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Once upon a time in Baden...

Fairytales are still a firm favourite with children


From evil stepmothers to handsome princes, the "magical" town of Baden is playing host to Switzerland's first international fairytale congress.

Until May 12, the town in northern Switzerland is the temporary home of all things "fable". More than 350 teachers, professors, psychoanalysts and fairytale enthusiasts will give speeches and lead discussions on "The Meaning of the Wish".

They have come together from as far afield as Australia and India to exchange ideas on the role "wishes" play in fairytales.

"We are trying to find out about good and bad wishes," Barbara Gobrecht, a folklore researcher and one of the congress's organisers told swissinfo. "[We want to explore] what they mean and how far they go."

Even though fairytales date back centuries, they deal with timeless themes such as moral dilemmas and injustice. But unlike real-life issues, fairytale problems are solved with the help of either a fairy godmother or a wish.

Cinderella's motive

Cinderella, for example, wishes she could go to the ball, and thanks to a good fairy's spell her wish is granted. At the ball, she meets the handsome prince and lives happily ever after.

The desire behind her wish was not simply to go to the ball, but rather a longing to be freed from her life of imposed drudgery - cleaning, scrubbing, cooking and cleaning for her evil stepmother and selfish sisters.

But Gobrecht points out that wishes have to be considered within the context of the fairytale -they have to redress the imbalance, cruelty or injustice experienced by the hero or heroine.

But if the character gets greedy and wishes for too much, the wish backfires.

"A negative example of wishing was the wishes granted to the fisherman's wife," Gobrecht explains. "In this story, a fish grants the fisherman's wife everything she desires, but she wants more and more. She doesn't know how to wish. To start with she wants to be king and finally she wants to be like God and because of this [greed] she is punished."

Timeless relevance

Gobrecht stresses that fairytales are still as relevant today as they were centuries ago and that a lesson can be drawn from all of them.

"Fairytales give us much help for life, " she enthuses. "They are stories for getting ideas about the world, stories of hope. They show all the problems one may have but also how to overcome them."

More importantly, she says fairytales "help imagination". She believes they encourage children to paint pictures in their mind's eye - for example, what a princess would look like.

Today, films and television tend to spoon-feed images, rather than encourage children to imagine what the picture would look like, she says. Fairytales, Gobrecht adds, fill this gap with the wide range of characters - dragons, princes and witches - which readers have to imagine.

Swiss host

Hosting the fairytale congress was dream come true for the Swiss Fairytale Society. In the past its members have had to travel to Belgium, France, Germany and Italy to attend the annual gathering of Europe's fairytale fans.

But this year, they have jumped at the chance to give the congress a Swiss feel. As well as seminars, workshops and a travelling puppet theatre, there is a programme of fairytale readings for the young and old in Switzerland's four national languages - Swiss German, French, Italian and Romansh.

"We have two special Swiss reading evenings in the four languages," Gobrecht enthuses, "as well as a public programme called the 'Time of telling'. Every quarter of an hour there will be a new person telling fairytales and you'll hear different dialects."

One of the highlights during the "Time of Telling" will be the reading of a new set of fairy stories by the famous Swiss fairytale teller, Franz Hohler.

"He has some new "wish" fairytales in his repertory, which even I haven't heard yet," she excitedly says.

The End

by Sally Mules

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