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The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales

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Bruno Bettelheim, célebre psicólogo infantil, se interesó en la influencia que podían ejercer los cuentos de hadas en los nin̆os y llegó a la conclusión que tiene una extraordinaria importancia para la formación moral e intelectual de los nin̆os. A la luz del Psicoanálisis y la atención de nińos durante muchos an̆os pudo llegar a corroborar el importante papel que desempen̆an estos cuentos en sus vidas.

352 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1975

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About the author

Bruno Bettelheim

93 books116 followers
Bruno Bettelheim was an Austrian-born American child psychologist and writer. He gained an international reputation for his views on autism and for his claimed success in treating emotionally disturbed children.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 478 reviews
Profile Image for Trevor.
1,283 reviews21.5k followers
March 7, 2014
I’ve been meaning to read this for years. This isn’t quite what I was expecting, though. And given this was published in 1976 it seems much too Freudian than it ought to have been too. There were times when I would have been sure it was written in the 1950s.

Now, saying this is a Freudian analysis of fairy tales might be enough to put some people off. And that would be a real pity. There are few things more suited to a Freudian interpretation than literature – as a teacher of mine once said, ‘better literature than people’. All the same, it would be hard to not feel confronted by some of these interpretations and readings. I read many of these to my daughters while they were growing up, but now I find it remarkable that I didn’t notice any of the sexual metaphors. I’m obviously much more naïve than I pretend. Even to myself.

The short version of what this book is about is that fairy tales are a very particular genre. There is very little ambiguity to them – at least, not on the surface. Bad people are BAD. Good people are GOOD. Ugly people are UGLY and the beautiful are BEAUTIFUL. There are no shades of grey. Good people need to be rewarded, bad people need to be punished. People are kings and queens or dirt poor. Like the US at the moment, there is the 1% and then there is everyone else and bugger all in-between.

There is a supernatural quality to these stories – they are set at a ‘time’ when animals could still talk or long ago when magic wasn’t quite so unusual. The author says this is incredibly important as it allows children to know the world depicted is not real and so is a safe place for them to engage their wish-fulfilment – in all its excess and sometimes in all its horror.

The author has very few nice things to say about Perrault, someone who ‘did a Disney’ to French fairy tales. This generally involved getting rid of many of the more gruesome aspects of the stories and making the morals much more ‘clear’. The problem here is that the moral of the story ought to be left a bit unclear because the same story can mean very different things to the same child at different times while growing up. Although, after reading this book, I suspect that one of the major audiences for fairy tales really ought to be adults.

So, what does a Freudian analysis of a fairy tale look like? Well, you know there is going to be repressed sex and Oedipus is going to rate more than the occasional mention, things are going to look like penises and that isn’t just something you might notice along the way, but be really very significant. In fact, unlike in the real world, no penis is ever going to be insignificant. And then there’s going to be guilt – lots of that. And repression – let’s not forget about repression. Sorry, this makes it sound like I’m being flippant about this book – in fact, when I first worked out this book was going to be a Freudian reading I was much more flippant than now that I’ve finished. This really was a very impressive book, but there were more than enough penises, repressed Oedipal complexes and castration fears to make a couple of dozen Woody Allen films.

I’m going to do Cinderella, only because I get to mention King Lear – which, oddly enough, Nell mentioned under my review of King Lear and I remember going, ‘oh yeah’ at the time, but never really thought it through as much as I ought to have – now Lear and Cinderella are intimately linked for me and not because this is even a laboured part of the book – in fact, without checking I’m not even sure if he draws out the connection or not.

One of the things I really believe is that love is about acceptance of someone else, acceptance of them FOR their scars, not despite them. And that is why love is quite rare, if not, in fact, depressingly rare.

Cinderella’s mother dies and her father asks her what she would like him to bring her, she says a cutting from a tree that knocks his hat. When she gets this she puts it on her mother’s grave and her tears wet it in. It grows into a great tree. But the father marries again and Cinderella is confronted with a step-mother and two siblings. The big lesson in this book is that there is no such thing as a ‘step’ anything, or of a monster – monsters and step-mothers are generally fathers and mothers in their Oedipal ‘nasty’ incarnations. So, Cinderella, on one level, is about a young girl who wants to take her mother’s place in her father’s affections. This needs to be repressed and so the mother can’t be the ‘real’ mother – but an unkind and horrible replacement mother. One that sets impossible tasks and then banishes the young girl to lie in the dirt and in the filth. But this is also a story of sibling rivalry; the ugly stepsisters that have ultimate power over Cinderella and who she must degrade herself before.

What is interesting here is that Cinderella is removed from her mother’s love – in fact, denied this love even when she performs, via magic, all of the tasks assigned her by her mother. Such is the jealousy of mother to a daughter seeking to take her place. And such are the obligations of growing up – that what can seem like insurmountable difficulties need to be overcome and what is a horrible refusal of parental care and love is actually motivation for growth out of childhood.

He reminds us that Cinderella is a story of Chinese origin – hence the small feet as a sign of elegance. But even if this was not the case, as he makes clear, men are big in fairy tales (it is one of the oppositions set up) and so the smaller a woman the more feminine she will appear to be. So, Cinderella’s little feet mean she is more feminine than her two ‘ugly’ sisters, who, because everything is done for them never get the opportunity at the transformation of their lives Cinderella is presented with.

In the Brothers Grimm version of the story the ugly sisters are told by their mother to cut off either their toe or their heal to get their foot to fit into the glass slipper. The Prince is revolted when he is told by some birds sitting on the tree Cinderella planted on her mother’s grave to look at their feet at the blood coming from the shoe one or other of the ugly sisters is wearing. He brings the sisters home again and finally Cinderella gets to slide her foot straight into the shoe without effort; a perfect fit.

