FAIRY TALES AND THEIR INNER MEANINGS
By Dr Ian Ellis-Jones
BA, LLB (Syd), LLM, PhD (UTS), DD, Dip Relig Stud (LCIS)
Solicitor of the Supreme Court of New South Wales and the High Court of Australia
Lecturer and Legal Adviser, New South Wales Institute of Psychiatry, North Parramatta NSW
Former Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Law, University of Technology, Sydney
Founder, Minister and Convener, Sydney Unitarian Chalice Circle, Sydney NSW
Mindfulness and Wellness Instructor, Practitioner, and Counsellor
An Address to The Blavatsky Lodge of The Theosophical Society in Australia
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, Wednesday, 11 September 2013
Those familiar with The Secret Doctrine will be aware of the section entitled 'The Mystery
Language and its Keys.’ It’s in volume one. H P Blavatsky points out that there is one universal
esoteric or ‘mystery’ language underlying all the sacred traditions of history. HPB writes that ‘all
the ancient records were written in a language which was universal and known to all nations
alike in days of old, but which is now intelligible only to the few.’
Fairy tales are a sub-genre of the artistic and literary genre known as ‘fantasy,’ the latter being a
genre in which life---or at least some aspect of life---is depicted in an ‘unnatural’ (ugh) and
highly imaginative manner. The problematic word ‘unnatural’ does not mean ‘unrealistic’ or
‘supernatural’ (whatever that means), but, in fantasies, imagination, wonder and fancy all play
very important roles. The characters often engage in ‘fantasies,’ that is, visionary fancies and
other kinds of mental images including dreams, daydreams and hallucinations. A ‘fantasy’
ordinarily involves the following elements: first, a quest or journey of some kind, often involving
tests, trials and tribulations, with a battle between ‘good’ and ‘evil’; secondly, a fictitious or
legendary place in which strange, ‘unnatural’ events occur; thirdly, the presence of strange,
‘unnatural,’ fanciful, even grotesque, characters and capricious forces; and fourthly, lessons in
how to live, evolve, and relate to others and a power-not-oneself that is capable of freeing
oneself from the bondage of self.
Fairy tales are not just about fantasy. That grand master of modern fairy tales J R R Tolkien
wrote that fairy tales have four main uses: escape, consolation, recovery, and fantasy. I have
already spoken, albeit briefly, about fantasy. The ideas of escape and consolation are fairly
straightforward, but the notion of recovery is a fascinating and most important one. Recovery is,
yes, all about regaining what seemingly, and perhaps actually, has been ‘lost.’ I think the notion
of recovery will be become quite clear when we start to look at a number of highly familiar and
popular fairy tales.
Now, most fairy tales are not about 'fairies' at all, although as Theosophist John Algeo has
pointed out they are very much about faerie. The latter has two meanings: first, the land of
fairies, and second, enchantment. The second meaning is more applicable. On the subject of
fairy tales as a source of enchantment, there’s a wonderful book entitled The Uses of
Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales by the late Bruno Bettelheim, who
was one of the greatest psychoanalysts of the twentieth century.
Perhaps the most important thing about fairy tales, apart from the sheer enjoyment that comes
from reading or listening to them, or watching them on film, is this---fairy tales are mythological
in nature, and their inner or more esoteric meaning is cloaked in allegory, parable and
symbolism. Nearly all fairy tales are encoded spiritual and moral lessons (‘road maps’) of great
importance---just like the parables of Jesus in the New Testament---and they almost invariably
incorporate more than a few fragments (‘gems’) of Ancient Wisdom, with the spiritual ideas and
themes being portrayed in a highly figurative and literary manner. On the surface, or exterior,
they largely present as stories for children---Kinder und Hausmärchen (‘Children’s and
Household Tales’), in the words of the Brothers Grimm---but their inner or ‘true’ significance is
hidden (that is, ‘occult’).
If there is one theme or underlying message contained in the great religions of the world it is
this---we come from God, we belong to God, we are never truly separate from God, and we are
all on our way back to God. Of course, not all the world’s religions use the word ‘God,’ or
express this idea theistically, but that is largely immaterial. The idea is still there. Yes, it is the
Fairy tales graphically depict the Platonic/Neoplatonic---and theosophical---idea of involution
and evolution of the soul, or, in the language of the great American mythographer Joseph
Campbell, the 'hero's journey' of self-discovery through trial, tribulation and adversity.
Most Theosophists are familiar with what is sometimes referred to as ‘ancient symbology.’ Then
there is what we sometimes refer to as ‘secret’ (or ‘sacred’, or ‘mystery’) language. Most of the
sacred scriptures of the world---as well as many mythological and literary stories---are written in
this language. I have already referred to and quoted H P Blavatsky on this matter. Now, we can
be very grateful to writers such as the New Thought minister Dr Emmet Fox, and the equally
eminent Theosophist and Liberal Catholic priest Geoffrey Hodson, for they have helpfully
explained that there are certain ‘keys’ which, when properly understood, assist us in our
interpretation of sacred or ‘occult’ literature and teachings.
First, many of the recorded events in the story or tale, although seemingly ‘real’ in an objective,
material, worldly sense, actually occur in the mind or consciousness of the reader. In other
words, the story is about you, and me, and what can and does occur in consciousness.
Secondly, each character in the story or tale portrays a state or condition of our character,
consciousness, spiritual development or human nature. In other words, it is about our strengths,
weaknesses, and potentialities. Thirdly, each story or tale is a graphic, figurative description of
some phase or phases of the evolutionary journey of the human soul toward its ultimate
perfection. Fourthly, objects (eg rivers, mountains, valleys, deserts, trees, ladders, staircases,
inheritances, giants, men, and women, and so forth) all have their own allegorical or spiritual
Let’s now look at some popular fairy tales.
Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp
First, the story of ‘Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp’---or, more correctly, ‘The Story of Aladdin,
or the Wonderful Lamp.’ Here’s an outline of the story, which is very Eastern in nature. Most of
you will know that this tale can be found in a wonderful collection of ancient tales entitled Tales
from the Arabian Nights---or One Thousand and One Nights. It is said that these tales were
written down by the ancient Arabians who had heard them from the ancient Persians, who had
heard them from the ancient Hindus in India.
Many of these tales have a distinctive, Sufi-like flavor to them. Persians, Tartars, Arabs, and
Indians move through these tales as ‘real’ human beings---as people of every day---just like you
and me! It seems that these tales were first written down in Arabic, after having been passed
down from generation to generation by nomadic, tribal Arabs. In the early 18th century a French
scholar named Antoine Galland collected a number of these tales and was the first to translate
them into a European language. Galland apparently had heard and took down at least some of
the tales, of which there was until then no written record, from the lips of a Syrian friend who
had heard them told by wandering Arabs. There is the tale of ‘Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,’
‘Sinbad the Sailor,’ ‘The Enchanted Horse,’ and several others---including ‘The Story of Aladdin,
or the Wonderful Lamp.’
Aladdin is an impoverished young ne'er-do-well in a Chinese town, who is recruited by a
sorcerer from the Maghreb. This sorcerer passes himself off as the brother of Aladdin's late
father Qaseem, convincing Aladdin and his mother of his goodwill by apparently making
arrangements to set up the lad as a wealthy merchant.
The sorcerer's real motive is to persuade young Aladdin to retrieve a wonderful oil lamp from a
booby-trapped magic cave of wonder. After the sorcerer attempts to double-cross him, Aladdin
finds himself trapped in the cave. Fortunately, Aladdin retains a magic ring lent to him by the
sorcerer as protection. When he rubs his hands in despair, he inadvertently rubs the ring, and a
genie appears who takes him home to his mother. Aladdin is still carrying the lamp, and when
his mother tries to clean it, a second, far more powerful genie appears, who is bound to do the
bidding of the person holding the lamp. With the aid of the genie of the lamp, Aladdin becomes
rich and powerful and marries Princess Badroulbadour, the Emperor's daughter (after magically
foiling her marriage to the vizier's son). The genie builds Aladdin a wonderful palace – far more
magnificent than that of the Emperor himself.
The sorcerer returns and is able to get his hands on the lamp by tricking Aladdin's wife, who is
unaware of the lamp's importance, by offering to exchange ‘new lamps for old’. He orders the
genie of the lamp to take the palace along with all its contents to his home in the Maghreb.
Fortunately, Aladdin retains the magic ring and is able to summon the lesser genie. Although
the genie of the ring cannot directly undo any of the magic of the genie of the lamp, he is able to
transport Aladdin to Maghreb, and help him recover his wife and the lamp and defeat the
sorcerer. The sorcerer's more powerful and evil brother tries to destroy Aladdin for killing his
brother by disguising himself as an old woman known for her healing powers. Badroulbadour
falls for his disguise, and commands the ‘woman’ to stay in her palace in case of any illnesses.
Aladdin is warned of this danger by the genie of the lamp and slays the imposter. Everyone lives
happily ever after, Aladdin eventually succeeding to his father-in-law's throne.
‘Everyone lives happily ever after.’ That is the proverbial ending of almost all fairy tales. After
much turmoil, struggle and strife the human soul and the human spirit are brought into
conscious union and return to the Source. Salvation, enlightenment, nirvana.
The name ‘Aladdin’ means ‘servant of Allah.’ Aladdin is ‘on the Path,’ so to speak. He is fast
becoming an adept, an illuminated one. The burning lamp is the lamp or light of Truth, spiritual
intuition, divine knowledge. It is that ‘true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the
world’ (Jn 1:9), that can never be extinguished.
On one interpretation of this tale, Aladdin represents our True Self---also known as our Christ
Self, or spiritual self---that is, the God-Self in us. When Spirit descends into matter, into flesh, it
is like being in a cave. Remember, Aladdin was entombed in the cave, and on the third---yes,
the third---day, he escapes from the cave. The cave is the prison-house of self, bondage to self,
bondage to the many false selves that we create and present to the world. (As I see it, we have
literally hundreds and thousands of these false selves---these ‘I’s’ and ‘me’s’---that we
constantly manufacture in our consciousness from one moment to the next.) The supposed
uncle, the sorcerer, is an imposter—not at all unlike these false selves that purport to be our
True Self, because we mistakenly and foolishly identify with them and take them to be our True
Self. Yes, this supposed uncle symbolically represents our lower, selfish mind, which is not truly
related to us, that is, to our spiritual self, although it claims to be. He wants the riches, the
treasure, that rightfully belongs to Aladdin. That treasure is not the uncle’s by right of
consciousness. That is why he---the uncle---cannot possess the lamp. It will never be ours,
while we live from and according to our false or illusory selves.
In the tale there are two genies. There is the genie of the ring, and there is the genie of the
lamp. The first genie can be said to represent the law of karma, the law of cause and effect---the
law of reaping what one sows It is a law for mind only, and the Ancient Wisdom makes it
unambiguously clear that it is indeed possible to rise above even the ‘Great Law’ of karma. You
see, when we use the genie of the ring, we are working to, or toward, principle. When, however,
we use the genie of the lamp, we are working from principle---from the law of the Christ, that is,
the Law of Love, which is a higher law, being a law of spirit and not just mind. In the tale, the
genie of the ring is a lesser genie, being unable to undo any of the magic of the genie of the
lamp. In that regard, I am reminded of these words from Albert Einstein: ‘We can’t solve our
problems by the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.’ Wise words. Well,
collectively the genie represents law---both mental and spiritual.
