The Uses Of Enchantment by Bruno Bettelhiem

This is the old 1970’s classic by Bruno Bettelheim, an exploration of the psychological meaning of Fairy Tales. It could be very out of date by now, but I found it extraordinary, so I thought I’d do a little review.

It’s only taken me a year or so to read (amongst other books as well, honest) because it is very dense and heavy going but well worth it.

I think I was attracted to the book because I’ve always had a deep respect for Fairy Tales – always intuited they have a deeper meaning, in some cases guessed at them, but never to this level. What he touches on but doesn’t explore to my satisfaction is one idea I’m fascinated with – the evolution of story. How generation after generation, the (fairy) story is moulded and evolves into something with deep meaning and important conscious and subconscious lessons. And then of course Disney get their hands on it, rob it of all meaning and indeed (as in the case of Cinderella) change the underlying meaning to something possibly harmful.

But to stay with the idea of evolution – my first attempt at storytelling was an invented fairytale where a man losses his voice to a seductive witch. I thought it had the potential to say a lot about power and expression, but without the help of generations of storytellers behind it wasn’t actually that good. The process of refining a story for so long – with the result of a completely barmy tale that should make no sense but actually resonates so powerfully across cultures and generations is incredibally humbling. It inspires me to try somthing similar and reinforces what an essential part storytelling is of human nature – and a way of passing on wisdom – and indeed letting it grow – from generation to generation.

But to look at specifics. In Cinderella, Disney invented the fairy godmother (though that may also have been the guy who recorded lots of these tales – can’t remember) – in any case it was changed. The original story had Cinderella ask her father to bring her back a stick from market, one that caught on his hat. Her sisters ask for expensive gown. She gets the twig, plant it, and it grows into a tree, from whence all the magic flows – getting her dolled up to go to the ball. This completely changes the story. In Disney’s version she’ s helped by a deus ex machina, the fairy godmother, in no way linked to her actions. But in the original, the tree represents her mother, and she nurtures and protects that motherly side while being bullied, so she grows internally as the tree grows. When it’s ready to flower, with magic, she’s ready to go out into the world and find a mate. In this version the magic is a result of all the time and effort she’s put to nurturing her internal development /the tree. It teaches no to expect an external saviour, that prograess comes from within, while the Disney version teaches that one should wait until something/someone comes along to make it all better – through no effort from yourself. Pretty profound difference and with a couple little girls looks like I’ll have to edit their Cinderella books as I read them from now on. And no Disney films. A couple of other random things stayed with me – and this is the corker – the glass shoe represents a vagina (yeah, the prince gives sit to her – I know. But apparently it works).

Moreover, different tales deal with different stages of life. Red Riding Hood is all about defying parental authority, Cinderella about sibling jealously and Beauty and the Beast about how to find a life partner – and all deal on some level with Oedipal issues.

The book is very Freudian, but also uses examples of little know tales, which again remind you  how magical and yet important these tales can be. It examines the symbolic language we share across cultures and gives an insight into a child’s development. It’s a fantastic book, not only insightful but also inspring, one I would I highly recommend to any storyteller, especially those writing the Hollywood version of Fairy Tales we’re getting at the moment – now I just have to find a way to employ something of this depth in my own writing.

So – go and read it. Here it is on Amazon


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