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Bruno Bettelheim's The Uses of Enchantment

Updated on January 30, 2016
The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales
The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales

There are dozens of great books about fairy tales on the market. Some of them focus on their history, others on benefits of folktales for children, others again try to use them in psychoanalysis...

Bettelheim's Uses of Enchantement is not the bost of them. It's loaded with logic and other errors. In many premises kit's just plain wrong. Yet we can say it's the book where everybody, who would like to dig into the magic kingdom of fairy tales, should start.

This is definitely the most influential book about the meaning behind the seemingly simple stories we are all aware of. The book, which will open a whole new world of options for parents, techers and therapeuts. Dn't hesitate on reading it.


This is probably the most important book about the theory of fairy tales. Not the best. It is actually full of false assumptions and far from being scientific. But first things first.

Being a child is not an easy job. There are many moments when a kid is scared, helpless, abandoned, just like heroes in Hansel and Gretel, Snow White, Goldilocks and other classics. Well, not every kid is lost in the wood, enchanted by witches or eaten by a bad wolf, but on some subconscious level similar the fears exist at every kid. This is the place where Uses of Enchantment enters.

The starting premise of Bettelheim's book is similarity of fairy tales with dreams. Freud's symbolism used in an interpretation of dreams can be used for interpretation of classic stories for kids too. Listening to imaginary plots in imaginary worlds (there should be at least one story appropriate for every occasion) can help kids dealing with their personal demons on the subconscious level, so they will be better prepared to solve the real problems in the real world.

Fairy tales, just like dreams, operate on symbolic levels, which are very close to work of children's minds. Kid's pattern of thinking is not as logical and structural as of a grown-up.

This simply means story-telling can help our youngsters to grow up in healthy, responsible citizens!

In other words: without proper tales, children can't become fully developed persons and the future of humanity is in danger ...

Sleeping Beauty is one of Bettelheim's favorites
Sleeping Beauty is one of Bettelheim's favorites | Source

For every beginner in the world of literary theory Uses of Enchantment is a real revelation. It clearly shows how something as simple as the story about Red Riding Hood can be understood on different symbolic levels with different messages. On the other hand, it is only fair to say this book despite being fluent reading and sparkling with the ideas, has some serious limitations.

The biggest one is author's system of values which is very similar to values of brothers Grimm in the 19th century. So Bettelheim simply neglects older stories because 'they were not fully developed yet' and all newer versions 'because their initial purpose is lost for the sake of entertainment'. Bettelheim ignores most of Andersen's fairy tales because they often don't have happy endings and praises the collection of brothers Grimm as an ultimate achievement in the field of folklore.

Bettelheim believed a happy ending is an inseparable part of every fairy tale. Without a satisfactory conclusion, the story just doesn't deliver the desired solution of kids' fears which should be dealt with in he process of growing up.

Endings are one of the simplest elements by which we can question the Bettelheim's theories. Is that true? Can only happily ever after provide the right message?

Definitely not. Every serious scholar knows how powerful is catharsis in good tragedy. It clears one's mind and body much better than dozens of comedies. Of course, we can't expect all this in a simple fairy tale, but it is obvious many Andersen's or Wilde's tales, although with sad endings, provide much more than many stories with happy endings.

So we should read this book with a pinch of salt? Sure!

With lots of salts, actually ...

But it is still a great start for everybody who wants to explore hidden meaning of this (and others) important part of literature which is unfortunately too often underestimated at parents. You have the right to disagree with at least some of the theories explained in Bettelheim's masterpiece (and you should!), but, please, never forget how very true is the main message of Uses of Enchantment, so nicely summarized in its subtitle in German edition:

Children need fairy tales.

With this book, you'll understand why.

Ever felt lost in the woods?
Ever felt lost in the woods? | Source

Bettelheim was controversial for several reasons:

- he presented himself as psychologist although he got a degree on history of art

- his methods of teaching with brutal punishments were at least questionable if not unacceptable

- he defended controversial book Eichman in Jerusalem, where was the actions of this Nazi officers presented as only obeying duties and following the law.