Rubbing the genie refers to spiritual practice of various kinds---devotion, aspiration, prayer, and
meditation. So, we either experience---‘suffer’---the consequences of our actions or we wipe
them out by invoking the Law of Love. The choice is ours. In the words of Dr Fox, it’s a case of
‘Christ or Karma.’
There are many interpretations of the tale of ‘Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp.’ Here’s another
one---a little more mundane, but no less important. Aladdin can be seen to represent our
conscious mind. The genie represents our unconscious (subconscious) mind. The lamp, and the
action of rubbing the lamp, refer to the proper actions and working of the mind. We all know that
over ninety per cent of our mental activity occurs in the unconscious or subconscious mind.
Professor William James wrote, ‘The power to move the world is in the subsconscious mind.’
Indeed. In the tale of Aladdin, the genie says, ‘Your wish is my command.’ Yes, as William
James also pointed out, we tend to do whatever is our strongest, or most dominant, desire.
Never forget that. Rubbing the lamp sets the dominant conscious thought into action, so as to
influence the genie (that is, the unconscious or subconscious mind). So, in this interpretation of
the tale, Aladdin’s lamp represents the intelligent utilisation of our thoughts and, perhaps more
importantly, our creative imagination.
Whatever interpretation we adopt---and I am sure there are others as well---the important
message is this. We must make the mind---our mind---the obedient ‘slave’ of our True Self, that
is, the real person that each of us is.
Let’s now move on to the English fairy tale, ‘Jack and the Beanstalk.’
Jack and the Beanstalk
Jack is a young lad living with his widowed mother. Their only means of income is a cow. When
this cow stops giving milk one morning, Jack is sent to the market to sell it. On the way to the
market he meets an old man who offers to give him ‘magic’ beans in exchange for the cow. Jack
takes the beans but when he arrives home without any money, his mother becomes angry and
throws the beans to the ground and sends Jack to bed without supper. As Jack sleeps, the
beans grow into a gigantic beanstalk. Jack climbs the beanstalk and arrives in a land high up in
the sky where he follows a road to a house, which is the home of a giant. He enters the house
and asks the giant's wife for food. She gives him food, but the giant returns and senses that a
human is nearby. However, Jack is hidden by the giant's wife and overhears the giant counting
his money. Jack steals a bag of gold coins as he makes his escape down the beanstalk.
Jack repeats his journey up the beanstalk two more times, each time he is helped by the
increasingly suspicious wife of the giant and narrowly escapes with one of the giant's treasures.
The second time, he steals a hen that lays golden eggs and the third time a magical harp that
plays by itself. This time, he is almost caught by the giant who follows him down the beanstalk.
Jack calls his mother for an axe and chops the beanstalk down, killing the giant. The end of the
story has Jack and his mother living happily ever after with their new riches.
When it comes to stories written in the sacred, secret, or mystery language, trees, ladders,
staircases, and the like often symbolise a spiritual journey, as well as the soul’s evolution and
progressive development and unfoldment. In other tales, these ‘uprights’ refer to the spinal cord,
the life force, kundalini---the ‘serpent fire’ in us. In other words, creative divine life.
One other very important thing. In the mystery language, a woman represents the human soul,
whereas a man represents the human spirit or the physical body (or both). Any marriage is a
‘mystical marriage’ or union of the human soul and the human spirit---and that is a very good
thing. In the tale ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ Jack’s mother is a widow, thus symbolising a soul that
is separated from the divine world. She has an wisdom---spiritual or ancient wisdom---to pass
on to her son Jack. We have in the story a reference, once again, to a ‘stolen inheritance.’
Significantly, it is a guardian angel---an enlightened, spiritual thought---that conveys to Jack the
news of the stolen inheritance. We are all seeking our stolen inheritance. It is nothing other than
our spiritual destiny---our ultimate reward.
Jack must use both courage and intelligence to ascend the beanstalk, the latter coming into
existence from, yes, the ‘magic beans,’ the latter symbolising the power of creative thought and
imagination, or our potential for spiritual growth and development. The creative imagination
bridges the ‘gap’ between the conscious and unconscious minds (or worlds). We have the
archetypal journey, or Path---the Quest---to recover one’s ‘lost’ or unrealised potential. The
journey is not an easy one, and there are many dangers and threats, but we will ultimately
triumph---no matter how long the journey takes.
The giant symbolically represents our ego-self, or false selves, that threaten the divine
innocence and spiritual development if the human soul and spirit. In a more mundane sense,
the giant also represents all those difficulties and adversaries we are called upon to face, and
conquer, in our daily life.
The tale of ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ is very much a ‘coming of age’ story. It is the ‘hero’s
journey,’ in the language of Joseph Campbell. Each one of us is Jack---and, yes, we can also
be the giant at times too!
Jack brings a spiritual treasure to earth---the hen which lays the golden egg. Obvious
symbolism, there. An ‘egg’ symbolises a new beginning, new life, resurrection, a new stage of
evolution, and the like. ‘Gold,’ of course, represents spiritual wisdom, and divine life. On his
second visit Jack brings back bags of silver and gold---that is, even more spiritual wisdom. On
his third visit Jack takes a harp, the latter symbolising the music of the spheres, or the
knowledge of cosmic harmony.
The defeating forces are destroyed or overcome---and Jack and his mother live happily ever
after with their new riches.
The ‘message’ is simple, but not easy---we, too, must ‘climb’ into the sky in order to achieve a
Now, the wonderful fairy tale, ‘The Sleeping Beauty.’
The Sleeping Beauty
A king and a queen have been trying to have a child for years. Finally, a frog prophesies a birth.
