February 9, 2008

Evolving a Relationship to Fairy Tales (Part III)

We can't move on from the subject of psychological interpretations of fairy tales before addressing Bruno Bettelheim. A controversial figure during his lifetime, and even more so afterwards, Bettleheim bucked the trend of the times when he published his book The Uses of Enchantment in 1976. The pacifism of the 1960s had made parents and teachers increasingly squeamish about the rough-edged dark side of fairy tales. All sorts of nasty, violent things happen in their narratives: people have eyes cut out, heads cut off, are burnt up alive in fires and are even cooked and eaten. The evil characters in these stories are truly heartless and despicable. Publishers put out sanitised and softened versions of the classic tales, leaving out such graphic details as the part of "Little Red Riding Hood" where the hunter cuts the wolf open with an ax and extracts a miraculously unscathed grandmother. I recall an illustrated version in which Granny is stuffed in the closet, and there isn't even a hunter. Many parents at the time thought it was kinder and more enlightened to spare their children these "primitive" and "barbaric" tales (meanwhile letting them watch the Vietnam war on the news every evening) in favor of what they thought to be more appropriate contemporary children's books. And children's books of the time also reflected the desire of the era to break from what people saw as oppressive paternal traditions. And as history has revealed, that era's legitimate desire to overthrow tradition and the status quo in the name of freedom and progress often resulted in the baby being thrown out with the bath water.

Bettelheim said, in no uncertain terms, that this trend was robbing children of the very thing they need. He saw the tales as a sort of safe laboratory in which children could confront the problems of life. Since they remain on the oral level, and the children aren’t force fed ready-made imagery as they would be by films or television. The children have the advantage of imagining the elements and occurrences of the tales in the manner and intensity their psyches are ready to handle. It's not like watching a movie in which the dragon is far scarier than the child is ready to deal with. And, of course, the story is told in a the safe environment of the home, in the presence of a trusted, protecting adult.

Bettelheim says the child gets the chance to "rehearse" challenging and threatening situations internally, and develop the strength to handle them when the situations arise later in their lives. The modern kind of fluffy children's literature, he says, doesn't have the genuine content for them to chew on, and adult literature (not to mention adult media) is too strong and too life-like to be of use to them.

Bettelheim also says you should never be so ham-handed as to explain a story to a child, since its impact on the child is through imagery and emotion, not intellect. He also says that one doesn't need to choose stories to read to children out of any intentional therapeutic design. One simply reads the stories at random, and the child itself knows when it has been affected by a story. If something is stirred inside the child (i.e. if something is an issue they need to deal with), it will want to hear it again. Sometimes it can request to hear the same story many times over while it is grappling with the problem. And then, suddenly, one day it doesn't want to hear it anymore, which means it’s gotten what it need and it's time to move on.

I've observed some of this in my own children, to whom I've read Grimm’s, and other traditional fairy tales every night (with the occasional other book thrown in here and there) for many years. Indeed, there are stories they want to hear several times, and you can see from the expressions on their faces that they are working through something as they listen. And sometimes the impact can be intense. I've witnessed fairy tale events make a child burst into tears. There's obviously something being worked out in that child's psyche! And this is where the anti-fairy tale contingent would say the child is being traumatized by the story. But, in my "unprofessional" opinion, I can see the benefit of this controlled, limited exposure to the problems and challenges of life.

And it hasn't only been the children who are affected by the tales I read. On more than one occasion I have felt myself mysteriously moved by one of the tales I was reading to the children, although I didn't know, on the rational level, why. Two that come to mind are "Jorinda and Joringel" and "Hans the Hedgehog." I have promised myself I will make them the subject of deep meditations some day. I know they will yield deep levels of self knowledge for me. And due to my knowledge of Western esoteric traditions, I can't help noticing that some stories are like alchemical formulas ("The Poor Miller's Boy and the Cat"), some are like initiation rituals, ("The Queen Bee"), and some seem to be metaphysical teachings in parable ("The Old Man Made Young Again").


Henitsirk said...

I've definitely experienced that my children aren't yet ready for certain fairy tales. They were certainly disturbed by "Hansel and Gretel." On the other hand, she and her brother could hear "Chicken Licken" or "Sweet Porridge" or "Tatterhood" over and over. I agree with what I have read from Waldorf early childhood teachers about certain stories at a certain age (though "Tatterhood" is far too long for my kids, supposedly).

I think people who expurgate the violence out of fairy tales are looking at them, and at the children, in a materialistic way. As if the children will approach these images as reality, instead of inner images that speak to their souls/psyches.

"Hans My Hedgehog" and "The Queen Bee" are two of my favorites! My husband and I performed "The Queen Bee" as a table puppet play once...I still have the three princesses, bees, and ducks I made for it. I can't imagine hearing a story like that and not seeing that it has deeper meaning. But anthroposophy will put deeper meaning into everything, won't it?

Leora said...

One simply reads the stories at random, and the child itself knows when it has been affected by a story.
Makes a lot of sense. My husband reads a lot of Little Midrash Says to my children (Torah stories with midrash interspersed), and it's often interesting to hear my five-year-old's reactions. Yesterday she reacted to Abraham about to sacrifice Isaac...


Hellibrarian said...

Sorry I've been so late in responding. I've been planning a book fair, which is to start Thursday.

When I took a course on fairy tales, one scholar we read extensively was Maria Tatar, and recently I found this article about her. Interestingly--and I think Bettleheim might have been barking up the same tree--she sees a connection between the violence of Grimm and the violence of Nazism.

(and, as an interesting aside, she was the daughter of Hungarian immigrants).

Hellibrarian said...

..and BTW ran into Leora today while helping Y sell Girl Scout cookies and she called out something from her car about "Hungarian friend" and "blog" :)

Theo Huffman said...

I found what little I could about Maria Tatar on the internet. I agree that a lot of her views sound similar to Bettelheim. And because she has to earn her living from academia, she's solidly in the folklorist/literary historian/fairy-tales-as-literature camp. But considering Bettelheim's assertion that confronting "evil" in symbolic form through the medium of the fairy tale is therapeutic for children, I don't think he would see cause-and-effect between violent fairy tales and Nazi violence. Quite the opposite.