on May 11, 1998
Bruno Bettelheim makes a very good case for the importance of reading fairy tales to children. He proposes that by hearing about life-threatening problems, serious problems, children are given vital information for the planning of their lives and the formation of their personalities.
By hearing of success against great odds, children are given hope that they, too, as powerless as they may feel themselves (as children), can one day hope to "live happily ever after."
This is in sharp contrast to programming such as "Barney" which presents an unreal fairy-tale present. While children may enjoy seeing programs where there is no violence, they nevertheless DO need to have the reassurance that the difficulties they experience in daily living are universal, and that by perseverance they can develop into good strong, kind people.
The author defines a fairy story as one in which there is a happy ending. Exceptions are (notably) "The Steadfast Tin Soldier" and "The Little Match Girl".
I took a renewed interest in reading these tales to my youngsters, and found that indeed they did appear to be most receptive to them. And no longer did rather gory details disturb me, as the children DO seem to realize that 1) it is just a story, and 2) there is in fact some reasonableness to the idea of unhappy people in this suffering world.
I recommend this book very highly, indeed, to parents of young children. But Dr. Bettelheim cautions against telling the children how good the stories are for them, lest the full impact be somewhat dissipated.
on April 28, 2005
It is well known that storytelling is an innate expression of civilization, in an effort to define who we are and to make sense of the world. The fairy tale is an important part of this tradition that has a long and rich history spanning thousands of years.
First published in 1975, Bruno Bettleheim, one of Sigmund Freud's followers and an important contributor to psychoanalysis, has written an incredible book, suggesting that the fairy tale has a pedagogical use, educating the child about the struggles in life, that these struggles are an intrinsic aspect of existence. Following Plato, he believes that the literary education of children should begin with the telling of myths. In other words, the fairy tale can present models for behaviour, providing meaning and value to our lives. This wonderful book expresses this view extremely well and also provides a frame of reference towards the child's overall psychological development.
I have read Freud for some years, and nowhere, including Freud himself, have I read a more succinctly expressed view on the ultimate purpose of psychoanalysis, than in this book by Dr. Bettleheim, he writes,
"Psychoanalysis was created to enable man to accept the problematic nature of life without being defeated by it, or giving in to escapism. Freud's prescription is that only by struggling courageously against what seems like unwieldy odds can man succeed in wringing meaning out of existence." (P.8)
Fairy tales inform us about life's struggles, hardships and the reality of death. From Bettleheim's point of view, the fairy tale is a "manifold form" that communicates to the child, educates them, against life's vagaries and realities, which are the unavoidable aspects of our existence. More specifically, the fairy tale is an educational tool to help children grow and develop into adults. He goes on to say that the child needs to be given "...suggestions in symbolic form about how he may deal with these issues and grow safely into maturity." (P.9)
Bettleheim adeptly sets out to prove his theses by analysing well known fairy tales in the context of psychoanalytic theory, persuasively arguing the value of these tales towards the child's psychological development.
If you are interested in psychoanalysis and would like to know more about the profound positive effects the telling of fairy tales can have on our young, this incredible book is indispensable.
on June 9, 1998
Got kids? Want them to grow up to be as emotionally, intellectually and spititually developed as possible? Then tell them fairy tales! The world famous child phychologist Bruno Bettelheim belives that the telling of fairy tales in thier original form can be the single most powerful influence in the lives of children. After reading his book on the subject: "The Uses Of Enchantment" you would (as I have) come to percieve the value of this medium for the channeling of essential information about how to live sucessfully in society. When Einstein was asked by a concerned mother what she could do to best promote her children's intellectual development he responded: "Tell them fairy tales!" When she pressed him for what else she could do he said: "Tell them more fairy tales!" Fairy tales reach the young child on the 'enchanted' level which is his world and give acceptance and approval to the chaotic and uncontrolable emotional states which rule him. They involve him in the delemas of the 'hero' and entice him to believe that the problems that presently so overwhelm him will ultimately be resolved if he will stick steadfastly to the true path. This body of liturature was has it's roots in prehistory and has been shaped with the particular aim of the socialization of the young: for which reason it must be passed on in it's original form. Any application of this insight will ultimatley result in happier, more productive and more thoroughly adjusted and socialized sons and daughters. More importantly though, right from the moment it begins it confers a compelling and involving validation of the child that exists at it's center. A fairy tale told in it's original form is: "a love gift to a child"!
on March 20, 2012
I've heard this book raved about for decades as a classic in understanding the psychology of fairy and folk tales, and I finally got around to reading it recently.
Unfortunately, I didn't find it lived up to its reputation. It isn't a psychological interpretation of fairy tales; it's a psychoanalytic one, as in Freudian psychoanalytic. Consequently there's an endless parade of references to "id, ego, and superego," "oral this," "oedipal that," and so on. (Fortunately, there's very little "anal anything.") What makes it especially boring--and annoying--is that Bettelheim barely acknowledges, let alone attempts, any other way to interpret these stories. I realize going too much into other theories or interpretations would result in a book too heavy to lift, much less read, but he could have done more to acknowledge alternative explanations exist.