When the child finally arrives, they call her Aurora. A great holiday is proclaimed to celebrate
Aurora’s birth. Visitors come from far and wide, including three good fairies. One of the most
distinguished guests is another king from a neighboring kingdom, who brings along his son
Prince Philip. (No, not that one. He’s not that old.) Both kings realize that their dream of a
united kingdom can now come true.
The three good fairies begin bestowing their gifts upon Aurora. Aurora receives the gift of
beauty, and gift of song, but before the last gift is bestowed, a wicked fairy interrupts. This
wicked fairy is upset that she wasn’t invited to the party, so she casts a spell on the day of
Aurora’s 16th birthday, to the effect that Aurora will prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning
wheel and die. The third good fairy hasn’t bestowed her gift yet, and she is s horrified at the
spell the wicked fairy cast. The good fairy isn’t strong enough to undo the spell, but she is able
to dilute it a bit, such that instead of death Aurora will instead fall asleep until her true love
comes along to undo the spell with a kiss. As a precaution, all spinning wheels are removed
from the kingdom, and Aurora lives in hiding as a peasant with the good fairies for protection.
Aurora grows up, meets Prince Philip, and falls in love with him. On the night of Aurora’s 16th
birthday, Aurora, Prince Philip, and the good fairies all go back to the castle to live. But the evil
fairy sneaks into the castle and pricks Aurora’s finger with a needle, causing her to fall asleep.
With the help of the good fairies, Prince Philip, after a heroic, difficult, and dangerous journey,
reaches Aurora, then kisses her, and she awakes---and, yes, they all live happily ever after.
Well, this is a story of ‘paradise regained’—a very familiar theme in fairy tales, indeed in almost
all sacred or secret literature. We have the involution of the human soul, with its incarnation
from the starry regions of space-time and the cosmos. Significantly, it is a ‘frog’ that heralds and
prophesies the birth of Aurora, a frog being the ancient occult symbol of metamorphosis. The
princess is called Aurora, which means ‘dawn’ or ‘enlightenment.’ If you are familiar with Roman
mythology Aurora is the goddess of the Dawn. She renews herself each morning and flies
across the sky, announcing the arrival of the sun. Much symbolism there!
There is the curse from the wicked fairy, representing all those trials, setbacks and negative
forces with which we have to grapple and which we have to overcome. Once again, we have the
Path or Quest. There’s the staircase that Aurora ascends---all referring to the spiritual
unfoldment of the human soul. The ‘spinning’ refers largely to intellectual development, the
‘spinning’ of one’s thoughts. Then we have the Prince, who must fight his way, first through
overgrown thickets of tall trees and sharp brambles, such that only the very tops of the castle’s
towers could be seen, and then a fearsome dragon (or, in some versions of the story, various
ferocious dogs or other animals). Yes, the human spirit, represented by the Prince, must fight its
way through evil, ungodly and false beliefs. Some commentators have written that we also have
here an allusion to the spirit evolving and successively passing through the various kingdoms
(plant, animal, etc) in its divine unfoldment. Ultimately, there is the ‘kiss’---that is, the connection
and conjunction between truth and love, the union of the human soul and the human spirit with
Aurora is nothing other than the soul of the Prince, that was sleeping---‘dormant’---in the illusion
of the material world or realm. Ultimately, the Prince is able to ‘spouse’ his enlightened soul---
and live happily ever after!
And now, the fairy tale, ‘Hansel and Gretel.’
Hansel and Gretel
Near a forest a woodcutter lives with his wife and his two children, Hansel and Gretel. The
children’s mother has died, the woodcutter’s wife being their stepmother. They are all very poor-
--indeed, they were starving, so the two children go out in search of food. Actually, it is the
stepmother who suggests that they take the two children out into the forest and lose them.
Hansel, the boy, overhears the plan, and collects pebbles, so that he can lay a trail to find his
way back. He is successful in so doing. For the second ‘trip’ the two children take with them one
slice of bread along, which they use to mark a path back to their home by leaving crumbs along
the way, but the crumbs are eaten by the birds, with the result that the two children find
themselves lost in the forest. After a while, they come upon a little house made of gingerbread---
as a result of the assistance of a white bird who guides the children to the house. (Some
wonderful symbolism, there!) Hansel breaks off a piece to eat.
Suddenly, the door flies open and an old woman (‘witch’) comes out and invites them in. She
feeds them mountains of pancakes and fruit, and then tucks them into bed to sleep. (Note that
word---‘sleep.’) What Hansel and Gretel don’t realise is the old woman is fattening them up so
she can use them in her favorite dish---‘roasted child.’ Now the two children are prisoners---
Hansel is put into a stable---and the old woman keeps feeding them. However, when she asks
Hansel to put his finger through the bars of the stable to see how fat he is getting, Hansel holds
out a piece of dry bone instead.
Finally, the children escape and push the old woman into the oven. The house dissolves into
pearls and precious stones. (Again, wonderful symbolism, there.) The two children fill their
pockets with jewels and food and use the trail of bread crumbs to find their way back home.
