Fairy Tale Hearts: Organs or Intuition?

I’ve been thinking a lot about hearts recently. They’re funny things, aren’t they? Or at least our perception of them is. When we talk of hearts, instead of organs pumping blood around our bodies they become personified; magical things capable of love and adventure. They are strong and wild, and do not listen to reason. Can’t explain why you feel a certain way? Must be your heart’s doing. They defy all rational explanation, and yet still we put so much emphasis on following them.

Susan Fletcher Witch Light

Personally, I don’t think the word ‘heart’ is the only word to use. ‘Intuition,’ ‘instinct,’ and ‘gut’ have the same meaning. Basically, paying attention to something other than logic. Something you feel rather than think.

The heart of something is the core of it; the very essence of its being. The part where the thing (or person) in question is at its most. In fairy tales, hearts are often coveted as trophies – either for love or revenge. Think of Snow White. In some versions of the story, the evil (step)mother demands that the huntsman brings her Snow White’s heart as proof that he has killed her. Symbolically, it is not just an organ she is after. The heart contains Snow White’s vitality. It’s the most personal, violating thing she can take to exert her superiority.

Snow White by Franz Jüttner. Image in the public domain – source

As SurLaLune notes, in earlier versions of the story it was Snow White’s lungs and liver which the queen requested. Connotatively, these have little difference to the heart. Lungs represent the spirit, and in medieval times the liver was the organ associated with love and erotic feeling.

In Diana Wynne Jones’s fantasy novel Howl’s Moving Castle and the Studio Ghibli film of the same name, Wizard Howl is feared because rumour dictates that he eats the hearts of young girls. This could be a metaphor, implying that instead of literally ‘eating’ hearts he charms girls and then casts them aside. That’s bad enough, and brings in the idea of a broken heart – if you hurt someone, maybe their ‘heart’ will no longer work properly and so it might as well have been eaten. But as this is a fantasy world where anything is possible (I mean, there’s a sentient fire, a moving castle, and a living scarecrow to name a few!), there’s no reason why he couldn’t be a literal heart-eating wizard. And what an abhorrent crime! To eat someone’s heart; their private, personal emotions. To remove and destroy their abilities to love and to be themselves.

Howl's Moving Castle quote
Howl’s Moving Castle. Image my own.

If you know the story, you will know that Wizard Howl isn’t what he appears. In fact, he separated himself from his own heart because its feelings were too much to bear. In the words of the main protagonist Sophie Hatter, ‘a heart is a heavy burden’ (I won’t write any more because spoilers. If you haven’t seen/read Howl’s Moving Castle then I highly recommend that you do both!)

A heart is more than just an organ. It’s a complex, abstract entity, governed by forces we cannot understand. It contains our innermost desires and feelings. It’s fragile. Take care of it. Also, obey it. Hearts serve older laws than our modern ways of living. If you cannot explain how you feel or why you want something illogical, that is your heart speaking. You may not like what it says, but you can never deny that it is true. Because you can feel it.

Mat Devine heart quote

This year, try to listen. Is your heart telling you something? If so, pay attention, no matter how hard it is to hear. Listening to your heart takes courage. To ignore it is to compromise yourself. Make changes, and strive for what you really want. It’ll all work out, but you need to take the risk first. Just make sure no-one eats your heart before you get the message… unless it’s Howl who is offering, because let’s face it, he’s totally gorgeous…

Happy New Year my loves!



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Amelia Starling is a writer and folklorist. She graduated from the University of Winchester with a degree in Creative Writing, and is Senior Editor for Folklore Thursday. She loves travelling and collecting stories, and spent 15 months living in Japan doing this alongside teaching English. Currently she is living in Scotland and studying for a masters degree in Ethnology & Creative Writing. Amelia blogs about folklore and fairy tales at The Willow Web. You can follow her on Twitter @amyelize.

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2 thoughts on “Fairy Tale Hearts: Organs or Intuition?

  1. It is funny, our idea of a heart verses the literal heart, or how did we even come up with the traditional heart shape with two bumps on top and a point on the bottom? And it’s always entertaining to see which organs other cultures attribute to certain emotions and feelings. In Russia (or at least Dostoyevsky), where we would probably say you feel your stomach sinking as a way to say you feel dread, they think of it as your spleen rising.

    I love Howl’s Moving Castle too, although I’ve only seen the movie! I’ve heard the book is pretty different, do you recommend it?

    1. Yes it is very strange! I have no idea where the shape comes from, either. In England we say the sinking feeling in your stomach for dread, too. Never heard of spleen rising though! And the book is different, but the essence of the story is similar. I do recommend it!

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