The uses of enchantment : the meaning and importance of fairy tales

by Bruno Bettelheim

Hardcover, 1976




New York : Knopf : distributed by Random House, 1976.


Winner of the National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award "A charming book about enchantment, a profound book about fairy tales."-John Updike, The New York Times Book Review ?Bruno Bettelheim was one of the great child psychologists of the twentieth century and perhaps none of his books has been more influential than this revelatory study of fairy tales and their universal importance in understanding childhood development.Analyzing a wide range of traditional stories, from the tales of Sindbad to "The Three Little Pigs," "Hansel and Gretel," and "The Sleeping Beauty," Bettelheim shows how the fantastical, sometimes cruel, but always deeply significant narrative strands of the classic fairy tales can aid in our greatest human task, that of finding meaning for one's life.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member fundevogel
This book is really more about psychology and child development than fairy tales, but it turns out fairy tales are a pretty cool means by which to learn about psychoanalysis and such not. Bettelheim makes the case that fairy tales aren't just fun for children, but that they help them face the subconscious fears, conflicts and ambivalence that a child would be otherwise unable to understand or cope with. A lot of his insight to child development and how fairy tales can reflect childhood crises and help children learn how to deal in real life was brilliant. His analysis of specific fairy tales was a lot more hit or miss.

I'm not someone that thinks the fairy tales were written with some intentional deeper meaner. That doesn't mean I don't think they can't have deeper meanings, or even a specific deeper meaning. But when that's the case I expect it's the product of hundreds of years of storytellers and audiences unconsciously editing and re-editing stories to settle on the version that resonated most deeply. And the fact that I do think some fairy tales do seem to have a specific meaning doesn't mean someone that finds another meaning in it is wrong. These are personal things, if someone finds something there that isn't there for me I am not the arbiter of their experience and I certainly can't dismiss their reactions.

That said, a notable chunk of Bettelheim's analysis is more a demonstration of a psychoanalyst's ability to find cock everywhere than it is about what anyone else is going to see. This can be pretty ridiculous and entertaining. It can also get stupid and sexist. I'm not saying everytime Bettelheim offers a sexual interpretation its bullshit. I'm just saying keep your psychoanalysis filters up.


"The magic formula "up stick and at it" suggests phallic associations, as does the fact that only this new acquisition permits Jack to hold his own in relation to his father..."

"Thus the expulsion from the infant paradise begins; it continues with the mother's deriding Jack's belief in the magic power of his seeds. The phallic beanstalk permits Jack to engage in oedipal conflict with the ogre..."

"it does not take much imagination to see the possible sexual connotations in the distaff..."

"So dwarfs are eminently male, but males who are stunted in their development. These "little men" with their stunted bodies and their mining occupation--they skillfully penetrate into dark holes--all suggest phallic connotations."

"A small locked room often stands in dreams for the female sexual organs; turning a key in a lock often symbolizes intercourse."

"She selects him because he appreciates her "dirty" sexual aspects, lovingly accepts her vagina in the form of a slipper, and approves of her desire for a penis, symbolized by her tiny foot fitting within the slipper-vagina."

"The bride stretches out one of her fingers for the groom to slip a ring onto it. Pushing one finger through a circle made out of the thumb and index finger of the hand is a vulgar expression for intercourse...The ring, a symbol for the vagina, is given by the groom to his bride; she offers him in return her outstretched finger, so he may complete the ritual."

"...he will gain a golden vagina, she a temporary penis."
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LibraryThing member ex_ottoyuhr
Bettelheim makes several claims in this book which are supposed to apply to all children, and therefore can be exploded by a single child behaving in a way incompatible with his model. His most important theory -- the titular "meaning and importance of fairy tales" -- is that children hear fairy tales allegorically, as narratives of the ego gaining control over the id and the individual progressing from a lesser stage of emotional development to a greater. Therefore, they do not have sympathy for villains of stories who are tortured to death, or for supporting characters killed in the course of the story (the reference cases for these two being "The Three Little Pigs," with the two younger pigs eaten by the wolf and the wolf boiled alive by the oldest pig); nor do they identify with the villain of a story, nor do they easily identify with a hero or heroine of the opposite sex. Based on my personal experience, all of these statements are false by the time a child is about four years old; I would go further and say that anyone not capable of feeling sympathy for a wolf boiled alive or a witch burned at the stake or a stepmother rolled down a hill in a barrel full of nails, together with anger at those who perpetrate such things, is a brute.

