Nonfiction: Bruno Bettelheim

The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales


by Bruno Bettelheim
1976

This is one of my favorite scholarly books. Certainly my favorite of the ones I own. I have a huge amount of respect both for Bettelheim's work and for his writings. Bettelheim was a psychologist, which I obviously am not, but I refer to his work in studies that I do a great deal because of the importance of keeping child psychology (and really, psychology in general) in mind while studying or otherwise examining children's literature. And even though fairy tales were not originally created just for children, they have come to be the cornerstone of what we consider to be children's literature today.

Bettelheim's book looks at the ways that fairy tales deal with psychological conflicts, especially those experienced during childhood and parenting. These are the times in our lives when most people today encounter fairy tales the most (unless they are crazy like me), and thus it makes sense that those stages of development are Bettelheim's focus. One of the things that I always think when I read this book is that I wish I could somehow convince parents (all the parents I encounter anyway) to read it, both because of the reasoning it gives for telling children fairy tales (real fairy tales, not watered down ones) and because it explains many of the psychological problems one encounters in childhood and parenthood in a very sensitive, understanding manner. Bettelheim has a gift for explaining children and parents' psychological difficulties in a why that make them not only seem perfectly normal (which they are), but also healthy (which many people have trouble seeing them as).

The first half of the book deals with the concepts in general more than specifics. Bettelheim looks at various psychological difficulties and shows how fairy tales often help children deal with them. He also looks at specific fairy tale elements and how they explain or deal with various universal psychological issues. Perhaps some of the most important chapters in the book explain the importance of parents sharing fairy tales with their children and the ways of doing so that are effective, as well as what to avoid, and why. It is the why that I am most pleased is there. There are many discussions of why or why not children should hear fairy tales, but I have never found such a clear or convincing argument that fairly examines both sides of the issue. Bettelheim references a study done by Ephraim Biblow in one of the footnotes that I very much wish I could find. It supposedly showed that children with healthy fantasy lives (largely because of early and regular exposure to fairy tales) became less violent after watching violent films while children with poor or undeveloped fantasy lives became more violent. This is an important issue this day and age, especially with the prevalence of violent video games, and I really wish I could find this study. I also would love to see similar studies and what they found, but since I can't find Biblow's paper at the moment or anything else remotely similar, I am beginning to doubt the study has ever been repeated.

The second half of the book looks at specific fairy tales and specific fairy tale archetypes (for example, animal grooms) and how they deal with a variety of psychological issues specifically. In this section each chapter focuses on one specific tale and looks at each element of the tale from various versions and what each says about specific psychological difficulties. Particularly interesting were the discussions about good mother-bad mother conflicts and sibling rivalries. This section of the book allows the reader to see practically how certain fairy tales exemplify what was discussed in the first half of the book.

The stories that Bettelheim chooses to talk about are largely fairy tales that are well known today ("Cinderella", "Sleeping Beauty" and "Little Red Riding Hood", for example), but there are a few interesting choices thrown in. One fairy tale that is discussed quite in depth but is rarely told today is "The Goose Girl". This story is full of important images and deals with some issues in ways that few other tales do, but it is a story that I had some trouble finding a copy of, even in my stacks of fairy tale books! I really realized how important it is that people today be exposed to a variety of fairy tales, rather than just "Cinderella" and "Jack and the Beanstalk" over and over (even though they are wonderful and useful stories).

I particularly like how Bettelheim stresses often in this book how important it is to not explain to the child hearing the tales why they are important or how they should be affecting him (something that many modern adults seem to have trouble with). The book is well-written and wonderfully well-organized. I think it is a very useful and fascinating book. I highly recommend it to anyone, even if they are not particularly interested in fairy tales. It's a very good read and you might end up learning things about yourself that you never realized before!