40). Methodological use of projection goes of course with a psychoanalytically inspired reading, whereas, according to Dundes, allomotifs are symbolic equations "made with no help from any a priori theory, psychoanalytic or otherwise" (1987a:40; cf. 1987b:168, 176). In good method the two procedures should then be used in succession--one in identifying symbolic equations, the other in interpreting them. However, although Holbek makes a point of using allomotific equivalence to test his thesis on symbol formation, I find, in the whole Interpretation of Fairy Tales, only one unmistakable use of the allomotific method (425, 457). (3) Note that Holbek's basic idea that symbols convey emotional impressions implies projection. Moreover, as I will show, the author really uses the projective device--not allomotific equivalence--to bring forth his point even as he analyses several versions of one tale type. For this reason, I shall argue that Holbek's interpretations consistently ignore the cultural representations Propp intuits as "abstract notions," Jakobson and Bogatyrev define as a "canvas of actual tradition" (63-4), and Levi-Strauss describes as the "crystalline parts of discourse," set on "shared foundations," that emerge through the workings of variation in oral tradition (560).

A Case Study

I will briefly substantiate these claims by examining Holbek's analysis of several versions of a particular tale: King Wivern (AT 433B). Here is an outline of the plot. An old hag advises a queen with no children to eat either a red or a white rose, but not both (or two not three apples, or two skinned red onions out of three). She disobeys and gives birth to a subterranean serpent called lindorm (or a princess and a snake; or two princes, one of which is a snake). The snake repeatedly demands to marry, but kills each of his brides on their wedding nights. Then the last bride, advised by an old hag (or her dead mother, or her father), causes the serpent to shed its multiple sloughs by shedding, herself, the multiple "shifts" she had donned for the purpose. Moreover, she applies to the serpent vinegar (or wine, or brine, or blood) then milk (and/or linen, or her own "shifts")--or else throws the lindorm into the fire. The monster turns into a prince and marriage is celebrated. Shortly after, the heroine bears twins (or a single son) while her husband is at war. Through deceit the young queen is expelled and subsequently disenchants aquatic birds and an ass into princes (or gets a contract and frees either an old woman or a man, or feeds doves). (4)

As I noted before, Holbek proposes to use Dundes' notion of allomotif--the idea that if two elements in a tale fill the same structural position they are both functionally and symbolically equivalent--to test whether his own model can account for such equivalences (457). Now the first set of allomotifs in the story concerns the queen eating a red and a white rose, or three apples, or two red onions, one of which not peeled. Holbek's comment is, "It makes no difference whether the queen is eating roses, onions or apples. The only point of importance is her disobedience." The second set of allomotifs regards two twins, or a girl and a serpent, or just a serpent being born. Again, the Danish author states, "it makes no difference whether the queen bears a wivern only or a wivern and a normal child" (495). Now to say "it makes no difference" is the proper thing when one wants to ascertain functional equivalencies in Propp's abstract sense--but this is not the same thing as using the notion of allomotif to discover symbolic equivalences in fairy tales.

The indifference of Holbek to actual equivalencies reflects the fact that his...

To continue reading