Magic Tales
Child as Other, Child as Dream

by Brent Dean Robbins, Duquesne University

The child as Other is the child of adult fantasy.  But the child as fantasy is not a child of unreality; she is a child of dream and a reflection of modern psychological life.  The aim of this paper is to concretely demonstrate when and how the fantasy of childhood changes in modern psychological life.  As a device for tracking this shift, the German “magic tale,” the literary ancestor of the modern fairy tale, will be explored in some depth.

The adult’s dream of childhood can be traced in the history of the fairy tale.  For the most part, we assume fairy tales are stories for children that perhaps we engage in as adults only as a form of nostalgia. We understand the fairy tale as a staple of the child’s world, a world of fantasy left behind with the maturity that comes with adulthood.  Yet every cultural artifact has its cultural heritage, and fairy tales are no exception.

Zipes (1993) traces the history of the fairy tale from their origin in oral folk tales.  According to Zipes, “Fairy tales were first told by gifted storytellers and were based on rituals intended to endow meaning to the daily lives of members of a tribe” (p.  10).  Such tales assisted the community in developing explanations for natural occurrences, such as changes in the seasons or weather, and served as ways to structure the meanings of communal events such as harvesting, hunting and marriage.

In the transition from the oral tradition to the literary tradition of folk tales, fairy tales as we know them today were born.  What we now consider to be fairy tales evolved from one type of folk tale tradition known as the Zaubermarchen or the “magic tales” (Zipes, p. 11).  These tales in particular were co-opted by French writers of the late 16th century and transformed into literary tales that “addressed the concerns, tastes, and functions of court society” (Zipes, p. 11).

Interestingly, the institutionalization of the fairy tale as a literary genre was originally intended for educated adult audiences and only later for children.  Prior to the 16th century, there were no literary fairy tales for children (Zipes, p. 22).  The question immediately arises: What occurred in the 16th century that suddenly motivated the culture to develop fairy tales especially for the benefit of children?  Following Zipes’ thought, the literary fairy tale for children emerged with “the rise of a ‘state of childhood’” by the end of the 16th century due to the “rise of a greater discrepancy between adult and child as the civilizing process became geared more instrumentally to dominate nature” (p.  22).  At this time, the fairy tale began to be used as a tool to socialize the child by cultivating “feelings of shame” and by arousing anxiety in children “when they did not conform to more inhibiting ways of social conduct” (p.  22).

Van den Berg (1961) agrees that “Fairy tales came into existence when adult and child parted” (p.  79).  In examining the changes in society from the Renaissance to the present time, van den Berg suggests that society becomes too complex, too specialized and, as a result, too alien to the world of the child.  Prior to the 16th century, children lived and are depicted in art and literature as little adults.  For example, children wore the same clothes as adults.  The world of child and adult was one world, and virtually the same expectations were held for adult and child alike.  Children worked with adults, and they also played with adults.  Phillipe Aries (1962) points out that children had their own toys and games only until about the age of three, and from then on joined in the recreation of adulthood: shooting, hunting, riding, war-games, and so forth.  Adults also participated in games that we now consider part of childhood. What we find, then, is a pre-modern childhood and adulthood that, when compared to modern culture, is more similar than different.  The child participates in the world of the adult.

The notion that children in pre-modern times were “little adults,” as argued by scholars such as Phillipe Aries, has been viciously attacked in the literature.  For example, Barbara Hanawalt’s (1995) research on childhood in the middle ages has pointed out the flawed historical accounts of Aries’ descriptions of medieval childhood.  Hanawalt argues, contrary to Aries, that in medieval London, children were both understood and treated as children.

Hanawalt’s scholarship seeks to understand childhood as trans-historical and essential, whereas Aries is concerned with the social-historically contingent character of childhood.  I support neither position, for neither Hanawalt nor Aries read the history of childhood as a reflection or mirror of adulthood.  Hence, in seeking to gather facts about the changing character of childhood, they seek to understand the literal existence of childhood rather than reflecting upon the child as Other who is always already socially and historically configured by adults (Aries and Hanawalt being no exception).  In seeking the essence of childhood, they miss the opportunity to read childhood as a psychological event for adults--that is, for us. Whether or not childhood changed is a red herring which detracts from the more obvious and grand changes that have occurred in adulthood.  The child is a mirror for these changes.  The child as a reflection of the psychological life of the adult has become a reflection of a loss.

