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Week 3 - Explaining Fairy Tales

Anne Dalke's picture

Last night, I participated in a really soulful performance with the Headlong Theater, in an astonishing space--an abandoned church in West Philadelphia. We were asked to wear blue. To go deeper into the denseness of the sensual world, into an analogue reality, to live in the lapse, the absence of explication, the gap between experience and explanation. Last night was the last performance of the "Explanatorium," so I can't recommend your going to this particular show (though the company offers both free First Friday performances in old city and a semester away program co-sponsored by Bryn Mawr).  It occurs to me, however, that much of what they are doing--preparing their private expressions to meet the public, letting their innerworld find its way to the outerworld, exploring our fascination with the inexplicable, reveling in our awareness of not being sure, taking the risk of making pieces by indirection, by experiment, and by conversation--are deeply resonant with our own explorations of fairy tales  in this course.

Long preface (and promotion!) to say: this week we are reading Bettleheim's "The Uses of Enchantment." What are your responses? What do you think (for instance) of the passage Bettelheim quotes from the German poet Friedrich Schiller, "Deeper meaning resides in the fairy tales told to me in my childhood than in the truth that is taught by life...?"
ashaffer's picture

Going back and reflecting

Near the end of this course, I came full circle to a question that I began to explore near the beginning, and I am seeing some similarities to this discussion and these readings' ideas. My question is one of how math is taught from the elementary level to calculus, and at first I approached it in much the same way as these authors- I assumed that children have a need to feel that things in the world are stable and secure, so we teach math (and science, for that matter), as solid and sure facts. Thinking about it now, I don't know that I actually agree with that. I mean, children are in a world that is changing, and yes, maybe they do long for stability, but they might actually identify with something else that is changing like they are (I hope that makes sense). A small part of what these authors are saying is that children need a story where they can identify with what is happening. Maybe children identify with parts of the villian and the hero. Maybe at the same time children appreciate the happily-ever-after ending, they become disillusioned because they never see that perfect outcome in their own lives.
christa wusinich's picture

Bettleheim in class

I think our class discussion on Bettleheim was certainly lively. The classroom seemed to take on a very personal feel when childhoods came into play. I mean who was going to discredit fairytales ( particular fairy tales or all in general) when a classmate said that she found fairytales to be very comforting to her as a child? Who can say that she was wronged or misled by fairytales if not she? I felt that if an argument began to escalate about the merit of fairytales, that when personal notes were contributed to the class...what would happen, is that the argument was dispelled. There is no better evidence than a personal testament. No single truth could be agreed upon as to the value of fairytales. There was an interesting shift from the emotional and psychological interpretation of fairytales to political and ideological. This seemed to remove some of the personal tensions of the class and invited us to be creative in identifying hidden political propaganda, if there was or could be any that is.

nmuntz's picture


I have to say, I was all for the idea that fairy tales really create a deeper meaning for children (of all ages...which includes adults!) and that they are incredibly helpful for expanding the boundaries of the imagination and creating a sense of hope, but after writing my analysis of my own personal fairy tale, I realized that there are other levels to a fairy tale (apart from "ick") that don't teach the best lesson. Take Aladdin for example: He steals food from all over the place and (for some time at least) doesn't face the consequences of stealing.  Many will say, "Oh he was starving, so it's okay."  Does the fact that he was starving justify his actions for stealing?  This is a deeper argument than what I wanted to get into, but its just an idea of what popped into my head.

Back to the Bettleheim article.  I have to say I agreed with a lot of things he said, though his approach was so Freudian that a lot of his ideas were based only on Freud's hypotheses (such as the Oedipal complex).  I don't really believe in Freud's fixations, or complexes so that evidence, although interesting, didn't make me believe that children like Fairy Tales because they help them overcome their Oedipal complex, etc.

I don't know... this is a really interesting topic, and I'm kind of sad that we're moving on.  I'd love to talk about the differences between Fantasy Stories and Fairy Tales, Myths and Fairy tales (some more) and read more of the original versions of some of the Disney Classics.
Anonymous's picture

Thank you

I am not a part of your class however I have been reading your posts on this sight. I just wanted to thank you for posting them, I was thinking about fairytales in my life and remembering the joy of my mom reading them to me. I also remember several fairtales that I couldn't remember the whole story. I found a sight that posted many of them and have been taken back to the good old days once more. I just wanted to thank you all for reminding me of the simple joys Mom and I shared. Since this really isn't related to your studies I totally understand if you choose not to put it up but would appreciate your passing on my thanks to your class.

