The book you are holding in your hands is meant to be a companion on your journey to creative self-exploration through fairy and folk-tales, where we can find nuggets of wisdom and psychological processes and stages, we all go through in life.
My intention is to provide a map or at least a practical resource that can help you chart your course with the help of fairy tales. While I am convinced of the value of this path, it is only one of the many available, and it will resonate with you if you are passionate or curious about folk and fairy tales and what they can tell us about our human journeys.
First of all, let me tell you a bit about myself, so that you know about my relevant experiences and credentials. I am a creative practitioner and transformative arts facilitator and coach from Italy. I use creativity as a catalyst for positive change and inner development.
As a child and young woman, I travelled in imaginary dimensions as well as to other countries. I have been fascinated by stories and poems since the time when my grandmother told me some unique Italian fairy tales around the fire, while roasting chestnuts in the fireplace.
Later, I studied English, German and Italian languages and literature at university. I then moved to Edinburgh, Scotland, where I taught Italian and studied anthropology. Scotland has had a huge impact on my soul; the land and its traditions and folklore have stayed with me over the years.
After a brief stint in Italy, I moved to Glasgow, where I pursued a PhD in Comparative Literature. When some years later, I moved back to Italy, I took up English teaching and undertook postgraduate studies in Expressive Arts therapies, counselling and creative coaching.
It was then that I resumed working with fairy and folk tales both in my teaching and creative facilitation practice, where I blend creative and expressive writing with other creative languages and activities: collage work, doodling, sketching, intuitive painting, free movement, sound and voice work, mask-making and dramatic monologue, ritual, guided journeys and visualisations.
As you are about to learn in the pages of this book, the fairy and folk tales I have chosen for exploration have been part of my existential journey. I unpack them here in the belief that they also may benefit you, as you walk your unique path.
I will not engage in academic discussions here, but I encourage you to look into Marie Louise von Franz’s books, especially the first few chapters of The Interpretation of Fairy Tales, where she gives an overview of the historical development of fairy and folk tale studies.
Other important works belong to scholars such as Aarne Thompson, Max Lüthi, Maria Tatar, Joseph Campbell, Marina Warner, Cristina Bacchilega, Ruth Bottigheimer, and Jack Zipes. Each of these scholars (and others) has their own specific interpretative lenses; whether it is through literary studies, social history, myth studies, feminism, cultural studies or folklore studies, they all look at different facets of the variegated phenomenon of fairy and folk tales.
In this book, I blend personal retellings of a few popular tales, analysis and insight, in the conviction that these practices are interconnected and yield good results for the story practitioner and lover.
I agree with Marie Louise von Franz that fairy tales are a sort of abstraction, the unchanging bones of a corpse brought back to life, whose flesh and clothes change as many times as the tales change sky. Thus, we can find many variations on a single story, depending on the various locations where it is told.
Marie Louise von Franz refers to popular folktales and fairy tales as abstractions because they get animated and revived in various guises at each retelling. The same is true, albeit to a lesser extent, about literary fairy tales, the written work of specific authors.
I retell both literary fairy-tales and popular folktales, as they have been handed down and edited — sometimes heavily, as in the case of the Brothers Grimm and their women “informants” — in written form. My method is informed by a literary perspective and an affinity for Jungian Depth Psychology. Specifically, we are going to journey through nine tales in search of motifs and themes that may be relevant to our ongoing quest for self-knowledge.
Each chapter includes a retelling, a section where we track themes and motifs, and creative process activities, whereby we engage in active imagination as well as reflection.
Active imagination is a creative process whereby a person works with their fantasies, dreams, and inner images by amplifying them through expressive languages such as the arts, movement, music, sound, dance, writing and so on. Despite being credited with the first usage of active imagination, Carl Gustav Jung remarked that all of his patients engaged spontaneously in the process by themselves because of its natural healing function and characteristics.
In the following pages, you will find creative process activities inspired by the tales retold, inviting you to plunge deep into creative self-exploration.
