The Drama Triangle in Fairy Tales

According to numerous psychoanalysts and child psychologists, particularly in the sphere of Transactional Analysis, fairy tales have a hidden structure in terms of characters, narrative, location and events that can be ingeniously unravelled using the so-called “Dynamics of the Drama Triangle”. This consists of three specific roles defined as “Saviour” or rescuer, “Victim” and “Persecutor” or abuser, for example in the well-known tale of the Pied Piper the mayor or for that matter the townsfolk are the “victim” of an infestation of rats (the “persecutors”) and the Pied Piper becomes the “saviour” of the townsfolk when he agrees, for a certain price to rid the town of those vermin. However, having successfully rid the town of the rat infestation the Pied Piper discovers that the mayor is reluctant to pay the piper, subsequently he becomes a “victim” of the townsfolk and seeks remuneration or compensation for all his hard work. As many people know the Pied Piper, using his magic flute then decides to lure all the town’s children away and declares they will not be returned until he receives payment for his services as rat controller. As a result the roles of the characters change yet again, the children as well as the townsfolk become victims of the Piper’s demands and the Piper becomes the “persecutor” forcing the mayor to adopt the role of “saviour”.

Similarly, in the tale of Little Red Riding Hood initially the young girl assumes the role of “saviour” when she goes to deliver food and comfort to her grandmother (victim), the wolf she meets naturally assumes the role of “persecutor” but as the action in the tale develops Little Red Riding Hood subsequently becomes the “victim” of the ravenous wolf and this necessitates the introduction and intervention of the woodsman as “saviour”. As a result the wolf becomes the “victim” of the woodsman (saviour) who rescues the girl and ultimately both Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother are saved from the predations of the wolf. Therefore, we have basically only three roles (rotated in any number of variations and occasions) that are necessary in drama analysis to depict the emotional reversals that are reflected in the dramatic plots of fairy tales and sometimes in real life. And the tale evolves in relative complexity depending on how many variations are likely to occur, where they happen or how they affect the heightened shock, suspense or denouement of any dramatic plot. A great number of William Shakespeare’s plays have components which are clearly found in fairy tales whereby a character assumes another role in disguise, with the added use of role-reversal, disguise, mistaken identity or events that are definitely influenced by a change of location. The well-known “Casket Scene” where the three Princes have to unravel a riddle and choose a particular casket in the “Merchant of Venice” for example is based on several archetypal fairy tales found all over the world:

A scene from Shakespeare’s the Merchant of Venice

Moroccan Prince:
The first, of gold, who this inscription bears,
‘Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire;’
The second, silver, which this promise carries,
‘Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves;’
This third, dull lead, with warning all as blunt,
‘Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath.’
How shall I know if I do choose the right?

What says this leaden casket?
‘Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath.’
Must give: for what? for lead? hazard for lead?

What says the silver with her virgin hue?
‘Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves.’
As much as he deserves! Pause there, Morocco,
And weigh thy value with an even hand:

Let’s see once more this saying graved in gold
‘Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire.’
Why, that’s the lady; all the world desires her;

In the story of Cinderella similar structures or frameworks arise, since clearly at the beginning of the story Cinderella is the “victim” of the servitude demanded of her by her persecutors, the two envious stepsisters and so the Fairy Godmother, hearing Cinderella’s cries, is obviously the “saviour” when she “magically” converts a pumpkin into a stagecoach, her rags into a beautiful ball-gown, mice into footmen etc, so that Cinderella can attend the ball and meet the Prince of her dreams. As the story unravels though and as Cinderella fails to comply with her Godmother’s advice “to leave the ball before the clock strikes midnight” it is clear that the Prince in this instance (in the absence of the Fairy Godmother) assumes the role of “saviour” when he discovers her shoe. The Prince then plays amateur detective by calling on all the residents to try the shoe on every young girl in the town. Of course an amusing episode occurs when Cinderella’s stepsisters insist on trying on the shoe and causing themselves a great deal of embarrassment and pain. A change of role/location or the introduction of another character or magical object can therefore signal a change of the main character’s roles given the right circumstances so that a “saviour” becomes the “victim” and vice versa, or a “persecutor” becomes the victim or in some cases is transformed into the role of “saviour”. In my previous post “The Terrors and Delights of Childhood Innocence” I laid out what the different characters in Fairy Tales symbolised for the developing child and how the events or circumstances signified certain critical transitions in the child’s personal life such as problem solving, establishing autonomy or seeking freedom from parental controls. For the developing child these enigmas represent rites of passage from puberty to adolescence and thereon into independent adulthood.