Paul Grobstein's picture

the good old days

Glad to have you drop by. Here's to "simple joys." As part of "reality"?
anonstudent01's picture

SUMMARY of Thursday's Conversation

After reading The Uses of Enchantment the members of our CSEM class had very different, strong reactions and opinions. 

We talked about why women were the villains in most fairytales. One idea for this was because women have always been the caregivers for children and generally men are not present in their day-to-day lives, so children have more to fear from an evil woman than an evil man.

We discussed whether or not hearing "Happily Ever After" stories was detrimental to a child's worldview. It was suggested that the fairytales always have a happy ending, and in fact if things always ended happily no one would be happy because there would be no negative experiences to compare against them. An intersting point that was raised was that children are stuck in a world where they make few decisions and have little control because the world is run for them by adults, and that fairytales illustrate negative power figures and the triumph over them. It was decided that most people can distinguish between their life and the world of imagination and niceties.

We discussed the differences between myths and fairytales, and concluded that a myth is a religious or scientific story with a value set while a fairytale is a story for everyone that contains "overt and cover" messages. 
A large part of discussion was centered around the funciton of fairytales and myths. It was decided that the function of a fairytale is to provide a feeling (uplifting, hopeful) while a myth provides understanding. From there we discussed the differences between understanding and feeling. 
Professor Grobstein ended class with the question : "Is reality a story?" 

Paul Grobstein's picture

distinguishing between life and imagination

If "reality is a story", then how do people "distinguish between their life and the world of imagination"? Maybe the world of fairy tales is more "real" than we sometimes think it is, and the "life" is less so?
anonstudent01's picture

The Uses of Enchantment

This reading was the most intriguing thus far! I had never thought about fairytales as being a better representation of a child's reality than reality itself. It is much easier to explain to a child the reason for a rule or a specific moral in a form they can understand, which is embodied in the fairytale form. I also never considered that in fact many fairytales were written as advice for adults more so than children's entertainment, adults can much more easily dissect the message about life and warnings about certain behavior than children can. It is amazing to think that the same sort of stories have been developed over thousands of years to communicate the morals of a culture or society, and that fairytales most likely evolved from myth. 

Student 23's picture

Much of the "deeper

Much of the "deeper meaning" in fairy tales is symbolic. Were a child able to grasp some of the symbolism in Grimm's stories, especially, I would worry about his or her mental health.

Take, for instance, Briar Rose. Reflecting on Bettelheim's emphasis on Freudian psychoanalysis and particularly his mention of the Oedipus complex, I can pick out a very Freudian pattern of symbols in the story. Briar Rose's fate is to prick herself on a spindle, which I do say is a very phallic symbol indeed. Once she has pricked herself, the only thing that can save her is the kiss of a man. See, already the symbolism has gone way over the heads of most young children! What's more, the father in the story goes to great lengths to prevent this from occuring, only to fail, losing his daughter anyway in a perfect example of irony of fate (which is most often demonstrated with the story of Oedipus!) Sexton recognized the implications of this irony in "Transformations", putting a very Oedipal twist on this fairy tale.

On another note entirely... The post above me mentions how hard it is asking for help. I agree! I think it's our own desire for independence that stops us from relying on others.


Audra's picture

Mixed Feelings

I felt like some of what Bettelheim suggested was valid, but I also thought a lot of it contradicted itself. Bettelheim suggests that fairytales show that a child needs to learn that s/he must do something to change his/ her negative situation to a positive one, but he generally talks about girls in the passive voice: "he wins the princess" vs. "she can only be won by the man who gives the correct answers". He tries to reconcile this flaw in the fairytales' effectiveness by saying that Rapunzel's hair, which comes from her own body, enables her freedom, but I'm disinclined to accept his argument as the hair also enables her imprisionment. Also, growing hair is hardly an active choice a girl has; we all grow hair whether we try to or not. Thus, fairytales don't lend themselves as well to such a flawless lesson for all children, boys and girls, as Bettelheim argues.