Now, this is the bit I never realised before. The shoe is a metaphor for a vagina. I’d have never thought of this, but it is so damn obvious once you’ve been told. The author here says that the Prince is revolted by the blood from the ugly sisters because it makes the sexual allusions all too clear, and like Cinderella, this is a rite of passage for him too towards being prepared for sexual love. Cinderella’s foot sliding in so perfectly is a kind of sign everything will be okay. Wedding rings serve much the same metaphorical purpose – a woman’s finger being inserted into a circle given by her male partner in a kind of inversion of the sex act. Something else I had never really noticed before – honestly, and if you’d asked me I’d have said I had a dirty mind…

But despite there being three occasions when Cinderella meets with the Prince, she runs away each time and it is only on the third occasion that she loses the shoe and so the whole thing is set up for the climax. The point being that it is important that the Prince finds her at home – and covered in filth. It isn’t enough for him to fall in love with her in her finery, but he must still love her at her most disgusting. Here is the reassurance for the child who believes they are beneath contempt and undeserving of love – that someone will love them despite it all.

The Oedipal aspects of this story are really interesting when you compare it to King Lear – a Cinderella story where Cinderella disappears after the first Act and we are forced to watch the Oedipal nightmare of a father that did not know enough that there comes a time when a father’s love is really shown by allowing his daughter’s love to mature – and this can only be with someone other than her father.

Now, you may well be saying, for God sake McCandless, isn’t this just reading too much into a kids’ story? To which the obvious answer is: no, I don’t think so. In fact, more needs to be read into this story. There needs to be a feminist reading and a semiotic reading and perhaps even a Marxist or Foucaultian reading – but certainly this isn’t reading too much into the story. The point is in realising that no reading is the ‘true’ reading of such a story – but even having said that, a reading that makes it clear that these stories are popular because for hundreds of years they have allowed people to work on their deep psychological desires must say something interesting. I mean, if these stories didn’t help people confront deep truths about what it means to be human, it is really hard to see why they have remained popular for so long.

We humans are in constant danger of believing that we are monsters. We have nightmares and we catch ourselves desiring what we can barely bring ourselves to admit to. Fairy tales allow us to know that these are not signs of mental illness, but are a universal part of the human condition. We are not alone in our nightmares or in our desires. They do not make us evil or wicked or loathsome. They make us human.

What is particularly interesting in this book is when he discusses ‘updated’ versions of these stories or, worse still, modern tales like Tootle the Train. Tootle liked to play with flowers, but it was very important that he been kept on the right track (could a metaphor be more laboured?), and so the town’s people would watch when he was about to go off the rails and in among the flowers and keep him on track by waving big red flags. A kind of aversion therapy. And finally it work a treat and Tootle grew to be a big train and never again wanted to play among the flowers. (Something that seems increasingly sad the more you think about it) Hard to do a Freudian reading of a story like that – which is part of the problem, because it is also hard to see how a story like that might help someone with the deep psychological challenges that growing up inevitably involves. Hard not to admit that if you have siblings there were times you might have wished them dead, particularly when they seemed to be favoured over you – even if you immediately rejected this wish. But fairy tales are a safe place where such guilty secrets can by played with and learnt from. Tootle leaves no room to play – it is a telling, not a showing.

I really liked this book, in fact, I found it quite confronting in places in ways I really didn’t think I would. Not because of the castration myths or even that Little Red Riding Hood is really about a young girl exploring the dangerous side of her sexuality. But perhaps trying to know where one’s place is within relationships is a lifetime’s task and so something that is never fully finished with. If that is the case then fairy tales are always relevant to us, no matter what our age.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the story of Blue Beard lately after seeing The Best Offer. Bauman talks about this fairy tale in Moral Blindness – how the lesson of the story is that everyone needs somewhere to be able to hide their deepest secrets and that being prepared to accept that people – even people you love very much – should be allowed room to conceal some things from you is actually an act of true love. Our whole society rejects this, of course. Love is utter acceptance and so there can be no secrets between lovers. And although this seems to contradict what I said before about love being about acceptance of all of our scars – well, this is about love and growing and coming to understand ourselves – who said anything about consistency or making sense? You can go on and live happily ever after now.
Profile Image for Manybooks.
3,067 reviews104 followers
March 23, 2022
I had to read Bruno Bettelheim's The Uses of Enchantment: The meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales many years ago for a university-level course I was taking in the summer (specifically on Charles Perrault's and the Grimms' fairy tale collections as psycho-drama therapy for children). And while Bettelheim does indeed have some interesting takes on what fairy tales as a literary/oral genre can mean, and that they are important for children and their emotional development, the massive Freudianism of Bruno Bettelheim's analysis and that he basically sees sex, penis envy, oedipal complexes and the like in the majority of the fairy tales he attempts to interpret, this does not only tend to get a bit stale after a while, it also has made me feel almost a bit dirty and a potential sexual deviant simply because I enjoy reading fairy tales and much liked having them read to me as a child. But well and to be entirely fair here, I did feel pretty strange and uncomfortable mostly the very first time I read The Uses of Enchantment for that above mentioned course I was taking, and that now, that more than thirty years after that university level perusal, I no longer really feel all that massively uncomfortable, I just feel as though Bruno Bettelheim is a bit over-the-top with his Freudian fairy tale analyses and that I can at least partially enjoy and also find some rather perverse humour in just how sexually charged the author seems to consider many if not most fairy tales to be and in their entirety (in other words, I find Bruno Bettelheim’s one-sidedness of interpretation rather massively hilarious and yes also a bit sad, since The Uses of Enchantment really does not seem to show much if any possibility that there are different manners of interpretation possible and probable, that everything is somehow psychologically based on sex and on Freud's attitudes towards sex).

