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The Uses of Enchantment - Book Review

By Dindrane - posted 12.07.03 @ 1:43 am
The Uses of Enchantment book cover art

Written by: Bruno Bettelheim
Published by: Vintage Books

Written by a child psychologist, The Uses of Enchantment investigates how faery tales affect children, including a story-by-story analysis of many of the most common tales. It is Bettelheim's claim that faery tales are invaluable in educating, strengthening, and supporting children. He argues that the frightening aspects of faery tales, including their unadulterated violence and sexual aspects, should not be removed; rather, such things enable children to grow up stronger, believing that every conflict has a resolution. Trying to isolate children from the reality of violence, the author claims, does them a very real disservice; faery tales can serve to redress this imbalance.

There are, however, some problems with Bettelheim's claims. While many of his claims regarding the symbolism of the tales are interesting, claiming the source of a given mytheme, ripped from its story-context, is dangerous even for the most seasoned analyst, particularly when only one possible reading (the Freudian one) is accepted. In typical Freudian fashion, he neglects the fact that sexuality isn't the only issue in growing up. Undoubtedly, faery tales can be quite valuable to a child's progression, or even an adult's, but the author does not always succeed in making his more challenging points. Bettelheim does not address the fact that many faery tales, even some of those included in common anthologies, do not end well for the hero/heroine. How, then, could a child, consciously or otherwise, learn to believe in the power of goodness or even their own power to find resolutions? Also, faery tales were not originally just for children; they were for adults as well. To claim, then, that they were intended to teach children valuable lessons is fallacious. Perhaps they can be used in the manner he suggests, but that would be a modern use, not an ancient one.

In short, while some of Bettelheim's views are compelling or at least interesting (using folklore to encourage children to love literature or to understand that there is real suffering in the world), there are serious questions about the universality of their applicability. It is, as always, a good idea to expose children to as many imaginary worlds as possible and to aid them in building their own minds and creative powers; however, it is not possible to predict as perfectly as Bettelheim would claim how any given child will respond to a particular story, nor is it a good idea to take a work out of context and impose upon it our own adult neuroses and desires. The stories are what they are--sometimes violent, sometimes blatantly or covertly sexual, and sometimes useful for children and adults, alike. To shove them into a preconceived Freudian ideal is to do them, and the children who hear them, a grave disservice. Faery tales may, in fact, serve to assist children in the struggle of growing up, but you couldn't prove it using only Bettelheim's arguments. Still, this book may be of use to people like myself who are dedicated to faery tales and narratology, or people simply interested in modern child psychology. It is not appropriate for someone wishing to study folklore itself or the historical uses for them.

Grade: C-

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Dindrane is a writer, scholar, translator, professor and freelance classicist for hire. When she is not assisting the animal kingdom in the overthrow of humanity, she reads. She has, in fact, read more books than you. Do not test her on this. When she is not reading, she is serving as Minister of Anime and Manga Studies at Need Coffee Dot Com. She lives and works in North Alabama and is under the misguided assumption she is boring. She can be found on Twitter at @DindraneErin. She has written 340 posts. See them all here.

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