Transformation is a common theme in fairy tales. Often our hero, begins his journey with no more than a crust of bread to sustain himself, but in the end, we find he is, after all, a prince, surrounded by wealth, happiness and a beautiful bride. In fact, one of the things that makes fairy tales magical is the transformations that occur. But how does this transformation happen?
Throughout fairy lore, and certain in other literature as well, we repeatedly find certain symbols of transformation. One mechanism of transformation that you may recognize is a descent, and re-emerging, and certain animals signify transformation. The eagle, the fish and the snake may give us a clue that a transformation of a spiritual or material nature is close at hand. So let’s take a closer look at some of these with examples from literature. After seeing a few, no doubt, you will begin to recognize them for what they are, when they occur in stories you read.
One of my favorite Red Branch stories is the story of “Finola and the Dwarf.” This Irish story uses descent into a lake that has been made wine red from berries thrown into the lake by the black Cormorants of the Western Seas as a means of transformation. Here we see the significant triad of colors - red as in the waters and the berries, black - the color of the cormorants, and white- the transformed color - the three black cormorants become three white swans upon the ascent. I am emphasizing the significant red, black white colors here, and that symbolic number three. We see something important is happening here already.
(I will discuss the significance of color and numbers in separate articles in the E- zine.) The hero in this tale is a mute dwarf who does not remember his identity, riding on an old broken down mare. He has sacrificed his eyes, so he is blind upon his descent into the lake. There are two stipulations to cross the water. First, he may not enter the water before it grows red, and he observes this reddening before his second eye is plucked out by the fairyman. We see also, as an aged cormorant dives in, he re-emerges young and invigorated, so we realize this red water gives new life to those who may enter it. Second, the dwarf must “pay the price” to cross. He sacrifices his eyes to save the princess, so he descends into the water blind, following only hope, the direction of his mare, and with love in his heart for the princess Finola entrapped out on the lonely moor. This man may be a blind dwarf, but he knows what he seeks. Upon his ascent, he finds he rides not an aging mare, but a magnificent steed. He sees light as he emerges from the water, and feels young and strong. He sees his reflection in the shield, and remembers who he is, not a mute dwarf, but a great and powerful knight, Conal, one of the Knights of the Red Branch. Through his descent, he regains his vision, and remembers who he is. He is transformed from a blind dwarf into a great knight. In this story a descent into water brings about a transformation. Often water, may be seen as the deep parts of our unconsciousness. He descended and re-emerged with that great part of himself he had lost so long ago. He has traveled deep within himself and discovered the greatness of who he really is.
Often, the vehicle of transformation is not represented by a descent into the depths, but by an animal - commonly the eagle, the fish or the snake. When we see one of these creatures appear in fairy lore, we can often guess a profound change is in store for our hero.
In the French tale, “The Wishing Ring,” a poor farmer is unable to provide for himself. One day, resting from work in the field, a witch passes by, commenting on his condition. She instructs him to travel deep into the forest until he finds the highest tree. “Chop it down,” she says, “and your fortune will be made.” And so, the farmer goes deep within the forest, traveling for days, until he reaches the tallest tree he has ever seen. High in it’s branches is an eagle’s nest, which gives us our clue, that an important change is going to occur. He cuts down the tree, and two eggs roll out. Out of one, appears a little eaglet that grows within moments to the height of the man. It tells him to crack open the other egg, and find the wishing ring within it, and this event changes the fortunes of the farmer forever.
The fish is an extremely common symbol of transformation. In Irish lore, the story of Fionn Mac Cumhaill (pronounced Fin Mc Cool) is a prominent example from the Fenian Cycle. Here Fionn seeks wisdom, and he, and Finegas wait to catch the salmon of knowledge in the Boyne River. In this story, the fish is transformative because it conveys all wisdom to Fionn. The Salmon has eaten the Sacred Hazel Nuts which contain this wisdom. The hazel nuts, however, cannot be found without the knowledge conveyed in the nut itself. Therefore, one must seek and eat the fish instead.
There are numerous examples of fairytales involving transformative fish, but there are other stories as well. The fish holds significance as a vehicle of transformation in the bible. In the story of Jonah, we see the presence of the fish.
Sometimes this story is called “Jonah and the Whale,” but the actual text reads “a great fish” which makes more sense symbolically. In this story, Jonah is thrown into the sea by his fellow sailors because he is known to have fled from the Lord, and the men fear the boat will be destroyed by the storm. Then the Lord prepared a great fish to swallow Jonah. Inside the belly of the fish is where the transformation occurs. Jonah is within the fish for three days and three nights - again, that symbolic number, and during that time, he is changed. Once that occurs, and he prays to God, who spoke to the fish which vomits him, quite unceremoniously, onto dry land. We can see from this example that the fish is a very ancient symbol of change.
The symbol of the fish remained a symbol of transformation and came, as well, to symbolize Jesus. Jesus himself represents a spiritual transformation from an earthly existence to a heavenly existence.
This symbol was again used in the Arthurian Legend of the Holy Grail. The Holy Grail, or the Grail Cup is said to be the cup that Jesus drank from at the Last Supper. It is no surprise, then to find the symbol of the fish hiding in this legend .
In this story, Joseph, the keeper of the Grail Cup, calls upon another man named Allen, later referred to as Rich Fisher, to go to a clear stream nearby and catch a silver fish that he finds swimming there. No matter how many times Allen goes there, he always finds and catches the fish. (Something extraordinary is happening already.) Then, according to Joseph’s instructions, he builds a fire of wood, and roasts the fish over the fire of clear embers. Then the fish is served to those gathered around the silver table (the round table) and however many there are, the fish always goes around. And whoever partakes of it feels “happy, content, and joyful, strong to do what is right and to resist what is wrong.” So here again, the fish transforms. The people are transformed in a spiritual manner, and in a way which suggests a communion.
There are numerous fish transformations that occur in fairy tales. Many of the above fish examples I have chosen have more of a religious tone, but I have chosen them because following the progress of the fish from ancient writings, through Medieval Legend is interesting.
The snake is also an important symbol of transformation in fairytale and elsewhere. It’s image conjures up images of sexuality, fertility, and also spiritual transformation. Let’s start with the well known biblical tale of Adam and Eve, since we were just there. Here a snake (serpent) tempts eve with the fruit of the tree of knowledge. Note the similarity of the fish and Fionn - both are offering knowledge.
The snake appears on numerous occasions in fairy lore. One favorite of mine is in the Grimm story called “The White Snake.” In that tale, each night, the king receives a secret covered dish, after dinner. No one knows what it contains since everyone is made to leave before he opens it. One evening, our hero, a servant, is overcome with curiosity and sneaks the covered dish off to his chamber and opens it. He sees the white snake and cannot resist tasting it. When he does, he begins to hear “a wonderful whispering of delicate voices.” These are the voices of animals. The snake has revealed to him the speech of animals. Animals, by the way, often represent, helpers, or helpful little spirits that advise and aid. So here, eating the white snake has revealed many secrets to the man, and it is this that ultimately saves him.
These examples of transformation symbols are not the only symbols you may encounter. I have seen others used such as a cooking pot or cooking that may be used as a vehicle of transformation, but by noticing these and others, you may find your reading of stories, deeper and more enjoyable.
If you would like to know more about symbols in fairy lore and other stories, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and ask to receive my free monthly E- zine about story symbols.
Copyright by Melanie Zimmer August 2002