The book is divided in three sections, each containing three fairy or folk tales that are considered as variations on specific themes. The first section focuses on the theme of ‘Wounds’; the second is about ‘Tests and Trials’; the third section is about ‘Voices’. The ideal arc depicted in the sequence is from unconsciousness to consciousness, woundedness to healing (and/or vindication), tribulations to self-awareness and self-determination, self-effacement to self-expression.
I invite you to read the whole book first and then to go back and engage with the chapters and their activities in the given order. I designed the activities to amplify the themes of the tales and to allow for relevant, imaginative engagement. In other words, this is a book about taking care of yourself and your personal stories through the help of fairy and folk tales. It is about taking creative action, which is where all the gold is. Let us begin.
‘The Wounded Seal’
The first story I am retelling is a traditional folk tale from Northern Scotland and Orkney, an archipelago off the northern tip of Scotland. It was first collected by Thomas Knightley in 1882 in his The Fairy Mythology, and has been told countless times through the generations of storytellers. The title is ‘The Wounded Seal’. I researched and told it in the first storytelling summer school I joined, in Edinburgh, in August 2016. When I came across it, the story resonated with me because it set off a longing I didn't even know about. It moved me because it spoke to my need for homecoming to myself, after a long time when I had been projected outwards, and had not been listening to my sense of inner wounding. I had been dealing with a lot in my life, including a major operation, a sense of having lost a clearly defined vocation, a failed relationship, and adjusting to a country, my own, which I had lost contact with for a long time, because I had lived in Scotland for years.
Indeed, Scotland is one of the inner landscapes of my soul. There is something about the characteristics of the land and its people that I feel really attuned to. It still is, in many ways, an enchanted country. It is a land of stories, narrative and poetry, folktales and ballads, which is something that naturally arouses my devotion. I feel genuine awe when encountering a story well told.
A story is a key, it is a crucible, an alchemical vessel for transformation. Through its images and rhythms, it can stretch our imagination and the ability to explore our inner lives, if only we engage with it mindfully and let its resonances percolate into our daily lives.
Here and in some of the pages that will follow, I am giving my take on selected stories, with comments and creative activities to engage with them.
Below is my retelling of ‘The Wounded Seal’.
‘The Wounded Seal’
A very long time ago, in a village perched on the high cliffs of an island in Orkney, there lived a man who was a seal hunter. Life was harsh and exposed to the elements out there. Wind and waves, rocks and thunder, tempest and loneliness shaped the character of the islanders. The seal hunter had been such all his life. His father and forefathers had handed down the trade, so that the seal hunter was only the last in line of a fate that had possessed all the men in his family. He was a solitary man. He traded seal skins in the market and made a decent living by doing so. However, he avoided human company and had never married. Other than the transactions in the market, he kept to himself.
One day, at the darkest hour before dawn, he set out in his boat and rowed off the rocky shore. Then, he put the oars inside the boat and waited quietly. It was not long before many seals swam all around the boat, playing and babbling like children. They seemed so happy and carefree. When the big grey seal flanked the drifting boat, the seal hunter stabbed him quickly, but before he managed to cast his net on the seal, it disappeared under the dark waters with the seal hunter's knife in its back. That night, the seal hunter only caught small fish. Then he went back home, sullen and gloomy. In the evening, while he was having dinner, somebody knocked on his door. The seal hunter was startled: nobody had ever knocked on his door, and his cottage was quite isolated and forlorn.
When he opened the door, there was a tall, dark-haired woman standing in front of him. He quickly assessed her. Her clothes were finely embroidered and rich, but her grey eyes were incredibly sad. The woman said: "There is a rich man who wants to buy many seal skins from you. Follow me, and I will lead you to him.” Then, she nodded in the direction of a black stead. The man followed her without hesitation. They mounted the black horse and ran away like the wind. They galloped for a long while, till they came to the edge of a cliff.
