Bruno Bettelheim on the “Truth” of Fairytales

“…statistically too improbable…” (Photo: Pixabay)

Two years ago, at the Cheltenham Science Festival, Richard Dawkins – evolutionary biologist and New Atheist – famously (or rather infamously) denounced fairytales while maintaining his position as a forceful proponent of the scientific method. His comments, according to the Independent, went as follows:

Is it a good thing to go along with the fantasies of childhood, magical as they are? Or should we be fostering a spirit of scepticism? I think it’s rather pernicious to inculcate into a child a view of the world which includes supernaturalism – we get enough of that anyway. Even fairy tales, the ones we all love, with wizards or princesses turning into frogs or whatever it was. There’s a very interesting reason why a prince could not turn into a frog – it’s statistically too improbable.

After a backlash, Professor Dawkins clarified on Twitter: “It IS pernicious to inculcate supernaturalism into a child. But DO fairytales do that? It’s an interesting Q. The answer is probably no.”

The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales (1976) by Bruno Bettelheim (2010, Vintage)

Well, anybody can understand what he was getting at. He meant to say that fairytales were objectionable and misleading and dangerous because the magic in them violated – rather disrespectfully – the fixed physical laws of our natural reality. Interestingly, Bruno Bettelheim (1903–1990), the Austrian-born American psychologist, examined this very issue of the adult prohibition of fantasy in his award-winning book The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales back in 1976. Directly referring to the likes of Dawkins, Bettelheim asks:

Why do many intelligent, well-meaning, modern, middle-class parents, so concerned about the happy development of their children, discount the value of fairy tales and deprive their children of what these stories have to offer? Even our Victorian ancestors, despite their emphasis on moral discipline and their stodgy way of life, not only permitted but encouraged their children to enjoy the fantasy and excitement of fairy tales. It would be simple to blame such a prohibition of fairy tales on a narrow-minded, uninformed rationalism, but this is not the case.

Then Bettelheim distinguishes between adult “truth” and the “truth” of children:

Some people claim that fairy tales do not render “truthful” pictures of life as it is, and are therefore unhealthy. That “truth” in the life of child might be different from that of adults does not occur to these Fear of Fantasy people. They do not realize that fairy tales do not try to describe the external world and “reality.” Nor do they recognize that no sane child ever believes that these tales describe the world realistically. Some parents fear that by telling their children about the fantastic events found in fairy tales, they are “lying” to them. Their concern is fed by the child’s asking, “Is it true?” Many fairy tales offer an answer even before the question can be asked—namely, at the very beginning of the story. For example, “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” starts: “In days of yore and times and tides long gone. . . .” The Brothers Grimm’s story “The Frog King, or Iron Henry” opens: “In olden times when wishing still helped one. . . .” Such beginnings make it amply clear that the stories take place on a very different level from everyday “reality.”

 

A 1819 edition of Children’s and Household Tales by the Grimm Brothers, Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]. “The Frog King, or Iron Henry” is the first tale in the collection.

Some fairy tales do begin quite realistically: “There once was a man and a woman who had long in vain wished for a child.” But the child who is familiar with fairy stories always extends the times of yore in his mind to mean the same as “In fantasy land . . .” This exemplifies why telling just one and the same story to the neglect of others weakens the value fairy tales have for children, and raises problems which are answered by familiarity with a number of tales. The “truth” of fairy stories is the truth of our imagination, not that of normal causality. Tolkien, addressing himself to the question of “Is it true?” remarks that “It is not one to be rashly or idly answered.” He adds that of much more real concern to the child is the question: “‘Was he good? Was he wicked?’ That is, [the child] is more concerned to get the Right side and the Wrong side clear.”

In short, it is the “moral law” of our minds – more than the laws of physics or biology or chemistry – that the fairytale is most interested in. It tampers with the laws of physics or biology or chemistry so that it can highlight and emphasise the gravity of good and evil.

A still from Disney’s Sleeping Beauty (1959). Prince Phillip battles the evil fairy Maleficent in the form of Dragon. (Source: disney.wikia.com)

 

G. K. Chesterton put it well when he said: “Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.”

 

Image Credit:

Featured: Little Red Riding Hood by Fleury Francois Richard, Wikimedia Commons

 

 


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4 thoughts on “Bruno Bettelheim on the “Truth” of Fairytales

  1. I forget who wrote an essay I recall on the importance of science fiction but fantasy removes stories from real life so we can play with ideas. We can develop ideas of utopias, of hells, and learn ways to chose the best way forward. As the late AA Gill said of Dawkins on God, if he doesn’t exist why do you keep shouting at him. Dawkins has a real problem. He doesn’t get the value of imagination which is at the core of the science he claims to promote.

    Liked by 1 person

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