And yes, if I were just rating The Uses of Enchantment for its text and only for its text, I would most probably be rating it with a low three stars (readable but with some definite potential thematic and interpretative issues and problems). However, after Bruno Bettelheim's death in 1990, it has been suggested (and also now been pretty much proven without a doubt) that he, that Bettelheim callously seems to have plagiarised from colleagues and that even many of his supposed academic credentials were in fact at best misrepresented and fudged a bit. Now plagiarism is often a problematic accusation in and of of itself, as sometimes (and even often) an author can be accused of academic dishonesty when he or she has in fact not actively copied another person's work at all (and sometimes, plagiarism is used as a weapon when really, all that has happened was that a few quotation marks or footnotes have ended up being forgotten). However, this does not unfortunately appear to have been the case with Bruno Bettelheim, as in his The Uses of Enchantment he almost verbatim uses entire passages from especially Julius E. Heuscher's A Psychiatric Study of Fairy Tales (but even worse, the latter book is then NOT even mentioned in the presented bibliography of The Uses of Enchantment, something that I for one absolutely consider as NOT in any manner even remotely forgivable, for Bruno Bettelheim has not just made use of Julius Heuscher's work without showing him as a source via quotations and/or footnotes, he has also subsequently and majorly insulted him by not even listing Heuscher's work in the bibliographical section of The Uses of Enchantment).

And therefore, and for me personally, Bruno Bettelheim is absolutely and no longer in any manner an individual I can even remotely academically respect (especially since it has also been revealed that Bettelheim was often both physically and verbally abusive to the students he was teaching at his Orthogenic School), and The Uses of Enchantment will and can from now on only ever be considered a one star book for me, and one to only consider as at best rather majorly problematic (and as an example of how NOT to write an academic tome of literary or of any type of analysis).
Profile Image for Francisca.
183 reviews83 followers
November 20, 2018
I absolutely love this book. Of lately--few past decades--fairy tales have gotten a bad reputation, often cited as examples of horrible role models for girls and boys. However, it seems we--modern us--are in part responsible for turning fairy tales into those kind of stories because they weren't like that originally.

In this book Bettelheim explores how deeply significant these seemingly out-of-touch with the present world stories are for children's development.

One of the things we need to understand, he says, is that in their original form, before being twisted into "clean" stories by Disney, fairy tales help children face their earliest and darkest of fears. The loss of a parent, the transfer of affection from the inner familiar circle to outside friends, the uncertainty of what awaits in the future for us.

I have a whole new sense of how fairy tales work and why they have survived through history after reading this book, and if you feel like discovering a whole new level into the complexity of these well-worn and told stories I recommend you to read this book.
Profile Image for Nandakishore Mridula.
1,239 reviews2,227 followers
May 27, 2015
This was the first book which assured me that my enduring interest in fairy tales was scholarly and not something to be scoffed at as juvenile. Until then, I have been blissfully unaware of the psychological depth of fairy tales and how a lot of major literary works are inspired by them. Now there are fairy tale studies by the dozen, and many are fascinating: but Bettelheim is the first person who opened the door for me, therefore this book holds a special place in my heart.

I have read that, in the years since this book's publication, Bettelheim's analysis has been questioned. However, if you are new to the field of fairy tale studies, this may be the place to start. It is compulsively readable.
Profile Image for Jason.
93 reviews40 followers
February 21, 2016
I don't think I could have taken much more of this. It has a definite entertainment value, absolutely, but come on - how can anyone take any of this stuff seriously? Part of me thinks Bettelheim is pulling our leg, he just has to be, but no - he's a straight-faced Freudian scholar of the reductive and ridiculous sort, and he's deadly serious about all of this. Here, check this out: the beanstalk in Jack and the Beanstalk represents a penis. Jack's climbing up the beanstalk represents Jack's discovery of masturbation. The giant's wife hiding Jack in the oven when the giant gets home? That's the wife putting Jack back in the womb (Jack is regressing, you see.) When Jack asks his mother to get the ax and chop down the beanstalk, that's Jack actually asking his mother to chop off his father's penis. The number three in fairy tales is always a reference to the penis with its two testicles. See? Count 'em - one, two, three. The snake in the Garden of Eden, incidentally, is also a penis. Oh, and the dwarfs in Snow White? Penises. You know why? Because, as miners, the dwarfs, and I quote directly, "skillfully penetrate into dark holes."

Okay, this is funny stuff, admittedly, and I thought I would just finish the book for some ironic purpose. But the annoying thing is, every once in a while, this crazyhead says something strangely apt. For some of the fairy tales, there clearly is an Oedipal dimension, especially when the tale involves intensely unhealthy relationships between the child protagonist and the parent of the opposite sex. And whenever Bettelheim is analyzing those tales, he seems to be on firmer ground. As the book went on, I grew fearful that I had become convinced. Snow White, Beauty and the Beast, and The Frog King are indeed about sex, and you know what? The frog in that tale being a metaphor for a penis - it actually makes a lot of sense, in context. Ghah! I know, I know. The Frog Penis. Jesus. So okay - this has some interesting and convincing analyses in it. A few. And yes, some of this, I said SOME, might be about penises. Maybe.

But then, just as you're getting pulled into one of these readings of something, and you're starting to feel like the book is getting better, you're digging it, you're digging it, you're nodding along, all at once part of your brain clicks in and SPLASH, it hits you suddenly like a bucket of cold water, you shake your head, you take a breath, and you realize that everything you've just read, literally everything, every single word, is pure undiluted unqualified craziness. How can I have been taken in by this?? It's like I was hypnotized, like he did a Jedi mind trick, "these are all the penises you're looking for." Mice and doves all represent penises! Penises everywhere! All the penises you could ever possibly want! Wheee!

