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  • Participating in Enchantment
  • Betty Jo McGrade (bio)
The Uses of Enchantment, by Bruno Bettelheim. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976. $12.50.

Bettelheim's new book is not addressed primarily to students of children's literature who appreciate the enchantment, the complexity, and subtlety of fairy tales. The adults he hopes to reach are those who advocate "realistic" stories for children, stories with positive messages about handling everyday crises, recognizing ambivalent feelings, and working toward attainable goals. He argues [End Page 234] persuasively that "realism" is foreign to children's own ways of thinking and therefore fails to recognize, much less help resolve, their central problems. He goes beyond the enumeration of symbols in fairy tales to focus on the stories as a source of hope for the future which makes development toward maturity attractive and thus possible. Although Bettelheim clearly appreciates the literary qualities of fairy tales and identifies these as the source of our delight in hearing the stories, he disclaims any intention of analyzing their literary, historical, or religious characteristics. His focus is on these tales as the one art form fully comprehensible to children, one which speaks to them on unconscious as well as conscious levels, conveying an appreciation of their struggles and promising the happy ending which makes their struggles worthwhile.

The view outlined in the preceding paragraph clearly depends on a theory of child development—of how children think and feel at various ages and what enables them to mature. Bettelheim's orientation is psychoanalytic, and the familiar Freudian stages and symbols are referred to throughout, the book. His handling of these topics is extraordinarily sensitive. Take, for example, the following quotation from his discussion of living "happily ever after" and the fact that fairy tales do not specify details of the hero's later life with the princess he has won:

A child cannot and does not want to imagine what is actually involved in being a husband and father. . . . The little boy certainly doesn't want Mother to be busy with housekeeping or taking care of other children. He doesn't want to have sex with her either, because that is still an area full of conflict for him, if he has much awareness of it at all. As in most fairy tales, the little boy's ideal is just he and his princess (Mother), all their needs and wishes taken care of, living by themselves and for each other forever.

[The Uses of Enchantment, p. 112]

This is a description of Oedipal wishes and is identified as such, but it is both more accurate and more interesting than the stereo-types too often presented as "Freudian." Bettelheim's intimate knowledge of children and his feeling for them make this a very special book. He does not state his view of childhood and the human condition in any one part of the volume. Instead, he meshes fairy tale material and its interpretation with discussions of the human needs relevant to particular stories. This produces a loose structure which can be confusing and repetitive at times, but the [End Page 235] book is rich enough to reward persistence. Indeed, this complexity of presentation may allow the reader, like the hearer of fairy tales, to accept what is helpful at the moment, returning to different aspects of the material later as different needs arise. I have summarized some of Bettelheim's central points below, but I encourage readers to work through The Uses of Enchantment themselves, making their own selections from its humane, literate, and curiously tough-minded contents.

Bettelheim's definition of fairy stories (which he differentiates from myths, fables, and cautionary tales) emphasizes their happy endings. As children hear many fairy tales and come to know that a satisfactory conclusion is guaranteed, they are increasingly able to enter into the events described. Children recognize intuitively that "once upon a time," is not "now" and that the stories are "unreal," although not "untrue." Their truth lies in the fact that they fit children's own preoccupations and ways of understanding the world. For example, the mortal terror, rage, despair, and triumph in fairy tales mirror the intensity of children's feelings. A belief...


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pp. 234-238
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