For example, he devotes 40 pages to interpreting "Cinderella," a story that exists all over the world in hundreds of different versions. In some of them, the title character runs away from home because she fears her father wants to commit incest with her. Bettelheim writes this off as oedipal feelings on the daughter's part, which are projected onto the father because they cause the child so much guilt. Or maybe they represent the oedipal feelings of the of the father, too--deeply repressed ones, of course. (p. 246)
Never mind that incest is far more common than any decent person would like to admit, so it's quite likely many of those stories featuring a runaway Cinderella were based on the very real risk that a young girl might be raped by her own father. Bettelheim doesn't mention that possibility even in passing, even though he acknowledges elsewhere that in times past, some societies expected the oldest daughter in a family to become her widowed father's wife *in every respect.*
On the plus side, Bettelheim's goodness and compassion shine through the numbing Freudian jargon, although finding traces of those characteristics made me feel like I was digging through mud with my bare hands looking for gold nuggets. He clearly cares about helping children grow into happy, fulfilled adults, and find healthy, socially acceptable ways of dealing with their anxiety, hostility, and feelings of inferiority. He strongly advocates for the role fairly tales can play in these processes--gory tortures and deaths included. He sharply criticizes people who sanitize the stories to "protect" children, pointing out that a big part of the reason these stories work, and have endured so long, is because they give children a safe, indirect way to let out the violent impulses and shameful feelings they can't admit to consciously. Cleaning up the stories cuts off the expression of those feelings, thus bottling them up inside.
About halfway through the book, I got tired of Bettelheim's Johnny-one-note style of interpreting folk and fairy tales, so I put the book aside and began reading other things. I did finish it, but it took several days of making myself read 20-30 pages a day to get through it. This book is mainly for those interested in Freudian psychoanalysis. People who don't care about and/or like Freud may want to steer clear of it.
Bruno Bettelheim's book is excellent in looking at the psychology behind fairy tales. I think what most modern readers forget is that the Fairy Tales were moral tales, and that we cannot really look at them with modern eyes. In the earlier eras, Children were viewed as "miniature adults" that had to be shown the ropes of what was considered the modes of good and acceptable behavior in society. I read this book after the release of the film "The Company of Wolves" which took Little Red Riding Hood and put it into a tale of adolecence and budding sensuality against what is considered staying on the straight and narrow path. The effect was pure Bettelhiem. I would definitely recommend this book to give a new perspective on fairy tales and their importance in the collective consciousness of our world.
on December 1, 2003
While reading this book I found many ah-ha moments. I found it inspirational in getting my creative writing juices flowing and in showing even more reasons for why not censoring fairy tales is good for children. That being said, I also found myself questioning many of the authors arguments. I know very little about freudian psychology and while I can easily accept the idea of the id, ego, and super ego standing as metaphors for instict, self, and conscience, I did have a hard time with all of the oedipal references. Still, I accepted them in terms of the tension between a child and his same sex parent as he comes of age rather than the desire to have the opposite sex parent all to himself. I also felt uneasy about the fact that the children he was referencing seemed far more disturbed than the normal child and I highly doubt that not exposing your child to fairy tales will cause such damage to a child. Still, I was aware that he was a child psychologist and accepted that the children he had most contact with were the more disturbed children so that is why he chose them for his frames of reference. The first real problem I had with the text, however, was when he made reference to autism and a child who was "cured of autism".
Later in the text he mentions a study where there was a group of children who were familiar with violent fairy tales, and a group of children who were only familiar with the watered down versions. Both groups were showed violent films. Bettelheim claimed that the group exposed to the fairy tales reacted less aggressively to the films. I found this interesting but poorly cited which makes me wonder about the ligitamacy of this assumption. Reading other reviews and finding out more about Bettelheim's history helped me put the reading into perspective.
I will probably only recomend this book to people with an interest in literary analysis or fantasy writing to serve as an inpiration, but I would add a disclaimer about his questionable credibility.
on September 26, 2003
Bettelheim by most accounts was a monster; perhaps that's what enabled him to unearth the monstrousness in our fairy tales. This often brilliant book, hampered by repetitive and awakward prose, shows how the stories we grow up with help us to symbolize and work through our inner conflicts. I know of no other book like this and I found it evoked childhood feelings of mine -- as well as present problems derived from them -- with great acuity.