They come to a great expanse of water---and a white duck carries them over it. (Again,
wonderful symbolism, there.) Eventually, on the other side, they recognize their surroundings
and return rich to their father’s house. Their father welcomes them home, and informs them that
their stepmother has died in the meantime. (Wonderful! Note, some commentators suggest that
the stepmother and the witch are at least metaphorically one-and-the-same person, because
the stepmother dies when the children have killed the witch. Maybe.) They all live happily ever
Well, what a great story of involution and evolution! The woodcutter’s house is the spiritual or
divine world from which we all come, and to which we all ultimately return. The presence in the
story of the stepmother----notice how in fairy tales these stepmothers are never nice---indicates,
symbolically, that we have here a material existence into which the human soul (Gretel) and the
human spirit (Hansel) have descended. We have the descent into a physical body, and later the
ascent again to the spiritual or divine realm. We see that so often in fairy tales as well as other
secret or sacred literature. We have a white bird---a clear sign of divine guidance (cf the Holy
Spirit). The gingerbread house looks so lovely, you want to eat it. The gingerbread house is like
the land of Oz (cf The Wonderful Wizard of Oz), that is, that strange, colourful, wonderful, yet
also frightening, world in which we now find ourselves, but it is not the ‘real’ world. It is not our
Anyway, soul and spirit enter the physical body---the gingerbread house---but, like us,
experience it as a veritable prison-house in which bad things can and do happen. (Isn’t that
life?) Yes, we are in slavery, in bondage, and largely to our false selves which we mistakenly
take to be the ‘real’ person each of us is. The old woman, or witch, symbolically represents all
those negative, retarding forces that seek to overwhelm, indeed destroy, the human spirit
(Hansel). Notice the symbol of the dry bone, which represents all those negative forces that are
blind to our true spirit. I think the dry bone especially symbolizes dry, intellectuality, that is
forever incapable of discerning or knowing spiritual truths. The fire, and its lighting, symbolically
represents some special event or impulse in which the soul awakens---and finds freedom.
Spiritual riches---precious stones and jewels---are ours, but first we must cross the Great Water
(that is, death). Soul and spirit are carried across the water, and on the far side there is---home.
Now, the (originally French) fairy tale, ‘Little Red Riding Hood,’ which is also known as ‘Little
Red Cap’ or simply ‘Red Riding Hood.’
Little Red Riding Hood
This tale, as you all would know, concerns a girl called Little Red Riding Hood. The girl walks
through the woods to deliver food to her sickly grandmother (grape juice and banana bread, or
wine and cake depending on the translation). In the Brothers Grimms' version at least, she had
the order from her mother to stay strictly on the path.
A mean wolf wants to eat the girl, and the food in the basket. He secretly stalks her behind trees
and bushes and shrubs and patches of little grass and patches of tall grass. He approaches
Little Red Riding Hood and she naïvely tells him where she is going. He suggests the girl pick
some flowers, which she does. In the meantime, he goes to the grandmother's house and gains
entry by pretending to be the girl. He swallows the grandmother whole, (in some stories, he
locks her in the closet), and waits for the girl, disguised as the grandmother.
When the girl arrives, she notices that her grandmother looks very strange. Little Red Riding
Hood then says, ‘What a deep voice you have,’ (‘The better to greet you with’), ‘Goodness, what
big eyes you have,’ (‘The better to see you with’), ‘And what big hands you have!’ (‘The better to
hug/grab you with’), and lastly, ‘What a big mouth you have,’ (‘The better to eat you with!’) at
which point the wolf jumps out of bed, and swallows her up too. Then he falls fast asleep.
A lumberjack (with the Brothers Grimm, and always in German tradition, a hunter), however,
comes to the rescue and with his axe cuts open the wolf, who had fallen asleep. Little Red
Riding Hood and her grandmother emerge unharmed. They fill the wolf's body with heavy
stones. The wolf awakens and tries to flee, but the stones cause him to collapse and die.
(Sanitised versions of the story have the grandmother shut in the closet instead of eaten, and
some have Little Red Riding Hood saved by the lumberjack as the wolf advances on her, rather
than after she is eaten.) In any event, Little Red Riding Hood gives the cake and the wine to her
grandmother, who recovers. Little Red Riding Hood resolves never to stray from the forest path
Well, what are we to make of all this? For starters, the little girl, that is, Little Red Riding Hood,
represents the innocent ego-conscious soul. The sickly grandmother represents old forces and
the Ancient Wisdom which, sadly, have seen better days. Indeed, they are fading. (However, as
we all know, the Ancient Wisdom never disappears. Never!)
Little Red Riding Hood is the human soul that seeks wisdom and enlightenment. She is the
bearer of cake and wine (cf the sacred symbolism of bread and wine, representative of the
indwelling divine life or Christ Self). The wolf represents the retarding forces of materialism and
physicality, as well as the attractions of the sense world. The wolf swallows up Little Red Riding
Hood (cf Jonah in the belly of the ‘whale’)---just like we lose ourselves in the attractions of the
senses and physical existence. (There is also the symbolism of the human soul---Little Red
Riding Hood---being trapped, or imprisoned, in flesh and matter. Involution of the soul, again—a
time of trial but also progress.) Like the giant in ‘Jack and the Beanstalk,’ and the sorcerer uncle
and cave in ‘Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp,’ the wolf is a powerful, graphic symbol of our
many false selves.
Ultimately, Little Red Riding Hood is ‘saved.’ So is her grandmother, who is refreshed---wait for
it---by the cake and wine. (Again, obvious symbolism there.)
Little Red Riding Hood has discovered a wonderful spiritual truth, which she intends never to
forget. Yes, she wandered from the Path, experienced the meaningless distractions of the
material world, but now she has been resurrected into newness of life. She knows the Path, and
she intends to stay on it. What a wonderful object lesson this fairy tale is for all of us!
Let’s turn now to the enchanting fairy tale, ‘Cinderella.’
