I need to preface this by talking about analyzing myths (though it applies to lots of different kinds of literature). Most myths have a lot of specific information. The characters are more fleshed out and definite. The setting is established, rooted in the particular culture that created the myth, and so by careful analysis it’s possible to derive specific messages of intent and find patterns that help establish what the myth is to be about and any hidden messages underneath.
As an example, in going through the Prometheus myth, it’s clear that there are several inconsistencies about Zeus’s stated actions and the result. If the entire business with Pandora was simply to punish, then why go through such an elaborate, roundabout scheme? The punishment of Prometheus was simple and direct (though torturous and long-lasting). There’s something about Pandora as punishment to humanity that doesn’t ring as right, and a detailed analysis of Zeus and the myth reveal something deeper. The detailed analysis points very specifically to certain ideas that cannot be ignored. There are still a few possibilities as to the messages of the Prometheus myth, but only a few.
Fairy Tales are the opposite. They have been scrubbed of concrete details. Their settings and characters are generic and reduced to types. This doesn’t mean that we can’t analyze them, but it means we have much less information with which to do so. Also, without the high level of details, it means that there are many interpretations and meanings to Fairy Tales.
In fact, there are so many arguments and so little evidence to contradict that most interpretations are valid. On top of that, they are not contradictory. Last week I presented a small list of meanings of Red Riding Hood. While all are distinct, none of them excludes the other interpretations. So all of these meanings of Red Riding Hood are layered, and communicates them simultaneously to the reader.
The generic nature of fairy tales, then, makes them both interesting and difficult to pin down. If nearly all arguments are valid, what, then does it really mean? How can it mean all of these things simultaneously when these interpretations are so varied? How can the Wolf simultaneously represent the lower class, natural world, a sexual predator, and Trickster figure?
It can make the head hurt because people conceptualize that there is a right answer. Most literature studies admit the possibility of a few answers (which can cause shouting matches). So you can imagine some of the shouting matches when fairy tales can present dozens of answers, none of which can be discounted.
I’ll kick things off next week with a more detailed look at Red Riding Hood, looking at half a dozen or so of the more popular meanings.