The Uses of Enchantment by Bruno Bettelheim: Book Review

The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales written by Bruno Bettelheim was published in 1976. Bruno Bettelheim was a distinguished Professor of Psychology, Psychiatry and Education at the University of Chicago. For this book, Bettelheim won the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1977.

Fairy Tales have been an integral part of our lives. To quote Charles Dickens, “Little Red Riding Hood was my first love. I felt that if I could have married little Red Riding Hood, I should have known perfect bliss.” Similarly, we have all imagined ourselves to be the Princess in distress or the Prince on a rescue or enacted the younger sister warding off an evil witch.

By ‘Fairy Tales’, we essentially refer to the compilation of stories by Grimm Brothers. This includes the universally popular fairy tales – Cinderella, Rapunzel, Jack and the Beanstalk, Hansel and Gretel, etc. While growing up, they have been an integral part of us, yet, we never bother to revisit them in our adult lives. This book reveals the importance of fairy tales, their contribution to our emotional construct as children and how it shapes us into our present self.

It is an important book in the present context as most parents fret about their children’s cognitive development. This book explains the interconnection between child’s psychological development and fairy tales. For the new parents, especially mothers who feel that fairy tales may be archaic and certain villainous characters or depictions of violence may have a harmful effect on young minds; this book presents an enlightened perspective.

The book is divided into two parts – A Pocketful of Magic and In Fairy Land. The first part lays stress on the child’s inner fears and their response to the fairy tales. The author has corroborated his findings based on a research with children, and how certain fairy tales had the kind of effect on them. In the second part, there are eight fairy tales that are elaborately explained.

The book begins with an introduction by Bruno Bettelheim on children’s literature; explaining how storytelling by parents or grandparents play a crucial part in a child’s life. These stories may seek “to entertain or to inform”. Bettelheim is suggests that modern-day literature focuses more on entertainment. Nevertheless, he stresses that along this dicey path, “it must stimulate his (child’s) imagination; help him to develop his intellect and to clarify his emotions…

What this book really does is…

It makes you think beneath the ‘text’ in the fairy tales. There is context to the simple stories of wandering, being lost and finding a way back home. Out of such silly or over the top narratives, one understands the linkages that the child will have with the characters and how he/ she will develop awareness regarding the world. 

Does reading this book help the ‘Writer’ in you, with the urge to write for Children?

The book definitely dissects the existing fairy tales. It explains child psychology and the impact stories have on them. One learns about characterization in stories for children, simple plots and employing clarity in terms of good versus evil. You understand the tragedy in fairy tales, the way Hans Andersen presented against the vast pool of stories that delved on positive endings.

The basic premise is explained in terms of the characters portrayed in fairy tales. In general, characters are not given names in fairy tales; they are referred as “brother”, “sister”, “father”, “mother”, “stepmother”, “a poor fisherman”, “a King”, “a queen”, “a prince”, “a princess”. Then, there are witches, giants, Godmothers and unnamed characters facilitating projections and identifications. Even when names were given, the first name and common names like Jack, Hansel and Gretel (they were generic/ common names of the times) were assigned.

In fairy tales, there is one sister who is virtuous and industrious, others who are vile and evil – like in Cinderella’s story. The Good and the Bad are the two absolutes. Such polarities of characterization help in comprehension for the young minds.

There are other interesting things deciphered in the course of understanding each story like the age determinant for Cinderella based on the fact that she hasn’t yet acquired aversion for the rats. Therefore, as readers or listeners of fairy tales, you get exposed to the nuances of story writing in this book.

Fairy tales stress upon three attempts. This has been a common thread, right from ‘Three Little Pigs’. In the story, ‘The Three Feathers‘, though the youngest son is least intelligent, he is led to the dark insides to be helped by an old toad in achieving the tasks set by his father. The clever elder two brothers do not learn from their coarse choice of things in the repeated three attempts. Though the youngest one turns out victorious in the first attempt itself; it requires two more attempts to establish his victory, playing by the rule of three. The purpose of repeated three attempts is to sync with the child’s desire for repetition and also to instill the faith that the end result is an absolute based on three tests.

So, there are great tips embedded in the book for those seeking to write for children.

What makes a Fairy Tale?

There is a segment that clearly distinguishes between fairy tales and moral stories like that of Aesop’s tales.

The Ugly Duckling‘ is not a fairy tale, as it depends on the natural course of life for transformation into something worthy. In fairytales, no matter what, the final transformation is back to the original (mostly, human) form.

The story by Hans Andersen ‘The Little Match Girl’ is a moralistic tale but leads to only defeatism and pessimism. Fairy Tales have positive endings.

Similarly, mythological stories have tragedy as their main theme. In mythology, the displeasure of a God for no significant reason wrecks pain and misery on the characters.

In ‘The Three Little Pigs story, the ‘Pleasure principle versus Reality principle’ is explained in simple language. This is the reason why ‘Three Little Pigs’ is more popular than ‘The Grasshopper and Ants’ from the Aesop’s Fables. Grasshopper is like the child who is bent upon to play, with little concern for the future. Having made the choice, things are settled forever. In ‘The Three Little Pigs’ story, there are stages of development. There is progress from the pleasure principle to the reality principle.

Retributive justice is done (the theory that holds the best response to a crime is a punishment proportional to the offense).

