This essay offers a mythopoetic, Jungian analysis of the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” from The Nutcracker, a popular ballet by Pyotr Iylich Tchaikovsky. First performed in December 1892 in St. Petersburg in Russia, it has since become a beloved Christmas tradition around the world. In the ballet’s Act Two of “Land of the Sweets,” the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” is the embodiment of this ballet’s enchantment.
The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy is one in a series of dances in a dream sequence of Clara, a young girl who is the protagonist in the narrative where each dance represents a holiday treat (coffee, tea, candies, flowers, gifts). The dream takes place within the larger frame of Clara’s waking world experience, making this an envelope story, enveloping the dream as something to hold dear as a teddy bear (or the Nutcracker), or one’s hopes and wishes for the sweet things in life.
While in the ballet the “Nutcracker Suite” dance sequence seems to represent Clara’s tender coming of age and awakening to romance, and while the setting is a lovely Christmas Eve party at the house of her family with plenty of happy guests enjoying laughter, gifts, and sweets, there are also darker themes within this fairy tale ballet: Even for a child in a family with plenty to celebrate that seems to want for nothing, life is not always so sweet. What we see in the ballet is the lighter version of the tale, but what perhaps few in the audience are aware of is that this tale was not always as sugar-coated as the sugar plums.
In its original form, before Tchaikovsky composed ballet music for it, it was a story by E.T.A. Hoffman (1918) entitled The Nutcracker and The Mouse King, a more nightmarish tale. In the original telling Clara experiences an unhappy loss of innocence and sense of sad disconnection from her family, and longs for her place under the sun. She feels her brother who is recklessly violent—who also breaks her toys—is favored by her parents; she feels her parents keep her waiting on a shelf like one of her dolls she is forced to keep up on the shelves. She is growing up, and would like to break free of her home life with her monstrous brother (who in her nightmare seems the Evil Mouse King) and her parents who seem to care little for her feelings. She longs for an Eden, a more paradisiac place on earth to live her life in tune with her desires.
Details to the themes of the story summarized here will unfold in the sections of this paper, described as follows: 1) a young girl’s Edenic longing in the The Nutcracker as highlighted in its “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” 2) analysis of archetypal mythic symbols in the dance; and 3) tales of my daughter’s, granddaughter’s, and my own personal myths (mythopoetic lived experience), as attuned to “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.”
Depth psychologist and mythologist/folklorist Dr. Jonathon Young (2016) described the term “Edenic longing” as an elusive “yearning” for something “just beyond our reach, always to be yearned for, but never quite arrived at,” what “drives our wandering,” and our “mythologizing of life” (Personal Communication, 2016). In German, the word sehnsucht expresses a type of “ardent loving,” “a compelling feeling,” (J. Young, Personal Communication, 2016) not easily translated. This indistinguishable “nostalgia for something” may be of an origin we may not be able to trace or understand, but may be “sometimes imagined as a far-off country—not exactly an earthly landscape we may find—but feels like home” (J. Young, Personal Communication, 2016). Mircea Eliade (1991/1952) called this longing for home “the nostalgia for Paradise” when he wrote:
By this we mean the desire to find oneself always and without effort in the Centre of the World, at the heart of reality; and by a short cut and in a natural manner to transcend the human condition, and to recover the divine condition—as a Christian would say, the condition before the Fall. (p. 55)
Eliade mentioned reality; it is useful to keep in mind that we are viewing a dream and while some do not regard dream material as reality, in a depth psychological frame, we can and do regard dreams as a reality in the psyche’s unconscious or inner reality. When a dream enters our consciousness (such as remembering one), it is perhaps near what C.S. Lewis described of his own experience of longing as “a memory of a memory” (J. Young, Personal Communication, 2016). When Clara journeys in her dream to the Land of the Sweets, she is called to her hero’s adventure to an otherworldly place, where her imagination posits her in what Young has described in regards to Edenic longing as a “life just beyond this one” (Personal Communication 2016).
Sometimes the life just beyond our reach is one of old world charm; perhaps many of us miss our belief in magic. As Marie-Louise von Franz (1995) wrote, “Magic is full of antique tradition and practices….of the…pagan past” (p. 66). We have our fantasy genre for that—many adults never outgrow their love of Disney. The acclaimed “greatest voice” of the twentieth century, W. B. Yeats (Yeats, 2002, n. p.), saddened by times of change, wrote many a poem to re-invoke Ireland’s pagan fairies and Druids. To quote a book title by Jung, Yeats was a Modern Man in Search of a Soul for the people of his time. Tchaikovsky, in his day, thought he had found it (soul) when he discovered an instrument called the celesta which he felt compelled to use to obtain an ethereal music box tone, which is “a keyboard instrument with a bell like sound,” which at the time was newly invented and mostly unheard (Resnikova, 2016, n. p.).
