Review of The Initiatory Path in Fairy Tales: The Alchemical Secrets of Mother Goose
Inner Traditions, Rochester, VT, 2015
320 pp. Paper, $15.99
The ubiquity of fairy tales across cultures and ages denotes an exceptional hunger for poetic imagination and invention, and its avid reception by listeners and readers. In the West, we usually turn to several published sources when considering these tales. There is the Brothers Grimm from the 19th century. From the late 17th century there is Charles Perrault’s Stories of Tales of Time, which apparently has a second title: Tales of My Mother the Goose. And here begins the current book, which reveals in fairy tales hermetic narratives that carry the symbolism and procedures of esoteric initiation in alchemy and in Freemasonry. I should note that the origin of fairy tales, as of poetry, is oral, with many tellers of variant tales in different ways to different group over the centuries. Its roots most probably extend to the dawn of human language.
Recall here as well that prior to the scientific revolution alchemy was a significant medium not only for gaining knowledge of the material world as we configured it then, but also of our ethical relationship to that knowledge and how it should best be used. The transmutation of lead into gold required the same within the adept, a kind of moral or spiritual askesis that leading scientists of our time have also touched on.
The author, Bernard Roger, is well suited to his task, sensitive to poetic issues and scholar of the hermetic tradition. A member of the Paris surrealist group in the 1950s, he translates several important alchemical texts while authoring studies informed by them. His recent book, Paris et L’Alchemie, concludes with a guide to the alchemical symbols that still adorn buildings in Paris.
Whether known as Mother Goose tales, fairy tales, airy tales, old wives tales, or even cock-and-bull stories, they all chart wondrous realms, terrible travails, dangerous journeys, magical transformations, and fabulous yet ever fulfilling resolutions. Many we know by heart: Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood, Bear John. But what perhaps we have missed, however much we might have sensed it, is that these tales also chart an initiatory path -- as much to freedom from want, especially hunger, as to love in its diverse forms.
The book is broken into six chapters that contain a plethora of fairy tale narratives, each of which involves individually, or when taken together, allegorical elements of the alchemical work and Freemasonry. This includes not only the plot but also the circumstance: who or what was the antagonist? From what was a hero or heroine freed and how did this happen? How did the required journey to gain the desired goal progress, and more?
In these details, as well as in the implements, vegetation, living creatures, or terrestrial and celestial bodies that populate a plot, come many shared words, phrases, and values. For example, in fairy tales bird feathers act as magical agents to secure freedom from bondage. For Roger, they also denote by their use and color specific stages of the alchemical process. The “faithful servant,” a character common to fairy tales, is in alchemy directly related to the “operations of the universal solvent. . . . ” The book is replete with such examples. They make for revealing evidence not only to support the title but also to implicate a vivacious capacity for analogy that animates the author and our reading of his perspectives
So that we not take the creative activity of composing a fairy tale as exclusively historical, as something no longer done, an epilogue recounts a more contemporary experience from 2002 in which an author, named only as “Madame J.,” writes a new fairy tale composed from memories of former tales read as a child but now charged by her experience, unconscious impulses, and dreams.
What we have gained and what we have lost by the science and technologies we possess, and that can possess us too much, find in this book another realm free from their grasp. Here common needs and desires, played by marvelous narratives, turn us to the power of myth, and the work and imagination that myth-making roots in. According to the author, this is not merely literary or artful. It is also an expression of the alchemy that science grew from, repudiated, and now has an opportunity to discover anew through Mother Goose. The mirror that Mother Goose holds up to science in the fascinating tales she tells is something to consider.