The entire cast of Snow White & the Seven Dwarves

What can be determined from these fairy tale scenarios is that each of the three major roles also has what is known as a “shadow principle” whereby for example the RESCUER could be perceived as the nurturing and protective qualities of the mother who can also smother, manipulate or control the child, presumably for their own good. However, people who are essentially helpers usually expect something in return for all their support and protection and would naturally expect their children to look after them when they had grown up. The “shadow principle” of the VICTIM is that they usually adopt this role, primarily because they cannot or won’t help themselves and do not help themselves always expecting outside assistance instead of cultivating self-reliance or independence. Meanwhile, the “shadow principle” of the PERSECUTOR is they usually adopt this role as the result of some unacknowledged injustice or betrayal done to them and will justify their ruthless intents or actions because no one is going to help or support them until they actually help themselves. Furthermore, the roles of victim, persecutor and saviour or rescuer can only be regarded as authentic and meaningful only if there are no other hidden, or ulterior motivations for them to adopt a particular role for purely selfish reasons. Therefore HONESTY, RESPECT and GENUINE KINDNESS are the prerequisites of a successful relationship with a child in their formative years. Lies, threats or disrespect work directly against establishing any rapport with a developing child. It is the suspicion that, at least from a child’s perspective, where appearances can be deceptive and people or things are sometimes “disguised” or altered in character according to what they are told about them and their state of mind as well as their inner feelings. Whenever a rescuer experiences themselves constantly in one particular role that of being dependent on the “child victim” which needs to be rescued rather than simply supported or cared for, mentally, emotionally and physically. And if they are unable to assume a different role other than as “rescuer” they will be stuck in that mode and become an “adult victim” and eventually an “adult persecutor”. The rescuer will automatically become the victim of their own selfish motivation for being needed or appreciated by the child and their role and status will be severely diminished. For the story to develop further therefore the characters would have to change their role on the “Drama Triangle”.

The roles and family dynamics of the “Drama Triangle”

It should be noted that the natural or instinctive intelligence of the child is very different from that of the adult or elderly consciousness because all of them, regardless of their age or status are still undergoing development or change in the course of their lives. The child for example may just be ending one phase of their education and considering entering a university or college. The adult on the other hand might be considering a new vocation or job and is applying to do a course at night college. And the grandparent would be wondering whether to go on another ocean cruise or perhaps preparing their last will and testament and deciding who is going to benefit from their inheritance. One particular factor, that of the velocity of experience is equally important and significant in fairy tales and how often characters are introduced, how many instances of role-change takes place and under what circumstances or change in location are involved. The problem is a small or young child is traversing the slope of adolescence into adulthood (fast), the adult gradually gains or climbs into maturity (medium) and the elderly relative is encountering a slide into inevitable decrepitude and old age (slow). Moreover, the role of fairy tales in childcare development and the role they play in educating the child is undoubtedly a factor in the way the dramatist similarly explores a narrative plot in a play that is popular or successful. Firstly, it educates the child in making decisions or choices in life (education); do they listen to their parent’s advice or guidance or do they use their own natural intelligence to solve problems by making the right decisions based on their own assessments (information)? They are also useful where a child has to develop making nuanced distinctions between say their own survival in a dangerous situation and the survival of one of their own close relatives compared to that of a neighbour or complete stranger (problem-solving).

