Thursday, April 29, 2010

Uses of Enchantment by Bruno Bettelheim

The Uses of Enchantment:  The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales by Bruno Bettelheim explores fairy tales, contextualizing the traditional within the human psyche and defending their purpose in the emotional development of the child.   Drawing on the more popular fairy tales (ie. Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Hansel and Gretel), Bettelheim makes a strong argument for the benefits of fairy tales and how they help a child navigate some of the more challenging emotional developmental stages of growing up.

The author is clearly a Freudian and I occasionally caught myself rolling my eyes at some of his interpretations.  After all, even Freud admitted that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.  However, even where I disagreed with his interpretation, reading his thoughts helped me to appreciate the significance of the stories for myself.  

There is some beneficial information in the book even for the rigidly anti-Freudian reader.  Not troubling a child with the psychological symbolism of certain stories, allowing the child to draw his/her own meaning from the fairy tales seems an obvious point to make but others are not.  When a child responds to a particular story in a collection (as fairy tales are typically gathered in collections), the parent inevitably takes this interest as enthusiasm to move onto the next story.  However, allowing the child to sit with the same story over time, to read and reread the same story before exploring a new one, allows the child to be immersed in whatever emotional relevance it may hold.  And when a child asks if there are really giants or witches or whatever, typically veiled in the question “There aren’t really any (insert noun here), are there?”, then the parent can offer a scientific or rational explanation which doesn’t serve the child emotionally, or the parent can allow the child to come to an answer independent but no less reasonable.  Although Bettelheim doesn’t suggest how the parent ought to respond, the obvious response to such a question could be, “Well, what do you think?” 

I culled some quotes from the book and enjoyed reading it very much even when I disagreed with the Freudian interpretations.  Perhaps the meaning deeply rooted in my own psyche, planted when I was a child and enjoying these stories for myself, simply could not respond to the Freudian interpretation.  And although I understood Bettelheim’s contention that Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales are not truly written for children, I love them too much to agree with his belief that they don’t belong altogether.  I would argue that if they are saved for a more mature child, the pre-adolescent child who is beginning to come to terms with physical and spiritual changes, then the stories offer a different psychological relevance no less meaningful and even necessary.

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