Another problem I had with Bettelheim's argument is that there are no exceptions in the BROAD realm of traditional fairytales. You'd think there'd be at least one example that doesn't enrich a child's unconscious psychological help, but Bettelheim fails to propose this option.

Also, the author's use of Freudian psychology, which psychologists of the time believed, weakens the arguments' strength for me. Freud is fascinating to study (I think he's hilarious), but very few people still subscribe to his theories. The constant reminders of the oedipul complex made otherwise believable arguments seem old-fashioned and silly.

That said, I liked how Bettelheim focused on the child's perspective and gave their "immature" beliefs and feelings validity. Older people tend to dismiss the seemingly silly actions or emotions of younger children, which is utterly unhelpful in my opinion. I also like how he separated a person's fantasies from what s/he would actually do-- we all think about terrible things and can't help it. Lastly, I like the idea that fairytales can soothe the unconscious, although I'm not sure I believe it.

Hyperpuffball's picture

A Modern Fairy Tale

While first reading this article, I had difficulty accepting Bettelheim's analysis about why fairy tales make better children's stories than "Peter Pan" or "The Little Engine that Could". I barely remember major parts of my childhood, so I suppose that trying to think like a child again was confusing for me. It wasn't until I read his three seperate stories about children who took their influences from three different children's tales that I began to understand why he considers fairy tales so pivotal in a child's life. And I agree with him, surprisingly enough. I agree that the comforts a child can gain from a fairy tale are far healthier than from "The Little Engine that Could" or other stories.

The only thing that remains to bother me is the constant representation that a girl in a fairy tale needs a replacement for her father; that she needs a savior, a knight, a prince, a husband to be happy or content. As if marital status should determine social status. This troubles me very, very deeply. There are so many other ways to find happiness than through a man on the track to be your husband or having a baby with the person you chose as your partner. While reading this article I wished for fairy tales that could show young girls that there is more than one road to happiness and more than one goal than a family of one's own.

redmink's picture

Pinoccheo and me

This essay was interesting in that Bettelheim succintly lists the ways how a story enrich child's life as a therapist and educator. I agreed with him on most points he made throughout the essay such as how it is important to include shady side in a fairy tale so that a child can see both sides of the world. Especially, I would like to talk about the role of a fairy tale in a child's difficult situation in reality.

I was a bad child to my dad. He and I had a gap deeper than any other children's because I was a late-born. When I was about 15 years old, I was going through a peak of adolescence. I hated that my dad always wore a cap that did not look good to me, and it drove me crazy when my dad put a dish upside down on a dish rack. Often, I raised my voice and complained. Going back to my room, I blamed him for everything. During that time, I recalled Pinoccheo's story. In the very cold winter, Pinoccheo accuses his dad of an incompetent man. Shoked, the old man goes out with sorrow, and comes back with a loaf of bread to feed Pinoccheo. Realizing his dad's sacrifice and love, Pinoccheo feels sorry to his dad. This is the part of Pinoccheo I recalled when I felt sorry for my dad. At that age, thinking of Pinoccheo's dad's sacrifice for Pinoccheo, I became to feel grateful for my dad, too. So, I agree with Bettelheim's point in which a fairy tale gives children hope and leads their violent unconscious to be optimistic.


rm2885's picture

The Healing Power of Fairy Tales

It was surprising for me when Bettelhiem point out fairy tale speak to children on many level, unlike other children stories, it actually speak to their unconscious level, and their inner self. I know I like to listen to stories when I was a child, especially fairy tale. I however was not found myself additive to them. In fact I’ve never separate fairy tales from other children stories. Though recognize them as the famous and old stories that have some truth within. That’s mainly because they are popular amount children’s books.

As an adult, I found myself more additive to it than when I was a child. I never investigate the why until now. It was a dark time in life for me, and then I started to collect a couple fairy tales collections. They were almost senseless to my rational mind, but I was thirst for them unconsciously, as if they satisfy my inner deepest need, part of me was feeding on it. It’s then surprise, but not so surprise, when I came across the mysterious power of fairy tales. I believe there is a healing power of fairy tales underneath the words as the story unfolded. Though it’s almost conflict one another, as powerful as the these fairy tale sounds, they are also full of disturbance and violence, also the story hinder children’s development and their view of the world that does not necessarily what we want to them view today.