This book is an important stepping-stone on the path of fairy tale scholarship, and should be read for that reason if you're interested in the subject. Just keep your sense of humor about you, take much of what he says with a grain of salt, and you'll likely find a few gems in here. Just don't stop there - go on to other fairy tale scholars (Jack Zipes is another big one, with an entirely different approach), and find different readings of the tales. The worst, the absolute worst thing a person can do if he or she is interested in analyzing the content of fairy tales is to have this be the only book they ever read on the subject. As long as that isn't the case, it might be worth a gander, if only for a few laughs.
Profile Image for Miss Ravi.
Author 1 book979 followers
August 15, 2017
علاقه من به موضوعات رازآمیز و جادویی به‌خاطر ارتباط‌شان با استعاره و نماد است. برای کلام پنهان‌شان که امری ساده را عمیق و معنادار می‌کند و این خاصیت ذهن و روان انسان است که شاید حتی بی‌اختیار معنایی بگذارد در دل یک قصه‌ی عامیانه و یا شاید آدم‌هایی پیدا شوند که معنایی از دل سادگی پریانه‌ها بیرون بکشند. هر کدام از این‌ها که باشد، من را مجاب می‌کند به خواندن‌شان.
افسون افسانه‌ها بررسی عمیق و مفصلی درباره قصه‌های پریان است. شاید برایمان سؤال باشد که چرا قصه‌هایی که در کودکی شنیده‌ایم پر از نامادری‌های بدجنس و جادوگران بدذات بوده؟ چرا شخصیت اصلی توی جنگل گم می‌شده؟ چرا یک هیولا بعد از بوسه‌ی دختری به شاهزاده زیبایی تبدیل می‌شود؟ چرا آدم‌های بد قصه به مجازات عملشان می‌رسیدند؟ چرا زیبای خفته، به خواب رفته بود؟ چرا سیندرلا با وضع اسفبار خودش کنار آمده بود؟ چرا دلبر حاضر شد به‌جای پدرش پیش دیو بماند؟ چرا شخصیت‌های خوب عاقبت‌بخیر می‌شدند و سال‌های سال به خوبی و خوشی در کنار هم زندگی می‌کردند؟ برونو بتلهایم به این سؤالات جواب می‌دهد و اثر آن را بر روی کودکی که قصه را می‌شنود بررسی می‌کند.
بچه‌ها به شیوه خودشان پیام این قصه‌ها را دریافت می‌کنند. آن‌ها هنوز هم به قصه‌های پریان احتیاج دارند. بتلهایم می‌گوید: «کودک امروز بیشتر مواقع خود را تنها احساس می‌کند. تماس قهرمان با چیزهای ابتدایی -درخت، حیوان، طبیعت- به او کمک می‌کند. همانگونه که کودک نیز بیش از بزرگسالان با این چیزها احساس نزدیکی می‌کند. سرنوشت این قهرمانان، کودک را متقاعد می‌کند که اگر چه او نیز همچون آنان خود را در زندگی موجودی رانده و تنها احساس می‌کند که در تاریکی کورمال می‌رود، اما مانند آنان در مسیر زندگی گام‌به‌گام راهنمایی خواهد شد و به هنگام نیاز به کمکش خواهند آمد. امروز حتی بیش از گذشته کودک نیاز به اطمینان خاطر دارد. ارائه تصویر انسانی که به رغم تنهایی قادر است پیوندهای پرمعنا و ثمربخشی با دنیای پیرامونش برقرار کند این اطمینان خاطر را به او خواهد داد».
Profile Image for Nicole.
Author 11 books17 followers
September 11, 2009
Bettelheim has totally schooled me on the phallic symbol. I have learned, in reading about how to read fairy tales, that I am woefully under-educated about penises and their manifold symbols, which there are exponentially more of than I ever could have dreamed about or hoped for.

This is an amazing and amazingly flawed book. His points about the function of fairy tales, how children and adults read them and what children get out of reading them on pre-, sub-, and conscious levels, is convincing. His understanding of the child-brain, its id, and ego, and super-ego, and how it develops, or doesn’t, and the way fairy tales dis- and enchant it will make you want to go out and grab a kid and read it Cinderella--not the Disney version--the real one where the step-sisters cut their toes off to fit the glass “slipper-vagina,” and not feel weird about doing it.

But. Before you grab that kid, bear in mind that all fairy tales, according to the Freud-trained Bettelheim, are pretty much Oedipal conflicts that arouse too many unmentionable sub-conflicts to mention here, that you are really reading him or her stories about fathers and daughters and mothers and sons, and their vaginas and penises. He acknowledges this, and, as such, one of his most compelling overall arguments is that fairy tales allow children to work through multiple, and very normal, psychological conflicts about relationships and their bodies (and their psychic growth and biological development) that, if addressed directly, would horrify and stunt.

Though I’m unsure how scholastically responsible this is, one of Bettelheim’s more entertaining tacks is to slip out-of-nowhere psycho-phallic associations in as evidence and, other than letting them hang there, not do much anything else with them. In reference to Cinderella’s footmen (magically created of mice and rats, remember) he drops in ever so casually “Mice and rats…also arouse associations to the phallus.” For me they didn’t, but, now that he mentions it, they do; I can't help but think "penis" whenever rats and mice are referenced. I’m not sure if that association was always there dozing in sub-conscious dormancy, or if I just find his knack for phallic-symbol dropping especially good red herring.

To his credit, he challenges phallocentric psychoanalytic interpretations, and upends misogynist penis-envy readings as critical thematic, which is oddly un-new critic of him given that he is a new critic (wearing psychoanalytic glasses).

Upshot: all the above might be true. Problem is we have no way to verify other than to take his word for it. And a lot of those words—this says a lot more about me than it might you--I do.
Profile Image for Morgan Blackledge.
556 reviews1,906 followers
February 5, 2020
Bruno Bettelheim was a Austrian born Jewish psychoanalyst, and Nazi holocaust survivor who was interned in both Dachau and Buchenwald.

He immigrated to America after WWII and became a prominent intellectual in the field of child psychoanalysis.

He was controversial for his harsh opinions of fellow Jews in Nazi Germany, who he infamously referred to as “going like sheep to the slaughter.”

He was also controversial for his (now discredited) parent blaming etiological hypothesis of autism spectrum disorder, and abusive treatment of child clients (including electro convulsive therapy) at his Orthogenic School for “disturbed” children.

After his death in 1990, it was discovered that he faked his psychiatric credentials, and that he plagiarized much of his popular published writings including much of this book.

Given these disclaimers, Uses of Enchantment is a very cool, interesting, dark, adventurous read.