What the book is lacking in is wit, a sense of proportion, a historical sensibility, and overall design. Shockingly the book completely unravels when Bettelheim analyzes the most popular fairy tale of all time, Cinderella. As this tale doesn't fit in as well as others with psychoanalytic theory, one feels him jamming his theories inappropriately into it, not unlike the stepsisters forcing their feet into the glass slipper by hacking off their toes and heels. Bettelheim doesn't self-destruct that badly, but the reader definitely gets a glimpse at the end into the obstinacy and grandiosity of a brilliant and troubled man.
on September 3, 1998
I enjoyed this book, for its symbolism, meanings attributed to fairy tales, psychology contained there in, etc. Gives you a new slant as to how past generations looked at life, and how they told of life, the passages everyone goes through, in fairy-tale form. Very interesting account, somewhat Freudian, but very interesting.
on December 31, 2012
If one were to try to summarize Bruno Bettelheim's THE USES OF ENCHANTMENT, I believe it can be done by simply saying that it is Professor Bettelheim's argument for the therapeutic use of folk and fairy tales in their traditional, often grotesque, non-bowdlerized form. Fairy tales are uniquely suited, he maintains, to address conflicts within a child's conscious, unconscious, and pre-conscious mind because the symbolism speaks to the child in ways that he intuitively understands - as opposed to a rational discussion about topics which the child has no vocabulary for, no experience to compare to, and would most likely be unable or unwilling to talk about due to underlying anxieties. Adults who remove aspects of the story which they find objectionable reduce or eliminate the effectiveness of these tales to specifically target and soothe these inner conflicts, leaving the child ill-prepared to move from one stage of development to another.
The bulk of Professor Bettelheim's argument for fairy tales in their traditional form rests on Freudian concepts and psychoanalytic methods. Hence, there is substantial talk about oedipal feelings, sibling rivalry, growing beyond the orally fixated stage, and sexual fears. Fairy tales, because they never literally focus on these issues, are like coded bulletins directly fired off at the child's psyche, and their refinement over the years indicate how storytellers and their listeners have subconsciously tailored these stories to target the precise areas where children need the most help - often when they are transitioning from one growth stage to another.
Now, before I get into whether I think this treatise should be used as a guide, like a Dr. Spock for the Id, I would like to say that for about 3/4's of it, I found the book quite interesting, fascinating even, at times. I am suspicious of those who seek to reduce down a wide range of phenomena to a structure which conforms to a specific doctrine, as the author does here, but that doesn't mean it can't be absorbing to see them try. Additionally, much of what Professor Bettelheim asserts, based on my own observations, has a plausible ring to it. But there is also much that is contradictory, or 'stretched' to fit psychoanalytic forms, and sections of the book that are repetitive to the point of tediousness. (The chapter on Cinderella suffers especially from all of the above.)
Whether one believes that traditional fairy tales - through some obscure Darwinian process of literary forms - are laser-like beams of information directed at the child's unconscious designed to help him through life, or that they are remnants of man's dark ages which we, as a scientific, rational society have outgrown, will have a direct bearing on which version of the fairy tale is preferred by you, the parent - Disney or The Brothers Grimm. Many fairy tales are, without a doubt, grim indeed, horrific to the rational mind. Bloodthirsty and cruel, dabbling in cannibalism, mutilation, burning, eyes being pecked out...on and on they go. I find it almost impossible to see myself telling any of these stories to my granddaughter. And even if one did believe that the stories were therapeutic, is this the only way to transmit this information?
While the author doesn't say so in a direct manner, he doesn't provide any other means to accomplish the task he feels fairy stories are uniquely positioned to fulfill either. In fact, there is a general tone to the book which left me feeling as though I were severely deficient as a parent if I did not tell these stories in their traditional forms. (Although the author does suggest that the stories be TOLD rather than READ, so that the parent can judge the responses of the child and adapt the story to fit that particular child's needs.) In the end, my opinion is that, yes, fairy tales in their traditional forms could be instructive to a child in ways that rational discussions may not be (though I don't know how you could ever prove such a thing), but that doesn't mean all tales are appropriate for all ages. Even though the Grimm's may have collected the stories that they found in one volume does not necessarily mean that those from whom they acquired the tales wouldn't have used some discretion. Then again, some parents thought taking the family out to see a hanging would be a good lesson to learn too.
Aside from the content of the book itself, there are also discussions about the credibility of the author, his conclusions, and the originality of his research - all of which may affect how useful one considers this volume. Although I don't have the experience to address those issues, I did take a few moments to look at some of the objections, but found nothing for myself that seriously detracted from the book. If anyone were to use the questions surrounding Professor Bettelheim as a reason not to blindly follow his suggestions, then I would say that blindly following ANYONE'S suggestions is rarely a good idea, no matter what their reputation is. I probably learned that in a fairy tale somewhere.
on July 23, 2001
The central idea of this book is that fairy tales, above all other literary forms, are ideally suited to help children deal with issues of growing up. Bettelheim presents the features fairy tales have in common, such as the triumph of a young and previously devalued person over powerful enemies and extreme hardships. He shows how fairy tale exaggerations are actually truer to children's perceptions than "realistic" stories are, and so better address their needs. He goes into detail about the problems particular fairy tales address, such as how Cinderella handles sibling rivalry and emerging sexuality. While Bettelheim follows Freud, he acknowledges that Freudian constructs such as the id are useful metaphors, not absolute truths. He provides valuable insights into the worth of fairy tales, including the important point that their metaphorical nature is a vital part of their function. The underlying meanings, which are often scary, should not be explicated for children, who will come to terms with them in their own time.