Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Big bad wolf of adolescence

Book: The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales

Author: Bruno Bettelheim

Published: Vintage Books (1977 edition; originally 1975)

Pages: 310 (plus lots of end notes)

Fairy tales help us work through our weird bits before we even realize what the weird bits are trying to tell us, in a way that uses an extra layer of symbolism to both aid our understanding and squish the weird bits down to sizes we can comfortably conquer.

Boom. That’s Bettleheim’s thesis, although he uses way more Freud.

It’s a good one, one that restores my faith in stories. I guess—no, I know from personal experience that getting older partially means questioning things that aren’t immediately and obviously useful as we try to figure out what we can and can’t live without. Stories seem frivolous on the surface, but they help us explore what it’s like to be human and all the infinite options of how to deal with that.

He goes through a lot of examples of symbolism, most of which have to do with puberty (Jack and the Beanstalk, Goldilocks and the Three Bears), the Oedipal complex (Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella), and both at the same time (Snow White). This was written in the 1970s, and I dunno if psychologists have proven Freud wrong or severely misguided or something since then, but even if the particulars (like a glass slipper = vagina symbol; it makes sense but I’ve never thought of it that way which then again might be the whole point, right?) aren’t hard and fast, the basic premise of using fairy tales to slay real dragons still has a crap ton of evidence underneath it all.

And it’s fascinating to read. Even if they deal with the same subject, no two fairy tales deal with it the same way, so there are lots of angles to explain and contrast. Everything underlines how complex humans don’t even realize they are but managed to pack into their folklore.

 You’ll be able to follow the psych lingo if you’ve ever had a passing intro reading/class relationship with the subject, so dig right in. Just don’t eat the apple or the housing material or the porridge or the breadcrumbs leading from the forest in case you scar the children for life.

Bookshelf! Yay for growing my nonfiction!

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