Bettelheim asserts that authentic ‘folk’ fairy tales, particularly in their raw unsanitized form, function to assist children in ‘working through’ challenging psycho-sexual, developmental and existential dilemmas e.g. separation anxiety, oedipal conflict, and sibling rivalries.

Bettelheim posits that the darker content present in the authentic folk fairytales including cruelty, violence and gross vulgarities function as a catalyst for encountering and resolving difficult ethical and psychosexual issues.

Bettelheim posits that children will fixate on a folktale that has latent psychological importance for them, and ask to hear the story again and again as way of exploring and processing difficult themes in a safe, fantasy form.

Bettelheim additionally asserts that leaving details and interpretations out of the stories causes the child listener to fill in the blanks with their own thoughts, feelings and mental images, and thereby merge with the story.

Bettelheim posits that if a child is afforded the opportunity to actively engage with these stories in this way, they will be able to carry that growth engendering process into their encounters with art and literature in adult life.

Bettelheim bemoans the fact that Disney and other artists sanitized and illustrated the folk tales, there by denaturing them and turning them into passive entertainment with weak ‘fixed’ moral content.

For instance: Bettelheim interprets the Snow White and the Seven Dwarves story in a grotesque and highly sexual way.

He lamented the fact that Disney sanitized, commodified and colonized the story, by adding their (albeit compelling) imagery and safe as milk interpretations, which literally ‘capture’ the imagination, only not in the good way, turning the child into a passive consumer rather than an active co-creating participant.

This book is so much more than a decoder manual, it’s an excavation of the deep structure and psychological function of folk story telling.

Profile Image for Jacqueline.
Author 89 books85 followers
December 12, 2011
Anyone who needs to be convinced that the protagonist of a children's story should always solve his or her own problems without adult help should read this book. If you can get past the outdated Freudian theory, this book is a fascinating examination of fairy tale motifs and how they help children come to terms with sibling rivalry, fear of abandonment, and other anxieties children face on the road to maturity. Bettelheim compares various versions of familiar tales and discusses theme at length. He makes a compelling case for how fairy tales help children grow emotionally, and how violence in fairy tales meets certain psychological needs and should not necessarily be sanitized for the young reader.

Profile Image for Amy Rae.
912 reviews40 followers
October 16, 2015
I can't believe I'm going to start this review with a Neil Gaiman quote, which is both incredibly pretentious and apt to make you think I think far better of Gaiman than I actually do, but here goes:

“Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”

eta: It turns out Gaiman lifted that particular line from an author I respect far more, so let's start this over again with a G.K. Chesterton quote:

Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.

Congratulations. You've now read the most interesting and relevant point of this book summarized in a single sentence a few sentences and can safely skip Bettelheim's 350-page tl;dr.

Look, this book has historical importance, and I won't deny that. A lot of the ideas he puts forward have become common talking-points regarding the fairy tales to which they apply. But:

• It's incredibly dated.

• The Freudian stuff ranges from "okay, I guess I kind of see what you're saying there" to weird to frankly gross.

• Bettelheim's condescending refusal to acknowledge there might be other, equally valid interpretations of these stories is wearying. Example: He pooh-poohs as shallow the idea that people might be frustrated by how many damsels in distress are featured in the most popular fairy tales. Perish the fucking thought, people might not see getting married and ruling a kingdom as emblematic of self-actualization, a successfully integrated personality, or whatever else you want to call it.

• For the first chunk of the book, he ignores the historical context of the stories near-completely. Once he does start using historical context in his analyses, he rarely touches on the history of the stories' use--who told them, where, why, etc.--which I think is shortsighted. (The closest he comes is pissing and moaning about how Perrault changed stories up to be permissible in the French courts--dude fucking hates Perrault, afaict, which was kind of entertaining.) From what I've learned outside this book, the differences between different groups of European fairy tales--French versus Italian versus English versus German, etc.--is in part due to the differences in where, when, and why they were told. While he's analyzing the effects on the modern child, I think acknowledging these differing histories more clearly and consistently would have improved the book for me a lot.

• Occasionally, his analysis feels hypocritical--or maybe a bit like spaghetti thrown at the wall. Sometimes he states that children will understand ~preconsciously~ that X is symbolic of some aspect of sex, but other times, he's basically like, eh, they won't get this, and it doesn't feel like there's much difference except "Bettelheim needs children to work this way for the purposes of his theory."

• He generalizes about children constantly. I know this was written well before Perry Nodelman's "The Other: Orientalism, Colonization, and Children's Literature," but holy shit, I just wanted to WALLOP him with that until he agreed to rewrite the book with some consideration to the idea that children aren't a fucking monolith. Example: Children will naturally understand that violent ends to fairy-tale villains are just and therefore nothing to be upset about. More sensitive children who would be upset by imagery, like Cinderella's stepsisters cutting up their feet or Snow White's stepmother dancing herself to death in red-hot shoes, apparently aren't relevant to his pronouncements.

• There's little consideration given to how children's reactions to stories might differ by their location or ethnic or racial background. Places outside Europe rarely come up for more than a sentence.

• He mentioned on several occasions that in traditional Hindu medicine, mentally disturbed patients would apparently be given fairy tales upon which to meditate...but he doesn't actually cite a source for that in my edition.

Some of these issues are constraints of the times--this book was published almost forty years ago now. For what it wants to do, it succeeds. But what it wants to do is not something I'm terribly impressed with, personally.

If you like fairy tales and would like to know what the critical discussion around them is, I actually would recommend giving this a look, because you should know what the major talking-points are. But I can't recommend it personally, only professionally.
Profile Image for Amy.
860 reviews60 followers
February 9, 2011
Ugh. This book was a nightmare to read. It was assigned for my Storytelling class, otherwise I would've dropped it after the introduction. Bettelheim is a famous psychologist who worked a lot with children. This book details (and I mean DEATAILS) his view of the importance of fairy tales to children's subconscious. Think Freudian fairy tales. I'm serious. And so is Bettelheim. He's completely serious about his ideas, which come off as far fetched and laughable some times. Much of what he writes about is child psychology has been disproved and seems very behind-the-times. He definitely tried to prove HIS point, which was frustrating. I don't like books that leave no room for individual interpretation. Bettelheim certainly didn't hold to the Reader's Response theory of literary criticism; it was the Freud way or no way.