Below, the green, foaming sea was raging and roaring. The man looked around... Nobody was there, so he asked: "where is the man who wants to buy seal skins?"
The woman kept silent. Once they dismounted, she took the seal hunter's hand and ran towards the precipice. The man was astounded. The woman's strength was great. She was like a magnet and he could not stop. They jumped off the cliff.
His heart thumped in his chest, he was so scared and so exhilarated! The time it took for them to plunge into the green raging sea seemed endless to the seal hunter. He moved his legs spasmodically in the air, it all felt so weird, yet strangely peaceful. Was that to be his end?
When they dove into the waters, the impact was strong. It was so cold that it took its breath away, but as soon as they were deep underwater, the seal hunter was surprised to realise he could still breathe. Not only that, he saw that his body and his companion's had turned into seal bodies. They swam with ease in the depths of the North Sea, dark and pristine. It took a while for him to get used to the darkness. The water all around stuck to his new body like a glove.
When his sight had adjusted to the darkness, he started noticing things: the sea bottom was so different from what he had thought in his musings. There were sea caves everywhere and strange fish he had never seen before. The light of the sun did not come. He followed his seal companion when she swam into the opening of a dark cave. He soon realised they were in a seal compound. Seals were everywhere, in the halls and rocky chambers. They all stood still watching them with a sad gaze.
The seal hunter and the woman took on their human forms again. She grabbed a fishing knife and showed it to the seal hunter. "Is this yours?" – she asked.
"Yes, I lost it when I stabbed a large seal on its back" – said the seal hunter honestly.
"That seal is my father" – said the woman. "He's laying down, waiting to die. Only you can save him".
Then, she led the seal hunter along a long, dimly lit, winding corridor. At the end of it, they entered a chamber where on a huge slab of stone, there was the dying seal, panting heavily.
The woman told the seal hunter: "Come forward."
He advanced full of fear. He felt the sad eyes of all the seals on himself. He saw that the large seal had a long, deep wound on his back.
The woman said: "Now, put your hand on his wound."
The man was fearful, but complied. He put his hand on the wound, which felt cold, and then hot, in quick succession. The seal hunter was flooded with a surge of strong feelings from the dying seal. He had never experienced such a depth of misery and hopelessness, sadness and discomfort, in all his life. He felt the world was wrong, and things could not be made right again. He also saw his own life as he had lived it till that moment and he despaired. He was tempted to withdraw his hand, but the steady gaze of the woman and pressure of all the by-standing seals prevented him from doing so.
Then, gradually, the feelings of misery shifted, and he started to feel more and more peace, then hope, and great joy.
At the same time, the wound started to heal and, little by little, the large grey seal revived and was completely healed, as if it had never been wounded in the first place.
There was great joy and great merriment among the seal people, who danced for hours on end.
When dawn approached, the seal woman told the seal hunter: "Come, I will lead you home now, but you have to promise me that you will never hunt seals again."
The seal hunter had no clue about how he would make his living, but he knew beyond any doubt that he would never hunt seals again. He nodded. Then, he took her hand, and they swam on the surface of the sea again. Dawn was breaking in all its peace and glory. They rode the black horse to the seal hunter's cottage. When they dismounted, the seal woman looked into the seal hunter's eyes, took his hands in hers and gave him a small sachet.
"This is for you," she whispered, and said softly: "Thank you."
Then she turned back, hopped on her black stead and ran away as fast as the wind.
The seal hunter stood on the threshold, transfixed. For a few moments, he was unable to move or think. The wind blew fiercely, as it is common in those islands. Yet, he was absorbed in all that he had experienced among the seal people.
Only after a while, did he sense the velvety sachet in his palm and look at it. He closed the door and made his way to the fireplace, where he stirred the embers and rekindled a small fire. Then, he sat down on a chair and looked at the sachet again. He opened it and poured its contents in his palm. He was amazed to see three little diamonds and a few rare pearls.
