Amy Rae's Reviews > The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales

The Uses of Enchantment by Bruno Bettelheim
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it was ok
bookshelves: read-for-school, fairy-tales-told-and-retold, nonfiction

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.
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Reading Progress

February 5, 2015 – Started Reading
February 5, 2015 – Shelved
February 5, 2015 –
10.0% "i suspect i'm going to be more into jack zipes' thoughts, because so far bettelheim is not really doing it for me at all. are we seriously going to analyze fairy tales by ignoring historical context and rejecting various hans christian andersen stories because they don't fit our established pattern? this is...not how i would analyze fairy tales. at ALL."
February 6, 2015 –
15.0% "so in the same chapter that he bitches about the steadfast tin soldier not being a REAL fairy tale, he uses it as an example of a fairy tale that does X? are you fucking kidding me? \n \n also, i always hate reading books that rely on generalized descriptions of case studies, because you have no proof that the author isn't just making that shit up to prove his own point."
February 6, 2015 –
20.0% "i'm trying to get through 10% a day on my kindle, and it is just getting harder and harder. I'M SO TIRED OF BROAD GENERALIZATIONS REGARDING CHILDREN AND UNSOURCED STATEMENTS ABOUT HINDU MEDICINE."
February 7, 2015 –
30.0% "bettelheim appears to believe that if only children were raised on fairy tales, they wouldn't be as likely to do drugs or join cults as teens??? i...really don't believe that is the case. god, the 70s were weird."
February 7, 2015 –
30.0% ""[W]e are not told of [Rapunzel and the prince] having been married, and there is no other suggestion of any form of sexual relation"\n \n 1. There are versions of the story where Rapunzel and the prince are secretly married. \n 2. In the first edition of Grimm's fairy tales, the witch figures out Rapunzel has been seeing the prince BECAUSE SHE'S PREGNANT.\n \n i hate this book i hate it so much."
February 8, 2015 –
60.0% "i'm doing it i'm doing the thing. this is just a hard week for required reading, i gotta start on my street lit after this."
February 8, 2015 –
64.0% "oh, thank fuck, he's FINALLY talking about shit in historical context. his analysis automatically gets, like, exponentially better when he does this. also, it's interesting to hear that goldilocks and the three bears is such a new story in its current form. i'm so used to thinking of jack aubrey as goldilocks that i assumed it was a much older tale, lol."
February 8, 2015 –
70.0% "oh, people concerned with gender roles in fairy tales are just being overly literal, and they aren't actually anything to be concerned about? how convenient."
February 10, 2015 – Shelved as: read-for-school
February 10, 2015 – Shelved as: fairy-tales-told-and-retold
February 10, 2015 – Finished Reading
October 15, 2015 – Shelved as: nonfiction

Comments Showing 1-8 of 8 (8 new)

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Gabriel Oh boy, I had to annotate this entire book with my thoughts for a class once in what turned out to be one of the most enormous papers in aggregate that I've ever written. What a pain.


Amy Rae Gabriel wrote: "Oh boy, I had to annotate this entire book with my thoughts for a class once in what turned out to be one of the most enormous papers in aggregate that I've ever written. What a pain."

oh my god that sounds terrible. we're just reading it for class, thank goodness.


message 3: by Crayola (new)

Crayola B. ahhh Bruno Bettelheim. I'm glad I only had to read excerpts for my fairy tales class, but we still spent more time than he deserved. Zipes, on the other hand, I liked a lot. I hope you get to balance Bettelheim with other, more awesome authors too!


Amy Rae Crayola wrote: "ahhh Bruno Bettelheim. I'm glad I only had to read excerpts for my fairy tales class, but we still spent more time than he deserved. Zipes, on the other hand, I liked a lot. I hope you get to balan..."

we do! we're actually reading zipes' Breaking the Magic Spell: Radical Theories of Folk and Fairy Tales for next week, and i'm hella excited. what i've read of zipes before, i've really liked; i suspect his idea of fairy-tale analysis is closer to mine, lol. we're also reading A Narrative Compass: Stories that Guide Women's Lives, which i'm looking forward to, because i like betsy hearne pretty well, too.

so yeah, long story short, we do, thank god. :D


message 5: by Crayola (new)

Crayola B. awesome!! I hope you enjoy. I felt much the same about Bettelheim (if that wasn't clear in my first comment) so I hope you enjoy Zipes as much as I did.


message 6: by Julia (new) - added it

Julia THANK YOU! I came to Goodreads to see if anyone had as much beef with Bettelheim as I do. I completely agree with your reasons. A lot of my annotations in this book are things like "whaaat" or "UGH." Also, he seems to be allergic to the word "rape"! There are many instances where he talks about 'unwilling sex' (like when Beast from Beauty and the Beast says he was turned into a beast because he had 'seduced an orphan' or when the Italian version of Cinderella was impregnated while sleeping...) And these instances are presented nonchalantly, without comment. UGH. Do you know of any written academic responses to Bettelheim's work? I'd like to find some that I can refer to for my thesis. Thanks for your review!


Amy Rae Julia wrote: "THANK YOU! I came to Goodreads to see if anyone had as much beef with Bettelheim as I do. I completely agree with your reasons. A lot of my annotations in this book are things like "whaaat" or "UGH..."

I'm sorry to hear you had a lousy experience with Bettelheim! I can't blame you at all, lol--it's been months since I read this, and it still makes me go >:| to think about it.

As for academic responses, Jack Zipes has a marvelously sharp-tongued chapter refuting Bettelheim in Breaking the Magic Spell: Radical Theories of Folk and Fairy Tales. I'd definitely start there; since the book was originally about 2-3 years after this one, you're getting a contemporary argument against him. I haven't read any other critiques myself, but this book suggests that Perry Nodelman and Maria Tatar have both written about his work. I like both of them much more as scholars, so I'd definitely investigate their responses!

Best wishes on your thesis--if you get to study fairy tales for it, I bet it's going to be wonderful. ♥


message 8: by Julia (new) - added it

Julia Thanks so much! I really appreciate it. I'm writing my thesis on modern young adult retellings of fairy tales. I don't have much of a folklore background, so I'm trying to find the best things to read. Next up is Vladimir Propp's morphology of the folktale. I went ahead and ordered the Jack Zipes book. Thanks for the recommendation!


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