The Many Uses of Enchantment

22 Dec

I always get a bit defensive when people accuse fairy tales of being unrealistic and sugar coated as fairy tales are anything but sugar coated. Hansel and Gretel get left in the forest by their father to starve because there isn’t enough food, Snow White’s step-mother schemes to have her slain in the woods and her heart returned in a box and Cinderella is forced into child slavery within her own home. I wouldn’t say that is glossing things over for kids. No. I think people’s beef with fairy tales has more to do with the little line “and they lived happily ever after” at the end of the story. People hate that line because they take it far too literarily thinking that it means all will be hunky-dorrey for the rest of one’s life, particularly in matters of love. People also complain about the fact that the female characters typically reflect a more passive role than their male counter-parts.

In the psychoanalytic classic, “The Many Uses of Enchantment”, child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim counters some of these claims by making an ardent case for fairy tales as a vehicle for children to explore the trials and tribulations of life. Yes, fairy tales are written on a simplistic level. Duh! They are written for children. Yet that does not mean that their content is simplistic. Take for example the topic of sexual power, seduction, betrayal and desire. Not quite easy subject matter and yet when woven into a story of a big bad wolf lurking around to eat Grandma and Little Red, children on some level respond to the story’s themes subconsciously. And while children in these stories, (and particularly the female ones) are often cast in the victim role, this is not to reinforce a stereotype but instead to help children explore and transcend an all too common phenomenon in our society. How does one overcome adversity without becoming bitter? How does one prevail despite hardship and find some modicum of happiness? And how does one attain wholeness in both love and within oneself?

One of the plot devices in the fairy tales is the introduction of a helper to the hero or heroine. Often we see this individual cast in the role of Fairy Godmother. Regardless, the helper character is a wise and loving elder who can help mentor and assist the young prince or princess. And maybe I relate to fairy tales because in my own life I have had many fairy godmothers along the way.

On Friday, I’ll board a plane to visit one of them because this is a modern story after all. Fairy Godmother Lynn stepped in at a time in my life when both of my parents were succumbing to addictions and simply couldn’t be there for me. I was in college trying to navigate my way through the initial stages of adulthood and in swooped Lynn and her husband Vernon, hovering near to protect and nurture me for the next twenty years. Initially, this was hard on my mother who in some ways felt jealous of the bond I had with Lynn and the awareness that Lynn could fulfill me in ways she was incapable of. Yet ultimately my mother was grateful to Lynn, which tells you something about the tender heart and soul of my mother.

So here’s to the many uses of enchantment. I do believe in fairy tales and happily ever after and yes I am a feminist and no I’m not yet on the horse with the prince. But I believe in all of it anyway. And is not God’s story, the ultimate one of restoration and magic? So, yes, I am a princess and my father is the King of Kings.

One Response to “The Many Uses of Enchantment”

  1. Cimbria Peterson December 22, 2011 at 4:04 pm #

    Oh I like this! Great insight Lise!

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