The dynamics when the victim is stuck as piggy in the middle

There is always a plausible reason why a person may wish to adopt a particular mode or role in any given situation; they are not necessarily or intrinsically “good” or “bad” in themselves. It is simply how others see them and as they see themselves in comparison and scale with others in their immediate circle which is significant. A “persecutor” or abuser for example may have been the victim of child abuse or neglect early in life and is simply emulating the role played out by their own persecutor in their childhood. The do-gooder instincts of the “saviour” or rescuer, because they were not given enough consideration or attention as a child have chosen this mode in order make themselves indispensable and worthy. The “victim” on the other hand may imitate the role of a grumbling grandparent who complains or lacks trust in others, that they are not considered worthy of respect or admiration despite all that they have done to reward their partners, offspring or dependents. It would seem that like the acting profession a person who can play many roles is more efficient, adaptable and successful than some actor who plays the same role over and over again. A successful actor can always play that role with a twist or in such a way as to draw out their intrinsic “good” and “bad” qualities thereby making it more realistic, since no one person is “wholly bad” or “wholly good”. Being aware of each character’s “shadow principle” therefore helps the actor to develop their character imbuing it with more depth and clarity. The characters in pantomimes are essentially “caricatures” of real people because they lack the nuance that plays and stage-shows inhabit. The diagnostic elements of the “Drama Triangle” can be applied to a real life scenario between say the mother, father and child for example if the child returns home from school and the mother (persecutor) insists that before any playtime the child should do its homework which the child (victim) is reluctant to observe. The child’s father (rescuer) then steps in scolding the mother saying “But he’s been at school all day and needs some relief from his studies before he tackles his homework!”. It can even be applied to a real life global scale conflict such as the current war between Russia and Ukraine goes. Initially President Putin excused his invasion in Ukraine by ‘disguising’ himself as a ‘rescuer’ saying he was merely “rescuing” the persecuted minorities in the Donbass and Luhansk region east of Ukraine, depicting Ukraine as the ‘persecutor’. As the war progressed however President Putin switched roles and assumed the role of ‘victim’ when his invasion initially failed its objectives of capturing Kiev. He was therefore portraying the western democracies (NATO) as “persecutors” when they stepped in as ‘saviours’ to assist Ukraine against what they saw as, President Putin persecuting Ukraine. Then President Selensky of Ukraine switched from the role of ‘victim’ preferring instead to style himself as a ‘saviour’ of the western alliance (victim) as his counteroffensive achieved a modicum of success.

The Rescuer’s Narrative:

A sense of inadequacy or lack of status seems to be the motivating force of rescuer. The Saviours or Rescuers believe or have assumed that their needs are unimportant and irrelevant especially to others and they are driven to prove their heroic superiority and inner strength. This means that the only way they can legitimately connect with others, feel valued and have their needs met is through the back door of care-taking for other people’s needs. Rescuers will often chastise other people and even themselves when they aren’t looking after the welfare of others. Their modus operandi is; “If I take care of others well enough and long enough, then I will be fulfilled. It’s the only way I know to be loved.” Unfortunately, Rescuers who are “stuck” in this mode by becoming involved with life-time Victims (eg: drug addicts, serial polygamists, serial abusers etc.) who have no idea of how to be there reciprocally for them. This reinforces the Rescuer’s view that says they shouldn’t be needy, which then produces more shame and deeper denial surrounding their own emotional needs.

The Victim’s Narrative:

Usually it is guilt or shame which are the driving forces for the perpetuation of the “Victim’s Eternal Triangle”, whereby the victim will always be forced to play “piggy-in-the-middle” between saviour and persecutor. The imposition or regulation of guilt is often used by Victims in an effort to manipulate their Rescuers into regularly and consistently taking care of them: “If you don’t protect me, who will then?” The Victim’s story says they can’t make it on their own and they prove it to themselves over and over remaining endlessly on the triangle without rotation. They believe that they are innately defective and incapable and so spend their lives on the look-out for someone else to “save” them. Though this is what they feel they must have, ie; a saviour, they are simultaneously angry at their rescuers because they feel put down by and looked down on by their caretakers. They never assume a height or status that truly belongs to them, the result of their lack of courage.