This paper involves some intertwined theories in the arts and humanities regarding embodied states of innocence and experience in the life of a child who readily plumbs the depths of the unconscious as expressed by William Blake, later discussed by poet and Jungian-based writer Robert Bly (1972) in Bly’s book entitled Leaping Poetry (pp. 1-6). Blake believed that in order to be creative we “must become like little children” (Bly, 1972, p. 2), meaning that for adults the world becomes stale whereas children see it anew, with wonder. This correlates to a main premise of Hoffman, who “was rebelling against…The Enlightenment and its emphasis on Rational Philosophy” (NPR Staff, 2012, n. p.) and “believed in reclaiming nature, reclaiming innocence” (NPR Staff, 2012, n. p.). Hoffman, like Blake, expressed the importance of keeping “in touch with the child within us” (NPR Staff, 2012, n. p.) Bly’s notion of what he calls “leaping poetry” is applicable in the arts in general—here I could call it “leaping dance.” Bly stated that good literature/poetry (art) takes leaps into the unconscious and back again (1972, pp. 1-6), the way a child’s imagination does. Bly’s theory is based upon Jung’s Shadow theory. In this tale a child has little freedom to play, to take leaps into her imagination when she would like. What needs to happen manifests in her dreams.
For What the Young Girl Clara Longs
The scene leading to Clara’s dream is this: Her parents throw a party for friends and family at their house, her uncle brings fantastic toys as always which this year for the children includes a nutcracker, the children “go nuts” over it, her brother breaks it, Clara is miserable over her loss, and no one seems to quite commiserate with her, even while though they say it can be fixed. This disrupts her Christmas bliss. In the ballet’s sweet version, this may seem a simple, common enough scenario in the life of a child in which conflicts and accidents happen with siblings; however, in Hoffman’s version, something with darker roots is going on from which the Sugar Plum Fairy’s magical plums will spring.
A broken toy can be devastating to a child. In this situation, her brother has struck a nerve—a complex in Clara’s psychic shadow—wide open, along with the Nutcracker’s mouth. She is sad for the Nutcracker and enraged at her sibling. Regarding anger and the shadow in fairy tales, von Franz wrote “one endures such a conflict until a solution is found. The creative solution would be something unexpected which decides the conflict on another level” (von Franz, 1995, p. 70). The Sugar Plum Fairy is Clara’s inner need, inner reality, inner solution. Her transcendent dance balances the poles of opposites of this problematic world with the other world of harmonious accord; it is a problem of how to maintain the impossible Edenic perfection obtained in that unworldly level once she awakes back to her daily consciousness on this level.
Meanwhile, Clara’s devastation is symbolized hideously in Hoffman’s version when he describes the “dreadful cracking sound” and the dislocated, hanging jaw of the Nutcracker (Hoffman, n. d./1918, chapter 3, para. 12). Her uncle says he can easily fix it, but Clara cannot so easily fix her anger or angry face. (As children we often are told not to make a mean, angry facial expression or it will freeze like that.) Her parents do seem to favor her brother’s more violent army-war play. She may also be struggling with her own anger, probably like most little girls being told to “be sweet.”
The Sugar Plum Fairy, however, can champion her, can triumph, can fix anything…even restore her Eden before this Fall, much like the elves repair everything on The Isle of Misfit Toys in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. (See http://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=Gr6GbKciNCY)
This magic of repair is being done in both these tales by mythical beings of diminutive size to which small children can relate and feel they have some power or control over their fate1, and they strongly identify with their toys.
In the original version, Clara cannot often hold her toys because her parents require (order) her to organize (order) them in a precise manner in a glass encased shelf, better suited for expensive keepsakes. After the party, she does not want to put the Nutcracker away—she wants to hold and comfort him in his painful state “as if he were a small child” (Hoffman, n. d./1918, chapter 3, para. 20). Tired of confinement, she wishes for a life of her own liking, making, choosing. In the original tale, Clara dreams her dolls come to life; one asks if they will die there. (See Appendix I, “The Little Elf” poem, which describes the way a child relates to this.)
