Deeper into the Enchanted Woods We Go

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales (Vintage)Here are two more passages from the introduction which bear some consideration.
“It is characteristic of fairy tales to state an existential dilemma briefly and pointedly. This permits the child to come to grips with the problem in its most essential form, where a more complex plot would confuse matters for him. The fairy tale simplifies all situations. Its figures are clearly drawn, and details, unless very important, are eliminated. All characters are typical rather than unique.”
This is a very important distinction between fairy tales and fiction for children. In fiction for children, characters are described with many nuanced details of biography and personality, giving them three-dimensional life. We feel that we know a friendly and cheerful little boy like Wilbur, the pig in  Charlotte’s Web. Many of us have met a prickly and defensive kid on the wrong side of the child welfare groups, a Gilly from Katherine Paterson’s The Great Gilly Hopkins. We know precociously wise girls like studious Hermione Granger, and good-natured, loyal goof-buddies like Ron Weasley, Harry Potter’s sidekicks. One of the reasons kids are attracted to these books is because they are attracted to the characters, who are particular people (even if sometimes they are animals) and as such could be people they might meet or come to know.

On the other hand, fairy tales offer not characters but situations, the existential dilemmas of the above Bettelheim excerpt. We don’t want real-seeming characters in them, because we want to inhabit them ourselves, for a while. The “characters” in fairy tales are more like masks that we can try on to see how it feels. We don’t really know much of anything about Cinderella’s personality, but we can try on what it feels like to be rejected and excluded and abused, and then rewarded.

“Today [1975!] children no longer grow up with the security of an extended family, or of a well-integrated community. Therefore, even more than at the time fairy tales were invented, it is important to provide the modern child with images of heroes who have to go out into the world all by themselves and who, although originally ignorant of the ultimate things, find secure places in the world by following their right way with deep inner confidence.”

After all, isn’t this what we mean when we talk about courage? Deep inner confidence is certainly what I wish for my child, when she sets off in the world to seek her fortune. She has already had to walk through a pretty dark forest to get this far, and will have more dangerous terrain ahead. I hope that all the many stories we’ve shared will help light her way. Is she, and are the rest of today’s children, more in need of fairy tales than 1975’s children? I don’t know; I just know that all children need them, just as they need good novels with individualized characters, and family stories, and heroes from history. We may be living in the 21st Century, but I believe we need to bring the fairy tales with us into the future.  Einstein agreed, and who am I to argue with him?

One thought on “Deeper into the Enchanted Woods We Go

  1. MaryBeth

    Yes, Yes, Yes!!I agree with you.As a matter of fact, here is a bit I used whenever I needed to get a message across to my girls when they were little.I had two maiden aunts, Julia and Mary, who died long before my girls were born.They lived in an apartment in Yonkers and neither ever married.They were legends in our family for being a little ahead of their time.Whenever an issue would crop up in school or at home, I would use the half hour drive to school to tell a "Julia and Mary Story."I would of course make these stories up to suit the situation at hand.As you said, it was important not to give Julia or Mary too many attributes, other than Julia was the stronger of the two, but Mary was surprising resilient and could hold her own when the situation called for it. (Which it often did.) Julia and Mary battled sickness in the family, bullying at school, friends that let them down, losing treasured objects, death, you name it.I found that since one of my girls really couldn't handle heart to heart talks about anything, simply telling a Julia and Mary story about what the girls did in a similar situation was more readily accepted.Why is that?I have no idea.I just know it worked like a charm.They LOVED to hear the stories. Julia and Mary never let them down for pure excitement and independence, and they were actual people in our family, people whose blood my children had running through their veins.They really identified with Julia and Mary.Of course I think they were on to me that I seemed to know an awful lot of stories about Julia and Mary, but they didn't seem to care.It was too exciting to really matter, and of course all my sisters would vouch for the absolute authenticity of anything I said Julia and Mary did.Sometimes when you want to teach your kids something, you can't.They won't hear it.But a good fairy tale, told without opinion, may accomplish the same thing. Right?

  2. Jennifer Armstrong

    That's exactly it! I guess you could say you created a family folklore, with Julia and Mary as the "Jack" sort of character, right?Clever Jack, Foolish Jack, Brave Jack – we've met him in countless stories, with whatever attribute fits the bill. How cool that you did it instinctively!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *