Metaphysics of Fairy Tales

Bruno Bérard and Jean Borella

The book is in French – here a translation of key elements in English.

Coming from the depths of time and from all regions of the world, fairy tales are teeming with historical or ethnographic indications. Do they not deliver, secretly, a lesson on the spiritual future of every human being? This book, after an overview of the history of tales and their various interpretations, offers metaphysical commentaries on three tales: “Tom Thumb”, “The Young Girl with Severed Hands”, and “What the Old Man Does is Always Well Done”.


  1. Foreword
  2. First part. Fairy tales

    1. Chapter I Fairy Tales as Material
    2. Chapter II Interpretations of Fairy Tales
  3. Second part. Metaphysical Interpretations of Fairy Tales

    1. Chapter III “The Girl Without Hands”
    2. Chapter IV “What the Old Man Does is Always Right”
    3. Chapter V “The Big Ogre and Little Thumb”


The Big Ogre and Little Thumb

The ogre perceived the smell of fresh flesh. He feels more than he sees and what he feels he desires. The freshness of the flesh is the freshness of the human soul in its most noble faculties which the devouring power aspires to taste, which it wants to seize and feast on. Of its faculties, the devouring power does not know the true nature. It only perceives their brilliance, their shiny appearance: “these are delicious morsels” says the ogre whose scent has led him under the bed where his wife has hidden the seven brothers. What does that mean? If this tale is really about an initiatory journey, it seems that we can see here the consideration of one of the strongest temptations that the soul encounters on its way, namely, the desire to possess the highest spiritual gifts. We have always found the formula of Guénon very ambiguous: to distinguish the initiatory way from the mystical way, he speaks, for the first “of an effective taking hold of the higher states of being”. Now, it is perhaps here that the difference, and even the incompatibility, between the Christian way and the Guénonian way manifests itself most radically. The Guénonian initiate is a kind of “technician” of the higher states of which he has full control: we have spoken on this subject of “initiatory demiurge”, omniscient, who mysteriously masters all forms of the Spirit, wandering in silence, incognito, like the Count of Saint-Germain, from West to East. The attraction exercised by such an initiatory “ideal” on the well-disposed reader is superior to that of any other: what is a knight, a king, an emperor, next to one who, possessing the superior states of being, also possesses, and by that very fact, all the powers, powers which he obviously disdains to exercise? Who will deny that the hope of such effective possession has encouraged many to seek the proper initiatory organization to ensure their access to it, and has led them to accept the constraints? But who will not see the effect of the desiring soul that wants to seize its highest postulations? Who will deny that a part of our soul greedily considers everything that its spiritual faculties can bring and which it believes it can feed on?

This, it seems to us, is what the tale describes in the figure of the ogre who is hungry for the fresh flesh of the seven brothers; at least this is one of the possible meanings of the drama that is about to occur, a meaning that puts us in the presence of the most formidable spiritual trial and which is not unrelated to the sin against the Spirit. According to the truth of the spiritual path, this test must indeed end, not by possession, but by the renunciation of possessing, renunciation which is the “most perfect gift” to which we can aspire. On the contrary, “spiritual” greed belongs to the ogre of our soul, who cannot understand that the high faculties of the spirit are made of stripping, poverty and love. [pp. 166-167]

Notice of publication

The parallel of the title with Bettelheim’s Psychoanalysis of Fairy Tales clearly announces that it is a question of interpreting, but at a new cost, this ‘material’ coming from the depths of the ages and from all regions of the world, and which, however, has already given rise to multiple interpretations, be they sociological, mythical, psychoanalytical, esoteric, initiatory, even ‘meteorological’.

This is because, when we are dealing with such objects, which have crossed time and space and which have been understood in such diverse ways, we have the right to ask ourselves if, more deeply, they could not involve principles and elements of a metaphysical nature, and if they could not deliver, secretly, a lesson on the spiritual future of every human being.

Such is the risk run by this Metaphysics of fairy tales, which, after an overview of their history and their interpretations, offers the commentary of three tales: ‘Little Thumb’, ‘The Girl Without Hands’ and ‘What The Old Man Does Is Always Right’.

A foreword by Jean Borella sketches some features of what could be a general theory of fairy tales, capable of justifying their metaphysical interpretation. Because we aim at doing something else than looking for the historical, sociological or psychological causes scientifically leading to the tale, the idea is to start from it, to take it as a guide according to its didactic intention, which is its own finality, too often neglected. Thus, a metaphysics of fairy tales makes the hypothesis, in other words it believes, that what is stated in the tale also points to a proper spiritual reality, and not only to the psychological formation of the child. It therefore assumes that the human being is called to a spiritual destiny, that is to realize what his theomorphic nature destines him to do. If the Western soul marveled at the psychic unconscious, we can clearly see that it got lost there like Narcissus drowning as he wanted to rejoin the image of himself which was only on the surface. Yet, much more deeply, there is an “unconscious spirit”, an innate sense of the divine and the transcendent. It is to this spirit that the tale is implicitly addressed. This is its very intention and meaning, because the divine mystery that is in us also represents our true destiny, which the etymology of the word ‘fairy’ recalls: fata, ‘goddess of destinies’, feminine form of fatum, the destiny divinely ‘uttered’, which is attached to the verb fari, to speak.

Two chapters present the history and definition of fairy tales – in particular compared to fables, legends, myths and other short stories –, then an overview of the various interpretations encountered: ‘meteorological’, sociological, psychoanalytical (Freudian and Jungian), ‘esoteric’, ‘initiatory’, showing how to distinguish them from what a metaphysical interpretation should be.

Finally, and this is the essence of the book, a presentation of the metaphysical (or spiritual) commentaries of three tales, chosen from among the best known, allow the reader to form a judgement of this Metaphysics of fairy tales.


Associated Papers

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