[(essay date Winter 1991) Dundes is an American instructor of English, anthropology, and folklore whose works include Life Is Like a Chicken Coop Ladder: A Portrait of German Culture through Folklore (1984), and Parsing through Customs: Essays by a Freudian Folklorist (1987). In the following essay, he praises The Uses of Enchantment as a book easily understood by popular audiences, but criticizes Bettelheim's research methods and scholarship.]
The late Bruno Bettelheim (1903-1990) was one of a distinguished set of psychoanalysts going back to Freud himself who was not afraid to apply the insights gained from psychoanalytic practice to a wide variety of cultural materials. These individuals include Otto Rank, Ernest Jones, and Geza Roheim, among others. A common thread in their applied psychoanalytic writings is a fascination with folklore.
In 1911, Freud coauthored with mythologist Oppenheim a small but nonetheless insightful essay entitled Dreams in Folklore which was unfortunately not published until 1958. In this important paper, Freud and Oppenheim demonstrated that the symbolism of dreams which were told as part of traditional folktales corresponded exactly with so-called Freudian symbolism. Moreover, the exegeses of the dreams contained in the folktales were explicated by the folk who had no knowledge of Freudian theory. Since the tales were much older than Freud and his theories, the folk interpretations of dream symbols provided a valuable authentic confirmation of the validity of Freudian symbolism. This striking congruence of folklore data and Freudian theory has not received the attention it deserves from either folklorists or psychoanalysts.
Other landmarks in the psychoanalytic study of folklore include Otto Rank's pioneering The Myth of the Birth of the Hero, first published in 1909; Ernest Jones's provocative 1928 paper “Psycho-Analysis and Folklore,” and Geza Roheim's 1952 The Gates of the Dream.
It is in this context that I wish to consider Bruno Bettelheim's remarkable foray into the world of fairy tales. In The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, first published in 1976, Bettelheim offers both an eloquent plea for the continued telling of fairy tales to children and a series of in-depth content analyses of a dozen or so of the best known Indo-European fairy tales. The basic position so ardently advocated by Bettelheim with respect to fairy tales is more obvious from the title of the German translation of the book: Kinder brau-chen Marchen, that is, “Children need fairy tales.” In Bettelheim's opinion, fairy tales were helpful to children “in helping them cope with the psychological problems of growing up and integrating their personalities.” In a somewhat sentimental essay in which he confesses that “Hansel and Gretel” is his favorite fairy tale, Bettelheim relates its content to events in his own childhood.
For Bettelheim, fairy tales are absolutely essential for the mental health of children. Fairy tales function much like dreams, according to Bettelheim. “As we awake refreshed from our dreams, better able to meet the tasks of reality, so the fairy story ends with the hero returning, or being returned to the real world,...