The Uses of Enchantment

In The Uses of Enchantment, Bruno Bettelheim delivers a compelling argument for radical change in parents’ thinking about what their children should and should not read. This century, particularly in America, has seen a move away from fantasy and toward true-to-life experiences. Social comment, documentaries, starless movies are all the rage. Such insistence on the factual, the real, has similarly affected children through educators and parents. Even Santa Claus may have slipped in popularity. Bettelheim claims that schoolbooks teach skills rather than meaning, give information rather than delight. “The worst feature,” he says, “of these children’s books is that they cheat the child of what he ought to gain from the experience of literature: access to deeper meaning, and that which is meaningful to him at his stage of development.” And what is meaningful to the adult may not necessarily be meaningful to the child. Bettelheim is careful to point out that such “true” stories have their place, but that they are somewhat barren and do not encourage the active play of the child’s imagination.

Cycles are common, and it seems we have come full circle once again with the publication of this book. Whereas society has been pronouncing fairy tales to be unhealthy fare, Bettelheim claims otherwise. The violence of fairy tales, the devouring wolves, the wicked stepmothers, the poisoned apples, the powerful giants are, in fact, beneficial to the young child and serve a function which more realistic literature cannot. Bettleheim convincingly sums up just what children’s literature should do for children. He believes that it must develop and enrich both the intellect and the imagination, and, at the same time, speak to the child’s unconscious fears, anxieties, and troubles. In short, appropriate literature addresses itself to “all aspects of [the child’s] personality—and this without ever belittling . . . the seriousness of the child’s predicaments. . . .” This, admittedly, is a tall order, but one which Bettelheim believes can be supplied by the folk/fairy tale. Even Victorian parents, the masters of sober morality and strict propriety, saw no harm in enriching their children’s lives with the reading of fairy tales. Bettelheim, throughout the book, quotes the great and near-great, such as Dickens, Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, and Tolkien, to lend credence to his own belief in the appropriateness of such literature. He seems to be saying that what has been good for children for centuries should not be suddenly condemned in this modern age. In fact, with the pervasive, deadening effects of television on children, fairy tales may be more necessary than ever. Such unillustrated books encourage the child to develop his own mental picture of the dark forests, the moat and castle, and the wicked leers of evil queens.

Before beginning a more detailed analysis of the structure and meaning of fairy tales, Bettelheim carefully outlines, summarizes, and defends his thesis in the Introduction. This is probably a good thing for readers, serving as it does to clarify and buttress the ambitious scope of the book. The Introduction also gives readers unfamiliar with Bettelheim’s reputation an opportunity to learn how the idea was conceived and executed and what Bettelheim’s own experience has been, as a child psychologist, with the uses of fairy tales. As a therapist working with disturbed children, Bettelheim wondered why “children—normal and abnormal alike, and at all levels of intelligence—find fairy tales more satisfying than all other children’s stories.” Working with a grant from the Spencer Foundation, he proceeded to answer that question; hence this book.

Bettelheim applies a Freudian model to interpret the separate elements of fairy tales which help the child deal with life in the present, and with the mixture of good and bad feelings the child may have about himself. Such psychoanalytic jargon sometimes makes it heavy going for the average reader, but Bettelheim is ever careful to define his terms and to supply specific examples. Words such as “integration,” “Oedipal conflicts,” “transformation,” and “autonomy” regularly crop up, but always with a specific fairy tale which illustrates the point. For example, when the knight in shining armor...

(The entire section is 1765 words.)


Atlantic. CCXXXVII, June, 1976, p. 103.

Christian Century. XCIII, June 23, 1976, p. 603.

Harper’s Magazine. CCLII, June, 1976, p. 94.

New Statesman. XCII, November 26, 1976, p. 765.

New York Review of Books. XXIII, July 15, 1976, p. 10.

North American Review. CCLXI, Gall, 1976, p. 89.

Time. CVII, May 3, 1976, p. 71.

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