The Uses of Enchantment: Fairy Tales That Feed

The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning And Importance of Fairy Tales § Bruno Bettelheim

The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales (Vintage)This book attempts to show how fairy stories represent in imaginative form what the process of healthy human development consists of, and how the tales make such development attractive for the child to engage in.”

Usually, I avoid introductions in books because they tend to be a lot of wank.  However, Bettelhem’s intro is actually useful.  It scaffolds the logic for the rest of the book. 

Bettelheim’s experience and research are combined in a scholarly book about fairy tales – specifically, why they are vital to the psychological development of children.  I completely agree that people who pooh-pooh fairy tails as childish nonsense are completely missing the point.  They are designed for children! Hellooo!  Children have a different level of thought patterns from adults. To demonize imaginative stories for being too unrealistic is …well…unrealistic.  Just like literature is dress rehearsal for life (Kelly Gallagher), fairy tales “meet children where they are” psychologically and does the same for them; it shows them in symbolic form, patterns of thought and models of behavior. 

Forsaking fairy tales and other stories of magic and imagination means you lose out on developing your problem-solving skills.  The ability to analogize our dilemmas is, I think, a mechanism that started when we were little and reading stories about escaping from evil giants and outsmarting bears. 

Bettelheim goes in-depth about what fairy tales represent to the mind of the child in transition. Specifically, in stories about young girls where their blood is involved, he suggests that the blood is representative of menstrual blood and the idea that the girl is starting a journey to physical maturity and sex.  Fairy tales seem a safe way to soften the blow for them, to ease their fears about what bleeding means for them.  For boys, he starts with how boys compete with fathers for the attention of a mother, a situation that takes many symbolic forms, often battling giants or beasts (thinly-veiled authority figures).  In both schemas, children who read these stories are applying age-appropriate logic and form to their own feelings and perceptions.  Key word: “age-appropriate”.  B. uses the words “Freudian” and “oedipal” a lot. I’m not convinced those are the best expressions he can use, but he’s the authority. 

In my experience, when I read fairy tales, I didn’t think about those things.  My thoughts were about the surface meanings.  Being rescued, being awakened, travelling, dealing with problematic siblings.  It wasn’t until I was much older that I started to explore the deeper meanings, such as the type Bettelheim writes about.  I had no use for Bettelheim’s depth of thought when I was seven.  It would have meant nothing to me.  When I was twenty-seven, however, I had acquired the intellectual skills that enabled me to appreciate what Bettelheim has to say.

While Bettelheim digs and digs and digs into the psychology of fairy tales, relying much on Freudian psychology, he sees more than a child would.  He understands things about these stories that a child will not understand for a couple more decades.  That makes this book a chore to read sometimes.  Don’t look for any satisfaction from the fairy tales themselves.  He also does a good job of sucking all the fun out of them.  It’s a scholarly book, after all. 

On page 134 of my edition, B. writes, in essence, that if a child does not practice acting out in his/her  mind during childhood, (fantasies of revenge, dispensing justice, going against authority, and various unsavory characteristics) then he/she does not learn to deal with and control those unsavory urges in real life.  They will end up acting out in real life with real-life negative consequences.  Also, folk fairy tales that address the culture of a child are especially valuable for helping a child make sense of the circumstances in which they live.

Children need sensitivity.  Fairy tales offer this.  Life is scary and confusing and unfair.  What purpose does it serve to throw that in the face of a 6-year-old.  They will figure it out by reading imaginative stories, and they will have models of good character to imitate.

This book is good for teachers or anyone who works with children in a professional capacity.  B. is (was?) “an educator and therapist of severely disturbed children”.  That being the case, he has some useful insight into what a good fairy tale should be/have.  

Thumbnail of Bruno Bettelheim

An interesting article on a biography of author Bettelheim from 1997

MY BOOK HOUSE – The Back Story

MY BOOK HOUSE @ The Festering Blurb:

Andrew Lang’s Fairy Books at


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