Allison Fink's picture

An Interesting Point of View...

     I found this article to be rather long for the points it was trying to make, but it did do justice to fairy tales when describing their importance. Something that strikes me is the thought that parents think they know what is best for children. They try to shield their children from unpleasant things, which arrests their development. Fairy tales are refreshing because they treat children as growing, independent entities and don’t make them feel all warm and fuzzy and protected all the time. The truth is that the psyche has a shadow side and children themselves are not always good, and also that children really do suffer psychological disturbances as a normal condition of life. They have needs just like adults do. Fairy tales expose people to the savage realities of these things, and as such they may appear shocking. But they help with the integration process of the personality- the id, the ego and the superego, to serve the whole person rather than to allow the person to remain splintered. This is very important, I know. Although I don’t know much about psychology it struck me when he said that if you don’t allow your unconscious things to come out but instead censor them, aspects of your personality will be “crippled”, or aspects of the unconscious will just automatically come into your consciousness and control it. It’s all very interesting to think of how much a person is a product of developmental forces beyond his control, when he thinks he is rational and self-determining… I thought it was also interesting when he said that children need to develop confidence in their ability to understand the world from their senses, and so scientific explanations detract from this confidence at the stage when their brains are not ready to comprehend the world this way.

     I found the article to be an interesting point of view because it claimed that only in having a secure ego can a person function in the world. The needs of the ego come first, and only then can one begin to reach out. It also repeatedly emphasized that people need “hope for the future” to succeed in life’s difficulties. But isn’t this just another delusion, and out of attachment, to base one’s life around an ego and the future, according to Buddhism? I don’t know; what he says makes sense, but from a spiritual perspective which is beyond me right now, I think there are other more transcendent points of view.

christa wusinich's picture

"spinning out daydreams"

It would not have occured to me that as I read a fairytale to a child, she is "spinning out daydreams," identifying (unbeknownst to her) her unconscious self with the elements/characters in the fairytale.  Bettleheim has informed me of this.  By not exposing a child to fairytales , Bettelheim infers, thus asphixiating/repressing/silencing her unconscious self, she is stymied in the devlopment of her personality.  Specificaly, Bettleheim insists on the unparallelled value of the folk fairytale, giving myths and cautionary tales their own lesser merits.  I am not sure of this myself; that proper parenting demands the reading or recounting of fairytales.  But if I were a parent, I would rather not run the risk; I would heed Bettleheim's own cautionary assertions. 

akeefe's picture

The Guide

I’ll be honest. Reading this article made me want to tell Fairy Tales to my children someday. There were moments, in the reading, when I realized that many of my childhood thoughts and experiences were mimicked directly in Bettelhiem’s argument. It is with this is in mind, that I support the statement in question. It seems to me that the function of Fairy Tales in not to create experience, but make the process of experience understanding and enriching. Without knowledge that we might someday overcome our pitfalls, we might not recognize and cherish them for their full value.

At one point, Bettelhiem speak to the child’s quest for meaning in life. I was instantly suck back to the day, I asked my mother, at five years old, why we are here? I remember taking no comfort in religious talk, but coming to the realization that adults do not know everything. Instead of having my world shaken, I was struck by a sense of adventure. It was my job to find out. It was not until reading the article that I realized my avid devouring of Fairy Tales may have eased this transition, by teaching me that uncertainty can be over come by experiences and adventure.

Keeping this in mind, I return to my argument that it is not that Fairy Tales hold more meaning, but are the key to actively searching out meaning through experience, by guiding us through that first, often nerve racking step.

Dpan's picture

I have never before read

I have never before read such an in depth article devoted to the analysis of fairytales. A particular passage that struck me most was the part in which Bettelheim brings up the subject of the Id, Superego, and Ego. He remarks that all human have choatic minds, and that we need to create symbols in order to make sense of the chaos. Naturally, if adults need to do this, children need to their own symbols as well; fairytales. it is extremely interesting to look into fairytales from an almost psychological perspective.

However, I was a great lover of fairytales when I was a child, and still am. It is slightly disheartening to see such an in depth analysis picking apart some of my favorite stories. In some ways, I prefer that fairytales hold specific meaning for a specific person, rather than trying to prove one way or another that fairytales hold some intrinsic moral value/psychological value or that they are just pieces of silly fiction.

