In Praise of Fairy Tales

There are certain parents who refer to what they do not as “raising children” but as “par enting.” In mv observation, sweet reason prevails in the homes of such parents, who tend to have schedules for what is called “child care,” who fill the house with instructional playthings, are touchingly eager to brief their children on sex and why the microwave oven works and what is wrong with the secretary of state, and who speak about feelings in a calm and sensible way. (“Mummy is expressing her anger and Mummy thinks you should express your anger too if you are angry with Mummy.”) I have a Mother’s, or a Father’s. Day present for such parents: Bruno Bettelheim’s new book. THE USES OF ENCHANTMENT (Knopf. $12.50).
Bettelheim is of course best known for his work with autistic children, and this book is a departure for him. It is an extended contemplation of the small art form known as the fairy tale.
Fairy tales occupy a greatly diminished place in the lives of contemporary children. and for Bettelheim this fact is little less than a tragedy. He argues convincingly that the stories provide a unique way for children to come to terms with the dilemmas of their inner lives. Fairy tales transform chaotic, inexpressible feelings into metaphors that can be true because they do not have to be real.
Fairy tales invite psychoanalytic interpretation. and much of this book is given over to Bettelheim’s exhaustive and inventive Freudian explanations of them. Why is there no Daddy in “Little Red Riding Hood”? Well, because Daddy is both the seductive wolf and the protective hunter. One can read these stories without thinking of their psychological meaning, but once these interpretations are made they are hard to dispute (unless one disputes a hundred years of psychoanalytic thought).
Every now and then this exegesis does get a bit dense. In most early versions of “Cinderella.” the stepsisters mutilated their feet so that they might fit into the slipper (which, by the way. was fur. not glass). Bettelheim manages to make this action symbolize not only castration anxiety but fear of menstruation. and though I don’t doubt the validity id this, the discussion takes on the sound of a seminar.
But for the most part Bettelheim’s explanations are deft and illuminating. He speculates entertainingly on the popularity of “Goldilocks.” who, like her counterparts in contemporary adult literature. is an “outsider” in search of identity and at odds with snug family life. He recovers from obscurity an appealing story called “The Queen Bee,”in which a child. “Simpleton,”completes an impossible task with the help of animal friends, and learns symbolically that the integrated personality must come to terms with both conscience and instinct, superego and id.
And Bettelheim is very good on frogs. Why is it so often a frog who, under the touch or the kiss of a princess, becomes a prince? The answer may be obvious, but it wasn’t to me. Bettelheim suggests that young children normally view sex (which the frog symbolizes) not so much with fright as with a mixture of curiosity and repugnance. The ugly but benign frog provides a perfect focus for their apprehensions. Already a transformed creature, it lends itself to magical transformation, and its fairy-tale life demonstrates to children “the appropriateness of disgust when one is not ready for sex, and prepares for its desirability when the time is ripe.”
In the role of literary critic Bettelheim is (rather charmingly) an amateur, but he succeeds better than most Freudian critics at avoiding the occupational hazard. He is seldom reductive. He makes plain that the tales are supple, many-layered things, and that different children may find in the same story quite different, even contradictory, forms of psychic comfort.
Unlike many psychiatrists. Bettelheim has a vocabulary (and the accompanying world view) that reaches well beyond his field. He’s as comfortable with moral as he is with clinical language. and he sees no contradiction between them. For Bettelheim. psychic growth is in no small way a matter of perseverance and will. He says that “Sleeping Beauty” “tells that a long period of quiescence, of contemplation, of concentration on the self, can and often does lead to highest achievement.” He recalls that “psychoanalysis was created to enable man to accept the problematic nature of life without being defeated by it, or giving in to escapism.” And he argues that fairy tales offer just the same lesson.
But aren’t fairy tales themselves a form of “escapism”? They have fallen into relative disuse in part because they seem unimportant to parents who pride themselves on their rationalism. “Happily ever after” is a phrase now used chiefly for ironic purposes.
That fairy tales end happily is to Bettelheim central to their nature, and it’s not at all a defect; it’s not even “unrealistic.” They suggest what is true: fundamental psychological struggles—Oedipal longing, sibling rivalry, confusion over sexual role—can be won. The child, Bettelheim asserts, understands the metaphorical sense in which it is possible to “live happily ever after”— not that one lives forever, or always happily. The famous line means only that it is possible to grow up.