The Persecutor’s Narrative:

Fear is the internal motivating force for Persecutors who adopt this role because they believe the world is dangerous, unpredictable or human beings are untrustworthy and they use fear and intimidation as tools for keeping others in their place, usually under their thumb. What they do not see is how their methods for providing their personal safety end up proving to them that life is indeed as dangerous as they believe it to be whenever they get bad news. Their life narrative says that they are simply innocent bystanders in a dangerous world where others are always out to hurt them and in turn hurt themselves. It’s the survival of the fittest and their only chance of survival is to strike first. This narrative keeps them in a perpetual state of defence/offense using contempt and indignation as mechanisms of attack and defence.

The supporting characters are actually hidden aspects of Dorothy herself

Change of Landscape:

I shall move on now to the change of location or scene within the narrative of the “Drama Triangle” and how this too illustrates for the developing child a similar territory they have become so familiar with in their “mind’s eye” and those which are new, unknown and therefore challenging. It is worth bearing in mind that the nuclear family is like a nurturing or protective capsule for the child, and everything else exists outside of that “pod” in a less familiar zone. Any particular family will be composed of their parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts, nephews and nieces and every other character within the family unit, their own brothers and sisters for example, unless of course they are the only child. Beyond that there is an intermediate territory occupied by their friends, schoolmates and their local neighbors. Outside those two territories there is a place where only strangers and unknown dangers exist or occur, outside of their “comfort zone” as it were. In the movie or book “The Wizard of Oz” the leading character Dorothy, together with her companion dog, Toto are unexpectedly blown by a tornado to an unknown and remote land which naturally leaves them alone and vulnerable. The house they have been transported in actually falls onto a “bad witch” (persecutor) accidentally killing her and Dorothy becomes the target of another witch’s ally, she being inadvertently “victimized” by Dorothy’s arrival. However, they do actually meet “strangers” who in the course of events become their “friends” and they all join together to accomplish a joint task, that is finding the “healing wizard” from the Emerald City who will help solve all their problems. But they also encounter enemies who work towards defeating their personal objectives like the Wicked Witch of the West. Like Cinderella, Dorothy (victim) invokes with her sense of despair a “Fairy Godmother” (rescuer) who gives Dorothy a pair of magic ruby shoes which help her overcome her enemies. The witch becomes jealous of Dorothy’s shoes and wants them for herself thereby avenging her “witch/friend”. Dorothy is then shown the yellow-brick road which will lead her to the Emerald City, a type of “wonderland” where the Wizard of Oz will show her how to get back home. To be brief the Wizard demands a forfeit for enabling Dorothy to achieve her goal, that is she must deprive the wicked witch of the west of her magic broom. So, the narrative of the “Wizard of Oz” tends to follow a similar narrative found in many other fairy tales whereby a change of landscape or scene helps to develop the story and challenges the characters to overcome the obstacles they encounter. A specific pattern of locations is often alternated with no change in circumstances such as Sleeping Beauty or Rip Van Winkle who, for quite a long time stay in the same place and are therefore oblivious to the vagaries of the outside world. A fairy tale pattern of travel, such as the family house, forest or woodland, a castle, a clearing in the woods, a land far away, a gingerbread house can be charted symbolically and form a gestalt that reveals a great deal about the child’s reactions to change and their place in the future. Changes in life such as attending a new school, moving to a new home, a holiday adventure or visit to a distant relative could very easily result in some separation anxiety or arrival anxiety, which is often charged with some emotional significance for the child.