By the 18th century, Western civilization had entered the age of Enlightenment and Reason.  With the age of Enlightenment came a radically different world--a world that is complex, a world understood as deceiving the senses and that is far removed from the concrete experience of the modern child and the pre-modern adult.  The oral folk tales of the pre-modern age were used as narratives for both children and adults to understand the meaning of natural and social events.  By the 18th century, culture instead began to depend upon the natural sciences to discover truths not apparent to the naked, human eye.  In the world view of the middle ages, the universe was geocentric.  The earth was the center of concentric planets within a closed universe in which God was the Unmoved Mover, existing at the outermost sphere.  By the end of the 17th century, Newton’s universe was heliocentric, and the earth no longer held a special status; instead it was understood to be held in orbit by the gravity of the sun, despite appearances.

In the pre-modern world, explanations were given in terms of formal and final causes; they were teleological.  As the world entered the 18th century, explanations were strictly reduced to terms of matter and motion, having no higher purpose.  Value and meaning were no longer ascribed to the world, but retreated into the interior of the human being.  The world became filled with atomistic objects in causal external relations with each other in a mechanical universe; any whole, meaningful perception became only the result of a process of synthetic association on the part of the human being.  Outside of human perception, as Gustav Fechner said, reigns the Night View, wherein beauty and harmony and all other values are mere projections of what is internal to the human being  (Berman, 1981).

The world of the 18th century is a world where fact and value have become radically split. Values and gods exist only in the mind of the perceiver.  Nature becomes dead, mechanical and indifferent to human life.  Such a world is a world that lends itself to the modern experiment.  When Francis Bacon’s New Organon was published in 1620, it introduced the modern experiment as an “artificial situation in which nature’s secrets are extracted, as it were, under duress” (Berman, 1981, p. 31).  Psychologically, nature under duress is a reflection of an adult psyche under duress.  Indeed, as Bacon writes, “the mind itself [must also] be from the very outset not left to take its own course, but guided at every step; and the business be done as if by machinery.”

The modern natural science experiment, described by Bacon in the 15th century, is only possible in a world whose secrets must be wrested from it and in which the human mind is understood as peering out upon the world from behind a veil.  As Robert Romanyshyn (1989, 2001) has shown, such a veil is evident in the emergence of linear perspective, a literal grid thrown over the world.  Linear perspective as a way of seeing was first developed by Filippo Brunelleschi and later described by Leon Battista Alberti in the 13th century.  In linear perspective, a centric point “fixes in picturial space the point toward which parallel lines converge. This linear way of seeing “presumes as a condition for its appearance that space is infinite and homogenous,” and leaves no room for difference.

To see in such a way requires a long list of assumptions. These assumptions imply how a new relationship between human beings and the world had already been given birth and would only later come to full fruition in the 18th century.  This new relationship is a relation wherein the world can be known only to the degree that one is removed from it.  With increasing distance, comes greater knowledge.  But what happens to the body?  Linear perspective is a way of seeing that belongs to an eye no longer attached to a body, but instead belongs to a disincarnate eye that is fixed to a singular vision and has withdrawn itself from the world.  The participatory relationship to a meaningful world is severed in linear perspective, and the world at a distance is viewed as a dead, homogenous world, extending into infinity at the vanishing point.  Aside from the disincarnate eye is now a body understood as a machine, causally and externally related to a meaningless, mechanical universe.

As Robert Kugelmann (1992) has described, the world and body of the modern human is a world of stress.  “Stress,” writes Kugelmann, “did not exist prior to the ninteenth century.”  (p.  143) The discourse on stress only began to proliferate in the professional medical literature just after World War II.  Originally, stress was an engineering term; it described the amount of pressure a piece of metal could withstand before snapping.  Applied to the human being, the term stress already implicitly understands the body as machine, as metaphorically encased in a sheet of metallic flesh cleaving the self from the world.