in the house, remarking they have been too preserved (Hoffman, n. d./1918, chapter 5, para. 9). Clara’s dolls that come to life are, like the doll in the story of “Vasilisa the Beautiful” (von Franz, 1995, pp. 192-96), symbolic of a young girl’s inner self, inner knowing, inner strength. Clara’s dolls assembled upon the shelf resemble her own life upon a shelf. The dancing Sugar Plum Fairy expresses the self-actualized individuation of these dolls, liberated from their restrictive existence; since Clara identifies with the dolls and their liberation the fairy is also Clara—Jung wrote, “No part of the hero-myth is single in meaning…and all the figures are interchangeable” (Jung, C. G., 1965 p. 390). Clara thus achieves important steps on her path of individuation once she dances her dream. In passages prior to the aforementioned quote by Eliade, he discusses how home and hearth can be that “Center of the World” (Eliade, 1991, p. 54), but Clara, unable to locate that center at home, in her psychic distress, summons The Sugar Plum Fairy from the deep vault of her very being.
Archetypal Mythic Symbols in “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy”
The Sugar Plum Fairy is like a fairy godmother, dancing a numinous spell of contentment on Clara’s behalf. She dances Clara’s mandala in the dream, balances Clara’s mandala in the dream, and restores the child’s Eden. To view and listen to “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy,” visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v= Wz _f9B4pPtg (Bolshoi Ballet, 2010). I will refer to minute frames within the video while discussing the dance and the musical composition by Tchaikovsky.
The sugar plum comfits are as comforts of Eden. It may seem simple that Clara’s bitterness turns to sweetness once free to satisfy her sweet tooth in the Land of the Sweets, for comfits with music comfort the savage beast; however, for Clara, the desire for freedom branches beyond a child’s typical complaint of not being allowed to eat all the candy she desires at the party—that is “just” symbolic of everything else. Consciously recognizing what “everything else” is perhaps is not easy for a child; when the Nutcracker breaks and the children cannot crack nuts anymore, the nuts become “tough nuts to crack.” A tough nut for Clara to crack is how to handle her anger and comfort herself, since no one else will. Dreams address states of being in our unconscious, having their “rhyme and reason.” What Jung called “the dream’s telos [is] the dream’s finalistic or purposive aspect, the direction in which it points, that for the sake of which the dream exists” (Berry, 1982, p. 81).
Fairies are the spirits (sprites) of flora and fauna. The Sugar Plum Fairy is not a plum; rather, she is the natural, spiritual intelligence or force behind the plum. She therefore is something inner, within.) To get in touch with the energy of the Sugar Plum Fairy subjectively (inward sensing), I bought a dozen plums and a bottle of exquisite plum wine. I also bought candy.
At the original tale’s time of 1816, during the Romantic movement of the nineteenth century, “sugar plum” meant “comfit” (Kawash, 2010, n. p.) which befittingly sounds like “comfort.” These were, like a nut containing a seed within its shell, made by coating a nut kernel such as an almond or seed such as caraway with layers of flavored sugar-syrup then leaving it to dry and harden. The tough nuts to crack and the sugar plum comfits each contain a center, a hidden kernel of truth. Whether hidden by nature or by human hands enacting, natural (archetypal) patterns, there is hidden treasure if we plumb the depths, or go plum-meting them.
In the ballet music (minutes 1:27-1:40), we hear measures of sound I “see” as sugar (fairy dust) being sprinkled graciously over the kingdom like mana from heaven, and “see” as sweet, sparkling, psychic energy imbuing the very air.
The fairy’s tutu in the 2010 Bolshoi Nutcracker ballet is not purple or red like a plum, but is white, like vanilla sugar coating, stiffened like hardened coating, and round, extended outward like the sea’s treasure: a perfect circular pearl. The kernel of truth inside a smooth pearl is a grain of sand, layered with the gloss of the oyster’s irritation over the grain. A grain of truth is hidden well when inside the pearl inside the shell within the lake or sea. Here we have a sacrament of grace: Clara’s lesson, Clara’s sacrifice to make: She must with maturity learn to gloss her rage with a kinder, gentler face, not to be untrue to herself or false to others, but her terrible dream of warring factions was so powerful it permeated the walls between the worlds and she carried her battle-wound back into her waking world; this caused her an infection only the confection (or layered sweetness, truth therein) could remedy. The intent is not repression, for anger needs to be worked out somehow, such as dancing through psychic spheres of mandala, or creating visual art, such as stage designs.
The stage setting for this fanciful dance is a winter wonderland. The fairy’s tutu may symbolize a snowflake or water crystal, accentuated by the crystalline sound of the celesta—sugar granules are crystalline and do glitter too; and, as a comfit is blanketed with sugar the way a child is blanketed for comfort, so does the tutu spread out like a blanket of snow. There is a huge Yule tree in the background suggesting a sugar plum tree upon which all sorts of candy might grow. As a crystal of snow she could be the “Diamond Body” (Jung, 1990/1959, p. 358).