However, a lot of what he wrote was pretty interesting, even if I disagreed. And it wasn't so much that I disagreed with everything he had to say about fairy tales, because I DID learn a lot of fascinating things. Its more like I don't like the absoluteness of his statements, that children had basically the same subconscious needs and will get the same thing out of fairy tales that all children get. I'm sorry, but all human beings are just too complex to be able to group together like this. Yes, fairy tales are important and can teach many things in many different ways. But I'm on the side of individual reader interpretation, and what a child needs in literature, well, he or she will seek that out. You should read to a child what they love and expose them to many different types of literature.
Profile Image for Federico Sosa Machó.
387 reviews95 followers
February 12, 2019
Removedor planteo que desde una perspectiva psicoanalítica aborda un importante corpus textual de cuentos de hadas. La obra se centra en la importancia de los relatos en la constitución de la personalidad de los niños, y aunque algún pasaje parece algo sobreinterpretado, el conjunto es muy interesante. Como podía suponerse, la sexualidad aparece jugando un papel fundamental y es adecuadamente destacada más allá de la aparente inocencia superficial de los relatos. La cenicienta o Caperucita roja ya no serán las mismas después de haber leído los planteos de Bettelheim.
Profile Image for Sahel's.
111 reviews14 followers
September 30, 2015
I really liked the book since it was so informative on the subject of fairy tales and how they can be beneficial to children. I also did not know how to start reading about fairy tales' criticism, so as a beginning it helped my initiation to the subject.I'd recommend it to people who want to write something on fairy tales and how they can help children get over their psychological and also oedipal problem, if there are any.
Profile Image for Ugnė.
517 reviews104 followers
September 17, 2017
Labiausiai patiko todėl, kad patvirtino mano požiūrį, jog viskas gerai su toms stebuklinėm pasakom, per daug lyčių vaidmenų jos neformuoja, nebent tėvai patys tendencingai parenka, kad mergaitėms skaitysim tik apie princeses, o berniukams - tik ne apie princeses :) Įdomiai parašyta knyga, skaityti buvo gana lengva.
Profile Image for Lost In My Own World Of Books.
563 reviews164 followers
March 5, 2018
Este livro é adequado quem gosta de contos de fadas e de saber os aspectos submersos sobre eles, ou seja, em que medida ajuda no desenvolvimento cognitivo da criança. Para além disso, fala de como os contos de fadas são todos pensados de uma forma inteligente e refletem na vida real das crianças.
Profile Image for J. Mulrooney.
Author 3 books20 followers
April 5, 2014
Recommended for anyone who deals with children

Bettelheim was an old-fashioned Freudian psychiatrist -- the kind who talked to patients instead of drugging them -- and a Holocaust survivor. After the war, he emigrated to Chicago, where he did terrific work with children suffering from serious psychological problems.

The book uses a Freudian framework, but you don't have to believe in a literal id, ego, and superego to appreciate the insight Bettelheim brings to stories and how they are absorbed by children.

Bettelheim believes that fairy tales -- he focuses on the Grimm brothers', but any real fairy tale -- are terrifically helpful to children as they work through the problems (large and small, real or imagined) in their lives. He also believes the converse -- by depriving children of fairy tales, you deprive them of a strong resource critical to their psychological maturation. He hates the edited, tidied up, sweet versions of the tales: it's important that the evil stepmother in Cinderella be made to dance in red hot shoes until she falls down dead. "Children feel real rage, children have real experience of evil. If well-meaning people remove the rage and evil from stories, children believe they alone experience these feelings. They will grow up believing that they are monsters."

Bettleheim distinguishes between real fairy tales and other kinds of stories -- "In a fairy tale, all the characters -- the princess, the prince, the wicked stepmother, the witch, the little boy and the little girl -- are all the child hearing the story. And what happens? The child learns that his evil part will be overcome by his goodness, that his helplessness, his sundered, alienated inner princess, will find the other half he longs for, his inner prince, he learns that he may be lost and alone in the hairy forest but it is just there that he may find the stream whose waters turn his hair to gold."

A great antidote for your friends who think that fairy tales are too violent, that the witch is just misunderstood and a victim of poor communication, that the princess's helplessness is some kind of plot against women.
Profile Image for Nicky.
4,138 reviews1,007 followers
January 9, 2018
In terms of the psychoanalysis here, which is heavily based on Freud’s work, it sounds like a lot of rubbish to me. And if you know Bettelheim’s work from his work on autism, you’re not entirely safe from that here — he only mentions it once or twice, but it’s still jarringly wrong. Still, some of his analyses of the texts on a literary level do make sense, and his suggestions of how some people might apply their own lives in understanding and interpreting them are fascinating. As a literary work, The Uses of Enchantment is a bit of a classic, and if you’re a first year English Lit student wondering why Red Riding Hood’s signature colour signifies her coming to sexual maturity, well, it’s got you covered.

Reading it now, eh. I can appreciate some of the stories he tells about the way people relate to stories, even if the psychoanalysis behind it is laughable at times. (Warning: I was raised by a psychiatrist. I haven’t read Freud for myself, just absorbed a healthy disdain through my mother and what I encountered as a lit student.) Some of his comments on why fairytales endure while modern morality stories don’t work, too. But overall… shrug?

Reviewed for The Bibliophibian.
Profile Image for Ermocolle.
358 reviews28 followers
March 22, 2021
"La psicanalisi fu creata per consentire all'uomo di accettare la natura problematica della vita senza esserne sconfitti o cercare di evadere dalla realtà." [...].
"Per trovare il significato più profondo, bisogna diventar capaci di trascendere gli angusti confini di un'esistenza egocentrica e credere di poter dare un importante contributo alla vita, se non subito almeno in un futuro più o meno lontano.[...] Per non essere alla mercé dei capricci della vita, bisogna sviluppare le proprie risorse interiori, in modo che le proprie emozioni, la propria immaginazione e il proprio intelletto si sostengano e si arricchiscano scambievolmente.".