A table listing the polarity of the Nine Mortal Sins

Moral Development & Perspective:

As a large number of fairy tales which have been gathered by anthropologists and chroniclers vary in narrative particularly at the beginning, middle or end we detect variations of beginnings and endings which can affect the moral instruction that a child needs, since they are part of our cultural and moral development. The changes made to the beginnings or endings are indicative of the change in values or moral attitude which has been taking place ever since human beings began “telling stories”. A change in narrative reflects a change in moral perspective for any society, culture, race, religion or nation. The moral injunctions given to the child by its parents is like planting a seed which over time grows and develops into a positive or negative moral framework which is unlikely to change significantly unless challenged positively by some new association, change of landscape or change of circumstances. In the fairy tale “Goldilocks & the Three Bears” and “Snow White & the Seven Dwarves” the leading characters find themselves in unfamiliar settings and simply follow their instinctive desires utilising trial and error (“let’s suck it and see?”) to determine what is permitted and what is “forbidden”. But both Snow White and Goldilocks are in effect developing their innate moral discrimination where personal comfort and oral gratification is concerned and are relatively unconcerned about the impact their actions will have on those present and those absent from their familial moral sphere. The same could be said of the Three Little Pigs (victims) who learn from the attacks from the Big Bad Wolf (persecutor) that they need to build their defences well in order to escape the continued and incessant persecution of the wolf. Similarly, Hansel & Gretel learn not to accept gifts of sweets from strangers who, in a “moral disguise” are more likely to give them the wrong advice and place them further in danger. Many moral injunctions and guidelines can therefore be found within fairy tales such as “all that glitters is not gold”, or “a stitch in time saves nine”, “you can’t step in the same river twice”, “every good turn deserves another”, “seize the moment”, etc. To elucidate further and conclude this current essay on Fairy Tales, their underlying narrative structure, meaning and origins I will attempt an in-depth analysis of the following well-known tale.

“Snow White & the Seven Dwarves”

Once upon a time in the middle of winter, when the flakes of snow were falling like feathers from the sky, a Queen sat at a window sewing, and the frame of the window was made of black ebony. And whilst she was sewing and looking out of the window at the snow, she pricked her finger with the needle, and three drops of blood fell upon the snow. And the red looked pretty upon the white snow, and she thought to herself, “Would that I had a child as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as the wood of the window-frame.” Her wish came true and then Snow White was born. Snow White had red lips, black hair and a white complexion this was a result of her mother’s wish to replicate an experience when she absentmindedly gazed out of an ebony window and pricked her finger on a needle. However, Snow White‘s real mother died at childbirth, and she was replaced by another when her father re-married. This step-mother was jealous of Snow White‘s beauty and plotted to murder her. The first attempt she hired a huntsman but he took pity on her and let her run into the forest. He then killed a bear and took out its heart, this he presented to the evil Queen, which she ate. When she ran away into the forest she found asylum in the home of the seven dwarfs who were away at the time working in a mine.

When it was quite dark the owners of the cottage came back; they were seven dwarfs who dug and delved in the mountains for ore. They lit their seven candles, and as it was now light within the cottage they saw that someone had been there, for everything was not in the same order in which they had left it.

The first said, “Who has been sitting on my chair?”
The second, “Who has been eating off my plate?”
The third, “Who has been taking some of my bread?”
The fourth, “Who has been eating my vegetables?”
The fifth, “Who has been using my fork?”
The sixth, “Who has been cutting with my knife?”
The seventh, “Who has been drinking out of my mug?”

Consequently Sleepy ends up having to spend one hour in bed with each of the other six dwarfs. In the Walt Disney movie animation they were called: Sleepy, Grumpy, Happy, Sneezy, Dopey, Doc & Bashful.