In the Land of the Sweets, when the Sugar Plum Fairy enters the dream stage, we are beholding a wondrous, numinous secret of the inner workings of the earth. The music fades in as if from a hidden place (minutes 0:09-0:18) announcing the steps of the arrival of the fairy. These same opening steps (minutes 0:09-0:18) also suggest time-keeping movements (a clock) to tell the special time this is, further accentuated by the staccato technique of both the music and the dance steps.
As she then stands as axis mundi, extending one leg to point with the tip of her toes her rhythmed semi-circular steps around herself, she shows she is positioned at the center of the earth. The circle she makes around herself can signify the circumference of the earth and four directions of the compass, claiming her rulership encompasses the vast kingdom of the land’s (earth’s) elements. She has just demonstrated that she “is surrounded by a periphery containing everything that belongs to the self” (Jung, 1990/1959, p. 357). Jung was fascinated by the three and the four, the circle and the square, and studied mandalas, a Sanskrit word meaning “circle[s]” (Jung, p. 355), which express the “squaring of a circle” (p. 357). When she twirls in a spiral dance (minutes 2:25-2:45) within the four pillars (directions) of the universe, she expresses “everlasting balance and immutable duration” (p. 358) of time and space—she is the spiral dance of life. We are enraptured with a moment of the infinite. All eyes are fixed on her spinning—the audience is transfixed.
While the Morality plays of the Greeks which induce catharsis, and while something that is released must come from inside, from within; here, we have penetrated the veil, to a mysterious realm revealed seemingly outside ourselves. Jung stated,
The work of the artist meets the psychic needs of the society in which he lives….To grasp its meaning, we must allow it to shape us the way it has shaped him. Then we also understand the nature of his primordial experience. He has plunged into the healing and redeeming depths of the collective psyche where man is not lost in the isolation of consciousness and its errors and suffering, but where all men are caught in a common rhythm which allows the individual to communicate his feelings and strivings to mankind as a whole. (Jung, 1972, pp. 104-05.)
Jung (1972) continued, “This re-immersion in the state of participation mystique is the secret of artistic creation” (p. 105).
My Personal Myth/Lived Experience with the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy”
As a child, I took ballet lessons and loved The Nutcracker Suite, particularly the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy”, as did my mother, who played classical music records, who had speakers wired through the ceiling to another room/level so music would imbue the whole house.
My bedtime in early childhood was one half hour before “lights out.” I kept a stack of books on my nightstand and loved the poems and pondered the beauteous illustrations in The Big Golden Book of Poetry which I felt was the dreamiest book on earth. I adored Eugene Field’s (1949) “The Sugar Plum Tree”(See Appendix II), a bedtime story poem, illustrated by Gertrude Elliot, quite a peppermint twist on the tree of forbidden fruit in the Biblical Garden of Eden tale. I may never know what the forbidden fruit was, but “The Sugar Plum Tree” grows all kinds of candy “in the garden of Shut-Eye Town” (p. 44).
When my daughter was born, a family friend gifted her a musical snow globe in which The Sugar Plum Fairy danced to the song. I would wind it up to wind up the day to play it for my daughter at bedtime. One evening, lyrics to this music occurred to me as if from a muse, which I sang to her for ages. She now sings these lyrics to her daughter, and I do too. This makes me “plum happy”—the word plum once upon a time was used in place of very. The word plum contains a lump of something very special—not just a lump of coal. Below are the silly yet serious—and seriously special—lyrics a muse whispered in my ear (a muse never ceases to amuse):
When the sugar plum fairies come and prance and dance into your dreams at night,
They’ll being gumdrops, cotton candy, they’ll bring lollipops, little treats.
When the sugar plum fairies come and whirl and twirl all through your dreams at night,
They’ll bring chocolates, they’ll bring caramels, they’ll bring peppermints, little sweets.
When the sugar plum fairies come and
Dance and prance all through your dreams tonight,
When the sugar plum fairies come and
Dance and prance and bring good dreams tonight.
(See Appendix II, the poem and illustration of “The Sugar Plum Tree.” These lyrics are basic and do often change—alternate rhyming words include enhance and enchant.)