Un intenso e condivisibile messaggio di speranza, così prezioso in un contesto quotidiano come quello che stiamo vivendo ormai da un anno a questa parte.

In attesa che le nostre vite "in pausa" tornino a scorrere su registri di maggior normalità, ho scelto di approfondire il messaggio delle favole.

Sono partita da questo testo e gradirei conoscere se ci sono altre, diverse e magari migliori fonti da leggere, se qualcuno volesse indicarmeli lo ringrazio fin da ora.

Per quanto riguarda il mio pensiero su questo saggio premetto doverosamente che non ho basi di psicologia o psicanalisi fornite da studi in materia. Semplicemente sono incuriosita dalla conoscenza di questi argomenti che cerco di approfondire autonomamente con la lettura.

La teoria di base che sostiene questo studio riguarda il potere costruttivo delle fiabe. Il bambino attraverso il racconto o la lettura della fiaba impara che "una vita gratificante e positiva è alla portata di ciascuno nonostante le avversità, ma soltanto se non si cerca di evitare le rischiose lotte senza le quali, nessuno, può mai raggiungere una vera identità".

Su questo concetto ci sono tanti esempi di fiabe dove un bambino mette nel sacco un gigante o un essere mostruoso che lo spaventa o minaccia la sua vita.

Interessanti le spiegazioni delle fiabe e il loro impatto sul nostro inconscio: da "Il pescatore e il genio" delle Mille e una notte, al mito di Ercole e l'incontro con due donne virtù e piacere, "I tre porcellini" che riprendono lo stesso tema di scelta del mito precedente tra fatica e pigrizia per sopravvivere alla minaccia del lupo, "Fratello e sorella" dei fratelli Grimm sul tema della cacciata di casa ma che si trasforma in opportunità di emancipazione e tante altre.

È una lettura utile, mi è piaciuto e confesso che non avevo colto tutti gli aspetti reconditi delle fiabe che conosco e che ho raccontato man mano ai miei figli.

Indipendentemente dai concetti freudiani dell'Es, io e super io e complessi di Edipo, castrazione o invidia del pene, l'ho trovato una lettura utile e mi ha portato anche della sana curiosità verso storie che ancora ad oggi non conosco e per le quali mi sono ripromessa di colmare il gap.
Non è mai troppo tardi per leggere fiabe 😊
Profile Image for Aitziber Madinabeitia.
Author 16 books149 followers
July 27, 2011
Una obra magnífica, aunque posiblemente solo realmente apta para psicólogos, estudiantes de psicología y aficionados acerrimos a la misma.
Se trata del analisis completo y minucioso del simbolismo de los cuentos de hadas más conocidos y populares del imaginario europeo occidental desde la perspectiva psicoanalítica.
Olvidense de la inocencia suprema de los héroes de los cuentos de su infancia: ellos están obsesionados con la madre y la oralidad, tienen marcadisimos complejos de edipo e incluso sufren de envidia del pene... pero todo eso es sólo un tránsito, porque el "vivieron felices" implica siempre el despertar a un estado más elevado y pegado a las exigencias del super-yo, que ha dejado atrás su ello. Y todo esto, trabajando para liberar las pulsiones inconscientes de nuestros pequeños, que entienden el auténtico significado del cuento a un nivel preconsciente.
En resumen, un trabajo interesante y que da que pensar, escrito con las palabras justas, estemos o no de acuerdo con las teorías del psicoanálisis.
Profile Image for Angigames.
1,228 reviews
March 13, 2017
Letto con grande entusiasmo iniziale, sono arrivata alla fine che ero da un lato affascinata, da un lato fermamente convinta che non tutte le teorie espresse dall’autore siano vere e assolutamente applicabili nella maggior parte dei casi.
Ci sono tantissime variabili da considerare nella formazione psicologica di un bambino e non tutti i bambini reagiscono alla stessa maniera, la realtà è questa.
Il saggio comunque è molto interessante e ha aperto un mondo che fino a quel momento era per me sconosciuto! Mi ha permesso di farmi tantissime domande anche sulla mia crescita personale e in alcuni casi, sono riuscita a trovare delle risposte a domande che mi assillano da tempo.
Mi sono divertita un mondo ha leggere delle fiabe da me da sempre adorate, di come siamo state psicanalizzate così a fondo e con tanto fervore.
Personalmente in alcuni casi, ho preferito godermi la fiaba in sé e non il significato psicologico a lei associato.
Il libro in questione è stato comunque illuminante e istruttivo da leggere!
Profile Image for Peter.
Author 12 books305 followers
December 16, 2015
I'm about halfway through and have given up on this. It's as dry as a piece of old toast. I'm sure it was all very revolutionary when it came out, and probably influenced the likes of Marina Warner or Angela Carter and Margaret Atwood with their modern takes on fairy stories, but it all feels very dated and 60's Freudian. There are a lot more recent interesting books on both fairytale analysis and child development out there. 'The Child in the Mirror' and 'They f##k you up' on child development and 'The Seven Basic plots' and 'The Writer's Journey' (based on 'The Hero with a thousand faces' which I never managed to finish either!) on Fairytale analysis.
Profile Image for Valeria Cardoso.
237 reviews5 followers
September 15, 2020
A pesar de que por momentos es un libro pesado, lo disfruté mucho! Ampliamente recomendado
Profile Image for Mallory.
384 reviews15 followers
November 13, 2011
I'm actually not longer sure why this book was on my To Read list, although I'm guessing it might have come up while reading one of Joseph Campbell's books. Also, as a disclaimer, I pretty much skimmed the last 100 pages or so. The large scheme of the book I enjoyed: the exploration of the similar themes expressed in fairy tales that reflect the human race's views on morals and the human experience. I also enjoyed the small parts that talked about the origins/history of some of the fairy tales examined in the book. What I did NOT enjoy, and what so clearly dated this book, was the the application of Freudian theory to almost every detail of the various fairy tales dissected. (Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Really. So STEP AWAY from the Freudian analysis, dude.) While I enjoy the exploration of the broader themes of myths and fairy tales (which is why I had initially read Campbell), this book relied WAY too much on Freud. On the other hand, the Freudian interpretations did allow for some serious lulz, as did the author's many asides on how stupid people are to hate fairy tales and refuse to read them to their children (when did this happen?) and the bastardization of fairy tails by various people in modern times (yes, he did target Disney). Yeah, Disney, what were you thinking taking all the deep, Freudian psychoanalysis out of our fairy tales so I can now no longer achieve self-fulfillment? Oh well.
Profile Image for Katherine Sas.
Author 2 books23 followers
September 4, 2015
Bettelheim's Uses of Enchantment is one of those classic pieces of criticism that are both absolutely essential and hopelessly outdated. There is a lot of useful analysis and history, and there are some really lovely passages about the universality and applicability of fairy tales. He even quotes Tolkien on the subject, seeming to agree with him in his distaste for didactic, allegorical, and condescending stories (for children and adults). Unfortunately, as he gets into the nitty gritty of looking at the stories themselves, as is so often the case with overtly Freudian work, it's frustrating how often the call for applicability morphs into a discussion of the sexual undercurrents of the story. I'm certainly not denying that a sexual reading of fairy tales isn't valid, useful, or even interesting. The legacy of Freud and Bettelheim have proven that it is. However, the danger of this reading is that, having discovered this subtext, the critic forgets his own appeal for the importance of the "freedom of the reader" and reduces all meat of the story to these subconscious anxieties and desires. Certainly these do exist, but I suspect that fairy tales are even more flexible than Bettelheim gives them credit for. In any case, there is a reason was as influential as it was, and remains essential today. For looking at fairy tales, this is a useful starting place but should be taken as the beginning, not the end of, the conversation.
Profile Image for Lilirose.
482 reviews55 followers
April 19, 2017
E' il primo trattato di psicologia che leggo e l'ho trovato più scorrevole di quanto pensassi, infatti è scritto in uno stile semplice e discorsivo senza tecnicismi. Probabilmente la facilità che ho avuto ad approcciarmi al testo in parte è dovuta al fatto che le fiabe mi hanno affascinato fin da piccola, quindi immergermi di nuovo in quel "mondo incantato", anche se con un approccio analitico, mi è stato in qualche modo familiare. Leggere che le storie con cui sono cresciuta non sono solo appassionanti ma anche utili per lo sviluppo è stato molto soddisfacente; il rovescio della medaglia però è la spoetizzazione dei miei ricordi infantili, sezionati e ridotti all'osso.
Non ho le competenze per giudicare la validità delle teorie esposte: da profana posso dire che certi simbolismi li ho trovati particolarmente azzeccati e interessanti, soprattutto nella prima parte sui conflitti d'identità; quando però sul finale l'autore ha cominciato a calcare la mano sui significati sessuali nascosti ci ho visto qualche forzatura. Inoltre molti concetti sono stati ribaditi un po' troppe volte: capisco l'esaustività, ma il libro poteva essere lungo la metà senza risentirne a livello di contenuti.
Nel complesso comunque mi ha dato parecchi spunti di rflessione quest'opera e sono contenta della mia prima esperienza nel mondo della psicanalisi, abbastanza da poter affermare che forse non sarà l'ultima.
Profile Image for Gideon.
16 reviews4 followers
January 14, 2014
An incredible layman's intro to child developmental psychology, this is an absolutely vital read for storytellers of any stripe or any parent looking to peek inside the emotions and ideas of the important little people in their life.

