It wasn't only Bettelheim who influenced me to read traditional fairy tales to my children. Once my children started going to Waldorf kindergarten and Waldorf school, I was made even more aware of the importance of fairy tale narratives in children's lives. Fairy tales are actually a major element of the Waldorf curriculum for the first several years. The teachers tell the children fairy tales -- by heart, so as to make it an oral/aural experience again. The children make drawings of scenes and characters from the tales. Sometimes they act the tales out in class. I knew that, being a "Waldorf parent", I was in contact with a state of mind much closer to what I'd longed for since my youth: a mystical and spiritual mode of relating to the tales. Waldorf pedagogy is based on a spiritual concept of the human race (in German: das Menschenbild). This conception involves not only who we are now, in this physical body, in the early 21st century, but also who we are in other dimensions of being (with our various other energy bodies), where we came from, what we are evolving into, and our relationship to other visible and invisible beings. What is taught in Waldorf schools never loses sight of this big picture, and it endeavours to nurture the entire human being, not just the rational intellect.
References to the nature of fairy tales and myths, and how to put them to use, are scattered throughout the voluminous works of Rudolf Steiner. You will notice that the ways the Waldorf schools use them in their curriculum avoid outright interpretation of meaning, or moralizing. The emphasis on using them instead of interpreting them is the same attitude advocates of dreamwork take toward dreams. The efficacy of the tales (as in Bettelheim's practice) is in experiencing them as deeply as possible.
In an essay on the methods of Rosicrucian initiation, Steiner speaks of the need to experience the symbols of esoteric teachings rather than intellectualize about them. He says:
"But now the pupils of this Master went further still; they learned to feel the inside, the inner nature, of the bones. Therewith they were able to experience a last example of what was practised in manifold ways in the ancient Mystery Schools, they learned to experience symbols by making their own organism into these symbols; for only so can symbols be really and truly experienced. Explanation and interpretation of symbols is really nonsense; so too is all theorising about symbols. The true attitude to symbols is to make them and actually experience them. It is the same as with fables and legends and fairy tales. — These should never be received merely abstractly, one must identify oneself with them. There is always something in man whereby he can enter into all the figures of the fairy tale, whereby he can make himself one with the fairy tale. And so it is with these true symbols of olden times, which come originally from spiritual knowledge..."
Steiner dismisses the notion that fairy tales are merely products of the imagination or the "folk fantasy" as the folklorists would call it. Like Jung, Steiner relates fairy tales to dreams, or more specifically to that more refined variety of "dream" called the psychic experience. According to Steiner, before the human race became what we are today -- that is, oriented toward a brain-centered awareness that focuses on a logical conception of the objective world through the five physical senses -- people experienced life with a natural clairvoyance that left them open to impressions coming from their other senses.* They experienced things that Jung would have called "archetypal." These experiences involved matters and themes that are more universal than the particular and specific experiences of the material world, which are tied to the conditions of time and space.
Steiner compares the conscious experience of hearing and experiencing a fairy tale (as opposed to the long-term process it effects on our deeper, subconscious level) to the pleasant tastes and sensations of eating nutritious food. Although they are a very important part of the process of properly feeding our bodies, they are only the obvious and superficial characteristics of food. It is only once the food is broken down, transformed and assimilated that we enjoy the full value of it. And all these things happen without our conscious awareness. Likewise, he says, it is only as we live with the tales and assimilate them into our beings on subconscious levels that we enjoy their full value.
Steiner points out a motif that can be found, in one form or another, in many, if not in the majority of fairy tales: the bewitched realm, person or object. The world is turned upside down. The prince appears to be a beast. The palace appears to be a humble cottage. This he says, reflects the illusory appearance of things in our waking state, where we are dominated by the veils of the material world. If we can view the same beings, objects and phenomena from another level of consciousness (i.e. while dreaming, or in a state of "astral" projection), then we will see that what we observe with our physical senses is not a clear or true perception. Bewitchment, then, is confinement to, or entrapment in, the material world. If the protagonist persists in doing what is right, which is achieved through following the dictates of the heart, then the spell is broken, and he/she gains the ability to see things as they really are, that is: to pierce the veil.
Another motif he points out is the "soul shepherd"; the old man, old woman, or other conspicuous stranger the protagonist meets who sends him/her on the quest. This contact, he says, awakens the deeper forces within the protagonist and makes the world take on its strange appearance.
Steiner's assertions present further arguments for why fairy tales can't be replaced by either fluffy-light children's literature or by the conspicuously and often ham-handedly didactic materials parents, schools and popular media present to children (often with the best of intentions, I acknowledge). Fairy tales embody truth. Truth, in this case, means an accurate reflection of the nature of being on the visible and invisible planes. They are appropriate for children, and for people of all ages, he says, because "they are able to combine the richest spiritual wisdom with the simplest manner of expression." This simple expression, clothed in the images of a simpler, pre-industrial life, interacting with our sublime inner realities, "brings the roots of human life together with those of cosmic life."
(*I am aware that some readers might find Steiner's claim that the human race once had clairvoyant abilities which have been lost to be an example of what Ken Wilber calls the "pre/trans fallacy." But I don't really think this applies here. He is not idealizing a previous state of the race, but acknowledging that certain developments in human consciousness came at the expense of other aspects of our beings. These abilities are merely suppressed and latent in the average person at this stage of our development, but will have to be recovered and integrated with our newly-won rational abilities before the race can advance to its next stage.)