I just read a fascinating book, “In the Ever After: Fairy Tales and the Second Half of Life,” by Allan B. Chinen. It contains fifteen elder tales which all repeat themes common to older people. According to Chinen and others, many popular fairy tales have been shortened to exclude the part about elders.
In the introduction, Chinen says, “Elder tales present a coherent psychological map of the tasks individuals must negotiate in the second half of life—warning of the difficulties and dangers, and previewing the promise and potential…Elder tales address the concerns of mature adults struggling with the psychological tasks of later life.”
Chinen, a psychologist, follows each tale with an interpretation of the lessons as they apply to older adults. Using Erik Eriksen’s developmental stages, and citing Carl Jung and others, he demonstrates how each story’s metaphors and symbols depict the continuing development of older people.
Here’s an example: After “The Old Man Who Lost His Wen” (Japan), Chinen explains how many older people (Jung himself, for example, and Paul Gauguin) in older age decide to reject cultural norms, transcend egocentric concerns, and reach Abraham Maslow’s stage of “self-actualization.” (Gauguin was ridiculed for his paintings of the South Pacific, but he persisted, because it made him happy.)
Of course, one issue facing elders is death. In the stories, metaphor and allusion work together to show us that death is a natural part of the life cycle, not to be feared but accepted. For example, following “An Old Mother’s Sorrow” (Germany), Chinen explains how the story “…helps us understand this calm acceptance (of death)…It is a product of self-transcendence…Surveys of older adults document the truth of these fairy tale insights: fear of death subsides with maturity and there are suggestions that equanimity toward death correlates with mental health. Death simply becomes another fact of life to the mature individual.”
In “The Dragon King of the Sea” (Korea), Chinen offers an interpretation of the theme from psychologist Robert Peck, who suggests that “…mature individuals distinguish between social roles and the inner self, and so are more able to adopt different roles and adapt to changing circumstances.” The story also may be interpreted in light of Carl Jung’s research, wherein boys suppress their feminine side and girls, their masculine, until maturity allows them, if they choose, “…to reclaim those forgotten aspects. If the individual succeeds, the outcome is psychological balance and inner wholeness.”
There are many other lessons in this book, but I’ll end this review with a quote from Chinen: “Although magical, the story of the old man with the wen is more than a fairy tale. It reflects a lofty potential of human development that can be seen in different cultures around the world—a vision of what mature adults can aspire to, and an alternative to the specter of decline.”