At the conclusion of his phenomenology of stress, Kugelmann concludes that the discourse of stress in modernity is the discourse of “engineered grief.” Stress is grief, a response to loss.  One loss, for Kugelmann, is the loss of the “archaic body”: “Cultural progress, having outpaced biological evolution, invalidates some of the wisdom of the body.”  (p.  34) This rhetoric of loss is filled with images of escape, to anywhere other than the alien world which threatens the boundaries of the self.  The most common fantasy Kugelmann finds, interesting enough, is the fantasy of a return to the primitive, archaic body--a return to the caveman or wild hairy beast within: “...the wild beast screams for release.”  (p.  36) As Kugelmann notes, however, this romanticized notion of the primitive usually fails to escape the instrumental rationality of modernity.  The literature, he finds, usually falls into a program to increasingly discipline the body to improve well-being.  Finally, Kugelmann also finds in this rhetoric of loss the common theme of “exile.” There is a felt sense of a loss of meaning and context, wherein stress takes on the character of “the experience of adversity and pain without an ultimate ground.”  (p.  38)

If modernity is a world of stress and stress is a rhetoric of loss, what has been lost?  As I’ve implied all along, what has been lost can be found mirrored in the modern adult’s dream of the child.  For Freud, the child is a seething cauldron of libido, who lives a polymorphously perverse embodiment in which pleasure caresses every orifice.  For Freud, the modern adult matures when he or she channels this libidinous energy into the genitals, solely for the sake of pro-creation.  Freud’s anxiety, and today’s stress, is the child’s libidinous body threatening to break through into the world of the adult and, as a result, grinding Capitalist production to a halt (see Marcuse, 1974).  For Freud, the neurotic who can love (that is, the adult who can copulate solely for the sake of having babies) and who can work (that is, who can channel anything other than genital pleasure into the production of goods and services despite alienating working conditions) is an adult who is well-defended against the revolutionary forces of the unconscious--which, for all intents and purposes, is the world of childhood.  The child as Other in Freudian metapsychology is a child who mirrors the adult’s dream for joy, for polymorphous perversity, for contact beyond mere genital gratification, and for a truly participatory, full-bodied engagement with the world.  The modern adult grieves the loss of this world.

If we turn to Piaget, we find another dream of childhood.  For Piaget, the child is a mere lack of adult rationality.  The child as Other in Piaget’s developmental psychology is a child as a deficit, a temporary failure to think in terms of Enlightenment rationality. According to the Piagetian model, "adult" thinking is characterized as "formal operations." As Rybash, Hoyer, and
Roodin (1986) note, there is are implicit weaknesses in "formal operational" thinking. Most importantly: Formal thinking is only suited for the problems that call for scientific thinking and logical mathematical analysis--in short, for instrumental means-end rationality. Formal thinking is the rational thought which places itself at a distance from the lived world, a second order
abstraction which, in "Western consciousness", becomes the "real world." The child, on the other hand, engages in “magical thinking.”

"Magical thinking" is defined by Ward (1989) as "the reification of the subjective, confusion of self with non-self, and the attribution of causation to phenomenon linked only by similarity and continuity" (p. 248). Two laws are operative in "magical thinking': the law of similarity and the law of contagion.  In other words, the child is understood as perceiving a world in which subjects with similar predicates appear identical and thus can be perfectly interchanged.  Proximity is identity, and things or entities once in contact are always associated. Any part of the entity contains the whole essence of the entity.  The child lives the world animistically, and believes that everything, including what we commonly regard as inert material objects, are alive, possessing an indwelling spirit.

For Freud, the existence of such "magical thinking" in adulthood is a sign of regression, a mark of madness. Freud argued that "the ability to accurately perceive and respond appropriately to external reality as opposed to relying on the belief in magical wish fulfillment is a central concept in distinguishing normal from abnormal conditions" (Zusne & Jones, 1990, p. 322). One finds a similar perspective in Piaget, who also understood "magical thinking" to be a departure from reality. "Magic and autism," writes Piaget (1977), "are...two different sides of one and the same phenomenon - that confusion between self and the world which destroys both logical truth and objective existence" (p. 152).  For Freud and Piaget, sanity and maturity is the non-participatory consciousness of the modern adult.  Sanity is a state of mind in which the knower, or subject “in here,” sees himself as radically disparate from the objects he confronts, which he sees as being “out there.” In this view, the phenomena of the world remain the same whether or not we are present to observe them, and knowledge is acquired by recognizing a distance between ourselves and nature.