Kalinkina's picture

I really agree with the idea

I really agree with the idea that children should be exposed to knowledge of the bad things in life and not led to think that everything in life is peaches and cream. I believe that is a far greater disservice and potentially even dangerous.

In general the piece gives a lot of important to fairy tales… nearly the first entire page and a half discusses how fairy tales are the best and only way to educate a child and promote decent development through storytelling. Bettelheim goes into so much detail about every little aspect of fairy tales and how each element affects a child's development. Frankly, while his argument is quite interesting, I don't agree with the idea that fairy tales play such an important role in promoting positive growth. I never heard fairy tales until I was a young adult, and I think I turned out quite okay. So much of what I learned about how to behave in life and what is good and moral and what is bad and immoral behavior came not from stories I read or learned about, but rather from relationships and actual lived experiences. Relationships with my parents, my brother, my friends, my teachers, acquaintances, even strangers all spurred my personal growth.

Bettelheim goes on to say on page 4, column 2, "The child is subject to desperate feelings of loneliness and isolation, and often experiences mortal anxiety. More often than not, he is unable to express these feelings in words, or can do so only by indirection: by claiming fear of the dark or of some animal, for instance." I just flat out don't agree with this idea. I think children do have valid and genuine fears of things aren't familiar with and are known to cause possible harm. I think passing those fears off as something much more obscure and below the surface is really not unfair, but entirely devalues anything in that child's mind. I think many adults don't give the credit they deserve; they think that because a human being is six years old, that he or she cannot possibly have any rational thought in his or her head and that nothing important dwells within the mind, that fantasies about acquiring candy and candy alone are what exist. I think that's really unfortunate and really demeaning, honestly. A child is a child, obviously it is learning about the world and developing, but saying that natural instinct in a child based on "desperate feelings of loneliness and isolation…" is unfair to children. It feels like a slap in the face, even to me.

ErinDoppelheuer's picture

What's in a fairy tale

I fully agree with the person who first posted that said "raised my expectations and made me sad later in life when the world didn't live up to them" because when reading fairy tales I always wished that I could be the Little Mermaid or Jasmine and have a castle,a father who rules the kingdom, a prince, and then the evil woman.  However, all of these things in fairy tales just got my hopes up when I got old enough to realize that none of these things were possible in real life.  I think that this would crush a child even more than finding out in a fiary tale that for example the prince never showed up for the princess. 

" Deeper meaning resides in the fairy tales told to me in my childhood than in the truth that taught by life..."  I partially agree with this quote because fairy tales help children learn more about his/and others problems, find solutions to problems of his own/or man and how else is a child going to learn these valuable lessons as he grows up.  He can't read it in the paper or learn it from the news and parents usually complicate the explanation, so fairy tales explain the plot in a simple way for children to understand.  I completely agree with Frued's statement about overcoming obstacles and in the end one emerges victorious.  This basis in fairy tales helps children to understand the stuggles and difficulties of every day life. 


The one thing that I completely agree with is that after a parent reads a fairy tale to their child, the parent should never explain what the hidden meaning or moral of the story is.  It is for the child to figure out, to use his imagination, and to use his growing mind to try and understand some of the lessons needed to be learned in life.  If the parent does explain right off the bat what the moral or meaning of the story is, in a way it ruins the child's imagination and it doesn't let the child think for himself.  Some parents may beleive that a child at this age can't think for himself, but if you let a child speak, you may be surprised. 

Madi's picture

I do not agree with the

I do not agree with the passage that Bruno Bettelheim quotes. "Deeper meaning resides in the fairy tales told to me in my childhood than in the truth that is taught by life." Fairy tales are important. They contain lessons and themes that are embedded in many, many cultures. These themes are what help them survive as long as they do. Take Cinderella. There will always be younger children who identify with her because they feel that they cannot live up to their older siblings. However, fairy tales are not the only stories that have these transcendent themes. Shakespeare's plays have survived so long because the themes within them are also relevant to today.

