In case anyone did not see the excellent movie Enchanted (we highly recommend this film!), one of the funniest scenes in it is when the main character, Giselle, needs to clean an apartment so she does what all fairytale princesses do best when faced with a task– she summons animal friends to help her out. Problem is, cute bunnies are hard to come by in New York City, so Giselle must make do with cockroaches and one-legged pigeons. This iconic scene is so great because it plays on one of the biggest fairytale motifs, the animal helper. Puss in Boots is probably the greatest example of animals helping humans (just check out our Puss in Boots app to see what we are talking about!), but fairytales and folktales from all around the world are full of animals providing assistance to humans in need. So what do such animals tell us?
I think that ultimately these animal helpers reflect the very important link between humans, nature, and food. Many of the most popular helpers – birds, rabbits, deer, frogs, cats, dogs, other barnyard critters etc. – I associate with woodlands or with farms. In the days before industrialized food, when most everything you ate came from nearby, cats and dogs were valuable tools used to help keep the farm going and woodland creatures were either sources of food themselves or indicated a healthy forest. Frogs, for example, may not be the most important food source for people, but the presence of frogs meant water, which in turn meant no drought. Naturally, people develop strong, positive associations with such animals precisely because they helped keep people alive in some food-related capacity. Helpful creatures in real life translate into fairytales and folktales much the same way.
Conversely, the creatures most associated with evil deeds – bears, wolves, tigers, foxes, etc. – are those that are not exploited for food by people and who often stand in direct competition with people for food sources. Making such creatures villainous or at least imbuing them with some bad qualities is a reflection of our very primal fear of starvation. Today, we are spoiled by a reliable, readily available food system that basically ensures that we will not starve if the winter lasts too long or if foxes eat all the chickens. But this has only been the case for a miniscule part of human history and humans, especially the vast majority of people of lower ranks, have always been at the mercy of nature for survival. How certain kinds of animals are depicted in fairytales reflects this anxiety.
I would like to pose a question for you, our lovely readers, in order to encourage a discussion: why is it that in fairytales it is the princesses and other heroines who are so closely associated with animal helpers? Let us know what you think!