The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales by Bruno Bettelheim has been on my to-be-read list for ages. I’m finally getting to it. Bettelheim was a psychologist who, as far as I can tell, was a student of Freud’s brand of psychology. I prefer Jungian psychology but I can get behind Bettelheim’s arguments all the same. My motivation for reading it is to understand the universal-archetype/only-story-ever-told concept in more depth by combining the psychology of that with the purpose of fairy tales.
Bettleheim’s focus is on the use of fairy tales in raising children (he was a child psychologist) in order to help them deal with universal human problems. These are not the Disney version of the fairy tales, but the ones where the bad guy is the one getting ahead at the beginning of the story – a la Cinderella’s step sisters. Bettelheim’s theory is that many parents believe that they must divert the child from what troubles him, like nameless anxieties, anger that isn’t understood, or even violent fantasies. Parents don’t want kids to know the propensity for humans to act aggressively, asocially, or selfishly. They want kids to think everyone is good. But children know they aren’t good all the time and this sets up cognitive dissonance (my words, not his). His words are that it makes the child a monster in his own eyes. Yikes.
Here is where Freud comes in. He felt that “by struggling courageously against what seem like overwhelming odds can man succeed in wringing meaning out of his existence.” Cue the fairy tale message that a struggle against severe difficulties in life is unavoidable, but if one steadfastly meets unexpected and often unjust hardships, one masters all obstacles and at the end emerges victorious (Hero’s Journey anyone?).
Now that we’ve gotten to the Hero’s Journey portion, the romance novel enters the script. Many fairy tales begin with the death of a mother or father, or the impending death, and the child has to overcome whatever problems are created by this. It is that or some other existential dilemma (conflict). Then there are characters who are clearly good and others who are clearly evil. In contemporary fiction, this can be mixed up a little (or a lot – Linda Howard’s Death Angel). For a kid and a writer, creating the evil character who is not without attractiveness is important (the cunning, beautiful queen in Snow White). You want people to respond to your characters. Morality isn’t the point of these stories, but rather the assurance that one can succeed in life.
Story-wise, fairy tales often start out with a usurper succeeding for a time in seizing the place/power which rightfully belongs to the hero (again Cinderella). The message for the child and for the romance reader is that it’s not about punishing the evildoer, but that virtue wins out in the end (okay, the evil dude can be punished). The hero suffers through trials and tribulation and the reader identifies with these and triumphs with the hero as virtue is victorious, as the hero’s cunning and perseverance wins the day.
And the key romance take-away from Bettelheim’s look at fairy tales is that the uniformed view of the happy-every-after type ending is unrealistic wish-fulfillment, but the alternative is that only by going out in the world and overcoming/outliving the evil around us can we truly be happy.
Has anyone read this? What are your takeaways?