- he also produced completely wrong theories about autism which was, according to Bettelheim, caused by emotionally distant mothers and weak fathers

- he wasn't able to accept a simple fact different people have different values

I'll not go into his questionable political and medical statements, I just want to note his work was built on questionable integrity. This should not stop you from reading the book. It is still best available start of the journey in the land of magic.

Watch this BBC's documentary about Bettelheim's life and work

The science of fairy tales

If you still believe fairy tales are 'just stories for kids', think again. Thousands of academics are dealing with them on very different levels. Bettelheim as a psychologist was only one, although probably (at least for some time) the most influential of them.

At this very moment, folklorists can offer more than every other group. They are relating fairy tales, sometimes in hundreds of different variations to each other and to certain eras in the history. They are grouping them by themes, motifs, plots and characters. Their systems became so complex it started to resemble the evolutionary tree.

The types are marked by letters and numbers and these can sometimes reveal surprising relations among the development of similar stories in very different cultures. Th study of fairy tales became an important source for researchers in fields of history, philosophy, and other scientific areas.

A very interesting approach was done by Vladimir Propp, Russian folklorist, who 'dismantled' sometimes very complex stories into basic elements. He defined seven characters which are present in fairy tales (sometimes only a few, sometimes only one and sometimes all) and 31 functions from the initial start to the very end (again - in most cases only a few of these functions are present, but never more than 31).

His work can look very scientific for a beginner, but it is actually the basic literary work for everybody who is interested in the structure of every dramatic text - from a simple note to series of full-length novels.

Morphology of the Folktale
Morphology of the Folktale

This is great alternative with proper scientific background. If Bettelheim's book already charmed you, Propp's will convince you there is a real science behind.

Interesting trivia: this book is at the top of the lists of books which are most often stolen in libraries!


Theory of Folklore and Fairy Tales...

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How dark is too dark?

Very important question about fairy tales is dealing with their appropriateness for children. Some, especially older versions are dealing with themes which can be too dark and even horrifying for children.

Many people believe kids should be served only soft, diluted versions of classic fairy tales where for instance Hansel and Gretel are lost in the woods, not abandoned by their parents, or Red Riding Hood convinced the wolf he should stop eating people because this is just not a nice thing to do.

This approach is dangerous for at least three simple reasons:

1. Kids, in general, can deal with much more than we think. It's every parent's responsibility to find out when and how the ugly truth about the real dangers in real life should be served, but it should be offered, and it should be presented with proper support (by a parent or an educator).

2. Like or not, sooner or later, children will bump into real threats and dangers. One day they will meet a bully. One day they will see a dead bird. If we hide our kids from outside world for too long, they'll be unprepared in those moments and it is very likely they'll feel disappointed with us because we didn't provide them the proper support when we should.

3. Stories without real conflicts are plain boring and not worthy to remember. They will never deliver any kind of useful message and will never help to establish the system of moral and ethical values.

We can find witches all over the world (by Ivan Bilibin)
We can find witches all over the world (by Ivan Bilibin) | Source

Image credits

All used images are public domain by American and EU copyright laws because they were first published before 1923 and made by artists who are at least 70 years dead. You can find more about them by clicking on the images.

All the editing was done by me.

Ever heard about this famous book?

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    • TolovajWordsmith profile image

      Tolovaj Publishing House 4 years ago from Ljubljana

      @WriterJanis2: It is very important book. Second look can't hurt;)

    • WriterJanis2 profile image

      WriterJanis2 4 years ago

      Had to take another look at this.

    • WriterJanis2 profile image

      WriterJanis2 4 years ago

      Back to be sure I liked this lens.

    • TolovajWordsmith profile image

      Tolovaj Publishing House 4 years ago from Ljubljana

      @WriterJanis2: Yes, controversy is part of his charm...

    • WriterJanis2 profile image

      WriterJanis2 4 years ago

      I haven't, but upon reading, I think I would already disagree with some of his ways.