There’s a widower who remarries. (Again, we have this common element in fairy tales---namely,
a widower and his not-so-nice second wife.) Now, the man’s second wife is ill-natured, indeed
cruel, and she has two daughters who are just as unpleasant as her. The man has, however, a
beautiful, gentle daughter of his own, but she soon becomes the servant of her evil stepmother
and stepsisters. They make her do all the chores around the house. The beautiful daughter is
named Cinderella, after the cinders (or ashes) she sweeps out of the fireplace. (The word
‘Cinderella’ means ‘living among ashes.’ Not a bad description for our earthly lives.) Anyway,
Cinderella misses her mother greatly, and each day---even in winter---Cinderella visits her late
One day, the father travels abroad and asks his daughters what presents he should bring back
for them. Not surprisingly, the two un-nice stepdaughters ask for beautiful clothes and jewels
respectively. (Obvious symbolism there---isn’t that the modern Western world, whose real
religion is consumerism?) Cinderella---bless her---asks for the twig which brushes his head
when he returns home. (In due course, Cinderella plants this hazel twig on her mother’s grave,
which she proceeds to water with her tears. It grows into a beautiful tree, and there is this little
white bird which comes and throws down whatever Cinderella asks for. (Beautiful!)
Now, there is a king, and he needs to find a bride for his prince, so he throws a huge ball. The
evil stepmother and stepsisters are invited, but Cinderella is only allowed to go one condition---
her stepmother orders her to separate lentils and ashes which have been mixed in a dish
together, within an hour. Cinderella manages to successfully complete this seemingly
impossible task, with the help of some birds (again, note the symbolism). The condition is
repeated, this time with two dishes of lentils. Again, the birds help. The evil stepmother still says
‘no’ to Cinderella’s attending the ball.
After the others leave for the ball, Cinderella’s fairy godmother appears and changes her dirty
rags into a beautiful gown with glass slippers. (In one familiar version of the story, we have
Cinderella going to the tree on her mother’s grave, and asking for gold and silver garments
(symbolically, spiritual riches or wisdom). In some versions of the tale, the fairy godmother
changes a pumpkin into a coach and some mice into footmen. Before Cinderella leaves, the
fairy godmother warns her to be home before midnight, because the spell would only last till
Cinderella is a big hit at the ball. The prince falls in love with her and asks her name. Just then
the clock strikes midnight, and Cinderella runs away. She is in such a hurry that she loses one
of her glass slippers. It is the only clue the prince has to find his true love. The prince goes to
every home in the kingdom and has every single young girl try on the slipper to see if it fits. The
evil stepsisters can’t fit the slipper, but Cinderella can. The prince marries her and, guess what,
they all live happily ever after.
Once again, the widower’s first wife---Cinderella’s mother---symbolically represents the loss of
Ancient Wisdom. (As I’ve already said, the Ancient Wisdom is never truly lost---but sometimes
that appears to be the case. At least, we often lead our lives as if there were no such thing!)
Cinderella’s thrice-daily visits to her mother’s grave symbolically represent that soul which is
truly on the Path---the soul that is very much spiritually alive, and ever-open to the influx of the
spiritual truths embodied in the Ancient Wisdom. Perhaps there is also here the idea that the
dead can continue to influence the living. Once again, the figures of the stepmother and the
stepsisters represent those negative, retarding forces that we all have to battle and overcome---
those forced that would seek to break off all connection with the indwelling divine life. And what
about the symbol of the twig which brushes the father’s head? Well, that appears to be a
reference to the divine life, or life force, which comes from above---hence the reference to
‘brushing’ the father’s head. At any rate, this is no dead power. No, it stimulates new life, and so
we have the beautiful tree that the twig turns into.
The little white bird---note, in the sacred or secret language birds ordinarily represent spiritual,
ethereal thoughts and blessings (unless they are ugly, nasty birds)---represents those blessings
which come to us from the spiritual world, at least when they are sought prayerfully and
mindfully. (Note that Cinderella visits her mother’s grave thrice daily, and waters the twig with
her tears, the latter symbolic of devotion and spiritual adoration and affection.) And, just like the
other stories, it is made unambiguously clear that the human soul, if it is to grow and prosper,
must undergo trials and tribulations of various kinds. Note, in that regard, the task of separating
lentils and ashes. Like Cinderella, we too must learn to differentiate between the essential and
the inessential. In order to be able to do that successfully, we need the gift of spiritual
discernment. In time, the soul is purified.
Then we have this king, who wants to find a bride for his prince. Spiritual forces are at work
here. The presence of the birds also makes that clear. The element of the ‘glass slipper’ is quite
important. It needs to fit. The true ego or human spirit seeks to unite with the purified soul—and
it has to be a perfect fit! Yes, in the end our prince marries Cinderella and they all live happily
And, now, the beloved German fairy tale, ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.’
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
At the beginning of the story, a queen sits sewing at an open window during a winter snowfall
when she pricks her finger with her needle, causing three drops of blood fall onto the snow on
the ebony window frame. Admiring the beauty of the resulting colour combination, she says to
herself: ‘Oh, how I wish that I had a daughter that is as white as snow, lips as red as blood, and
hair as black as that wood of the window frame’. Soon after, the queen indeed gives birth to a
baby girl as white as snow, lips as red as blood, and with hair as black as ebony. They name
her Snow White, and not long after, the queen dies.
A year passes. The king takes a new wife, who is beautiful but also unutterably wicked and vain.
(As in Cinderella and Hansel and Gretel, we again have the familiar appearance of a nasty
stepmother. Makes you wonder if there are any nice stepmothers out there! I’m sure there are
plenty of them---nice ones, that is.) The new queen has a magic mirror which she asks every
morning: ‘Magic mirror in my hand, who is the fairest in the land?’ The mirror always replies: ‘My
Queen, you are the fairest in the land.’ Time passes, and when Snow White reaches the age of
seven, she becomes as beautiful as the day and even more beautiful than the queen. So, when
the queen asks her mirror, it responds: ‘My Queen, you are the fairest here so true. But Snow
White is a thousand times more beautiful than you.’
This comes as a great shock to the queen, to put it mildly. (Funny, isn’t it? We only like to hear
what we want to hear.) The queen becomes yellow and then green with envy. Her heart turns
against Snow White. Indeed, with every following day she hates Snow White more and more.
