[(essay date 1979) An American writer and educator, Zipes is the author of The Trials and Tribulations of Little Red Riding Hood (1983) and Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion: The Classical Genre for Children and the Process of Civilization (1983). In the following excerpt, which is a significantly revised version of a review article that first appeared in 1977 in Telos, Zipes discusses the validity of Bettelheim's theories concerning fairy tales and their therapeutic value.]
Bruno Bettelheim was impelled to write his book The Uses of Enchantment out of dissatisfaction `with much of the literature intended to develop the child's mind and personality, because it fails to stimulate and nurture those resources he needs most in order to cope with his difficult inner problems'. Therefore, he explored the great potential of folk tales as literary models for children since `more can be learned from them about the inner problems of human beings, and of the right solutions to their predicaments in any society, than from any other type of story within a child's comprehension'. This is, indeed, a grand statement on behalf of the folk tale's powers. However, despite his good intentions and moral concern in the welfare of children, Bettelheim's book disseminates false notions about the original intent of Freudian psychoanalytic theory and about the literary quality of folk tales and leaves the reader in a state of mystification. Not only is the manner in which Bettelheim would impose meaning onto child development through the therapeutic use of the folk tale authoritarian and unscientific, but his stance is symptomatic of numerous humanitarian educators who perpetuate the diseases they desire to cure.
This is not to dismiss Bettelheim's book in its totality. Since folk and fairy tales have played and continue to play a significant role in the socialization process, a thorough study of Bettelheim's position is crucial for grasping whether the tales can be used more effectively in helping children (and adults) come into their own. A critical examination of his theory may ultimately lead to a fresh look at contemporary psychoanalytic views on internalization and new insights about the production and usage of folk and fairy tales.
Bettelheim's major thesis is a simple one: `the form and structure of fairy tales suggest images to the child by which he can structure his daydreams and with them give better direction to his life'. In other words, the folk tale liberates the child's subconscious so that he or she can work through conflicts and experiences which would otherwise be repressed and perhaps cause psychological disturbances. According to Bettelheim, folk tales present existential dilemmas in a clear-cut manner so that the child can easily grasp the underlying meanings of the conflicts. Most folk tales are an imaginative depiction of healthy human development and help children understand the motives behind their rebellion against parents and the fear of growing up. The conclusions of most folk tales portray the achievement of psychological independence, moral maturity and sexual confidence. Obviously, as Bettelheim admits, there...