The Therapeutic Potential of Fairy Stories. By Keith White  

Recently my wife and I made a trip to the Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington, and in the process erased childhood memories of an unattractive place that I had always associated with dark, dingy staircases and large, inscrutable Chinese urns.  This encounter with the place in later life effected such a transformation that within a couple of weeks we explored it with our grandchildren (who were really in their element there).  Before leaving I decided to purchase a memento to record the visit that revealed just what a remarkable, richly varied, beautifully displayed and inexhaustible treasure trove it was.  I hit upon Bruno Bettlelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment (London: Penguin, 1976), his classic on the psychological meaning and importance of fairy tales.

Of course, at this stage of life, I was not coming to it without a history.  I assumed he had chosen the title with reference to Richard Hoggart’s book, The Uses of Literacy, published nearly twenty years earlier.  I have often referred to the significance of stories in general in the development of children’s imaginations, self-awareness and the fundamental concepts that are necessary to conceive of their lives as having coherence and meaning. I have written and produced traditional pantomimes performed by children and young people. And having studied English Language and Literature within the course designed by J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, I was not only aware of The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings, but crucially of Tolkien’s timeless and masterly essay, On Fairy-stories.  I was also familiar with other writings and the work of Bettelheim. Perhaps this “previous” coalesced unconsciously to confirm that this book should be chosen in preference to several other worthy candidates invitingly displayed.

When I began to read, and study it, I wondered why it had taken almost as long for its importance to dawn on me, as it had to realise the astonishing treasures and worth of the V&A. I commend it warmly to all who are alongside children and seeking to understand and support them, including parents, grandparents, and those who operate within a therapeutic milieu.  His basic argument is that the greatest and most difficult task confronting human beings is to find meaning in our lives.  In the case of the severely disturbed children that Bettelheim was seeking to help as an educator and therapist, it was often a task of trying to restore meaning that had been undermined by trauma and loss. Such meaning (or its restoration) does not come fully packaged at a single point in a person’s life, but rather develops throughout our lives beginning with childhood.  And for this reason, resources are needed that are appropriate to the stage of understanding that a child has reached.  Ideally these resources should be lifelong companions that are always available for re-acquaintance.

Bettelheim believes that fairy stories are ideal and possibly uniquely so for this purpose.  They entertain, arouse curiosity, enrich life, stimulate the imagination; help to develop the intellect, clarify emotions, are attuned to anxieties and aspirations; give full recognition to difficulties, while at the same time suggesting solutions to the problems that perturb a child  (p.5).  Life is bewildering to all children, and involves a turmoil of feelings, fears, anger, violence, desires and fantasies that lack both form and a name.  Their bewildering and mysterious, sometimes frightening, inner world needs to come into awareness, so that in time order can be brought to the child’s own life and story.  The way this can happen is the substance of the book, with detailed analyses of individual stories, along with the drawing out of themes that they have in common.

Bettelheim discovered through his long experience of seeking to help children (normal and abnormal, as he calls them) that not only did the children find them more satisfying than other stories, but that fairy stories started where children really were in their psychological and emotional being. Most have had a very long period of gestation, and somehow, they speak about a child’s inner pressures in ways that she understands unconsciously, while at the same time offering examples of both temporary and permanent solutions to the pressing difficulties.

They do this (among other things) by offering ways in which unconscious feelings, desires and fears can be dealt with by means of engagement with the conscious fantasies of which fairy stories comprise.  The stories offer new dimensions to the child’s imagination that would not be discovered without them, and the simple form of the stories suggests images to the child so that she can structure daydreams with a sense of direction.

Rather than being overwhelmed by unconscious pressures this connection to fairy stories allows some awareness of them that can be worked through in the imagination.  Vital in the process is that a child is not aware of the psychological processes involved, and that they are not revealed to the child by the therapist or parent.  In my view, to those of us operating within therapeutic milieu, this is one of the most important contributions of the book.  Perhaps one of our besetting sins, or a default mode, is that we tend to want to make connections and even help to explain them.  Bettelheim has no hesitation in warning against this in the case of fairy stories. Referring to a key word in the title of his book, Bettelheim says that fairy stories delight children particularly because they are unaware of the unconscious reasons for their enchantment.  Explanations will tend not only to dispel this enchantment, but also deprive the child of struggling to find solutions and meanings of her own.

He continues his warning by stating that fairy stories are not neurotic symptoms, something one is better off understanding rationally in order to rid oneself of them!  Rather the child’s life is enriched precisely because she does not know how a story has worked is wonder (cast its spell?) on her.

The book is a deep mine or treasure trove of insights which are best discovered directly from within an encounter of its pages (just like a fairy story, which Bettelheim argues is a work of art that defies a definitive summary or explanation).

So, I will bring this commendation to a close, but before doing so, there are two related musings on it that I would like to share.  Bettelheim distinguishes fairy stories from other contemporary stories on offer to children, from myths, and from biblical stories.  This is inevitable given the focus and limits of his book.  What, I wondered, would he have made, had he taken biblical stories as his subject, and would they have had the same potential for psychological growth and well-being?  And does his warning hold true, that explanations of them should be kept out of the equation until later in their lives?  If so, we need to recognise that Jerome Berryman in his development of the philosophy and methodology of Godly Play has something genuine to offer to those who do tell and re-tell these stories to children.

Bettelheim is aware, of course, that many children grow up in a post-religious, sometimes called secular, age.  And many of today’s adults do not derive their understandings of their outer and inner worlds, personal and human history, from these stories.  This has for some considerable time led me to wonder what such people do with the dark parts of both personal and human history.  Bettelheim writes (towards the end of the twentieth century) that there is a tendency to want children to believe that they are inherently good, that everyone is good.  But children know that they are not good.  So, they find themselves potentially bereft of assistance when neither their own lives, not what they discover of human history and contemporary reality, is not only not good, but sometimes depressingly far short of the mark.

I am one of a minority in Western Europe who still tells and re-tells biblical stories to children and delights to listen to their musings on them.  For those who are uncomfortable in doing this, perhaps fairy stories are even more important.  Unless that is you believe that Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials provides a possible way forward.  What we cannot do, I believe, is to pedal a hollow myth that all humans are unequivocally good, and that history is a story of uninterrupted human progress.  Any wise parent or sensitive therapist knows like Bettelheim that this simply will not do.  In the face of truth, it is ultimately a recipe for despair.

As a matter of fact, Tolkien wrote his famous stories, notably Lord of the Rings, as a warning against totalitarian government and the disastrous belief that unbridled power in the hands of any human person or group would produce utopia.  And he wrote his essay, On Fairy Stories, with an epilogue sharing his belief that the Gospel story was where all true fairy stories find their embodiment:  “Art has been verified…Legend and History have met and fused” (page 63, Faber 1966 edition).

This edition of TTCJ is being published in the month during which Christians celebrate Easter.  It would be sad if the therapeutic potential of both fairy stories and biblical stories lay unrealised and undisturbed.


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