From that very day, the man changed his way of life, gave up seal hunting and went down to the village more often. People took notice of his sudden change and, all in all, were happy to have him as their companion. The seal hunter turned into a fine craftsman. He set up a workshop and also hired a few fellow villagers. It was not long before he noticed a bonnie lass coming to his workshop…
Themes and Motifs
The first time I came across this tale, it resonated with me at an unfathomable level I was unable to comprehend fully. I was so struck that I decided to make it mine and to retell it in my first storytelling performance. It only lasted a few minutes, but it was a powerful experience for me, the teller.
Somehow, I felt this story was about me and a wound in my feminine soul.
I think that different stories resonate with us at different times in our lives and that their significance for us may change depending on what is foregrounded in our lives at any given time. Thus, back in 2016, it was a time when I was reckoning with my professional identity and with my sensation of being stuck in my creative longings. Most of the time, I did not know how I could work with my frustration. I did know that creativity and story language were my irreplaceable medicines, my power practices.
‘The Wounded Seal’, like a lot of stories, can be read on many levels.
Here, I offer a foray into a few of its themes and symbols, being inspired by the idea that each single image, object, animal, character in a story can talk about us, once we take the time to consult it, like an oracle or a magical mirror. That is, once we attend to our own responses and intricate resonances with the tale.
I also believe serendipity exists and it is a key element in discovering new patterns and making new paths, forging new directions for ourselves and our lives.
‘The Wounded Seal’ starts in a desolate Northern village swept by the elements: wind and waters lick rocks and men into unique shapes.
Then, there is a lonely man trapped into an inherited fate: he has always been a seal hunter, like his father, his grand-father and his great grand-father. His only way of relating to other human beings is through market transactions, selling and buying. Apart from that, he wants to be left alone and keeps to himself.
This is the condition of the ego when keeping us alive in automatic, default mode. The ego keeps us in what we have always known and experienced, in safe discomfort.
When seal hunting, out at sea, the man is quick and canny, yet he acts largely unaware, therefore, on that day, his prey escapes and he can only fare on small fish. That is, when we play safe, we obtain meagre results.
Then, something unexpected happens, in the form of an unknown woman knocking on his door. A call to adventure, or a call into the unknown.
At first, the woman allures the seal hunter with the bait of having him sell seal skins. This is the trick mystery plays on us to get us out of our dens. And the seal hunter – the ego – follows suit.
The woman (the soul) is sad, but she knows the cure and leads the seal hunter (the ego) into a literal and metaphorical descent into the depths of the unconscious (waters) where, by feeling another creature’s pain, he faces his own woundedness too.
The alchemy of transformation happens when the wound is exposed and the seal hunter, who is both the wounding and the wounded in his own turn, ends up becoming the healer. There is much to be said about the need to have a healthy, integrated, wholesome ego in order to live with integrity and self-responsibility.
After experiencing all the range of feelings from despair to deep joy – the man (the ego) knows there is no going back: he chooses for the first time consciously and with full awareness in his life not to hurt seals again. A sort of ancestral curse is lifted: he is now free to choose his own destiny, despite (or because of) great uncertainty.
This tale speaks (and spoke) to me volumes, because of its emphasis on the need of acknowledging our woundedness and connection to other living beings, in order to heal and be healed. The tale illustrates beautifully the concept of seamless interconnection across the whole spectrum of life. Moreover, it also is about our primal, inner wound, its acknowledgement and confrontation in order to heal and integrate the various parts and aspects of our psyche.
The soul calls us back home through our wounds. Both of us long for reunion; we can even pine for it, but when we do follow her promptings, we can become whole again. The seal hunter is honest in recognizing and admitting that the knife belongs to him. In other words, the first step towards recovery is honesty with self in recognizing our manipulations, projections, instrumental reasoning to have an advantage over a projected enemy or prey.
We are the only ones who can heal ourselves, if we acknowledge our longing, if we allow for reunion with our soul.