Fairy tales are not as important as this passage makes them seem. They are only one part of a child's development. And having too much of them would just feed a child's egocentricism. Children are inherently selfish and fairy tales are another expression of that selfishness. Psychologically speaking, this egocentricism is one of the many stages of a child's development and it needs to be overcome for the child to be a healthy individual.

BriBell's picture

Bettelheim presents some

Bettelheim presents some very strong arguements in his analysis of the functions of fairytales in a childs life. He makes some very good points that I generally see coming into play in most fairy tales. For instance, the polarization of good and evil - beautiful and ugly - stupid and clever -etc. I can see how separating these things into distinct categories of the 'hero' and the 'villian' would be helpful to a child in explaining the world in terms that are very clear and simple for the child's mind to grasp. I agree that these fairytales may have profound effects on children who are growing up, experiencing new thoughts and emotions that their parents are not aware of enough to explain. I agree with Bettelheim when he points out that fairytales serve to allow children to feel certain emotion that they are not so sure they should. For instance, he says, "...every child knows he is not always good, and that even when he is he would often perfer not to be. This contradicts what he is told by his parents, and therefore makes the child a monster in his own eyes." For me, I can relate to the idea of being a child and having this sort of feeling that maybe you are the only one who is thinking this way, and to have a story that is easily accessable to the child's understanding would be the perfect outlet for the child to see the he is not 'weird' for having these feelings.

A few other things I just found interesting were just the way he explains the 'happily ever after' as a way of saying that forming a bond with another person, a person can reach ultimate emotional security. Also, the suggestion that 'bringing home the right bride' is the act of reaching sexual maturity and this gaining the kingdom from the king, as well as the ideas that the riddles and tasks that men must figure out in order to get the women, is a metaphor for men having to figure women out in general. These are things I did not consider before.

I think Bettelheim has some pretty valid arguements, though I would definitely not say I agree with all of them (for instance, I do not believe in the oedipal complex theories, and I do think stories like The Little Engine serve a good purpose). Overall though, I really enjoyed reading his take of the value of fairytales in a child's life.

calypsse's picture

to agree or not to agree..

I have found in Bettelheim an undeniable truth. I was constantly reminded of how my own upbringing and how complicated my life was. My father will always diminish my anxieties saying that children don't have problems, making me feel worst that before.

I also remember wanting to be like some of the characters in the fairy tales, while giving me hope for a better tomorrow. I agree with Bettelheim when we tells that children are much more complex than adults believe or want to believe. I still remember how complicated was my childhood, therefore I have never underestimated a child. 

At the same time I believe fairy tales are a great learning resource, there is a downside, the child might opt for take a literal understanding of the tale, and this might reduce the experience the fairy tale intended. Then again, it's all about giving a choice to the child, or adult for that matter.
akerle's picture

who are fairy tales REALLY for?

Bettelheim makes an interesting arguement for the nature of the fairy tale.  Towards the end of the article he discusses the childs obsession with 'justice'.

"The child feels that all is well with the world, and he can be secure in it, only if the wicked are punished in the end"

Elsewhere in the article Bettelheim uses this same concept but applies it in a more general way- to both adults and children. So this makes me wonder- who are fairy tales really for? I feel that some of the greatest fairy tales are found in religious teachings- where ultimately the wicked get punished and the good get rewarded. Indeed, if what Bettelheim says is true, then religion supplies this need of an 'escape fantasy' which satisfies one of the most primal needs within both children and adults- the need for a 'happy' ending. 

Although I do not particularily agree with or understand Bettelheim's psychoanalysis of the child I do agree with the idea that children- rather than being inherently good innocent beings- can actually be selfish and cruel. I have spent many hours listening to young people talking about great acts of cruelty. Acts that they have perpetrated and been subjected to. The child is innocent, yes, but that does not mean she is not cruel.   

Allyson's picture

This reading yet again

This reading yet again brought me to my babysitting experiences. I found vaidation in the importance of fairy tales through the lens of dealing with a child who has become a victim of some of the perils of modern parenting. He is so poorly behaved that his parents asked me for advice, and at the time I mentioned something about "indirectly directing" him so as to not scare him with our adult thinking. And now I can recognize that all he needs is a good storytelling to help him straighten out some of his emotions within the safe and secure environment of his imagination.
Hilary McGowan's picture

Thanks a bunch!


