The University of Alabama at Birmingham's museum is having in intriguing exhibit called “The Charm was Broken, Illness and Injury in the fairy tales of Mary de Morgan.” While I am not as familiar with Ms. deMorgan's work, the connections that Valerie Gribben and Michael Flannery make between the world of medicine and the world of fairy tales underline a few of the issues we discussed in The Real Fears of Fairy Tales:
The exhibit features the work of de Morgan and examples of centuries-old medicine, magic and myth, drawing on the venerable medical texts housed in UAB’s Reynolds Historical Library. Because once upon a time, when the world’s medical sophistication was somewhat less than today, magic and medicine were more closely intertwined.
One panel in the exhibit, drawn from a Reynolds Library text, promotes unicorn horn as a powerful cure-all of ailments from stomach disorders to poison. Another points out that rapunzel, an English herb whose name was appropriated by a long-haired fairy tale heroine, was thought to be good for pregnant women.
Mike Flannery, associate director for historical collections at UAB, says that at the time that many fairy tales originated, disease was poorly understood and never far away.
“Disease was an ever-present, sort of ominous cloud that hung over every family,” says Flannery. “These fairy tales are stories to convey the reality of life to children and in some ways to assuage the fears of parents regarding diseases that then were death sentences but today are largely treatable.”
Flannery says fairy tales gave people a target for their fears. Witches, goblins and trolls became the manifestation of diseases that had no cure, such as consumption. We know it today as tuberculosis, but 200 years ago, it was the cancer of the day.
“When you live with the uncertainty of life and death, when you live in a world where 30 percent of children born won’t survive one year, you have to come to grips with that reality in some meaningful way,” he said. “This is a literary genre that helped them do that.”
Gribben says that while training to be a physician, she’s met many characters that resemble prototypical fairy tale figures in clinic exam rooms and hospital corridors. She’s seen the Abandoned Prince, the Evil Stepmother and the Lecherous King.
“Fairy tales and medicine both deal with the things that go bump in the night,” said Gribben. “It’s the unknown, the dark forest, the shadowy world. When you go to a hospital you enter the realm of the sick — the ill, and it’s a transition from the outside world. I think medicine is about reaching deeper and having compassion for everyone around you even if they don’t look like you or sound like you. I think fairy tales and medicine both deal with the human spirit and the human condition. ”
I love the idea of medicine as good magic, and disease as the monster, the spell, the dark forest. Fairy tales were a way for families to wrap their head around the inexplicable, amorphous danger that was disease, and they still are a great way to frame fighting an illness in the modern age. You tell yourself a story to face the danger, the fear, the uncertainty; you must battle your way through the dark forest to free yourself from the evil spell.