Envy and pride, like ill weeds, grow in her heart taller every day, until she has no peace day or
night. The queen orders a huntsman to take Snow White into the deepest woods to be killed.
She demands as proof that Snow White is dead that the huntsman return with Snow White’s
lungs and liver. The huntsman takes Snow White into the forest, but he is unable to kill her. He
leaves her behind alive, convinced that the girl would be eaten by some wild animal. Instead, he
brings the queen the lungs and liver of a young boar, which is prepared by the cook and eaten
by the queen.
After wandering through the forest for days, Snow White discovers a tiny cottage belonging to a
group of seven dwarfs. Since no one is at home, she eats some of the tiny meals, drinks some
wine and then tests all the beds. Finally, the last bed is comfortable enough for her and she falls
asleep. In due course the seven dwarfs return home and discover the sleeping Snow White.
She wakes up and explains to them what happened and the dwarfs take pity on her, saying: ‘If
you will keep house for us, and cook, make beds, wash, sew, and knit, and keep everything
clean and orderly, then you can stay with us, and you shall have everything that you want.’ They
warn her to be careful when alone at home and to let no one in when they are away delving in
Meanwhile, the queen asks her mirror once again: ‘Magic Mirror in my hand, who is the fairest in
the land?’ The mirror replies: ‘My Queen, you are the fairest here so true. But Snow White
beyond the mountains at the seven dwarfs is a thousand times more beautiful than you.’ The
queen is livid. Not only did the huntsman betray her, worse still Snow White is still alive. She
keeps thinking about how to get rid of Snow White. She disguises herself as an old peddler,
walks to the cottage of the dwarfs, and offers Snow White colourful, silky laced bodices. She
convinces Snow White to take the most beautiful bodice as a present, then she laces it so tight
that Snow White faints. The queen leaves her for dead. However, the dwarfs return just in time
and Snow White revives when the dwarfs loosen the laces.
Next morning the queen consults her mirror anew and the mirror reveals Snow White's survival.
Infuriated, the queen dresses as a comb seller and convinces Snow White to take a beautiful
one as a present. She brushes Snow White's hair with a poisoned comb. Snow White faints
again, but is revived by the dwarfs. The next morning the mirror tells the queen that Snow White
is still 'a thousand times more beautiful' than the queen. The queen is apoplectic with rage. She
secretly consults the darkest magic and makes a poisoned apple, and in the disguise of a
farmer's wife she offers it to Snow White. Snow White is at first hesitant to accept it, so the
queen cuts the apple in half, eats the white (harmless) part, and gives the red (poisoned) part to
Snow White. Snow White eagerly takes a bite and falls into a state of suspended animation.
This time the dwarfs are unable to revive the girl because they can't find the source of Snow
White's poor health and, assuming that Snow White is dead, they place her in a glass coffin.
Time passes, and a prince traveling through the land sees Snow White. He strides to her coffin,
and enchanted by her beauty, instantly falls in love with her. The dwarfs succumb to his
entreaties to let him have the coffin, and as his servants carry the coffin away, they stumble on
some roots. The tremor caused by the stumbling causes the piece of poisoned apple to dislodge
from Snow White's throat, awakening her. The prince then declares his love for her, and soon a
wedding is planned. The couple invites every queen and king to come to the wedding party,
including Snow White's stepmother. Meanwhile, the queen, still believing that Snow White is
dead, again asks her magical mirror who is the fairest in the land. The mirror says: ‘You, my
Queen, are fair so true. But the young queen is a thousand times fairer than you.’
Appalled in disbelief and with her heart full of fear and doubts, the queen is, at first, hesitant to
accept the invitation, but she eventually decides to go. Not knowing that this new queen was
indeed her stepdaughter, she arrives at the wedding, and her heart fills with the deepest of
dread when she realizes the truth. As a punishment for her attempted murders, a pair of
glowing-hot iron shoes are brought forth with tongs and placed before the queen. She is forced
to step into the burning shoes and to dance until she drops dead.
So, what are we to make of all this?
The story begins with the old queen, who has a vision of ideal future humanity. That is certainly
a vision with which all good, ‘card-carrying’ Theosophists can identify! This new human being
will have overcome passions, have purified his instincts, and have become an enlightened soul,
hence the three references to ‘as white as snow, lips as red as blood, and hair as black as that
wood of the window frame.’
The wish is fulfilled, but the old queen dies. The new queen appears. Unfortunately, she is very
vain and proud, and she seeks to use occult powers and wisdom for her own entirely selfish
purposes. She finds it very hard, if not impossible, to accept that a new era---the era of Snow
White---has dawned. In that regard, she is so much like those people in this country who find it
well-nigh impossible to accept such things as multiculturalism, diversity of all kinds, ‘boat
people’ and asylum seekers, and so forth. In another sense, the new queen is like those who
want what’s on offer, but aren’t prepared to earn it by right of consciousness. Indeed, it is not
hers, or theirs, at all, by right of consciousness.
Now, who are these ‘seven dwarfs’? What do they symbolise? Perhaps helpers on the other
side. Perhaps members of the Brotherhood of Adepts, the Great White Brotherhood. Perhaps
they are the ‘seven mighty spirits before the throne,’ or the seven major chakras? I tend to
regard them as simply symbolising different aspects of our self. (For example, among others
there’s Happy, and Sleepy, and Bashful, and Dopey. The latter is especially me!) Anyhow, take
your pick. One thing---they are very important, and they can help you and me.