Our cravings come with all the symptoms of an addiction that is meant to dumb us down to soulless life conditions. And yet, soul is a quality of attention; and if we can shift our perception — which is Dion Fortune’s definition of magic — we can change our life conditions — inside and outside — from soulless to soulful.
What is soulless?
It is automatic, unexamined living, it is going through the motions.
What is soulful?
It is living in and with attention. It is living with our most fundamental questions. It is attending to them and stretching to listen to the whispered answers, or possibilities. Thus, we give ourselves permission to be in contact, attuned to our own souls, when we are mindful, when we stay and attend to all our emotions, without denying or suppressing them, but acknowledging their presence with compassion.
In ‘The Wounded Seal’, the other great presence is the elemental landscape made of rock, wind and raging sea. To my mind, they do not only represent nature in the Orkney, but also embody a condition or a state of the mind, as well as stark elemental powers.
Rock is quintessentially a place where biological life cannot root. Yet, occasionally, a unique plant, tree or flower germinates in its cracks. Wind and waters model and shape rocks into form over centuries and thousands of years. They are elemental forces. They represent those places of uncompromised, unredeemed power within us that are pristine, both generative and destructive, sometimes barren, often free and relentless at the same time. Their forlorn strength is both their power and their weakness – or wound.
At the beginning, the seal hunter is trapped in fateful ancestral patterns. His wound has to do with the relational patterns between the family or close community on one hand, and the child/youth on the other. He continues to live in the way family and community expects him to. He has conformed to the way things have always been. As a consequence of not having discovered his deep self, the seal hunter lives life on a surface level.
Only by following the mysterious, sad woman and taking the deep dive, literally and metaphorically, he is able to uncover his deep self. And then, he is capable of choice, commitment and change. Compassion is the bridge to responsible freedom.
The gift he receives from the seal woman — diamonds and rare pearls — has more than literal import. The seal hunter, who has committed to change, even if he is uncertain about his future, receives precious gems that, no doubt, make the implementation of his choice easier. Nonetheless, it is only once he is committed, once he has pledged his heart and mind, that the unexpected gift comes.
The same holds true when we are committed to meaningful change in our lives. We may not see the whole path ahead, we may clear the path ourselves for a very long stretch, but unexpected gifts come our way, and if we are wise enough, we recognize them as such and as signs of confirmation on our paths.
About one year after coming across and performing this story in the summer school, I took up counselling and expressive arts therapies, as well as creative coaching. From August 2017 to December 2019, I underwent a deep experiential and intellectual training. Once I was committed, the gifts came in various forms, as new friends, deep insights, invaluable learning and powerful ways to experiment by myself and with the companions I met along the way. The pull of creativity and self-expression became stronger and stronger, as well as the call to facilitate others’ expressive processes.
We come into this world wounded – through our ancestral lines and the symbiotic or detached relationship to our primary caregivers. It is part of our life tasks to heal that primal wound, to set our ancestors and ourselves free. When we heal the wound, we can go on engaging more meaningfully with other people, and to awaken more deeply inside ourselves.
The first step is to see and to acknowledge our wounds and to be willing to do the inner work for healing and release. There are going to be other challenges if, and when, we resolve this one, but first things come first. One step at a time.
‘The Wounded Seal’ has been adopted also by groups wanting to discuss and instil in the youth the moral value of empathy and compassion and a sense of deep care for other than human creatures, such as wild animals and their environments.
It certainly is a relevant story to this end, since we cannot be awakened to outside nature without finding nature within us. I believe that ‘The Wounded Seal’ can be put to good use if we read it as a tale elaborating on the primal wound that humans experience and too often carry unhealed throughout their lives, thus inflicting pain to other creatures too.
The primal wound is very deep by its very nature and can reach into the recesses of the individual and collective psyches, in the very sense of “a world that cannot be made right again,” unless the hand that wounds, becomes the very hand that heals too.