In reading this article, I thought about how fairy tales shaped my own life as a child. Do these concepts spoken about in the article really apply to me? Has my imagination been shaped by the fairy tales in my thick, folded over Grimm's book? The act of psychoanalyzing myself is a tricky one, because you are to close to see the reality that lies. But on a cursory level, I would like to think that, yes; this article does apply to me. I do have an unconscious telling me what is right or wrong. The ultimate conscience or guidance has been set in place by the lessons and realizations of fairy tales. And it wasn't that was all that my parents showed to me, as a child I was attracted to these things. I believe that all children are, whether introduced or not, drawn to the tales of wicked and good characters.

On another thought, the importance and deep inner meaning of fairy tales was revealed on deeper analysis. As we all know, cultures all around the World have been telling the same basic principal stories. Although the characters may have different names and the flavor changes from place to place, every culture has subconsciously realized the importance of these lessons. It could be the lesson of staying loyal and true, cunning and smart, lucky and trusting, or so many things. These lessons and their rewards have integrated themselves into our psyche and culture. The rags to riches tales are glorified versions of fairy stories even.

I do agree with this writing completely. It's exciting to see the justification of the fascination to the tales on an academic and valid basis. I could never put to words just right what I felt when I read them, so this did it for me. Thank you Mr. Bettelheim. Thank you.


ashaffer's picture

Don't agree completely, but don't disagree completely

- So, I can't say that I really wholeheartedly agree with this guy. I think he's a little over-reaching for his conclusions- I mean, does every fairy tale really speak to the innerdepths of every child's heart? (as Hannah said, I hope not!)

+ On the other hand, he does have some good points about what a child identifies with and how these stories allow kids to identify with the world and themselves.

- The psychoanalysis, plus the oedipal relations he tries to insert into these 'fairy stories' seem, well, imagined at the very least and forced at best. I don't really think there's a good reason to analyze these stories to that extent.

+ He does, however, present a really interesting point of view and I like that he interprets these fairy tales through the eyes of a child (@ least he tries to;-))


Catrina Mueller's picture

I think that this statement

I think that this statement is very true. Although we do not always recognize that fairytales are teaching us something, the do in fact hold deeper meanings.

His comparison between Rapunzel, the little Engine that could, and the Swiss Family Robison was not very fair in my opinion. The Little Engine teaches us to persevere and not give up. Although the little girl failed to build her paper house, all she needed to do was ask for a bit of help to keep going. Perhaps the Engine should have called for help to teach kids that asking for help is okay.

I think that asking for help is for many people one of the hardest things to do. We are so sure that we "can do anything" by ourselves that we often times forget that we are not infaliable. In fact, Cinderella teaches us just that. On our own, we are fine, but with the help of a "fairy godmother", we can do any task set before us. I am not sure why "society" as a whole seems to put an emphasis on not asking for help. Is it because we are expected to be "macho" and not show weakness?

hannahpayne's picture

I don't think that fairy

I don't think that fairy tales teach us more than all of our experiences teach us, or at least I hope they don't. I'd be worried if someone simply learned everything from a fairy tale. I thought that Bettelheim made a vaild point at the necessity of fairy tales in children's lives but I don't think they should be the only mode to discover the truth. I think life experiences are our main basis for learning, especially for kids. We try something, fail, try again and get it right. Nobody learns to walk at their first attempt, experience is vital. Aside from this line though, I thought that Bettelheim made some very intersting points. I think that many of his ideas were targeted towards kids who had difficult childhoods and who needed something that gave them hope for a better future. Fairy tales offer this hope but I think that as a child grows older they realize that not everything in the world ends happily ever after. Despite this, fairy tales still serve their purpose because they get children to reach this stage in their life with optimism. If this is achieved they will most likely be old enough to begin to take matters, even if it is only a few, into their own hands. 

