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In the early 1980's I read Bruno Bettelheim’s book "The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales" and, inspired by the author’s description of the differences between the familiar story of Cinderella and the completely unfamiliar, but related, story of Aschenputtel, I composed my own version of Aschenputtel. I obtained a story so satisfying to me that I thought that I might be able to use Bettelheim’s book as a guide in recreating other fairy tales as well.
In accordance with that thought, I have created this series of essays and stories as an adjunct to Bettelheim’s book. I want to figure out, in my own terms, what Bettelheim was talking about and I want to confront the question of whether mere fiction, and unrealistic fiction at that, can shape our conceptions of the world and thus shape our reactions to it. Mind you, the fairy tales that Bettelheim analyzed are not the imbecilic, overblown toy commercials that spew from our televisions on Saturday mornings. Who remembers Masters of the Universe? Who can forget Hansel and Gretel? A century from now the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers won’t even be a memory. A millennium from now Snow White will still be a familiar friend to Humanity’s children.
Do you doubt that mere stories can constrain our thoughts? Then consider this: In the Second World War the ultimate success of the German Wehrmacht depended upon a code-making machine called Enigma. The codes that the Enigma machines produced were considered unbreakable except by another Enigma machine set to the correct parameters. With the help of luck and Alan Turing (among others), the British cracked the Enigma codes and were, thus, privy to the Germans’ secrets. Had the Germans suspected that the Enigma had been compromised, they could have restored their secrecy easily enough to thwart the British, but they never suspected, even though they had plenty of evidence that should have suggested the possibility to them. Why did they suspect nothing? On page 388 of "The Pleasures of Counting", T.W. Körner notes that "In 1945 an American Intelligence Officer noted that the bookshelves of the German security services ‘seemed to be lined with spy novels about the diabolically clever British.’" As ludicrous as it seems, the German counter-intelligence agents apparently conditioned themselves, through the stories that they chose to read, to believe that the British could only obtain information from spies and not from code-breakers.
As Louis Pasteur noted, "Chance favors the prepared mind." But then we must ask "Prepared for what?" If German counter-intelligence had prepared themselves to find spies and had not prepared themselves to find code-breakers, then the code-breakers would have remained effectively invisible to them. Why didn’t they think of that? Because they were thinking of something else.
But fairy tales go deeper. They don’t shape our knowledge of the world so much as they shape our reactions to it. And that brings us into the realm of psychology. Bettelheim used his knowledge of Freudian psychology to analyze the classic fairy tales and that is what I want to look at in the essays attending the retellings of the tales that I post on this website. I want to try to understand in my own terms what Bettelheim meant in his analysis. And then I want to share that understanding with you.
Let me note finally that I am aware of the controversy surrounding this book, of the accusations that The Uses of Enchantment was plagiarized, in part or in toto, from another work. Alan Dundes, a professor of folklore studies at the University of California at Berkeley has claimed that a substantial amount of the material, in excess of proper research, in "The Uses of Enchantment" was lifted from "A Psychiatric Study of Fairy Tales", a book that Julius E. Heuscher wrote in 1963. However, Theron Raines, Bettelheim’s agent and biographer ("Rising to the Light: A Portrait of Bruno Bettelheim", Alfred A. Knopf) says that Heuscher himself dismissed the charge as ridiculous.
Notwithstanding the controversy, these essays are concerned with the content of the book and not with the moral status of their author, so I don’t intend to address this issue again.
Bettelheim, Bruno, "The Uses of Enchantment, The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales", Vintage Books, New York, 1977, ISBN -394-72265-5.
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