In the story, ‘The Three Languages’ – In Switzerland, there lived a count who sent his son to study with three different masters. The first time, the son learned “what the dogs bark”. The second year, he learned “what the birds speak.” Third-year, he learnt “what the frogs croak”. Finally, he ordered his servants to take away his son and cast him out in the forest for he deemed him to be an idiot to learn such frivolous things from the masters. Though the servants take pity and leave him alive in the forest. Now, the boy comes across a village pestered by dogs and rescues the villagers from them. Then, the frogs tell him his future and he reaches Rome where cardinals are discussing designating the next Pope. The doves speak to the boy and make him ‘Pope’.

The story presents the linkage between three elements described as ‘Earth’, ‘Water’ and ‘Air’. Significance of frogs in fairy tales is because of the metaphorical meaning. The changing from living in water as tadpoles to amphibians is a motif for the character’s transformation waiting in the future.

Again, going by the norm, in the story, ‘The Three Feathers’, the youngest child is a simpleton.

Bettelheim reveals that the theme of 3 siblings can be associated with two parents and a child.  

Fairy Tales and Existential Predicament

Fairy tales introduce the child to the concepts of death, aging and eternal life.

In order to master the psychological problems of growing up – overcoming narcissistic disappointments, oedipal dilemmas, sibling rivalries; becoming able to relinquish childhood dependencies, gaining a feeling of selfhood and of self-worth, and a sense of moral obligation – a child needs  to understand what is going on within his conscious self so that he can also cope with that which goes in his unconscious ‘ruminating, rearranging and fantasizing about suitable story elements in response to unconscious pressures.’

Fairy tales prepare a child for the outside world. Fairy tale characters wander in isolation and are ultimately rewarded. The dark forest is the outside world. There is comfort in these stories when the child is taking his/ her first steps towards independence at the school-going age. It helps them to overcome the separation anxiety, fear of the unknown world and strangers.

The hope that these stories provide is explained in aspects of fairy tales such as Rapunzel’s hair, where the girl finds reassurance in one’s own body.  In ‘Hansel and Gretel’, the younger sister is under the wisdom and care of the elder brother. Hansel ensures to put pebbles on the way to get back home, showcasing his acumen. However, in the end, it is the younger sister’s bravery that saves them. So, the young one listening to the story begins to trek on the road to self-belief.   

Bettelheim picks up stories from ‘The Arabian Nights‘ as well, for example, ‘The Fisherman and The Jinny‘ that in the West, is exemplified in Grimm Brother’s ‘The Spirit in the Bottle‘. In the story, a fisherman casts his net; first, he catches a dead Jackass, the second time a pitcherful of mud and sand, the third time potsherds and broken glass. In the last, fourth time, it is a copper jar, from which a huge cloud emerges and becomes a ‘Jinny’. The Jinny threatens to kill the fisherman but he applies his intelligence and says he could not believe that the Jinny could fit in the jar.

This Jinny had waited for the first 100 years locked inside the jar and hoped that whosoever would release him, would be rewarded with riches. Another 400 years passed by, during which he thought of opening the hoards of the earth for the one who releases him. In the next 400 years, he thought to grant three wishes. Thereupon, without any luck, he decided that whoever would set him free, he will slay him. The feeling resonates with the child when he/ she is “deserted”. The initial thought of reward is replaced by revenge. ‘Jinny in the bottle’, also stands as a metaphor for bottled up feelings.    

Since it is a fairy tale out of never-never-land which presents the child with these images of behaving, he can swing back and forth in his own mind

In Fairy Land

The second section of the book is about the detailed analysis of eight prominent fairy tales. Here, the author gets into details. For example, the story of ‘Cinderella’, the name derived from cinders, meaning the girl lived near the ashes (perhaps the Kitchen area). Now, the meanings and the connotations of places and acts would have changed during the century.

Then, it explores the motif behind the cruel stepmother. It is important for Cinderella to work hard and overcome the problems by herself. The subtle role of the father is assumed, common to almost all the stories, hence enforcing the notion of mothers as primary caregivers.

The sibling rivalry is an important aspect. The stepmother is not punished because she is a mode of positive change in Cinderella; the stepsisters are punished. Apart from Grimm’s popular version, Bettelheim provides Perrault’s version of Cinderella, where certain sections are added and the role of the animals. There is the invention of glass shoe that is fragile and can be broken. Secondly, when the elder stepsister mutilates her feet to put her feet, it is the transparent glass that exposes the deception. The birds sing to reveal. This version mentions the role of deceased mother in Cinderella, where the young girl regular visits the burial place and a tree marks the spot. The birds living in the tree sing to the Prince to expose the deception of the stepsisters.

Similarly, the original ‘Jack and the bargains’ is different from the present-day popular version of ‘Jack and the beanstalk’. In the earlier tale, Jack bargains three things and the father is angered. In the same fashion as Cinderella, Bettelheim explains Jack and the beanstalk, Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White, Goldilocks and the Three Bears and The Sleeping Beauty.

My Recommendation

The book is written in a scholarly manner. So, there were times when I felt lost between the text and the footnotes. Also, a lot of stories come back and forth in an explanation against various facets of fairy tales. Fairytales have always fascinated me and deciphering the true meaning hidden in them, was my motivation to continue reading through the 310 pages.

My suggestion: grab the book if you love fairy tales or want to write for children or are a Psychology or a Creative Writing student. Surely, it lets your brain begin to think in different directions (reading this book may make you feel like the Dan Brown of fairyland). 

This post is a part of #BlogchatterA2Z challenge under Alphabet B.

5 thoughts on “The Uses of Enchantment by Bruno Bettelheim: Book Review

  1. Pingback: Blogchatter’s 'Blogging With A Purpose' #CauseAChatter: Theme Reveal – Bookishloom

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