I also really liked his take on the gender roles in the fairy tale and their relationship with the oedipal stage of development. He separated the 'good mother' from the 'bad mother' who got angry at the child and this explains the reason for the evil female characters as well as the loving female characters of the past. I believe that kids can distinguish between the two and that this probably does help kids to deal with two contrasting emotions from their parents.
merry2e's picture

A New Perspective on Fairy Tales

Reflecting on my last forum post after reading Bettleheim’s, “The Uses of Enchantment,” made me once again think about the stories I read as a child. Fairy tales may be absurd, but I am coming to a new realization of the incredible meaning and use of them. Considering my childhood, and as we all are individuals and have different journeys, the only tale that I can recall, other than the ones learned about in school, i.e., the Disney’s tales, was the Wizard of Oz. As an adult, I still have quite an obsession with the classic and something of which I am seem to passing on to both of my daughters. I am now addicted to the musical Wicked and the character of Elphaba. As a child, every year at Halloween, I refused to dress up as anything but the wicked witch. I think even as a young child I understood the concept that the witch was just misunderstood and just wanted to be heard. After reading the article, my views of fairy tales are changing. I agree with Bettleheim when he talks about the importance of fairy tales…

 “Children no longer grow up within the security of an extended family or of a well-integrated community. Therefore, it is even more important than it was when fairy tales were invented that the child be provided with images of heroes who have to go out into the world by themselves and, although they are originally ignorant of the ultimate things, find themselves secure things, find themselves secure places by following the way that is right for them with deep inner confidence.” 

I feel that this is a very important aspect of stories for children. Not only would fairy tales that speak to the individual needs of the child, help enable them to prosper, it would allow them to know from a very young age that their place in the world is accepted, loved and that they have a voice. I feel it is our responsibility to provide an array of tales to our growing children, fostering healthy emotional development.

jforde's picture

fairy tales vs. experience

Bruno Bettelheim argues that the idea that"deeper meaning resides in the fairy tales told to me in my childhood than in the truth that is taught by life..." holds true with young children because fairy tales reveal parts of reality that a child can understand. He is correct by saying that fairy tales are constructed in such a way that children can understand them. I don't believe that learning about life through fairy tales is more beneficial than through life experiences. He believes that children are not capable of understanding real life concepts. However, such neglect will also cause a child to live in a fantasy world and not realize that the world is more dangerous than he or she thinks it to be. If the child perceives fairy tales as a reflection of reality, then he or she will think that good and evil in the world are easily distinguishable when sometimes they are not.

I agree with him that fairy tales allow children to use their imagination. I also agree with him that this is an essential part of being a child. Often in his analysis he assumes that children are absorbing each small concept that a faity tale reveals and analyzing it into one's own lilfe. I think that children only like fairy tales as a story because they're enjoyable. Children do not try to apply fairy tales into their every day life unless it's for their imagination. I remember pretending that I was part of a fairy tale when I was younger just because they are a way of escaping reality. The magical element of fairy tales causes children to only see them as stories and not apply them to life.

carterian's picture

i had some issues with

i had some issues with bettelheim's article. there are some points that i agree with him on, but i feel like his argument has some flaws in it. he points out that fairy tales are stories that children can digest in their mind. it is something that they can comprehend on many levels. i, however, find that fairy tales may on some level help a child learn more about themself, but can also hinder their development and view of the world. while the original fairy tales may not cut corners like their disney versions (in the sense that violence and brutality exists), but the endings match up. the world unfolds as ideally as possible. the girl gets with the boy and the bad guys arent a problem anymore. when i was a child, i certainly knew that i didnt have a fairy godmother, and that there wasnt any king with a palace down the road. but i still wanted to be like cinderella, i wanted to look like her, have her pretty ball gown, and above all, i wanted a prince to sweep me off my feet. even at the age of 5. so, is bettelheim arguing that this is healthy? that this is the way a child should begin their path of learning through life? because let me tell you, fairy tales just raised my expectations and made me sad later in life when the world didn't live up to them.

now, i do agree that we can't have children's stories with all the bad elements erased, but we also shouldnt just make it seem like the world ends as it should. or that the child has some sort of power to make it better. according to my mom, when my brother was a young kid, he saw on 60 minutes a segment about women being burned in china, my brother was 6 years old. he felt that he had the power to change it. he felt that if he went over to china, and just told the people who were burning the women to stop, then the world would be all right. that they would stop. some may look at this as being endearing and sweet of my brother. but part of me believes that some of the fairy tales he heard of and watched in movies as he grew up maybe had to do with that. he wanted to be the hero.

so, i guess, i would like some sort of children's story that just tells it like it is. but as i keep thinking about it, that probably wouldnt be good for any child. but then again...what is?