Like Clara was upset when her brother broke the Nutcracker, my daughter was upset when a little boy broke her sugar plum fairy snow globe at a party we were having. In awe of it, he had picked it up, carrying it over to me and exclaiming “Mary Ann, look!” When I looked, I reacted with fear since it was glass (this same sweet, cute little boy often innocently yet recklessly broke my daughter’s toys) and when I reached to retrieve it before he would break it and possible get cut by glass, he dropped it, and the glass globe broke, and he cried and ran to his mom who was also my friend. Though the glass globe is gone, The Sugar Plum Fairy dancing to the music yet remains. She was released from her glassed-in existence. Unlike Clara, however, my daughter did not get angry—she just felt a little glum for the fairy of the sugar plums. We three generations still dance to the song too—myself, my daughter Cassie, and her daughter Gracie.
I dedicate this essay to them; they both came into this world singing and dancing.
Bangs, J. K. (1949). “The little elf.” (Werner, J., Ed.). The big golden book of poetry. New York NY: Golden Press.
Berry, P. (1982). Echo’s subtle body: Contributions to an archetypal psychology. Dallas,TX: Spring Publications.
Bly, R. (1972). Leaping Poetry: An idea with poems and translations. Boston: Beacon Press.
Bolshoi Ballet. (2010). “Dance of the sugar plum fairy.” The Nutcracker. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wz_f9B4pPtg
Eliade, M. (1991). Images and symbols: Studies in religious symbolism. (P. Mairet, Trans.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (Original work published in 1952.)
Fields, E. (1949). “The sugar plum tree.” (Werner, J., Ed.). The big golden book of poetry. New York, NY: Golden Press.
Hoffman, E. T. A. (n. d./1918). The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. (L. R. C., Trans.). Retrieved from springhole.net/writing/the_nutcracker_and_the_mouse_king/index.html
Jung, C. G. (1990/1959). The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. (R. F. C. Hull, Trans.) New York, NY.: Princeton University Press.
Jung, C. G. (1965). Symbols of transformation. (R. F. C. Hull, Trans.) New York, NY: Princeton University Press. (Original work published in 1952.)
Kawash, S. (2010). “Sugar plums: They’re not what you think they are.” The Atlantic. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2010/12/sugar-plums-theyre-not-what-you-think-they-are/68385/
NPR Staff. (2012). “No sugar plums here: The dark, romantic roots of The Nutcracker.” NPR News. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/2012/12/25/167732828/no-sugar-plums-here-the-dark-romantic-roots-of-the-nutcracker
Resnikova, E. (2016). Tchaikovsky’s ballets: A review of Tchaikovsky’ ballets by Roland John.
The New Criterion, 34 (7) n. p. Retrieved from http://www.newcriterion.com/articles.cfm.Tchaikovsky-a-ballets-6648
von Franz, M. L. (1995). Shadow and evil in fairy tales. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications.
The Little Elf*
by John Kendrick Bangs
I met a little Elfman once,
Down where the lilies blow.
I asked him why he was so small,
And why he didn’t grow.
He slightly frowned, and with his eye
He looked me through and through—
“I’m just as big for me,” said he,
“As you are big for you.”
The Sugar Plum Tree*
By Eugene Field
Have you ever heard of the Sugar-Plum Tree?
‘Tis a marvel of great renown!
It blooms on the shore of the Lollypop sea
In the garden of Shut-Eye Town;
The fruit that it bears is so wondrously sweet
(As those who have tasted it say)
That good little children have only to eat
Of that fruit to be happy next day.
When you’ve got to the tree, you would have a hard time
To capture the fruit which I sing;
The tree is so tall that no person could climb
To the boughs where the sugar-plums swing!
But up in that tree sits a chocolate cat,
And a gingerbread dog prowls below –
And this is the way you contrive to get at
Those sugar-plums tempting you so:
You say but the word to that gingerbread dog
And he barks with such terrible zest
That the chocolate cat is at once all agog,
As her swelling proportions attest.
And the chocolate cat goes cavorting around
From this leafy limb unto that,
And the sugar-plums tumble, of course, to the ground –
Hurrah for that chocolate cat!
There are marshmallows, gumdrops, and peppermint canes,
With stripings of scarlet or gold,
And you carry away of the treasure that rains,
As much as your apron can hold!
So come, little child, cuddle closer to me
In your dainty white nightcap and gown,
And I’ll rock you away to that Sugar-Plum Tree
In the garden of Shut-Eye Town.
*This poem is in the public domain
Mary Ann Bencivengo studies Depth Psychology at Pacifica Graduate Institute in the Jungian and Archetypal Studies program. She has studied arts and humanities—music, dance, literature/poetry, and visual arts. She received her MFA in Poetry and her BFA in Creative Writing from Bowling Green State University, where she first encountered Jungian studies.