For Freud and Piaget, magical, participatory and sensuous engagement with the world is the world of the child that threatens to disrupt the modern adult’s rational existence.  The world of the child is the world of the mad.  So, both the child and the mad are now a mirror of the rational, modern adult.  To regress to childhood, to engage in the animistic, magical world of the child, is to go mad.  It is also to regress historically--to become pre-modern.  Yet the modern adult’s negation of the child as Other is a negation that implies an affirmation of the other side of modernity’s ambivalence.  What is defended against is a feeling of loss that must be grieved but cannot be grieved as long as grieving is stress.  If stress were to become grieving, we would have to admit that we feel the loss.  We would have to begin grieving the loss of what we find in our dreams of childhood, madness and pre-modern culture.  In our grief we would discover our dream, and hence our wish, for a participatory, sensuous engagement with a world that is intrinsically meaningful and matters to us, and perhaps that would be too much.

And so, I hope, it should be no surprise that, of all the folk tale traditions of the pre-modern world , it was the genre of the “magic tale” that captured the attention and imagination of the modern adult.  In pre-modern times, the magic tales were shared by communities of adult and child alike, and with them they understood a world that is intrinsically meaningful, a world in which they participated sympathetically and, characteristic of magical thinking, a world not of mere external causal relations, but a world of things and human beings that emerge as mattering within a concentric order and towards a higher purpose.  Such tales were formed by a culture who lived a world of sympathetic magic, whose world was a living organism and whose universe was filled with signs, signifying its intrinsic meaning stretching out from the outer regions toward the finite mind of the human being.  By the 18th century, the animistic world of the pre-modern was relegated to children, primitives and the mad.

In the 15th century, Marin Mersenne, with thinkers such as Kepler, Galileo, Steven, Cardano, Bacon, Descartes and Gessendi, all “leading figures of the first stage of the scientific revolution,” would actively campaign against anything having to do with magic and the occult, including alchemy and any form of animism or Hermeticism.  Mersenne’s thought, and his companions with him, can be summarized as a general tendency “to resolve miraculous, occult and religious issues in mechanico-mathematical terms” (Berman, 1981, p. 240).  In the world of Mersenne, the world is stripped of its magic.

Mersenne’s is a world where miracles are no longer possible.  As the animistic world of the pre-modern was exiled from the world of the modern adult, it became reflected in the adult’s dream of the child, and there, in the form of negation, the modern adult discovers what it has lost.  Adult and childhood parted, and the world of the magic tale no longer has a place in the world of the modern adult.

By the 18th century, the adult members of French court society seized such tales and began re-framing them, harnessing the dangerous magical potential contained therein, and adjusted them to the moral sensibilities of an age of reason, the Enlightenment.  No longer a tale for adults, the magic tale would, for now on, be used for the purpose of educating the child, now so far from the world of the adult, into the world of adult rationality.  And as the child “matures” into the world of stress, into the world of modernity, she leaves the magic tales behind, withholding her interest only for times of nostalgia when, for only a moment, she catches site of her grief.


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Berman, M. (1989). Coming to our senses: Body and spirit in the hidden history of the West. New York: Bantam Books.

Hanawalt, B. (1995). Growing up in medieval London: The experience of childhood in history. Oxford University Press.

Kugelmann, R. (1992). Stress: The nature and history of engineered grief. Praeger.

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Rybash, J., Hoyer, & Roodin, P. (1986). Adult cognition and aging: Developmental changes in processing, knowing, and thinking. New York: Pergamon.

Van den Berg, J. (1961). The changing nature of man: Introduction to a historical psychology. New York & London: W. W. Norton & Company.

Ward, C. (Ed.) (1989). Altered states of consciousness and mental health: A cross-cultural perspective. Newbury Park: Sage Publications.

Zipes, J. (1993). Fairy tale as myth, myth as fairy tale. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky.

Zusne, L. & Jones, W. (1990). Anomalistic psychology: A study of magical thinking. Hillsdale: Erlbaum.


Copyright 1999, Brent Dean Robbins