The developing soul, Snow White, the ultimate symbol of purity and innocence, is attacked in
various ways. It looks grim. Ultimately, a ‘higher’ power---a power-not-oneself---is needed to
awaken her. That power is the power of one’s higher self, True Self, Christ Self---call it what you
will. In the story, that power comes, of course, in the form of the prince. At the end of the tale,
the old powers---the old era---is dead. Ring bells! Blow trumpets!
There are several other possible interpretations of this tale. For example, the New Thought
teacher and writer Florence Scovel Shinn, in her book The Secret Door to Success, writes that
the cruel stepmother is a ‘negative thought-form …built up in the subconscious.’ Remember
how Snow White is kept in rags and in the background? Shinn writes, ‘All cruel thought forms do
this.’ The queen is a graphic symbol of all our inner demons. Shinn also makes this comment
about the woods, namely, that despite the threats and dangers present therein, there are
nevertheless present many friendly animals and birds that surround and protect Snow White.
These animals and birds symbolise ‘our intuitive leads or hunches, which are always ready to
“get you out of the woods”.’ And what about the seven dwarfs? Shinn says they symbolise ‘the
protective forces all about us.’ And the prince? Well, according to Shinn he represents the
‘divine plan’ of our life. When that plan ‘wakes’ us up, the old, tired, negative thought-forces,
along with our wild, untamed ego-self---all represented by the queen---are ‘dissolved and
dissipated forever’ and we live happily ever after. Shinn writes: ‘Find out what form of tyranny
your cruel stepmother is taking in your subconscious. It is some negative conviction which
works out in all your affairs.’
Now, there is another ‘Snow White’ fairy tale from Germany---‘Snow-White and Rose-Red.’
However, this ‘Snow-White’ is a completely different character, having nothing in common with
the one we’ve just discussed, other than sharing the same name in English (albeit hyphenated),
and having an encounter with a dwarf. Here’s a brief outline of the story.
Snow White and Rose-Red
A poor widow lives with her two children in a small cottage. In front of the cottage is a garden in
which there are two rose bushes: one bears white roses, and the other red. The two children,
Snow-White and Rose-Red, are like roses. They are good, little girls who play together and love
each other dearly, and their mother is very fond of them. Rose-Red is outspoken and cheerful
and loves to play outside. Snow-White, on the other hand, is quiet and shy and prefers doing
housework and reading. The two girls love to go out into the forest where they like to sleep. On
one occasion, whilst sleeping unknowingly on the edge of a precipice, they are awaken by a
figure in shining white apparel (apparently, a guardian angel).
One winter night, there is a knock at the door. Rose-Red opens the door to find a bear. At first,
she is terrified, but the bear tells her not to be afraid. ‘I'm half frozen and I merely want to warm
up a little at your place,’ he says. They let the bear in, and he lies down in front of the fire. The
girls beat the snow off the bear, and they quickly become quite friendly with him. They play with
the bear and roll him around playfully. They let the bear spend the night in front of the fire; and,
in the morning, he leaves, trotting out into the woods. The bear comes back every night for the
rest of that winter, and the family grows used to him.
When summer comes, the bear tells them that he must go away for a while to guard his
treasure from a wicked dwarf. On parting, the bear catches his fur on the door-hook, and it
seems to Snow-White that she sees gold glittering underneath.
During the summer, when the girls are walking through the forest, they find a dwarf whose
beard is stuck in a tree. The girls rescue him by cutting his beard free, but the dwarf is
ungrateful and yells at them for cutting his beautiful beard. He seizes a bag of gold which lies
behind him, and hurries off angrily. The girls encounter the dwarf several times that summer,
rescue him from some peril each time, and the dwarf is ungrateful each time. On the second
occasion the dwarf runs off with a bag of pearls, and on another occasion he hurries off with a
bag of precious stones. Then one day, they meet the dwarf once again, and he is seen counting
his treasures. This time, the bear rushes out of the forest and strikes him dead.
Instantly, the bear’s skin falls from him, revealing a handsome prince. You see, the dwarf had
put a spell on the prince by stealing his precious stones and turning him into a bear, but the
curse is broken with the death of the dwarf. Snow-White marries the prince, and Rose-Red
marries his brother. And yes, they all live happily ever after.
Well, once again we have a widow---a soul cut off, so to speak, from the spiritual world or
Ancient Wisdom, but in this case there is still some contact with the elemental world (in the tale,
the garden and the rose bushes). Snow-White and Rose-Red represent two different aspects or
sides of human experience. Snow-White, who likes to stay indoors, represents that ‘thinking’
part of us that is introspective, contemplative, and meditative. Rose-Red, who likes being
outdoors, symbolises that ‘perceiving’ part of us that is more interested in the outer world of
sense impressions. The fact that the two girls play together and love each other is highly
symbolic. It means, among other things, that these two sides of our nature are equally
important. Both are needed and belong together. Never forget that.
The bear represents our growing physicality, and the dwarf represents negative, evil forces---
within and outside of ourselves---that must be overcome. The gold, pearls, and precious stones
represent spiritual riches and wisdom. Evil forces, including our very own false selves, seek to
appropriate these even though they are not theirs by right of consciousness.
Now, the bear is not what it appears to be. Inside of it is a prince---that is, a higher self, our True
Self. We come to know that Self as one---symbolised by each of the two marriages that take
place---as a result of thinking (Snow-White), perceiving (Rose-Red), and overcoming evil (the
destruction of the dwarf)---and with the assistance of empowering soul-forces (represented by
the guardian angel).
We must leave it there for the time being. Perhaps on another occasion we can look into some
other fairy tales that have occult significance.
Bless you---every one of you. And may you all live happily ever after!
Note. Parts of some fairy tale plot summaries, albeit amended and revised in varying degrees,
are courtesy Wikipedia. The author is also indebted to Roy Wilkinson, whose book
The Interpretation of Fairy Tales (1984) was of great assistance. All rights reserved.