The message Bettelheim claims to see in fairy tales would be a dangerous one even if it was fully reliable. The message he claims is present is that the integration of the id, ego, and superego means not just that the individual has himself under control, but that he is invincible, at least symbolically "the right person for the highest office on Earth" (p. 102, on the subject of the Grimms' "The Three Languages"). The resultant "psychology of invincibility" -- the conviction that the person will always succeed, or deserves to succeed -- is one which the events of life do not respect, and which can turn out very poorly for the one who holds this mentality; for an extreme case of this self-destructiveness (aided and abetted by another product of this sort of socialization, an inability to sympathize with one's opponent or antagonist), see Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character.

Additionally, there are problems with holding up Bettelheim as a major figure in psychoanalysis. Bettelheim had a doctorate in art, not psychology -- he lied about his credentials. Moreover, this book contains plagiarism; another reviewer mentions Julius Huescher's A Psychiatric Study of Myths and Fairy Tales; Their Origin, Meaning, and Usefulness as a 'source'. Can someone who lies about his credentials and plagiarizes other writers really be trusted to do accurate psychiatric analysis?

His personal demons were probably the driving force behind a lot of his analysis, as they were for Freud himself (and for Jung). Some of these demons were eminently excusable -- he spent a year in Buchenwald -- but others were much less so, and all of them damaged the clarity of his reasoning and thought.

If you're considering reading the book to get the message that telling fairy tales to children is better than not telling them, then be aware that it is, and you don't need a long book of Freudian theory to prove it. Fiction gives its reader data about life experiences without requiring them to have lived through such experiences themselves, and makes the analysis of these experiences easier because the reader has a full picture of what's occurring and a certain measure of emotional distance from the events; and this is just as true for children as it is for adults. Don't buy the book just to learn that... and don't buy the book in general, since its author is unreliable, and its theory both self-sabotaging and inaccurate.

(Review also posted on
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LibraryThing member LeilaM
The Uses of Enchantment is a really enjoyable read, and it really gets you thinking! Bettelheim proposes that fairy tales are socially evolved stories that help children work through the many psychological struggles of childhood, and that the violence and dark themes that have been gradually removed from them are an essential part of what makes them popular with and, useful for children. He comes at his argument from a Freudian, psychoanalytical approach to child psychology, which can seem a bit old fashioned and dramatic, but that doesn’t take away from the interesting ideas the book raises. As a fan of old fairy tales, it’s satisfying to hear them defended in all their gore and pessimism against the sunny, positive children’s literature that is more popular today.… (more)
LibraryThing member Czrbr
Book Description: New York, NY, U.S.A.: Vintage Books, 1977. Near Very Good/No Jacket. 5"x8". ISBN:0394722655. This soft cover book has a white cover with black lettering on the front and spine of the cover.
LibraryThing member K_Kleinhanns
This book reminds us how folk tales and fairy tales served so much more than just entertainment back in their day, they were lessons to children.
But like any study, this is sided to one persons opinion.
LibraryThing member Frockfarie
This book explains why the original fairy tales are just what our children need. Often we look at the classic tales as too graphic or 'grim' for our little darlings. This book looks at all the classic tales and their modern more sanitised versions and explains how and why they benefit children. A must read for parents and teachers.… (more)
LibraryThing member ostrom
Freud meets fairy tales! A highly controversial book, I gather. It's a bit of a single-minded study.
LibraryThing member lbswiener
The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales is written like a dissertation. Unfortunately, I am not interested in the author's thoughts nor do I agree with his interpretation of the symbolism of the fairy tales. Additionally, I believe that the author is too puffed up in even write this book. Consequently, I do not recommend the book and I gave it only 1 star.… (more)
LibraryThing member jeneyhart
Freud, Freud, and more Freud.
LibraryThing member Breton07
"The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales" is very accessible to adult readers. It is written in layman's terms,
and helps the reader realize that Fairy Tales can be used to heal our psychological wounds. Focusing mainly on fairytales collected by the Grimm brothers,Bettelheim is adept at explaining the symbolic meanings that are recognizable in these stories.… (more)
LibraryThing member AlCracka
Okay, if I'm being honest, I'm probably not going to get to this. But it's got my attention right at this moment.
LibraryThing member jaygheiser
Fascinating book that explains a great deal. I'd shorten by about half, dropping all the Freudian interpretations, but if you put your psychoanalytic filter on before you read it, it makes a lot of sense. Every parent should read this book.



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