The Uses of Enchantment will make a lot of parents feel guilty about not devoting more of their children’s bedtime hours to the Brothers Grimm. That’s in part Bettelheim’s intention. He is sincere in his urgency about the irreplaceableness of these traditional tales, so many of which are now effectively forgotten, or adulterated into Disneyesque good cheer.
Parents with high ambitions for their children may be particularly inspired by Bettelheim’s anecdotes about the place fairy tales have occupied in the lives of distinguished persons. Dickens never forgot the power of “Little Red Riding Hood,” and Chesterton wrote feelingly about the philosophy he absorbed from fairy tales: “that life is not only a pleasure but a kind of eccentric privilege.” C. S. Lewis’ childhood memories of fairy tales moved him to write the great Narnia stories when he was a grandfather. Goethe’s mother was a gifted storyteller who wove that essence of the great fairy tales into stories of her own, and Goethe recalled: “From father I got my bearings, the seriousness in life’s pursuits; from mother the enjoyment of life, and love of spinning fantasies.”
If Bettelheim enriches the newest generation’s fantasy life by provoking a revival in fairy tales, he will have done a good deed. But it is no slight to the importance of fairy tales to say that the book’s real subject is somewhat larger; it is Bettelheim’s concept of childhood.
Bettelheim is a conservative figure within his field, and he has some conservative notions about child-rearing. If they seem at moments contentious, I’d say they are usefully so. He laments what he sees as the dominant impulse among contemporary parents, to create in the home a small utopian state: “There is a widespread refusal to let children know that the source of much that goes wrong in life is due to our very own natures—the propensity of all men for acting aggressively, asocially, selfishly, out of anger and anxiety. . . . But children know that they are not always good; and often, even when they are, they would prefer not to be. This contradicts what they are told by their parents, and therefore makes the child a monster in his own eyes.”
Bettelheim is unafraid to take on a cause that all right-thinking people believe in, unromantic education in sex. He disagrees: “Modern sex education tries to teach that sex is normal, enjoyable, even beautiful. . . . But since it does not start from an understanding that the child may find sex disgusting, and that this viewpoint has an important protective function for the child, modern sex education fails to carry conviction for him.”
Such sallies against conventional thought wouldn’t mean much if they weren’t supported by a positive vision of childhood—but they are. Bettelheim gazes on children as though he were looking at a foreign culture with rules of its own, and he grants them the dignity of their strangeness.
Young children, he reminds us, are magical thinkers. They know in their hearts that the sun is alive and that it shines on them because it chooses to, and they know that rocks, like dogs, have feelings. Bettelheim (drawing on the work of Piaget) remarks that it is simply impossible for prepubertal children to internalize many simple scientific concepts, though they can successfully mimic comprehension. He recounts hearing many children parrot descriptions of the mechanics of the solar system, though none of them in fact could understand what they said or believe it.
Toward their parents they feel a mixture of hatred and love, such a heightened ambivalence that most parents think only they could be capable of feeling it. The children look up to us and see “selfish giants who wish to keep to ourselves all the wonderful things which give us power.” At the same time they find it dazzlingly easy to deceive us—since we obviously know so little of what is going on in their minds. (One of the uses of fairy tales, Bettelheim points out, is to show “that we approve of their playing with the idea of getting the better of these giants.”) They lead lives of astounding doubleness, saying one thing and thinking another with an abandon that should shame the most gifted of hypocrites. Within, they wrestle with fundamental philosophical questions, and try to understand overwhelming sensory information. Meanwhile, in their external lives, they learn the bizarre, arbitrary codes of manners and speech that allow them to make their way with the selfish giants. What extraordinary creatures: every one of them as wacky as William Blake and as sly as a tax lawyer.
People often speak of “a childlike sense of wonder.”meaning to evoke a moment when the world is seen fresh, without the jaded and complicated vision of adulthood. Bettelheim demonstrates the full inanity of this phrase as it is commonly used, its denial of the turbulence that fills children’s vision, and of the bravery, wit, and imagination they muster against it.
The Uses of Enchantment doesn’t, thank God, restore one’s childlike sense of wonder, but it replenishes one’s sense of wonder at children.
Richard Todd