In the healing act, the seal hunter not only bestows new life on the large grey seal, that unguarded innocence – notice that the seal hunter has stabbed the seal in its back – and playfulness that potentially is inside everyone, but also restores his own full humanity and creativity.
It is important that the seal hunter’s hand wields both the fishing knife and deep healing power, a power the seal hunter does not know and is afraid of, because it takes him into unknown, painful depths of feeling. He deals with both the poison and the cure for the poison.
The same life-giving power is within us. It certainly takes honesty, courage and humility, those qualities of openness that can lead us through our own regeneration process.
The seal woman tells the seal hunter that the large grey seal is her dying father. How beautiful that a father should be depicted as a large, playful seal, a depiction whose sense and meaning is altogether missing from the patriarchal values of our societies.
It is beautiful and fitting that the father(s) of the soul should be innocence and playfulness, to be seen as pristine qualities of being, as inherent qualities in the ground of all being – Deity, God or Goddess – as embodiments of the deep creativity of life in the cosmos.
While destruction cannot be pre-empted all the time in the world, and often it can be regenerative, it seems to me that ‘The Wounded Seal’ can resonate with those who have an inner sense of the divine as life itself, thus going beyond all notions of omnipotence, into an awareness of deity as accompanying earthly creatures, instead of shielding or punishing them. The sense of co-creation and cosmic companionship is one of the deep, hidden themes of ‘The Wounded Seal’.
Creative Process Activities
It is time to get our hands dirty and dive deep into the creative process. How can we work with ‘The Wounded Seal’ and its images? First of all, I suggest you should re-read the tale, and if you are curious, even look up Thomas Knightley’s version on the web.
Activity n. 1
While reading, highlight or take note of all the scenes that take your imagination. Then, take out your favourite, easy art supplies. Make sure you gather the following basic “ingredients”: magazines with a lot of pictures of people, places, animals and the like; glue, acrylic paints, gel pens, markers; a journal, a pen, a cardboard sheet or other sturdy paper.
Keeping ‘The Wounded Seal’ in mind, flip through your magazines and select images intuitively, without overthinking, then tear them; there is no need to use scissors. Gather all the torn images in one place, like a folder or a plastic bag. Then, shake them up, or mix them and take them out one by one, asking the following questions about each image:
What do I see that can help me relate to the story?
How do I feel when I look at it?
How does it relate to me or my current life situation?
What is its gift?
Journal about all of the questions, while observing one image at a time, keeping a soft focus and an open attitude. Write down all that comes, even the seemingly unrelated or irrelevant.
If you are tired or busy, you can leave the process at this time and get back to it a few hours later or in a day or two. When you do get back, re-read the story again and then take out your cardboard base and glue.
Start selecting the images and paste them on the cardboard. Do take notice of your process. For example, are you starting from the centre or at the edges of the cardboard base?
Paste all the images one by one, conflating, mixing, modifying them as you see fit. You will find new associations between the story, images you work on and your life at the moment.
Once you have finished, give a title to your work in your journal and explore its meaning and associations in writing. If you feel so inclined, observe your collage and use it as a springboard for an improvised story.
Remember to record your voice as you tell it. Your mobile phone, or other similar device, is all you need. You can repeat the storytelling process more than once, by focusing on different elements or areas of your collage, then tell a framing story for them all.
Recording your stories is key, as it will preserve their improvised quality and will provide you with insights at each new listening.
Activity n. 2
An alternative activity is to storyboard ‘The Wounded Seal’, by drawing and colouring the main scenes of the story in sequence. Then, select one or two scenes you want to focus on. Select them intuitively. Select those you are drawn to. Observe these scenes closely, reconstruct them in your mind or on paper. Close your eyes and enter those scenes. Pretend to be there. Answer the following questions:
Who are you in the scene?
Where are you located in the scene?
Are you alone or are there others? Who?
What are you learning and/or feeling?
How can you bring back this knowledge into the present moment?
What do you still need to find out?
After a while, open your eyes and report the answers in your journal. If you receive actionable insights, do act on them.