I became aware of 'Uses' after reading an essay by Martin Scorcese which talked about how Stanley Kubrick used Bettelheim to compose the screenplay for 'The Shining' (side note: The Shining is a terrible, terrible bedtime story for children and not recommended by Bettelheim). I found 'Uses of Enchantment' to be a fascinating take on the emotional, psychological and semiotic experience of tiny humans. However, it has a reverberating effect in rethinking the fears and wonder of any audience of any age. I cannot recommend it enough to anyone who creates or communicates professionally or is simply looking to pick and choose the stories they tell their children. A lovely road-map for wonder, terror, empathy and the psychological value of storytelling.
Profile Image for Alejandro González.
267 reviews1 follower
October 25, 2012
Bruno Bettelheim nos conduce por un recorrido a través de los cuentos de hadas que forjaron, sin que nosotros lo supiéramos, nuestras condiciones psicológicas frente a diferentes estímulos y nos ayudaron con nuestra maduración. Este libro es sin duda una valiosa herramienta para los padres que gustamos de leer a nuestros hijos, también nos habla de todas las formas de maduración psicológica que presentan los cuentos y como es que esta se da a través de su lectura, va mucho más allá de la simplista y básica idea de llamar misógino a un cuento de hadas solo por ver que el príncipe rescata a la princesa y nos describe de manera detallada las implicaciones religiosas, psicológicas y mitológicas de el proceder de los personajes.
Se recomienda su lectura ampliamente, aunque este largo y cansado, al final sentirán que aprendieron algo valioso.
Profile Image for Celia🪐.
504 reviews1 follower
February 5, 2022
Es un libro curioso de leer si te interesa el mundo de los cuentos de hadas,ya que el autor muestra que estas historias tienen mucha más miga de lo que parece a primera vista.si nunca has leído nada de psicología puede ser un poco pesado de leer, pero la verdad es que no deja de ser un tema muy interesante ,mostrándonos este libro la importancia de lo que se lee en la infancia y de la familia,mostrándonos el gran impacto de estos aspectos en el desarrollo del carácter de los niños y en su manera de afrontar la vida adulta, temas que pueden ser considerados como irrelevantes y ser infravalorados y que realmente son esenciales a la hora de la construcción de la personalidad.
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