The number seven is a clue that within this tale is embedded or encrypted a piece of hidden information since seven is employed in many miscellanies, for example the 7 stars of the Great Bear constellation, the Seven Noble Virtues and Follies of humankind, and the Seven Deadly Sins, the character of Snow White bringing the total to eight. In the narrative Snow White suffers three types of death firstly by asphyxiation with a tight-fitting lace bodice, secondly by a poisoned comb, and thirdly by a poisoned apple. All of these means exemplify the qualities of Venus/Aphrodite particularly when we add the mirror that she sees herself in which signifies wholesome beauty or sexual attraction and the three main characters are the Evil Witch, the Prince and of course Snow White herself. Only the Prince can save Snow White from the “poisoned apple” and Snow White‘s stepmother actually represents an aspect of herself sometime in the future, when she gazes into the mirror she sees herself as a mother many years ahead, and as Oscar Wilde said; “All women end up looking like their mothers, – that is their tragedy”. Correcting this cynical statement he added; “No, it is a man’s tragedy, that all women end up looking like their mothers”. Therefore the tale of Snow White encapsulates a stage of a woman’s life when, separated from the onset of old age as a child, she finally realises that she too is prey to the ageing process. She also realises that she has been conditioned by her mother to experience the world of relationships in a particular pattern or psychological complex.

Or as Sylvia Plath once wrote; “I looked at the mirror and saw my mother there”.
The seven dwarfs represent the type of relationships she is likely to encounter, as she enters the world of men, and the way her partners will react to her presence and needs. The Snow White Syndrome, as it is known in child psychology, reflects the idea that within every little girl there is an ardent wish to be a pure unadulterated princess. An attitude conditioned subconsciously by the visual imprints of the father or mother to the infant’s own behaviour and attitude. The stepmother or witch in the tale is merely a negative matriarchal stereotype, the mirror represents the mother’s facial expressions to the child, in which the child sees reflected her own sense of self-worth. This may be good or bad depending on the activity or interaction of baby and mother.

The links to my current publications, on the Shakespeare Authorship Controversy; “Shakespeare’s Qaballah” and an anthology of poetry “Parthenogenesis” are as follows:


Published by Leonidas Kazantheos

For as long as I can remember I have been passionate about the arts, social change and the sustainable environment. After more than thirty years of voluntary and professional involvement commuting between Yorkshire and Lancashire while working in those areas I finally relocated to Buxton in 2013. This was after the birth of our son Gaspard and to further the career of my French partner, Francoise Collignon who is currently seeking work in the tourism sector. In 1988 I became the Regional co-ordinator for the National Artists Association in Manchester and helped promote the artistic revival in the region. At the turn of the millennium in 2001, while pursuing my vocational interest in symbolism and the natural world, I became involved in environmental conservation and the protection of green space in W. Yorkshire. I was elected editor for Calderdale Friends of the Earth, a monthly postal and online newsletter. In my spare time I was preoccupied as a writer, natural archivist and amateur poet. Over a period of five years I also worked briefly as an architectural technician, landscape designer and mural artist near Holmfirth where I gained invaluable insights into restoration and the development of Green Field and Brown Field sites. In my mid-forties I relocated from Halifax, W. Yorkshire to Manchester where I worked as an artist and freelance set designer for several photographic, film and video companies. My work recieved reviews in Hotshoe International, Avant Magazine, NME, The Face, the Big Issue and one shot (The Wolf) became a best-selling poster for Athena Posters. In the late 80’s I became an active member of the National Artists Association and a subscriber to the Design & Artists Copyright Society. I assisted in the instigation of the first Multi-cultural Arts Conference and the first Black Arts Forum in Manchester. I became editor of a quarterly Arts Magazine concerned with promoting and supporting artist’s initiatives in the region. Nevertheless, in my spare time I wrote numerous articles on the natural world and researched aspects of Dream Symbolism and the study of semiotics and gestalts in literature and art. I was involved as facilitator for the local allotments and helped set up a local nature reserve at Hough End. Finally, I was encouraged by a close mentor in America to write more seriously about the work of the literary genius William Shakespeare and to pursue a role as a poet. Although somewhat reluctantly over the past four years I have given poetry performances, workshops and readings in Manchester. I have recently published an anthology of my poetry entitled “Parthenogenesis” and a companion to Shakespeare studies entitled “Shakespeare’s Qaballah”. I am currently working on a screenplay entitled “Not Without Mustard” about the life of Edward de Vere.

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