The Uses of Enchantment

The day I decided to become a mother, I was sitting in a college lecture hall, surrounded by more than a thousand students, listening to a professor articulate a truth that I had carried around since childhood: Fairytales are important — and are crucial to our development as human beings.


The unrealistic nature of these tales (which narrowminded rationalists object to) is an important device because it makes obvious that the fairy tales’ concern is not useful information about the external world, but the inner process taking place in an individual.”
― Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales.

wizardofoz1I thought back, and immediately remembered those soothing nights when someone opened a book and imparted the adventures of Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, and Hansel and Gretel — as the professor recounted that in every one, the child is in great danger – and eventually saves the day. He explained that the more horrifying the danger (parents left you in the woods to die?! You ran away from home, and your entire house was taken away?!) the more “work” it does in the child’s subconscious; teaching empowerment. Not how to handle the challenges of life – but that you can handle what comes.  You can’t teach a child these things by talking — but they can experience them for themselves, through fairytales.

There, in the safety of your own bed, tucked under your covers, by the dim light of the bedside lamp, a parent softly brings to life a colorful tapestry of old-world adventure, driven and events that are so out of touch with reality,  with horrifying scenes that always work out, and you are almost hypnotized. And while in that state, you learn, that you can handle whatever life throws at you.

There are lessons of a lifetime; somehow working behind the scenes, underlying every move, thought or action you take.

That’s why I became a mother. The idea of revisiting those fairtytales, sharing them with a new mind, was an irresistible challenge I could not afford to miss.

And that’s what we did. We spent hours on rainy, sunny, snowy and dreary afternoons on the sofa reading page after page of fairy tales. We went to the library to explore, and we discovered tales I had never heard of from Russia, and Germany and Sweeden, and we learned how each culture change the details of the fairytales just a bit to make it their own.  I remember the Six Swans resonated deeply with one, while Little Red Riding Hood another. We read Russia’s Clayboy, and even made our own versions with yeast dough — and ate him ourselves. A fairytale in 3-d. I can remember being so sleepy one night as I read “Jack in the Beanstalk,” that I skipped a few lines, just because I was trying to speed things up. But, I heard a little voice say, “Hey, you left out the part that says…’and then they.'” Fairytales have a rhythm and cadence that children know; it gives them security.

Once planted, fairytales continue to do their work in your mind for as long as you live.

Absentmindedly, I heard my high school son complaining about this novel he had to read for summer reading. He hated the ending. He hated the plot. He hated everything. And I sadly tucked the information in the back of my mind and thought, as usual, why do these teachers spend so much time getting their kids to read these morbid teenage romance/suicide stories when there’s so much great literature around there to pick from?

One day, he forgot his book and asked me to drop it off at school. As a rummaged through his room, I found it – and I smiled. I hadn’t realized it, but the book he was referring to, the awful book? It was a fairytale. It was one of Neil Gaiman’s novels, “The Ocean At the End of the Lane,” a grown-up fairytale about a man who goes back to visit his childhood home, pulls a worm out of his foot, and his adventure begins… I had listened to the audio book a few years earlier — and while I can put my finger on a few moments of outright terror in the stories (when he is locked in his bedroom while his father and mistress try to find a way to kill him), the tale weaves a thread of unsettled fear and panic all the way through, with little spurts of, “everything is going to be alright…things are gong to be just fine.” More importantly, he shows us how our memory of an event changes our response to an event… and important perception for adults to experience. You can’t just talk about these things — you have to experience them, through story.

Unlike those morbid suicide/near-death teen stories, this teacher picked up a book that suspends reality just enough to let them discover a few more things about themselves. Among its many gems is when the women snip, snip, snip the borrowed clothes he’s wearing, to make them fit, which simultaneously snips away the nightmare of the previous night — without saying that’s what’s happening. It just happens, and you accept it as the story moves along.

Once he had the context of what the story was, a fairytale, his paradigm shifted. Suddenly, the book had a new rhythm; and it was one he could follow. And one he remembered…


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