Today I’d like to offer a couple of passages from the introduction to Bruno Bettelheim’s landmark book, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales , originally published in 1975. This has been a supremely influential book over the years, although from here, in 2011, the heavy Freudian perspective feels somewhat dated. Nevertheless, there is much to be gleaned from these pages, even if you must take some of the analysis of individual tales with a grain or two of salt. Again, these passages are from the introduction, and so speak about fairy tales in general. For Einstein’s advice about fairy tales, be sure to read “Relativity.”
“This is exactly the message that fairy tales get across to the child in manifold form: that a struggle against severe difficulties in life is unavoidable, is an intrinsic part of human existence – but if one does not shy away, but steadfastly meets unexpected and often unjust hardships, one masters all obstacles and at the end emerges victorious.”
“The more I tried to understand why these stories are so successful at enriching the inner life of the child, the more I realized that these tales in a much deeper sense than any other reading material, start where the child really is in his psychological and emotional being. They speak about his severe inner pressures in a way that the child unconsciously understands, and – without belittling the most serious inner struggles which growing up entails – offer examples of both temporary and permanent solutions to pressing difficulties.”
Both of these passages speak, if indirectly, to the question of courage. Do these words not evoke the challenges for which children need courage: unexpected, unjust hardship, pressing difficulties? For children, everything is new. They don’t have decades of experience to compare their encounters with – many things are unexpected, many things affront their developing ideas of what is just. Many things are pressing difficulties for a child.
Bettelheim himself, an Austrian Jew, had some experience of unexpected and unjust hardship in the concentration camps of Dachau and Buchenwald. As an eminent child psychologist after World War II, he observed the sort of attention that children paid to fairy tales; in particular, he noted that children often ask for the same story again and again with real urgency while they are struggling with new concepts. He proposed that the stories help children understand the mystifying experience of life in symbolic terms.
Some experiences are too big to grapple with directly, and can only be approached by using stand-ins. Metaphors, in my opinion, are a great achievement of humanity and a really great tool for parents. Children need not go unarmed and unarmored into the world, not if they have stories as both sword and shield, and as flag of truce.