I’m about half-way through The Uses of Enchantment, about the use of fairy tales in childhood development and therapy. It’s terrifically Freudian and I’ve had to struggle through a few chapters on Oedipal conflicts in the family(ugh) but I’m really enjoying it.
The basic premise (as I understand it) is this: we all want our lives to have some coherent story, some point, some meaning. Books and movies and all other media provide this, but fairy tales are uniquely useful for their similarities to dreams. They give us images that don’t bear any use in the real world: a feather that alights on a magical underground cave! a comb that grows into a huge forest! but that are useful and satisfying to the unconscious mind. Fairy tales are fun, exciting, and on the whole teach a pretty good basic moral: if you are kind and persevere, eventually you will get a happy ending.
Most of the time we hear “fairy tale” as a pejorative term, meaning not realistic and harmful. But Bettelheim says that this is where the dreamlike quality of fairy tale stories come in:
“The fairy tale’s extravagant promise of a happy ending would also lead to disenchantment with the child’s real life if it were part of a realistic story, or projected as something that will happen where the real child lives. But the fairy story’s happy ending occurs in fairyland, a country that we can only visit in our minds.”
The Uses of Enchantment, p. 133
A fairy tale happens once upon a time, in a kingdom far away. Middle Earth has political issues and King’s Landing has sanitation problems, but fairyland is simultaneously “out there” and “right around the corner”. A magical doorway might be in that little grove of trees, a fox might talk, a single word of kindness might yield fantastic rewards.